Spannerman has plundered the INFO MOTO Brains Trust and come up with what we think are the 10 most beautiful motorcycles of all time.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: there is such a thing as ‘objective’ beauty. We grow up believing ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ because our mums tell us this when we’re disappointed by what we see in the mirror.
The world doesn’t work like that. It works on the conventions of beauty – where the critical mass of people decide one thing is more beautiful than another. Most of us would rather spend a night with Scarlett Johansson than with Bronwyn Bishop. Most of us think Brad Pitt is handsome and Lyle Lovett is the spawn of the devil. There’s always a winner in the Miss World competition because, even among conventionally beautiful people, one will be more completely beautiful than the others. Who among us thinks Honda’s CX500 is better looking than MV Agusta’s 1000 F4?
Motorcycles have a particularly hard time in the context of beauty. Cars can have horrendous collections of ill-fitting, contradictory components bolted to their chassis but all is forgiven when you cover it with a beautiful skin. With bikes, particularly naked bikes, you can see every single external component of the engine, chassis and bodywork. Many of these components come from different suppliers – Ohlins, Borrani, Lockheed, Marzocchi – but the designer has to somehow make the final presentation look consistent.
Faired bikes can hide the ugliness of radiators, rubber hoses, oil coolers and the like so, when we’re deciding on the 10 best-looking bikes of all time, we’re more likely to concentrate on nakeds. Two of the bikes in the INFO MOTO list have fairings but we already know what lies beneath from previous models and it’s just as pretty as the surface attractions.
The risk designers take is when they contest conventional beauty and move outside the box. They’re hoping to progress conventional standards and move the idea of beauty along. It was a tough call but Suzuki’s Katana isn’t in our Top 10 list. It was a revelation in its day and many alive then thought it would change bike design forever. Instead, it rode a fashion wave that eventually crashed the way fins did on cars of the ’50s and ’60s.
Glyn Kerr, founder and past-president of the international Motorcycle Design Association, claims what we find beautiful (or stylish) is a mixture of aesthetic excellence, desirability, exclusivity and timing. While we’re arguing for an objective measure of beauty, judgements in these areas can certainly change with time and fashion.
‘Attractive’ women in the 1700s and 1800s were plump with big breasts, thick thighs and freckles on their upper arms. Any thin women depicted in paintings from this period usually represented poverty.
Fashion in motorcycle design is problematic in that, even today, it can take three years and usually much longer to bring a design into production and the fashion ideas that drove the project can change or disappear far more quickly than that. If one particular model is successful, the competition will copy it so manufacturers only get a short period of grace.
The ‘beak’ on trail bikes and off-roaders now is pretty-much universal although it appears to have no practical value – it’s just how everyone now agrees off-roaders should ‘look’. Suzuki recently reintroduced its LS650 but may have missed the boat with choppers. Under-seat exhaust/mufflers came and went despite them having some technical merit.
You’ll hear aesthetes talk of ‘timeless design’. This usually means something which was beautiful in its day, is beautiful now and will continue to be beautiful into the future. Kerr says it’s simply that we’ve learnt to accept the style and no longer question it. Many of the bikes in the list have this quality – they’ll be, we think, forever lovely.
You mightn’t agree with all our findings which is fine – on an individual level, we’re all entitled to our own opinions on what’s beautiful and what isn’t. Your mother was right to tell you that, one day, someone would find you handsome even though the empirical evidence clearly suggested otherwise. Julia Roberts was once married to Lyle Lovett.
What follows are 10 bikes we think will stand the test of time or have done so already.
They’re all loosely ‘production’ bikes rather than specials. They’re mostly from early 1970s onwards as, prior to that, beauty had a more direct link with function: if it worked well, it was innately beautiful. They’re numbered one to 10 but even IM doesn’t have the hubris to say the bikes are beautiful in that order so change it at will. Our emphasis is on naked bikes because using a fairing is often a way of hiding the unacceptable. These bikes (mostly) show it all…
1. Ducati 750 Sport (‘72/73)
There are riders so drugged by their devotion to Ducati that they think a list of the 10 most beautiful bike of all time should only consist of Ducatis. They have a point when you consider the 900SS, the Hailwood Replica, the 450 Single and the 916. Ducati made mistakes, though: the 860, the Paso, the 500 Twins and, arguably, some of the derivatives of the 916.
