An unforgettable year in motorcycling

Defining moments in history are both rare and important, but for those pressing on in post-war times the rebuilding in Asia and Europe coincided with a vast restructuring of the international market. Experiencing record growth after WWII ended, by 1980 Japan had risen to become the world’s second largest economy, fueled mainly by the production of motor vehicles and electronics. New to the export game during the 1950s, Japan’s motorcycles advanced with streamlined technology and rapidly improving quality. Driven by a dedicated population and work ethic, the Japanese practice of price slashing and distribution embarrassed some, outraged others and starved off several notable motorcycling firms. The stage, as they say, was set

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 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. The recap shows Honda’s 750 began this, phenom Z1’s followed then both braced as Suzuki and Yamaha rushed fully committed to the big four-stroke game. Soaring as the auto market napped, 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 world wide fraternity of riders, racers and special frame builders, and they weren’t keen on giving that up. Truly an iconic design that’s still formidable. In this work we’ll take the bikes of 1978 in the same order as Cycle and its print media colleagues presented them; then the Euro alternative we think fits best. 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 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 – this being a shaft-driven DOHC triple and very similar styling. Laid out conventionally as an across-the-frame four, Yamaha’s 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 the angular styling craze, Yamaha prominently mixed broad radius with the Eleven’s boxy lights and instrument panel. Still memorable, capable, and handsome as 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 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 1100 four would soon be offered in full touring garb and both of Yamaha’s new four strokes fit shaft drive, clearly a point of emphasis. A noble effort, but history shows Yamaha would find itself again when it stopped trying to out-do Honda and simply focus on improving 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 riders who appreciate a little edge. Other than shaft drive the Guzzi and Yamaha are mechanical opposites, and what the tuned twin loses to the Yammie in peak power it makes up for in chassis integrity, 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. Like in most markets, US riders favored the Jota, so by 1978’s end the 3CL gave way to the upsized Jota 1200. Records from Richard Slater in the UK show 200 Jaramas were slated for the US coast, but 110 were returned and picked up by Slaters for waiting British riders.

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 or dash?

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