Snag dons the flares to wander through the seventies bike showroom to see what was selling – and what was left standing.
Close your eyes.
It’s the 70s and motorcycling is at an all time high with in excess of 100,000 units being sold annually Down Under. Some pretty exotic stuff is making its way to our shores.
Motorcycles too. Names like Bultaco, Ossa, Benelli, Laverda… They were heady days indeed.
But not everything was selling. You see, the Aussie marketplace was as canny back in the hippy days as it is today – there’s just less hair.
So what were the things manufacturers served up to pry away our shiny new decimal currency? The bikes that may have deserved better – or got their right whack?
For some strange reason Kawasaki offered the Z750 in parallel twin configuration when it had been turning out bikes with rip-snorting performance from its range of in-line four-cylinder powered machinery. Strange days indeed.
At a time when parallel twins were seen as decidedly old-tech, Kawasaki may as well have tossed the Z750 into the Sea of Japan and saved a whole bunch on freight.
As Cycle World magazine said of the bike in 1978, “Market response to the KZ750 has been, well, moderate, which is a disappointment. For it is a machine whose construction, price and performance make for an excellent package for bikers preferring dependable, large-displacement, heavyweight mounts. Unluckily, though, it must squat in the shadows of its multi-cylindered brethren.”
Yep, it sank without trace and, aside from the W650 curiosity of 1999, caused Kawasaki to virtually shelve the parallel twin experiment when it came to big bore road tackle.
Timing is everything they say and the Honda CB360 of 1974 was just plain unlucky on that front.
You see, Yamaha’s RD350 was its main competitor (the first of that moniker appeared in 1973) and the poor old CB360 didn’t see which way the Yam went when it came to performance figures.
The two-stroke RD was good for 28.5 kW at 7500rpm against the CB’s 24.8 kW at 9000rpm from its air-cooled, 357cc, four-stroke parallel twin.
That might not sound like much, but the CB was flat knacker at 160kmh and the Yammy was good for in excess of 170 – and it got there a damned sight quicker. All over, Red Rover.
It was also the bike that was supposed to improve on the global success that was the CB350 and it was actually slower. Yep, a rare Honda balls-up.
In a strange twist, the CB360 has become a bit of favourite among cafe racer builders around the world and there is a lively web community centred around the bike.
If you can find one that’s still going, you may be on a collectable winner, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.
The GT750 represented Suzuki’s first foray into ‘big bike’ territory, hitting the world stage in 1972.
At a time when big bore motorcycling couldn’t get enough of four-cylinder four-strokes, Suzuki’s choice to remain with what it knew best in two-stroke technology proved to be a double-edged sword.
There is no doubt that the 738cc triple engine was well-designed, with big mileages reported by owners across the globe.
In fact, the GT750 set a new benchmark for big two-strokes.
Suzuki utilised water-cooling, allowing tolerances to be much finer, and the life of the engine was considerably lengthened as a consequence.
While the bike has gone on to become a highly prized collectable, takeup at the time was not as enthusiastic.
Most of this was centred around that two-stroke configuration, but those in the know cited performance figures of 50kW at 6500rpm and 76Nm of torque at 5500rpm. which tended to quiet the doubting Thomas’.
In truth, the bike was fairly tame, but it made a statement that was hard to ignore. Indeed, while even a well-ridden GT750 was no match for the big four-strokes of the era, there was – and remains – something alluring about the blue haze of two-stroke exhaust gases and those shiny, smooth barrels.
In a bold move, Suzuki decided to investigate the possibility of rotary power in the early seventies.
The RE5 was unveiled to the public at the Tokyo show in 1973, bearing its NSU-derived water-cooled, 497cc NSU two-barrel rotary powerplant.
Claimed performance numbers were very impressive at 46kW at 6500rpm and there was a decided curiosity for the bike on a global scale. Was this to represent the new way?
Suzuki certainly thought so, investing heavily in new tooling and assembly lines to cope with its projected demand.
The RE5 hit showrooms in 1974, with much fanfare. You could have heard a pin drop, such was the lack of buyer interest in the bike.
Some blame the fact that the bike looked so different, others lay the blame for the bike’s failure at its voracious appetite for fuel, while still more suggest the fact that the thing ran so hot that riders were getting tan.
