Superstar bikes that changed the world

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If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, these are the motorcycles – not just the models, but the exact, individual, fly-spattered machines – that inspired hundreds of thousands of sales. No bikes have been more influential.

They may not be THE biggest-selling bikes of all time – machines like Honda’s hugely popular but hum-drum Cub can claim that accolade. Instead we’re concerned with individual but hugely influential machines which in turn fuelled massive sales either of production replicas or rival imitations.

Check out our gallery of more celeb bikes here.


Some, like Foggy’s Ducati 916, did that through sport. Others through celebrity association and TV or film exposure, but all of them have made a huge impact on motorcycling and continue to make an impact today. Our two-wheeled world would have been very different, and far less exciting, without them...

Charley Boorman's 'Long Way Round' BMW R1150GS Adventure

If any one bike can be said to have changed the course of modern motor- cycling this slightly tatty, 13-year-old Beemer, surely, is it (although the one on the right helped, too). If it looks familiar we’re not at all surprised. As the actual R1150GS Adventure ridden by Charley Boorman in The Long Way Round, it’s one of the most viewed motorcycles on the planet – and most inspirational. Today, its successors, the latest R1200GS and GSA, are entrenched as Britain’s best-selling big bikes. But in 2001, when the R1150GS Adventure was first unveiled, things were very different.

Back then sportsbikes – and particularly 600s – ruled the roost. Honda’s latest CBR600F topped UK sales charts closely followed by the Kawasaki ZX-6R, Suzuki GSX-R6000 and Honda Fireblade. No GS, nor any big trailie, even made the top 20. This GSA 1150 changed all that. Three examples were famously donated in 2004 by BMW UK to acting buddies Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman (plus cameraman Claudio von Planta) for their televised London to New York via mainland Asia (hence the name) circumnavigation of the globe. That show’s success is commonly cited today as a major factor in the subsequent explosion of GS sales, to the extent of spawning a whole new class.

Within a year, adventure bike sales, led by BMW’s new R1200GS, were the fastest growing sector of all. While that popularity was then fuelled further by the duo’s follow-up The Long Way Down, from John O’Groats to Cape Town, in 2007 aboard the new R1200GSA (pictured right). Since 2010, the GS and GSA have together been the best-selling bikes over 125cc in Britain and BMW’s best-selling models globally with, in total, over 600,000 sold. Not a million but close and something that simply wouldn’t have happened without this bike.

What is it?

The BMW R1150GSA used by Charley Boorman in The Long Way Round TV. The other is the R1200GSA used in the follow up The Long Way Down.

Where are they now?

In BMW storage in Northamptonshire – and occasionally displayed at shows.

What about Ewan’s?

His 1150 is in Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of transport. His 1200 was auctioned off in 2016 raising £22,100 for Unicef.

Why is it significant?

BMW’s first Adventure bike – and so popular, partly thanks to LWR, that it fuelled the growth of the whole Adventure bike class.

Why ‘Adventure’?

BMW’s previous more off-road, travel-orientated, bigger-tanked GSs were called Paris-Dakar reflecting their rally inspiration. The GSA, however, was conceived partly in response to the growing fashion for global adventure travel, hence the name change.

How many were sold?

13,114 1150 GSAs (compared to 58,023 1150GSs). This almost doubled with the 2004-2007 1200. More than 600,000 GSs have now been built.

What they said

“The bikes have been standing up to the punishment well,” Boorman said at the time.

Did you know...?

Boorman’s actual first choice of machine was a KTM, ironically the 640 LC4 Adventure. However the Austrian firm feared the duo’s quest might fail so pulled out.

Foggy's Ducati 916

No bike represents a world-dominating period, a golden era of British bikesport and even a manufacturer more than Lancastrian Carl Fogarty’s Ducati 916. The original 916, and its later 996 and 998 variants, won an unmatched six World Superbike titles (with Foggy himself an unequalled four) beginning in the 916’s debut year of 1994 – and that was just the start.

Massimo Tamburini’s legendary design, with distinctive cats’ eye head- lights, underseat exhausts and a single- sided swingarm, made the 916 the poster bike of a generation and even earned it a place at the Guggenheim Museum. And though so exotic and exclusive it was never going to be a million-seller in its own right, the 916, was so significant and influential – it was unquestionably the most desirable sportsbike of the 1990s, fuelling our love of Japanese as well as Italian superbikes – it might as well have done.

As an object of desire – even now as a modern classic – the 916 remains unmatched. As an inspirational force it directly influenced not just other exotica such as Tamburini’s later MV F4, but also racers such as Honda’s SP-1 and 2 and even mainstream V-twins such as the TL1000 and Firestorm. And as a brand flag-waver the 916 steered Ducati from borderline insolvency to Italian powerhouse.

Foggy’s bike – and this is the one the great man liked best – made a legend of the 916. That in turn fuelled sales of thousands of Monsters – Ducati’s real saviour – and inspired dozens of imitators. Motorcycling, as a result, simply wouldn’t have been the same without Foggy’s 916.

What is it?

Carl Fogarty’s 1998 WSB- winning Ducati 996.

Why is it significant?

The Foggy/916 pairing, with four titles, is the most successful ever in all production-based racing.

Why this one?

It’s Foggy’s own joint-favourite – and the one he owns!

What did it win?

This one, just three rounds. But in total, the 916 (and its 996 and 998 successors) won four WSB titles with Foggy, two more with Troys Corser and Bayliss and well over 100 WSB races.

Where is it now?

In a special alcove at Foggy’s home near Blackburn, Lancs.

What they said

“Along with the 1995 bike, this one is my favourite,” Foggy told MCN.

David Beckham's Triumph T100 Bonneville

There are few more iconic biking names than the Bonneville and there are few bigger global celebrities than ex-England football captain, David Beckham. Put them together on TV and you’ve a recipe for motorcycling superstardom. Which is exactly what happened in 2014 – well, almost.

That year, footballer and re-known part-time biker, Beckham,decided to mark his retirement from football with a biking adventure. With three friends, Anthony Mandler (a photographer and video director), Derek White and best mate Dave Gardner, Beckham set off to Brazil ahead of that year’s World Cup to explore the wilds of the rainforest for a 90-minute BBC documentary David Beckham: Into the Unknown.

The bikes chosen were customised Bonneville T100s, with work done both in the UK and Brazil and the resulting film aired on BBC1 on June 9, 2015, showing the group fly into the rainforest city of Manaus before racking up the miles in the wilderness.

Yet although a significant event, impressively mainstream and un- deniably a publicity coup for the Bonneville fuelling further sales, it also failed to have anything like as big an effect as Long Way Round had a decade earlier. Or did it? Customised Bonnevilles, scramblers, brat bikes and their like are now more popular than ever and there’s a huge, Bike Shed-style scene. More than a little of that is due, surely, to Becks and his Bonnie...

What is it?

David Beckham’s actual customised Triumph T100 Bonneville.

Why is it significant?

Beckham gave the Bonneville – and motorcycling – one of the biggest publicity boosts in years.

How has it been customised?

It’s been stripped back, fitted with knobblies, given wide bars and a high pipe plus custom paint and seat.

Where is it now?

After being on display at the National Motorcycle Museum in Coventry it’s now back with Triumph, in Hinckley. What he said: “I’m a big bike rider and so are two of my three friends that came with me on this trip,” Beckham said afterwards. “It was the kind of journey that had no schedule. It was important to also find somewhere where I was unknown, and we found that.”

These also sold a few...

Arnie's T2 Fat Boy

In one of the most famous of all biking movie moments, Arnold Schwartzenegger’s character flees aboard the then recently- introduced Harley in 1991’s smash Terminator 2. The Fat Boy remained one of H-D’s best sellers for the next 20 years. It’s now in Harley’s museum in Milwaukee.

Roman Holiday's Vespa

One of the most popular powered two-wheelers ever, the first Vespa scooter, the 98, was launched in 1946. By 1951 this had evolved into the Vespa 125 most famous for being ridden by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

Top Gun's Kawasaki GPz900R

How much of the GPz9’s success was down to Tom Cruise in Top Gun in 1985 is debatable, especially as all the Kawasaki badging was removed in response to having to pay for the three bikes after Kawasaki USA refused to donate them.

Mission Impossible II and Triumph's Speed Triple

Another Tom Cruise flick with a bike element (by 2000 Cruise was a devoted biker). Before M:I:2, the Speedie was little more than a venerable curiosity in the Triumph range. This bike is now in the new Triumph Factory Visitor Experience.

Read more on Ethan Hunt's Speed Triple and buy your next two-wheeled companion at MCN Bikes for Sale now

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Phil West

By Phil West

MCN Contributor and bike tester.