Unarguably, its 750 Sport (known also as the 750S) of 1972 – 1974 will always remain as one of the best looking bikes of any generation.
Fabio Taglioni’s 90-degree L-twin design is beautiful in itself. It exudes air and space as well as purpose, particularly when compared with V-twins in the 45 – 60 degree range. You need to remember this was Ducati’s first L-twin and the company made much use of outside suppliers for the rest of the bike. This makes the final integration and proportions of the finished product all the more amazing.
The frame was an adaptation of a Colin Seeley design to which was bolted contributions from Borrani, Conti, Lockheed, Marzocchi, Dell ‘Orto and many others. It could have ended up looking like a dog’s breakfast. Instead, using the handsome 750 GT which had been finished two years earlier as a base, the 750 Sport developed a character all its own.
Where does the beauty come from? It starts with the long wheelbase (1500mm) and stretched front end. Then there’s the slim, sensuous tank which runs into the solo seat with its perfectly proportioned, rounded tail. Features which clutter other bikes are ignored: the 750 Sport doesn’t have a starter motor or indicators. The round cases of the Sport engine have a sensuality all of their own although you don’t really notice it until you compare them to the brutalism of the later square-case engines.
Lastly, and simply, there’s the yellow paint with some subtle highlights of black. Be still my beating heart…
The 750 Sport has old-school straight line stability at some small expense to chuckability. Its long, slim lines mean you need to stretch for the ‘bars but you need to kick-start the engine first as it doesn’t have an electric leg.
The gearbox is one up, four down and the clutch is surprisingly light. The engine’s strong point is its mid-range torque. Claimed power is 62hp at 8200rpm but there’s no need to go anywhere near those revs to enjoy what the L-twin has to offer. Brake specifications changed in the short model life of the 750 Sport but neither of the two options were exceptional.
Despite the rider’s knees and elbows being closer together than normal, anyone riding a 750 Sport always looks elegant.
2. Manx Norton (‘62)
While the Manx Norton is a race bike, it meets our criteria of a production bike in that in the period between 1947 and 1962, it was widely available to anyone with the cash to order one. Norton itself stopped racing them in 1954 but kept building the bikes for privateers.
Production finished at the Norton home in Bracebridge Street in 1963 but such was the dominance of the model that Godfrey Nash won the Yugoslavian GP on one in 1969.
It’s in IM’s top 10 for its physical beauty rather than its racing success and it comes from a period where function influenced aesthetics: if it worked well, it was beautiful.
The starting and finishing style statement is the engine. It has the profile of a body-builder’s torso with a muscular bottom end and a slim waist which expands into a massive upper body. The abiding impression is one of brute strength – it’s masculine like no other bike ever made.
In 1950, the Irish McCandless brothers shaped a frame which perfectly complemented the Norton engine. It became known as the ‘Featherbed’ frame after a comment from a Norton TT rider who claimed it was like racing on a feather bed.
The McCandless frame went on to influence designers around the world and you can see it reflected in the /6 series BMWs, Yamaha’s SRV250 and even the Harris Performance frame being used for the current Royal Enfield Continental GT. Replicas of the original McCandless frame are still widely available, as are pattern parts for the 500 engine which is a testimony to how revered this bike became.
In keeping with function influencing form for the better, the Manx Norton evolved through its life to keep it competitive and the last models with the single seat rear hump are the best looking. The Manx Norton of 1962 had a beautiful big tank but very thin lines everywhere else. The minimalist presentation included an industrial coloured but pretty front drum brake with a large air scoop for cooling. The AJS 7R came close to matching the Manx Norton’s looks but the Norton dominated its generation and its powerful physical presence remains today.
