For more than a century, the Harley-Davidson name has been synonymous with big, loud, roaring engines. But in 2019, the legendary American manufacturer unveiled its very first electric motorcycle, and its competitor Curtiss announced three new electric bikes. As the sun rises on a new era of motorcycles, it’s time to take a look back at the bikes that came before, defining their eras and changing the way motorcycles were designed, built, and perceived.
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An upgraded version of the WL that was refined for military specifications, the Harley-Davidson WLA was one of the unsung heroes of World War II and Korea. In fact, the “A” in WLA simply stood for the name of Harley’s newest and best customer: Army. A rugged, durable bike with a 740cc engine, Harley built around 90,000 of them for the Army during World War II. The Army used them for scouting, courier missions, and escort work. The WLA is the bike that forever enshrined Harley-Davidson as America’s motorcycle brand of choice and filled the ranks of the country’s biker culture with veterans returning home from war.
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First sold in 1922, the Indian Chief had nearly two decades of history under its belt by the time 1940 rolled around — but two things happened that year that divides the iconic “big twin” Indian Chief’s history into two eras: the time before 1940 and after. In ’40, the Indian Chief got two upgrades that made it famous. The first was a plunger rear suspension and the second was the feature for which it will always be remembered: its big, decorative fenders.
Legendary motorcycle designer Edward Turner unveiled the Triumph Speed Twin at the 1937 National Motorcycle Show. It was a watershed moment. Before the Triumph, big, air-cooled pushrod singles were the standard for British motorcycle manufacturers, but Turner’s latest creation represented the first legitimate British parallel twin. It set the standard for all bikes to follow and by the end of World War II, virtually every British manufacturer offered a 500cc like the kind pioneered by the Speed Twin.
The Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I restricted German military production and banned
Bavarian Motor Works from making aircraft engines, which had been the company’s bread and butter. BMW adjusted by making industrial and automotive engines, and in 1923, the company unveiled its very first motorcycle, the R32. It took that year’s Paris Motorcycle Salon by storm and the bike’s design and quality instantly ranked BMW as a premier motorcycle maker.
During its decade-long production run from 1967 to 1977, the British company Norton-Villiers captured the imagination of the motorcycle-riding world with the now-classic Commando, which quickly became renowned — although originally mocked by many — for its distinct swooping body. The air-cooled, OHV parallel-twin engine could push it up to 115 mph. It will always be remembered as one of the classic British twins.
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The 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmuller deserves a mention for one undeniable reason — it will forever be known as the world’s first production motorcycle. The company received a patent for its revolutionary four-stroke, two-cylinder engine and despite the fact that it had neither pedals nor a clutch, the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmuller stoked tremendous interest — and soon tremendous competition. It also stands out as the first time in history the word “motorcycle” was used to describe the soon-to-be familiar class of vehicles, only the company instead used the German word “motorrad.”
Belgian firearms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale is credited with one of the most important innovations in the history of motorcycles — the inline four-cylinder engine, which came into vogue at the dawn of the industry at the turn of the 20th century. First built in 1905, the FN Four was the granddaddy of them all. The importance of the innovation can’t be overstated, and the new bike became one of the bestselling models on Earth during its 20-year production run. With a top speed of 40 mph, it also briefly held the title of the fastest motorcycle in the world.
Auto enthusiast Jay Leno has stated that the Vincent Black Shadow is his favorite motorcycle ever made, and for good reason. Built from 1948 to 1955, the 998cc British motorcycle is known as the world’s first superbike. With a top speed of 125 mph, it was billed as the fastest production bike in the world at the time.
The FL chassis is still a bestseller today, and its genesis can be traced to a 1941 innovation by Harley-Davidson. Seven years later in 1948, the company rolled out the 1,200cc panhead engine. In 1949, peanut butter met jelly when Harley-Davidson introduced a brand-defining bike that would be copied and imitated for decades. Named for the new hydraulic fork, which replaced the primitive springer fork, the iconic Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide was born.
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1959 signaled the beginning of an era when the Triumph company unveiled the first of the famous Bonneville line. It was the last creation of legendary British motorcycle designer Edward Turner. The Bonneville was noted for several upgrades and innovations, but more than anything, it was popular because it was fast — probably the fastest production bike in the world at the time. In 1968, Evel Knievel almost died when he crashed a Bonneville attempting to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace.
In 2017, a year before the Super Cub turned 60, Honda sold its 100 millionth unit of the four-stroke, air-cooled bike of the people. No other vehicle in the history of two-wheeled motorized transportation has ever broken the nine-figure mark. The vaunted Super Cub, which created a shift in how people perceived motorcycles and the people who ride them, is the bestselling bike of all time.
Known as the “Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” the Brough Superior brand earned its reputation as the benchmark for luxury after World War I when the brand emerged in 1919. First launched in 1924, the SS100 cemented that reputation with its handling, durability, and power — it topped out over 100 mph. With each bike custom-built to buyer specifications, only about 400 were ever made, although in 2017, a modern reboot/homage hit the market — the first SS100 to roll of the lines since 1940.