Fact is, all of the above killed it deader than a Nickelback record. As a consequence, rotary engines and motorcycles have never mixed since with any success and appear unlikely to.
When Yamaha built the TX750 in 1973, it couldn’t have known what a ‘grenade’ it was releasing to the world’s showrooms.
At high rpm the balance weights would whip oil in the sump into a froth, aerating the oil and starving the crank for lubrication which resulted in bearing failure. Not good.
Yamaha’s answer was to crush what was left of the dreaded TX and release the XS750 in its place. Yes, there was a lot of pressure on the XS.
Yamaha opted for a new, air-cooled, 757cc, four-stroke triple that made 47kW at 7500rpm and was good for 190kmh.
‘That should shut them up’, must have been what Yamaha bigwigs must have been thinking when the XS hit bike shops in 1976. And did it?
Well, sort of.
There are many that reckon the smoothness of the engine is a highlight and features such as triple disc brakes, self-cancelling turn signals and cast aluminium wheels gave the bike a road civility unmatched at the time.
Others claim the bikes are renowned for jumping out of second gear, fuel taps leak, the shim-type valve adjustment is fiddly, and high oil consumption is an issue.
In 1980, the 757cc engine was discontinued , replaced by an 826cc version of the triple. The four-cylinder XJ750E debuted in ’81, and Yamaha waited until the MT series to release another three-cylinder, four-stroke motorcycle.
We have seen some with decent mileages, so they can’t be too bad, but the market was very Yamaha-wary after the dismal TX and the XS may well have served a sentence for a crime it didn’t commit.
Honda CBX 1000
In 1978, there was a worldwide interest in increased capacity for motorcycles.
It was deemed that bigger simply must be better.
This led Honda to release the CBX 1000, which had, count ‘em, six cylinders!
Producing the huge numbers of 78 kW from its air-cooled, 1047cc, in-line, DOHC, 24-valve engine, the CBX was the most powerful production motorcycle anywhere at release. That’s a big drawcard right there.
With a width that made lane-splitting an interesting exercise, the bike was a little ungainly, but the CBX was not the first production motorcycle powered by a six-cylinder engine (the Benelli 750 Sei gets that gong).
It was however the most advanced entry into the hotly-contested superbike war being staged by the Japanese makers at the time.
There’s no doubt that its 11.36 second quarter mile time was decidedly more rapid than other superbikes of that era.
The bike was raced in Australia, qualifying first with Graeme Crosby at the bars for the 1978 Castrol Six-Hour and another CBX finishing in third position in the hands of Mick Cole and Dennis Neill after Croz suffered engine problems.
The CBX has cult status here and overseas and you’ll need more than 30 grand to get a seller to open the roll-a-door for you these days.
Ducati 860 GTS
When the 860GTS was released in 1976, it was to a global motorcycle market that was impressed by Ducati’s commitment to both handling and long-distance race results.
What it was less enamoured by was the Bologna brand’s questionable quality control at factory level, with owners reporting all sorts of detail and electrical gremlins from previous offerings.
Power came from an air-cooled, four stroke, 90-degree, SOHC, V-twin making 47kW at 7200rpm and 72Nm at 4000rpm.
Nothing startling in those numbers.
It was considered a bit of an ugly duckling at release, certainly not one of the prettier Dukes and this didn’t help it at showroom level.
A road test of the day said the following…
“The Ducati 860 GTS has such a pleasing character that grows on you that owners find it easy to ignore the poor chrome and soft paint just for that thundering silky urge of the big vee-twin with the cantering exhaust note.
And that seems to sum up the bike’s appeal. You’ll have to live with it…
In 1974 Australian importer Ron Angel entered a “Ducati 860 SS” in the Unlimited Production event at the Easter races at Bathurst. The bike was ridden by Ken Blake, and defeated the then dominant Kawasaki 900s on the day.
This had the effect of making the Aussie diehards take notice and Ducatis were back in favour Down Under.
The GTS is a temperament tester. A good one will serve you well. A bad one you’ll throw down a well.
The world changes and so do attitudes. In fact, I’d happily own any of the above bikes today. At release, these were pretty easy to come by and showrooms often held bikes for years, such was the reluctance for Aussie buyers to embrace them.
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 26 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.