Motorcycle of the Century | 1969 Honda CB750

The Bike That Changed Everything

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing

The history of motorcycles barely stretches beyond 100 years. Gottlieb Daimler built the first in 1885, though outriggers meant his technically had four wheels. The first machines we would recognize as true motorcycles came from Millet (1892), Hildebrand & Wolfmueller (1894) and DeDion-Buton (1895). Countless milestone bikes have come and gone in the 117 years since, and many warrant serious Motorcycle of the Century consideration.

There can only be one winner, however, and no matter what criteria we considered, Honda’s CB750 was our unanimous choice. This bike changed everything. The CB750 wasn’t an engineering breakthrough—inline-fours, disc brakes, electric start and quad-exhausts had all been done before. The CB750 was conservative, even, with just a single cam and two valves per cylinder, plus chain primary and final drive. The brilliance lay in its application, and the bold way Honda repackaged such exotic technology in mass-produced form, with all the kinks ironed out—then delivered it at a price and in a quantity that gave almost anyone access.

This was the first “modern” motorcycle. Modernism is defined by how humans use knowledge and technology to improve and reshape their world, and there is no better emblem of modern thought than Soichiro Honda. He utterly rejected the existing motorcycle industry’s provincial, cottage-industry traditions, replacing established ideas with cutting-edge engineering, technology and manufacturing technique. The CB750 was a direct result of this new process, and its success revolutionized the way motorcycles were designed, built and sold.

From the moment the public first laid eyes on it at the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show, the CB750 was an unqualified success. With its visually imposing inline engine and four gleaming exhaust headers, the CB750 looked like a street-legal Grand Prix bike. And with a legitimate 125-mph top speed, it had the performance to match its looks. By '73 Honda was selling more than 60,000 CB750s each year. The massive impact of the CB750 forever banished Japan’s former reputation as a copycat nation, capable of little more than mass-producing others' designs for a fraction of the cost. The CB750 forged a new reputation for the island nation as an indisputable source of the best engineering, design and technology in the world. More important to motorcycle enthusiasts, the CB750 acted as the archetypal Japanese superbike, kicking off an epic high-performance arms race that continues to this day. There would be no Honda CBR1000RR—nor Kawasaki ZX-10R, or Suzuki GSX-R1000, or Yamaha YZF-R1—if the CB750 hadn’t come first.

Mr. Honda was famously short with praise, yet even he couldn’t conceal his excitement after riding the CB750 for the first time. One former Honda R&D employee remembered the scene: “It was during final testing in the U.S. Mr. Honda happened to be there. He said, ‘Let me ride that thing,’ and just jumped on and blasted off across the desert. He was gone for nearly a half-hour. Everyone was quiet, and very nervous. When he came back, he just said, ‘What a terrific, terrific machine!’ then walked away, laughing. That was the first time anyone there ever heard any words of praise from him!”

Motorcyclist’s Motorcycle of the Century: the 1969 Honda CB750. What a terrific. terrific machine indeed!

Exotic and affordable, fast and reliable, capable and accessible, the CB750 was a magic bullet. This bike began the reputation for pragmatic performance that defines Honda today.

Alternative Takes

1960 Triumph T120 Bonneville

It’s ironic that the most iconic British motorcycle of all time isn’t named after Donington Park, Silverstone or Brands Hatch, but a sunbaked salt pan located in the southwestern United States. It was at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1956, however, that Jack Wilson’s methanol-burning Triumph Tunderbird 650, ridden by Johnny Allen and nicknamed “The Texas Cee-Gar,” set an absolute motorcycle speed record of 214.17 mph. When Triumph needed a name for its frst dual-carburetor 650cc twin, then its fastest production motorcycle, only “Bonneville” would do.

The T120 Bonneville frst appeared in ’59, but it’s the redesigned ’60 version, with the stifer twin-cradle frame and separate headlamp replacing the old nacelle, that’s considered the defnitive version. With its stately, Edward Turner-designed parallel-twin, long chrome peashooter mufflers, pancake saddle and signature two-tone paint, the Bonneville characterized classic Brit-bike cool. Bob Dylan rode one. So did Paul Newman, Paul McCartney and, of course, Steve McQueen.

The Bonneville’s engine was based on that of the T110 Tiger, but came equipped with dual Amal carburetors instead of a single unit, as well as a performance intake cam. With light weight, abundant torque, decent handling and a 110-mph top speed, the Bonneville was the epitome of ’60s high performance—until the frst Japanese superbikes arrived at the end of that decade. The Bonneville ruled everywhere from dragstrips to dirt-tracks, and a Bonneville even made the frst 100-mph production-bike lap at the Isle of Man TT, in ’68. The performance may have faded but the Bonneville’s silhouette has stood the test of time. Triumph’s current “modern classic” Bonnevilles, shamelessly styled to ape the originals, are among the best-selling bikes on the market today.

1949 Harley-Davidson FL Hydra-Glide

This is the bike that inspired a million imitations, both from within Harley-Davidson’s own styling department and, decades later, from halfway around the world, when the Japanese jumped on the bandwagon and began building “American-style” heavyweight cruisers. It's the archetypal motorcycle, with a timeless look that’s as compelling now as it was back then.

Harley-Davidson debuted its FL chassis—a variation of which is still its best-seller today—way back in ’41, and introduced the famed, 1200cc Panhead engine in ’48. But it wasn’t until the following year, when the antique springer fork was replaced with a modern telescopic unit, that the quintessential American cruiser silhouette took form. Dubbed the “Hydra-Glide” in reference to the new hydraulic fork that delivered twice the travel of the old springer, this latest Big Twin offered much-improved ride quality and road-holding ability. The new fork also imparted a modern look more in line with the telescopic-forked British bikes that were beginning to food the American market.

The deep-skirted front fender and thick, widely spaced fork legs—the upper halves enclosed in streamlined, stamped-steel nacelles—give the Hydra-Glide a broad-shouldered look that has never gone out of style. The rest of the bike, including the Fat Bob-type tank with its center speedometer and the sprung saddle cantilevered high above a rigid rear triangle, is just as memorable. Compare a vintage Hydra-Glide to a modern Heritage Softail Classic—or even a Star Roadliner—and you’ll count more similarities than diferences. This is style with staying power.

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I was working my way through Grad school as a mechanic in a Honda/Triumph shop  when the CB750 was released in the US.  We were blown away to say the least.  It made the CB450 and the Bonneville look like toys in comparison.
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