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In 1984, the Kawasaki company vaulted the motorcycle world into a brave new era with the production of the Ninja, and the GPz900 star
ted it all. It was the first of the modern sportbikes. Since Kawasaki developed the Ninja in total secrecy, no one had ever imagined a 16-valve liquid-cooled inline four-cylinder engine before, but the secret soon caught on. The Ninja 900 was the first production motorcycle that could top 150 mph.
Harley developed the XR-750 in 1970 in response to rule changes in the American Motorcyclist Association dirt track racing circuit. The new rules allowed for bigger, 750cc engines and removed restrictions on valve locations. That opened AMA to foreign competitors that for the first time posed a threat to Harley-Davidson, which had dominated AMA racing for years. Harley responded with the XR-750, which would go onto become the winningest bike in AMA history.
The British Royal Enfield company developed its first motorcycle in 1901, but crowds at the 1932 Olympia Motorcycle Show in London first witnessed the bike that would go on to define the brand. The Bullet, variations of which are still in production in India today, came in three engine sizes, 250, 350, and 500cc.
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The Norton Manx is named for the famous Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, which a Norton bike competed in from the inaugural run in 1907 through the 1970s without missing a single race, a feat no other manufacturer matched. The Norton Manx was produced from 1947 to 1962, although the Manx Grand Prix had come before, and the British racing bike soon became the bar for performance. Its twin-loop featherbed chassis would be the subject of countless imitators for years to come.
Yamaha unveiled the 1981 Virago to what the company expected would be great fanfare at a bike show in 1980. Company brass was shocked, however, to find that the bike was a flop among critics. It was an awesome new bike with innovations such as a mono-shock rear suspension, but critics were underwhelmed, it never quite caught on, particularly when it came out that the starter was inherently flawed. Three years later in 1984, however, Yamaha tried again with the second generation Virago. The bike’s aesthetics and performance struck a chord, and Yamaha had one of the most enduring bikes in its brand’s history.
2019 marked the 50th anniv
ersary of the bike that made the in-line four-cylinder the preferred sport bike engine layout for a generation. Known worldwide as the original Universal Japanese Motorcycle, the Honda CB750 was the first motorcycle ever to be called a “superbike.” Its impact was profound. The first Japanese bike with an engine bigger than 650cc, the CB750 gave Japan its first high-performance model that could compete with American and British big-bike brands.
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The ’77 FXS was the first Harley Low Rider, but perhaps more importantly, the moment signaled the beginning of the Harley-Davidson factory custom era. The wildly popular Low Rider, which gets its name from the fact that a mere 26 inches separate the seat from the road below, helped the company pull itself out of a decade defined by poor quality control and gave Harley bikes a new look and a new line that remained popular into the 21st century.
There was nothing that made the CBR900RR stand out from the sport bike pack when Honda debuted the new motorcycle in 1992 — nothing, that is except its weight. With a full tank of fuel, it weighed just 457 pounds — that was 75 pounds less than its next-in-class lightest competitor with most of the others forfeiting well over 100 pounds to the game-changing Honda. Thanks to the fact that it shed all non-essential parts, the CBR900RR would be considered a light bike even today.
The tiny Japanese step-through known as the CT90 enjoyed a fantastic run from 1966-79. An evolution of the vaunted Super Cub, the CT90 rode to fame among off-road enthusiasts. That’s because its eight-speed transmission allowed it to go just about anywhere two wheels could ride, road or no road. The most practical dirtbike of its generation, the media affectionately dubbed the CT90 the “Pack Mule.”
The RD400 had been in production since 1976 when Yamaha unveiled the variation known as the Daytona Special in 1979. By that time, the two-stroke engine was clearly on its way out, and the RD400 had cemented its status as a four-stroke humiliating giant killer. The Daytona Special, however, built on that tradition and come to be known as the last of the great two-strokes and the bike that brought professional racetrack handling to the masses with a bargain-basement price tag.
2019 marked a quarter-century since the Ducati 916 redefined what a racing bike is supposed to look like. The 916, however, was more than just a stunning platform — it gets its name from the massive 916-cc V-twin engine that made it a champion on the track as well as an icon to riders. Team Ducati rode the 916 to more than 120 wins, including several World Superbike victories.
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The Kawasaki KZ1000 was born out of necessity during the arms race that accompanied the superbike fever of the mid-1970s. The four-cylinder five-speed cranked out 90 horsepower, making it the fastest bike in an era defined by fast bikes. It was so fast and so dependable, in fact, that police departments used it as their motorcycle of choice into the first decade of the 21st century.
Although Confederate recently rebranded to become Curtiss, the company’s motorcycles changed the way that bikes were built and how they looked from the time the company emerged in the early 1990s. Like all Confederates, the R131 Fighter was a love-it-or-hate-it motorcycle. Incredibly light but equally strong, the R131 was built from aircraft-grade aluminum and weighed less than 460 pounds. Powered by a huge 2,146cc engine, the R131 Fighter couldn’t possibly be mistaken for any other bike on the road.
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