Seventies Superbikes - The allure of 1970s Japanese motorbikes - by Karyn Sparks

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Motorcycles run in my family. (Yes there’s a joke in there somewhere but...). A very early memory of mine is the story Poppy (my grandad) used to tell me, of the time he’d built a motorbike and sidecar in the front room, only to realise after he’d finished that he couldn’t get it out through the front door! Nothing ever daunted Poppy, so he took out the front window and got it out that way!

Both my Dad and my uncle rode bikes in the 60s as young lads, as did my brother and husband in the 1990s. They all had a love for British made bikes such as Triumph and BSA, but none of them could escape the allure of a Japanese motorbike. My Dad went from a BSA Gold Flash 650cc to a Yamaha XS 750, which he then gave to my brother who traded it in for a Kawasaki Ninja! Kawasaki were the bikes used in both ‘CHiPs’ and the first Mad Max film... which no doubt heavily influenced my brother’s decision! Today, my husband still owns his Triumph Speed Triple, but also owns a 1975 Honda CB550 and a 1981 Kawazaki GPZ1100 custom bobber... all cluttering up the VEHQ!

But what is the big deal with Japanese motorbikes?

Well, British motorcycles would never be the same again after the Japanese appeared on the scene. Up until the first half of the 20th century European manufacturers, particularly the British, dominated the entire motorcycle industry. The very idea of a motorbike made by the Japanese would have seemed bizarre – but it was a very different world back then.

Japanese ambition

The exact point at which the Japanese motorbike industry served notice on the British motorbike industry can be traced back to a letter of intent from Soichiro Honda to his employees in his five-year-old engineering firm on 20th March 1954.

He announced his intention to manufacture a bike good enough to compete in, and win, the Isle of Man TT. “Now that we are equipped with a production system in which I have absolute confidence, the time of opportunity has arrived,” he wrote, “I have reached the firm decision to enter the TT Races next year.” An event that Honda’s researches had identified as the premier world event. “Never before has a Japanese entered this race with a motorcycle made in Japan, he wrote, “It goes without saying that the winner of this race will be known across the globe, but the same is also true for any vehicle that completes the entire race safely. It is said, therefore, that the fame of such an achievement will assure a certain volume of exports, and that is why every major manufacturer in Germany, England, Italy, and France is concentrating on preparations with all its might.”

Honda claimed: “I will fabricate a 250cc (medium class) racer for this race, and as the representative of our Honda Motor Co, I will send it out into the spotlight of the world. I am confident that this vehicle can reach speeds exceeding 180 km/h. Even a superior aircraft engine has a power output of about 0.55 PS per litre, but this racer will have nearly double that power, at 1.00 PS per litre. When this engine is completed on the basis of our company’s creativity, it will be no exaggeration whatsoever to say that it will rank at the world’s highest levels of engineering.”

Soichiro Honda’s declaration of his ambition to win this demanding race brought a great deal of interest from all over Japan. His race bike, with its ‘Swiss watch’ engine and build quality, wiped the floor with the competition and opened up the floodgates to Japanese bike production.

Within a decade, Japan was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles, swamping 140,000 British bikes with more than half a million a year!

And the rest, as they say, is history...


What to buy

If you’re in the market for buying an old bike, there are some fantastic 1970s Japanese examples out there that are affordable, fun and a really good investment – whether you prefer a Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha or Suzuki – plus you’ll look seriously retro riding one!

Now, I’m not professing to know anything about buying 1970s motorbikes, but whilst trawling the net, I came across someone who does. By day, Paul Brace is the Director and technical guy behind Eagle E-Types (eaglegb.com), which has kept him busy for the past 30 years. His proudest project to date was the designing and building of their E-Type Speedster, which Jeremy Clarkson declared his favourite car of all time!

However, Paul is also the owner of Proper Bikes, a website that shares his passion, and collection of 70s motorbikes. He’s a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast and has been involved with motorbikes since his youth. I asked him, what is the allure of a 1970s Japanese motorcycle today?

“Whether you were lucky enough to own one at the time, or maybe a schoolboy who had the poster on your bedroom wall – there’s just something special about the superbikes from the 1970s. If you’re searching for something that makes for a wise investment, is a lot of fun, is really usable, is reliable enough, safe enough and faster than fast enough – you naturally look to the 1970s. They are easy to start, easy to maintain, satisfying to ride sedately – and electrifying to ride hard!”

I then asked Paul if he was forced to keep just four bikes from his collection – one Honda, one Suzuki, a Yamaha and a Kawasaki – which ones would he choose, and why?

“That’s actually an easy question as I have four clear favourites, and it’s one from each manufacturer!

Honda CBX1000Z - These are the absolute business. They were produced right at the end of the decade and into the 80s but, to be honest, they feel like they are from a different century let alone decade. They still have plenty of period appeal however and are an undisputed milestone classic. CBX’s are six cylinder and they give you lush silky torque and confidence inspiring handling topped with and utterly addictive soundtrack.

Yamaha RD350LC - Yamaha’s RD’s are the best of the popular two-stroke twin lightweight motorcycles of the era. The air cooled RD350 and subsequent 400’s where immense fun to ride and enormously capable with a solid reputation as being giant slayers. They evolved into the liquid cooled LC model as we moved into the eighties and returned to 350cc. It was the most appealing bike in existence to a 17-year-old of the day and today the model generates a ton of nostalgia.

Even today when our standards and expectations have risen along with the technology and resultant machinery the RD350LC is still outstandingly light, quick, agile and just the best fun imaginable.

Kawasaki Z1 - This model was nicknamed the King in its day for good reason.It is the kingpin of my collection and a clear favourite. They have the looks, the performance and all the charisma. If the building caught fire I would drag this one out first!

Riding a 900 zed just makes you feel very good and they have so much road presence.

Suzuki GT750 - A definitive seventies classic with a characterful and turbine like motor and a unique and wonderful exhaust note. They are a two stroke triple but give a surprisingly high amount of torque and comfortable long distance touring ability. I would get on one of these and ride it to the ends of the earth without a second thought – as opposed to the Kawasaki 750 H2 triple which needs consideration before riding to the end of the road!


Woo Gilchrist