You sit low in the seat of a late-model Manx Norton and need to stretch across the large tank to access the clip-on bars which are short, accentuating the narrowness of the bike but also expressing the designer’s belief that the bike is stable enough at high speed not to require wider controls. The tuned-length exhaust system stops not far past the right rear peg so the rider hears a lot of what the engine is doing.
With a four-speed gearbox and a top speed north of 200km/h, the lower gears are widely spaced. Power varies according to specifications but 47hp was common and, given it’s only driving 140kg, the Manx feels fast wherever you are in the rev range. It comes into its own properly as road speed rises and it’s easy to understand if you weren’t on one from 1947 onwards, the best you could ever hope for was second place.
3. Yamaha SRV250 (‘93/97)
Occasionally, when you least expect it, a gem of a bike can slip past without it being recognised at the time. Such was the fate of the Yamaha SRV250 (Renaissa). Yamaha had a monster success story on its hands (early ‘90s) with the frankly awful XV250 (Hey, I can buy this on my Ls and everyone will think I ride a Harley!).
Since Yamaha already had this V-twin engine, it decided to use it in a proper road bike as well.
Until 2014, Yamaha never had an internal design department for its bikes, instead outsourcing this function to GK Design (and offshoot GK Dynamics). During an exhibition in 1987, when the first sketches of the SRV250 were surely already on the drawing boards, GK Design’s boss, Kenji Ekuan, elaborated on an earlier claim that “the motorcycle is sex”. The highly eroticised language of the exhibition program said the motorcycle is the love toy of the human being called Adam, his ‘Eve Machina’.
The shape of the SRV250 has a resulting femininity which is hard to ignore: sleek, slim, flowing and with curves from the elongated fuel tank that mate beautifully with the side covers and seat.
Even though the engine was from the XV250, it had a useful extra six horses courtesy of two carburettors rather than one and a higher compression ratio.
The first SRV250s had dual instruments but the Renaissa model which came down south had just a speedo mounted directly in front of the rider. The whole bike was clean, neat and uncluttered. It also had a new frame very reminiscent of the Norton Featherbed frame, giving it hints of café racer. The skinny tyres and wheels suited the design and it’s easy to imagine if Vincent had ever made a 250, it would want it to have looked something like this.
Depending on which market you were in, SRV250s arrived quietly in ’93 and left quietly in ’97. They were variously available in silver and gold but the pick of the colours was a rich green which, as Ekuan implied, had strong suggestions of the Garden of Eden.
The SRV250 is a long, slim bike which suits slightly taller riders. Its narrowness makes it ideal for city riding but its 140 – 150km/h indicated top speed also made it useful on the open road. It would eat the kilometres at a relaxed 120km/h.
Working against that was a thin seat which became uncomfortable after about an hour in the saddle. The solution was multi-density foam rather than thicker padding as it would be sinful to ruin the seat’s lines.
The 90/90 – 18 front tyre and 110/90 – 18 rear were just right for quick steering but the wheelbase and rake/trail specifications gave it great stability at higher speeds.
4. Ducati 916 (‘94/98)
Nobody reading IM will be surprised to see Ducati’s 916 included in the 10 most beautiful bikes of all time. It was an absolute game-changer when it was launched in 1994 and the influence of its design is still reverberating through the bike design world.
It’s another bike in this list which will still look beautiful in 2050 and this is reflected in its inclusion in the Guggenheim Museum’s ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibition in 1998 – 99.
Cagiva owned Ducati at the time and design duties fell to the Centro Ricerche Cagiva (CRC) design house in San Marino which was under the influence of Massimo Tamburini.
While it’s only one of two bikes in this list that has a fairing, much of its design credentials are on public display, including its chrome-moly trellis frame, its single-sided swingarm, its upside-down forks and its under-seat exhausts.
Its design was an ingenious match of form and function. The single-sided swingarm makes it easier to change wheels and the under-seat exhaust improved the bike’s aerodynamic performance. The bike won four Superbike world titles between 1994 and ’98 mostly with Carl Fogarty on the seat but with Australia’s Troy Corser winning in 1996.
