Forty Years of Ten Best Motorcycles

Celebrating four decades of motorcycling’s finest, fastest, and most famous

Cycle World October 1976 magazine cover
Cycle World October 1976.Cycle World

Excellence deserves recognition. Whether the subject is art, science, medicine, or any other meaningful field of endeavor—motorcycles included, of course—outstanding results merit a resounding tribute to that entity’s exceptional achievements.

That is why, in 1976, the staff of Cycle World huddled in a conference room and for hours on end debated the attributes of every new-model motorcycle sold in the US, virtually all of which they had ridden. They emerged from this marathon give-and-take having conceived the Ten Best Bikes awards, a program designed to pay homage to the finest 1976-model-year motorcycle in each of 10 separate categories.

Right out of the gate, Ten Best was a rousing success, so much so that it was repeated the next year, and the next, and so on, continuing annually right up to the present. But even though the concept has remained the same, the 10 award categories have required frequent and often dramatic change to keep pace with trends in the marketplace, fluctuations in displacement classes, and the ongoing specialization of motorcycles themselves.

For example, the ’70s and ’80s were peak years for dirt bikes, so five categories in 1976 were for off-road models: 125cc, 250cc, and Open Motocross, plus Trials and Enduro. The predicted trials-bike “boom” was becoming a bust, however, so Trials was replaced with Dual-Purpose the next year.

1976 Ten Best Bikes
1,000cc ROADSTER Kawasaki KZ900
750cc ROADSTER Yamaha XS750
500cc ROADSTER Honda CB550F
400cc ROADSTER Yamaha RD400
OPEN MX Adolph Weil Maico 400
250 MX Suzuki RM250
125 MX Honda CR125
ENDURO KTM/Penton 400
TRIALS Montesa Cota 348

Those five classifications lived on until reduced to three (Motocross, Dual-Purpose, Enduro) in 1987 to accommodate necessary increases in the number of streetbike categories. In ’04 and ’05, Dual-Purpose was replaced by Playbike due to a renewed interest in entry-level off-roaders, but it returned in 2006 as Dual-Sport, the industry’s revised nomen­clature for that type of motorcycle. It remained until combined with Enduro in 2012 to make room for the burgeoning Adventure category.

As much as the off-road entries called for numerous mid-course adjustments, rapid changes in the marketplace forced street categories to be practically schizophrenic. In ’76, four of the five were titled Roadster (350–400cc, 500–550cc, 750cc, and just “Roadster” for large-displacement bikes); the fifth was Touring. Superbike replaced Roadster in ’77, and the displacement categories were changed to Lightweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight. That move was reversed in ’79 when those three were renamed Under 450cc Street, 451–650cc Street, and 651–800cc Street.

That category-by-displacement approach continued with occasional variations until abandoned in 2000 in favor of non-cc-specific terminology: Open-Class Streetbike and Middleweight Streetbike. Plus, new entries—Cruiser, Standard, and Sport-Touring—had to be squeezed in.

Since then, the street categories have remained status quo with the exception of two recent changes: the aforementioned 2012 inclusion of Adven­ture; and the 2015 switch from Sport-Touring to Lightweight Streetbike in response to an upsurge in smaller-displacement models. Sport-tourers have become so adept at both back-road and open-road travel that the two were combined into a single Touring category.

Of the hundreds of winners over those 40 years, a select few are truly memorable. Some were game changers that transformed the motorcycling landscape, others were legends in their own time, and some were just downright magnificent to ride. To acknowledge the superstars of those historic and unforgettable machines, here are our selections for The Ten Best of The Ten Best:

2015 Honda Gold Wing on-road action
2015 Honda Gold Wing.Cycle World Archives

Honda Gold Wing
The GL not only revolutionized travel on two wheels, but it won 20 Ten Bests, the most by any motorcycle.

Honda VFR750F/800F
One of the finest all-around motorcycles of all time, it scored 11 awards, 10 in a row from 1990 to 1999.

Honda CRF450R ('02–'09)
For eight consecutive seasons, it ruled the Open class like no other MXer before or after. Combined, the 450R, the Gold Wing, and the VFR account for 39 of Honda's 110 Ten Best wins.

Kawasaki Ninja 900 ('84)
Although responsible for only one of Kawasaki's 61 Ten Bests, it spearheaded the concept of a compact, lightweight Open-class sportbike.

Honda CBR900RR ('92–93 & '95–96)
A revolutionary superbike that combined the size and weight of a 600 with big-bike power.

1994 Ducati 916 on-road action
1994 Ducati 916.Cycle World Archives

Ducati 916 ('94)
Just one of 15 Ten Best Ducs, it was one of the most beautiful and potent superbikes ever built.

1994 BMW R1100GS on-road action
1994 BMW R1100GS.Cycle World Archives

BMW R1100GS ('94)
Not BMW's first GS but the one that gave the adven­ture phenomenon a full head of steam.

1990 Kawasaki ZX-11 on-road action
1990 Kawasaki ZX-11.Cycle World Archives

Kawasaki ZX-11 ('90 & '92)
The 176-mph road rocket that lit the fuse on the top-speed wars.

Yamaha RD400 ('76 & '77)
One of the very last—and arguably the very best—of the two-stroke roadsters.

Maico 400/450 ('76, '78, '79)
Ever wonder which bike pioneered long-travel rear suspension? Wonder no more.

From that first program in 1976 to the present, the product planners, engineers, and designers of the winning models have regarded earning a Ten Best award one of the highest honors they could receive. It is widespread, public acknowledgement of their hard work, creativity, and clear understanding of the market. It is the recognition of their excellence.

Ten Best Motorcycles of 2016 Videos: