An unforgettable year in motorcycling
Defining moments in history are both rare and important. For those pressing on after WW2, the rebuilding in Asia and Europe coincided with a vast restructuring of the international market. Experiencing record growth after the conflict ended, Japan had risen to become the world’s second largest economy in 1980 – fueled mainly by the production of motor vehicles and electronics. New to the 1950’s export game, Japan’s motorcycles advanced with swift tech and rapidly improved quality control. Driven by a dedicated, unified work ethic, the Japanese practice of copy/slash and its vast distribution embarrassed some, outraged others and starved off several notable motorcycling companies. The stage, as it’s often said, was set
Living through it as an impressionable young rider and reliving it since, the 70s superbike era has become my editorial focus. One amazing discovery is how the fierce competition between makers crossed some boundaries, but not others. Example: Guzzi owner Alejandro De Tomaso made public his disdain for Japanese practice, yet Kawasaki’s Roman red 1981 GPz 1100 lovingly mimicked his iconic Le Mans. Long confirmed, Japan’s Big Four was indeed a circular battleground, while the European’s vied for the affections of its affluent core. Yet as the 70s rolled Japan’s new fours cut deeper into westward soil, and for a host of reasons other than price. Those Euro firms still breathing responded by investing and calculated moves. Recapping shows Honda’s 750 at the start, phenom Z1’s following, then both firms bracing for impact as Suzuki and Yamaha raced fully committed to the open-class, four-stroke game. Soaring as the auto market napped, interest in motorcycles rose to an all time high.
Living through it as an impressionable young rider and reliving it many times since, the 70s superbike era has become my editorial focus. One amazing discovery is how the fierce competition between makers crossed some boundaries, but not others. Example: Guzzi owner Alejandro De Tomaso made public his disdain for Japanese practice, yet Kawasaki’s Roman red 1981 GPz 1100 lovingly mimicked his iconic Le Mans. Long confirmed, Japan’s Big Four was indeed a circular battleground, while the European’s vied for the affections of its faithful core. Yet as the 70s rolled Japan’s new fours cut deeper into westward soil, and for a host of reasons other than price. Those Euro firms still breathing responded by investing and making calculated decisions. The recap shows Honda’s 750 begin, phenom Z1’s follow, then both firms bracing as Suzuki and Yamaha rushed into the four-stroke open class game. Soaring as the auto market snoozed, interest in motorcycles rose to an all time high.
Using the press as our guide through the past we’ll set the stage with Kawasaki’s Z1-R, released and widely tested late in 1977. Given its performance reputation, it isn’t ironic that Kawasaki would start and end 1978 with a similar emphasis. Crowned ‘The King’ by Cycle magazine early in the decade, Kawasaki’s 903 and 1015cc DOHC fours became the basis of a worldwide fraternity of riders, racers and builders – a position they would not relinquish. Truly an iconic line that’s still formidable…if not unaffordable. In this work we present the bikes of 1978 in the same order as Cycle (and its print media colleagues) tested them, followed by a Euro alternative. Many of the images used here come from period adverts or press samples saved through the years. Some salvaged from scraps but worth the effort for getting an accurate look at a range of motorcycles often modified. What was the best of motorcycling’s best ever year? Read on…
Yamaha XS-Eleven – 1102cc, 5-speed, shaft. 11.82 @ 115-mph, 602-lb, 136-mph
Brawny and brutish, Yamaha’s big Eleven burst into the new year with a blaze of horsepower and fury. Brilliantly cloaked in adverts published just prior to release, Yamaha hoped its position as Japan’s leading two-stroke specialist would carry over to the arena of open class superbikes. By all measures the XS-Eleven succeeded, selling well and gaining scores of faithful owners as a tough, versatile pavement scorcher
Like Suzuki, Yamaha introduced a new four-stroke 750 two years before – the Yammie being a shaft-driven DOHC triple with very similar styling. Laid out conventionally as an across-the-frame four, the all new Eleven featured a full cradle in steel tube with 29.5-degrees of rake and tapered roller bearings on its twin shock swingarm. Four 34mm Mikuni CV carburetors and a transistor ignition fed the engine, renown for its smooth and prodigious torque. Leading with angular styling, Yamaha prominently mixed broad radius with the Eleven’s boxy lights and instrument panel. Still memorable, capable, and more handsome than ever.
What they said then: “It now becomes clear that in Yamaha’s fight for a larger share of the highway market, the XS750 triple was only a left hook. Now, they’ve delivered a genuine knockout; their new XS11 four, and in the model we have the new King of Superbikes. The long-reigning Z1, though certainly not grown soft with age, has been decisively dethroned. Equally important, with the Yamaha Eleven’s arrival we have an expanded standard by which such machines henceforth must be judged.” (Cycle Magazine, January 1978)
(Honorable mention: XS750 three-cylinder, shaft drive. SR500; big single, big hit. Big in the USA: XS-Eleven Midnight Special)
Stranger in Town: Moto Guzzi 850 Le Mans
Some speculate Yamaha’s XS-11 took aim at the BMW twin – wishing to lure riders with miles to cover on a no (chain) fuss machine. Valid, but clearly the target was Honda’s top-selling GoldWing 1000; a bike that equaled the Eleven’s smooth comfort, but not its powerband. The big “11” would soon be offered in full touring kit and both of Yamaha’s new four strokes fit shaft drive. Clearly a point of emphasis. A noble effort, but history shows Yamaha truly found itself again when it stopped trying to out-do Honda and simply focus on improved function.
Like the Eleven, Guzzi’s 850cc Le Mans was arguably the best traveler among its Euro contemporaries. Certainly not plush, but satisfying to those tourers who appreciate a performance edge. Other than shaft drive the Guzzi and Yamaha are mechanical opposites, and what the tuned twin loses to the Eleven in peak power it makes up for in road holding, simplicity and endurance. In V1000 tune the Le Mans became a superior machine with equal power. Going fast and traveling fast are different things, but both the Eleven and 850 will effortlessly blitz past the ton.
Honda CBX – 1047cc, five-speed, chain. 11.55 @ 117-mph. 590-lb, 136-mph
If there’s one motorcycle that defines 1978 more than any other, it’s the CBX. For years Honda’s sporting faithful had been shunned while the Japanese giant cranked out fast Elsinore dirt racers, flat-four shafties, a multitude of multis and scores of other market toppers. One decade after releasing its iconic 750 Four, Honda again flexed its considerable engineering muscle to reclaim the superbike championship. Only 37-years old when the CBX was released, Honda engineer Shoichiro Irimajiri was given a directive in 1975: “Get Honda back in the conversation.” With GP tuned sixes and other exotics on his resume, Irimajiri also had available research from Honda’s highly successful RCB endurance racers to lean on, and he did. Hung from a tube spine, the DOHC, 24v engine was wide and (250-lb) heavy, fed by six 28mm Keihin CV carbs angled-in from each side. A true exotic prone to hydrolock and quick wear suspensions, the CBX was smooth and snarly, thanks to Irimajiri’s brilliant work in lightening the crankshaft’s rotating mass and other careful balancing. Developed along with a (even faster) 1000cc four-cylinder (that later saw production as the CB1100) Honda’s decision to build the CBX 1000 forever cemented its place in motorcycle history.
What they said then: “We now believe that in the 1047cc, 24-valve, four-overhead camshaft CBX six, Honda has the haymaker it wanted. There are flaws here and there, signs of haste, and certain ambiguities. But the objective -to build the fastest production motorcycle available anywhere in the world- has been met. The CBX is more than fast; it’s magic. The exploding glitter of its technical credentials lights up the sky. To know the motorcycle is to know the only rules Honda follows are its own.” (Cycle Magazine, February 1978)
(Honorable mention: CB750F2 – soon to be replaced by 16v DOHC. For the UK – CB750F Phil Read Special)
Don’t Look Back: Laverda Jarama
Very much an extension of 1973’s 981cc drum-brake triple, the 3CL took off from the second-series 1000/1 by adding cast wheels and a third Brembo disc at the rear. This model replaced the 3C in Laverda’s 1976 catalog, while the US received the 3CL ‘Jarama’ – named after a popular Spanish road racing course. Detuned for emissions, the Jarama arrived for 1978 with bold lettering, crossover linkage for left-shift, a new airbox and one tooth lower on the drive sprocket. As in most markets, US riders favored the Jota, so by year’s end the 3CL gave way to the up-sized Jota 1200. Records from Richard Slater in the UK show 200 Jaramas were slated for the USA, but 110 were returned and picked up by Slaters’ for waiting British customers.
It’s hard to imagine what the average CBX owner might think during his first trip on Italy’s celebrated three. Some shock, perhaps, if for nothing else than the triple’s herculean clutch pull. With softened cams and plugged exhaust the Jarama falls far behind Honda’s rev-happy CBX, but fit with the proper factory camshafts and silencers that narrative changes. In Jota tune, the fiery 180-throw inline will hang uncomfortably close to the big six despite its taller gearing, and flatten the CBX even more thoroughly than the Eleven in roll-on contests. Praised for its handling, ground clearance and outright speed, the Honda’s short lived chassis integrity pales in comparison to the water pipe Italian frame. Flash v Dash.