The heart of the 916 is the 90-degree V-twin now synonymous with Ducati and it’s a beautiful engine in itself before considering its place on the complete bike. It’s largely hidden by the fairing but the shape and position of the fairing play a major role in the proportions of the bike – emphasising aggressive thrust and dragging the rest of the bike along.
And it’s small. There have been larger 250s in the market. Part of its visual appeal is how much detail you can fit into such a tiny package.
It’s easy to think the rider was an afterthought when the 916 was designed. You don’t really notice how small and cramped the bike is until you climb aboard and attempt to locate your feet somewhere near the pegs.
The bars are set very low so you don’t have much option other than a racing crouch. The discomfort you feel with the riding position has one advantage in that it diverts attention from the plank-like, thinly padded seat.
All these things would have been far from Troy Corser’s mind while he was piloting the bike to the 1996 Superbike Championships and watching him ride suggest that, at ten-tenths, the ergonomics make sense. Around the city, though, almost any other bike would be preferable.
5. BMW R90S (‘73/76)
The motorcycle division of BMW was taking a hammering in the early 1970s. Its model range was expensive, slow and looked dated. While the R 750/5 is still highly regarded by historians, it had a speedo set in the headlight nacelle while everyone else had long before moved to twin gauges standing proud of the bodywork.
The /6 series (you say it like this: “stroke six”) was a giant leap forward but exhausted the enthusiasm of the company. Five speed gearboxes, better styling and bigger engines were offset by black paint (white if the bikes were for the police) and no energy to promote their new virtues.
A young Hans Muth had just joined the company as a car interior designer but was a rider and found himself in short order making illicit visits to the motorcycle area. Allegedly, in a casual conversation with the boss of motorcycles, Hans-Gunther von der Marwitz, he expressed disappointment that the /6 series didn’t have a sporting flagship. Marwitz allegedly told him to design one and he spent the following months working on it while his bosses thought he was designing drink holders for the rear seat passengers in a four-door sedan.
The result was the R90S.
It shared much with the staid R90/6 but had enough subtle changes to allow it to stand on its own and wow the crowds. The styling centrepieces were a bikini fairing which had four instruments suggesting a plane cockpit. This was complemented by a tailpiece just the right distance from the cockpit to suggest aerodynamic modernity.
The first R90S models had two-tone dark and silver paint but the most popular had a ‘Daytona Orange’ two-tone colour scheme. The paint process was expensive but at that time BMW was still hand-assembling bikes and also doing its pin-striping by hand.
The ‘S’ was fast with Dell’Orto pumper carbs and performance modifications to the head. It had racing success which helped promote a new interest in the company and its products.
A total of 17,455 bikes were produced between September ’73 and June ’76 with the pick of them being from June ’74 onwards when alterations to the camshafts and main bearings were undertaken to allow for how hard the bikes were being ridden.
Hans left BMW eventually and went to a company which ended up designing Suzuki’s Katana but he’d certainly left his mark on a classic bike with enduring beauty.
It’s still a treat in 2021 to throw a leg over an R90S. In terms of rider comfort and point-to-point times, it makes you wonder if bikes have advanced at all in the past 50 years. It’s a big bike and suits riders over six foot. Its turn of speed is spread over its rev range despite its sporting intent.
As with all BMWs of that period, owners had to learn how to change gear silently with a technique which involved pausing between gears. Once you got on top of it, you were in a position to sneer at those who couldn’t do it and thought the gearbox was ‘clunky’.
It would do 200km/h and was, prior to speed cameras, able to cruise effortlessly at speeds not far below this.
6. Honda CB400 Four (‘75/77)
If you went to a trivia party and was asked to name three motorcycle designers, you’d probably be in with a chance. There’s Edward Turner and maybe Val Page, Phil Irving from Australia, Willie G Davidson and possibly a couple of Italians including Massimo Tamburini.
Notice what’s missing here? Japanese designers – responsible for most of the world’s motorcycles. It would be easy to pass this off as simple racism but the reason you don’t know any Japanese designers is partly to do with the culture of Japanese manufacturing where ‘teams’ shared responsibility rather than it resting with one individual.
So who designed the Honda CB400 Four?
Nobody knows but the project was probably led by Yoshiro Harada who had slightly earlier led the 20-strong team of engineers responsible for the CB750. Honda made 500 and 350cc versions of the Honda Four design but the 350 didn’t have much impact partly because it was slower than the twins from the same manufacturer.
We do know that Honda executives, including Harada, travelled extensively in Europe during this period and the CB400 Four was a direct result of bringing back the early influences of the café racer scene in England.
The 400cc engine was a modest rework of the 350 unit but matched with a six-speed gearbox which required reworked engine cases. The engine was complemented by low bars, rear-set footpegs, a long tank and arguably the nicest four-into-one exhaust system ever seen on a production bike. It also had natty visible studs for the seat cover which contributed to the ‘home-built’ look.
The exhaust headers collected just below the right peg and entered a tapered megaphone muffler. The money shot for every motorcycle magazine in the world at the time was a three-quarter front image of the CB400 banked over for a left-hander with the glorious exhaust on full display. Among its admirers was James May of Top Gear fame who had one in his collection.
The CB400 Four was very big in Europe but the Americans just didn’t get it. Honda panicked and fitted the American model with higher bars and the footpegs moved forward, ruining its looks and feel.
Available between 1975-’97, Down Under models came in either bright red or blue. The likes of the CB400 Four weren’t seen on Honda drawing boards again for another 10 years.
If you crouched, you could get the magic ton from the little Honda, helped by the six speed transmission, 408cc bore/stoke and increased compression. It suffered a little in its performance reputation as the Japanese two-strokes of the time with a similar capacity were considerably faster.
It was a small bike and immediately comfortable although some riders had reservations about the angle of the standard low bars.
Handling was similar to the 350 but the 400 had better cornering clearance, particularly on the left side. Unlike the 350, the riding position and looks of the bike encouraged spirited use of the right hand and the engines on most CB400 Fours spent their lives in the upper rev range.
Honda’s move into front disc brakes was the result of a direct order from Soichiro Honda for the CB750 and the 400 Four benefited with a single disc which was adequate in the dry but suffered as all discs did at the time when it rained. The brake feels wooden by modern standards but had more consistent performance than the drums still being used by other manufacturers.
7. Honda 50 Super Cub (‘64 onwards)
What’s a scooter doing in the list of the world’s 10 most beautiful bikes? Well, to start with, it’s not a scooter – it’s a motorcycle in its own right. It has an ‘underbone’, pressed steel chassis with a combined engine/gearbox mounted well forward for front/rear balance and a chain to drive the rear wheel.
Wheels are big, 17” hoops unlike the traditional 10” units on proper scooters and it has low unsprung weight because it doesn’t have a rear-mounted engine driving the rear wheel directly. It’s a motorcycle.
Where the confusion comes from is the ‘step-thru’ facility made possible by the underbone chassis. This was a ‘must’ for Soichiro Honda’s business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, who knew this design feature would vastly expand the potential market for the bike. The wide range of potential users would include women who would be able to mount the bike with some degree of modesty while wearing a dress.
The leg shields helped with this as well. The shape of the shields kept the engine from the view of the rider, protected occupants in wet weather and had technical advantages as well in that it directed air across the engine to assist with cooling.
The earliest Super Cubs (1958) had overhead valve engines but an overhead cam engine (same power but easier to make and maintain) appeared in 1964 when the Super Cub really hit its straps in the US, the largest market in the world. Grey Advertising started the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign and people who had never ridden before started flooding the showrooms.
While the appeal of the Super Cub 50 was largely its practicality and versatility, it was also admired for its looks. Bike designer Glyn Kerr says, with motorcycles, style is about proportion rather than line and the Super Cub gets it just right. Particularly when compared with the barge-arsed, bloated, small-wheeled pretenders of the current scooter world, the Cub presents as minimalist, light, balanced and svelte.
The muffler on one side is offset by the chain enclosure on the other and its pretty from whatever angle you choose to view it.
Honda dusts off the Honda 50 production line in Japan from time to time to produce low-volume ‘celebration’ models (50th anniversary and the like) which are snapped up by Asian collectors. They invariably have the round headlight of the ’64 – ’74 series. Is it one of the 10 best looking bikes of all time? 100,000,000 buyers can’t be wrong.
The low compression engine is a breeze to start either by kicking or simply pushing the bike forward while it’s in one of its three gears. Suspension travel is limited at the front by a leading-link design but it’s still stable at its top speed of around 75km/h. The change marks on the speedo suggest it will do 25km/h in first, 50 in second and 85km/h in top
Its light weight encourages the rider to throw it around and the edges of leg shields are usually the first thing to scrape.
The riding position is upright with the solo seat providing the most comfortable option although the dual seat is comfortable as well. The way the engine produces its power means the rider hardly notices the extra weight of a pillion. Not bad for 50cc!
8. Aprilia Moto 6.5
Phillipe Starck was one of the best-known designers of the last century.
He would turn his hand to whatever paid well and was responsible for designs for products ranging from orange juicers to entire houses. Among his credits are his collaboration on the design of the Sony Walkman and the radical Audi TT.
His early motorcycle designs, particularly the Aprilia Lama of 1992, established once again that people who don’t ride bikes aren’t necessarily the best people to design them. Aprilia stuck with him, though, and backed him to design the first bike aimed at appealing to the rapidly growing Yuppie market.
The anecdotal story is Starck was given a blank sheet of paper and told that if he could draw it, Aprilia could build it. Aprilia wanted a bike which would appeal to a previously unexplored market segment: young, cashed-up, style-driven, urban non-riders. The engine already existed: it was the versatile Rotax 650 five-valve single. It made about 40hp, was good for the magic 160km/h and, with electric start, was very low maintenance.
Whether Starck worked this out for himself or if was part of the design brief is unknown, but the finished product had to be easy to ride in the city and comfortable. This led to long-travel suspension and high-profile tyres. At around 150kg, it was relatively light but it was also a tad tall in the saddle.
Unlike most other motorcycle designers of the period, Starck wasn’t restricted by the baggage of history. His thinking was fresh and new, resulting in a work of art as much as a motorcycle. Grey was the dominant colour and the bike stood out through its complete absence of chrome or polished alloy. Surprisingly, this made the bike easy to clean and surviving examples still look good.
The giant tank dominates the design and the rest of the bike, including the frame rails, seat and twin exhausts, bend to its will.
Despite its credentials, the Moto 6.5 failed in the showrooms. It was called the ‘Moto 6.5 Starck’ in Europe to cash in on the designer’s fame but it was simply the Moto 6.5 south of the Equator.
It turned out that Yuppies didn’t want to ride bikes anyway and, if they did, they wanted existing brands which reflected their taste and wealth. Perhaps Aprilia should have waited for the Hipsters.
The Aprilia Moto 6.5 is a lovely ride in the city. It has great brakes and is narrow enough to cut up traffic. The seat and riding position is very comfortable and it feels like a more sophisticated version of the Japanese chook-chasers which were previously the kings of city tar.
Soft suspension and high profile tyres worked against the bike in high speed corners but it was comfortable up to 130km/h. Brave owners recorded a top speed in excess of 170km/h.
9. Royal Enfield Continental GT
In its day (1964), Royal Enfield’s first Continental GT was a very good looking bike.
Legend has it that RE management was terrified by the success of the new wave of Japanese 250s but didn’t have the development budget to replace its very ordinary Crusader 250. It asked its young apprentices for ideas on making the Crusader more popular and the workshop boys turned it into a café racer.
Many years later, if any are still available, you can walk into a Royal Enfield showroom and spend not much on a bike that captures the spirit of the early bike without having to carry any of the Crusader baggage.
It uses a slightly larger displacement (535cc) EFI Bullet engine in a frame designed by England’s legendary Harris Performance. The bodywork was the responsibility of another English studio, Xenophya Design, and it utilises components from some of the best in the business: Brembo brakes; Excel alloy rims, Paioli suspension and Pirelli tyres. All this comes together in a finely proportioned finished product that even makes the stolid Bullet engine look special.
RE claims it’s the ‘fastest, lightest, most powerful single Royal Enfield has ever built’ but, without doubt, it’s also the most beautiful. Drawing on the established conventions of café racer design, the bike would have looked at home in 1964, looks very much at home now and will be just as pretty in over 50 years’ time.
Royal Enfield was so pleased with the model it promptly bought Harris Engineering and then Xenophya to join its rapidly expanding staff at its UK technical centre.
RE is back with a vengeance and will explode in the next 10 years. In the meantime, the Continental GT will remain forever beautiful whether it’s on the road or parked as a work of art on your lounge-room floor. Yes, it’s been discontinued, but if you can find one, buy it and hang on to it.
The Continental GT’s million dollar looks mask its modest performance and it’s best not to expect too much from its 29hp engine. It carries an electric starter as well as the period kick lever and, despite its café racer chops, it’s a very comfortable ride. The Paioli suspension is compliant enough to handle rougher roads without leaving the bike wallowing at higher corner speeds
Its top speed is around 140km/h but vibrations start to make themselves felt from 115km/h upwards. Below that, it’s a very practical bike for current speed limit riding with the added bonus of well-above-average handling.
10. Honda CB1100R (‘81/83)
There’s a timelessness about big bore Honda road bikes from 1969 until the V4s were launched in 1983. The engines went from single overhead cam to twin overhead cam and the styling changed minimally according to the tastes of the day.
The results were generally ‘handsome’ bikes rather than beautiful – good looking but not outstanding.
That all changed between 1981 and 1983 when a limited number of CB1100Rs became available. These bikes didn’t just go fast, they looked fast. Their sole purpose was to win production races and put the Honda name back on the podium. They were ‘homologation specials’: bikes made for racing but, to qualify for their class of racing, a certain number had to be sold.
Honda was particularly keen to win the Castrol 6-Hour both in Australia and in New Zealand. CB1100Rs were never available in the US. In the day, production bike wins brought traffic into showrooms. Mick Cole and Malcolm Campbell won the ’81 race in NZ and future world champion Wayne Gardner along with Wayne Clarke won the Australian race in ’82. In fact, CB1100Rs filled six of the first eight places.
Given that the purpose of the bike was to win races, you wouldn’t expect it to win any beauty competitions. Honda, though, had clearly forgotten how to do ‘ugly’ and the CB1100R was a visual stunner with its distinctive red, white and blue paintwork.
Arguably the least attractive of the three versions available during the short time they were produced was the RB model of ’81 which was distinguished by its round headlight, half-fairing and solo seat. To get around supplementary regulations for ’82 which required a full seat, Honda gave the RC a removable seat cowl.
This was complemented by an aluminium tank and a full fairing which housed a square headlight. The last of the breed, the RD, featured a square-section swingarm and a slightly revised fairing.
The full-faired versions of the 1100R were the prettiest but the fairing wasn’t hiding anything of which Honda would be ashamed. Behind the glass was the already attractive CB1100 mill but with gold alloy highlight features.
These bikes are now rare and becoming very expensive. One reason for this was low production numbers: 1050 for the RB, 1500 for the RC and 1500 for the RD. Honda thought they were beautiful as well and revisits the theme of the CB1100R on a regular basis. There’s a prototype 2021 version currently under evaluation.
The CB1100R is a big, comfortable and fast ride. Engine modifications included reducing the weight of the flywheel so it spins up freely and you need to get used to reduced flywheel effect when braking for corners. Relative to its eventual road-going cousin, the CB1100F, it feels a little like a two-stroke.
The fairing works best when a racing crouch is assumed and the protection offered suggests much work was done on the shape of the fairing and the subsequent shape of the rear of the seat.
Race engines aren’t built for endurance, making the CB1100R less-than-ideal as a day-to-day ride which is another reason why they’re so rare on the roads. Their performance was swamped after ’83 but in the brief window of opportunity they had, they were the best of the best.