1969 Honda CB750: The world's first superbike
More than half a century ago, British bikers got their first look of the machine that would change motorcycling forever. On April 5, 1969 at the Metropole Hotel, venue for the Brighton Motorcycle show, two pre-production examples of the all-new Honda CB750 were displayed for the very first time.
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As the first mass-production motorcycle with not just four cylinders but also a disc brake and electric starter, the CB750 set the new standard for sophistication. It was, in fact, the first ‘superbike’. A new word had entered our lexicon.
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And as the first big-bore, multi-cylinder machine from the Far East, the CB not only ushered in a new era of Japanese dominance, with similar ‘UJMs’ (‘Universal Japanese Motorcycle’, the term soon applied to the flood of transverse fours which followed such as the Kawasaki Z1 and Suzuki GS) coming to define the ’70s and early ’80s.
It was also the final nail in the coffin of the ailing British bike industry. Within a decade, BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield and effectively even Triumph were no more. No mean feat for a bike that went from idea to metal in around six months.
The creation of the CB is well reported yet is still the source of some debate. Although by 1966 Honda was already the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, the biggest capacity bike it made was only 450cc – the famed CB450 Black Bomber twin launched in 1965.
That machine had been designed to appeal to the huge US market yet, despite performance that matched or bettered many larger bikes, Americans preferred big cubed Harley-Davidsons and, particularly, Brits such as the Triumph Bonneville.
In early 1967, after five consecutive GP world titles with its multi-cylinder 350s, sweeping the 250 crown with its RC166 250-6 and winning all five constructors awards, Honda announced it would withdraw from GP racing after the FIM announced new regulations restricting 500cc machines to four cylinders and 250 and 350s to twins. Honda would focus instead on using that technology to produce road bikes.
The main target was the US where, in 1966, Honda sales had begun to drop and where customers, according to its US distributors, were crying out for new, big-bore machines.
The leader of the project was Yoshiro Harada. He visited the US in the summer of 1967 to investigate the CB450’s impact and even went so far as to detail the bike’s superior performance to the staff at American Honda, telling them it was even better than the Nortons and Triumphs.
In response, they didn’t see the point of a 450 and simply wanted a bigger machine. But how big? Honda claim the idea came from Soichiro Honda in June 1968 when visiting Switzerland.
"A policeman on a white police motorcycle came into the park where we were," he’s reported as saying. "He then got off his bike. I was watching it, thinking what a small motorcycle he was riding.
I was amazed to find it was a Triumph 750cc. So, actually the motorcycle was fairly big, but it looked small since the policeman was so big. I knew then that our bikes wouldn’t sell in foreign markets if we kept building them according to our Japanese perceptions."
Meanwhile, at American Honda, service manager Bob Hansen, who that year flew to Japan and met with Mr Honda, is credited with coming up with the multi-cylinder 750 concept. Over lunch, Honda-san told Hansen they were working on a top secret ‘king of motorcycles’.
Hansen, who knew Honda had a 600 twin car engine and that Triumph were developing a 750 triple, is reported to have responded that the new bike "better not be a twin", suggesting "it should be a four".
Either way, by October 1967, the basics of Honda’s new big bike being a 750 with an output of at least 67bhp (or 1bhp more than Harley’s then 1300) was agreed and in February 1968 a team was assembled.
With the main aim being superior performance and reliability to rivals from Triumph, BMW and Harley, a four-cylinder, four-exhaust layout was quickly settled on so that the bike would immediately associated with Honda’s multi-cylinder Grand Prix machines.
Amazingly, within just six months Harada’s team had produced a prototype four-cylinder motor which, when tested in a CB450 chassis immediately proved smooth and fast, so much so that it brought a headache of its own.
With the planned unveiling at the 1968 Tokyo Show in October fast approaching one of Harada’s big decisions was how to slow the new 750/4 down. Although the test mule used the then usual drum front brake, Harada felt one of the new disc brakes, which had started to become popular in racing, was a better choice.
Unable to make up his mind he approached Soichiro Honda. "We’ve designed two braking systems," he told Mr Honda. "One uses conventional drum brakes and the other disc brakes. Of the two, the disc-brake specification has only recently been developed, so will need more tests. If disc brakes are adopted, we aren’t sure we can meet next spring’s target."
Honda-san’s reply was simple and direct: "Well, of course we’ll have to go with disc brakes."
Duly, on October 28 1968 at the Tokyo Show, the centrepiece of the Honda stand was the stunning new CB750 rotating silently on a floodlit plinth with an engine mounted on a stand alongside.
More, however, was to come. With the American market key, just as important was Honda’s first US dealer meeting held in Las Vegas the following January where the new CB750 was top of the agenda. Four prototypes, in red, blue, green and gold, were displayed.
According to reports, American Honda President, Kihachiro Kawashima, initially announced a price of just $1295, causing a furore as that was over a thousand dollars less than any rival and creating a clamour for orders – so much so, in fact, that Kawashima promptly raised the price to $1495.
"Since large bikes were selling for between $2800 and $4000, all 2000 dealers burst into thunderous applause when they heard its price," remembered Harada.
Overwhelmed, Honda quickly upscaled production. An initial estimate of 1500 machines a year had led to early engines being produced by what’s referred to as a ‘sand-cast’ technique to avoid outlay on die-cast tooling for a model they didn’t know would be profitable. The first production machine would roll off the assembly line on March 15 1969.
However, the flood of orders led that 1500-per-year figure to quickly be revised to 1500 and then 3000 a month. As a consequence, those ‘sand-cast’ examples, identifiable mostly by a rougher finish on the cases and a clutch cover held on by 10 rather than 11 screws, are now among the most prized CB750s of all.
That Tokyo unveiling also affected motorcycling in less obvious ways. Kawasaki, for example, halted its own secret superbike project, also for a 750 four, went back to the drawing board only to return a few years later with the 903cc DOHC Z1.
While in the UK, the success of the CB killed off any last hopes that the Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket 3 might revive the British industry. The Honda’s public unveiling in Brighton, using the gold and green prototypes shown in Vegas, literally changed the direction of British biking forever.
That gold prototype has proved very significant, too. While the green bike went on to shows in Europe, the gold one was used for the first road tests, sold to the Earl of Denbigh and later became known as ‘the Brighton bike’. It was sold at auction at the National Motorcycle Museum last year for £161,000, making it the most valuable Japanese production bike ever.