Kawasaki H1

Kawasaki H1 1960s Japanese classic motorcycle

Kawasaki built its first bike – a 125cc two-stroke – in 1960. From the outset, Kawasaki was synonymous with high-performance sports bikes. Bikes like the H1, for instance. Technically, it was released at the tail-end of the Sixties. But, it is one of those machines which make lovers of Seventies superbikes come over all misty-eyed. That was the decade in which the H1 was most often seen – being ridden hell for leather – along the highways and byways of Britain. And, indeed, other locales – usually in the same high-spirited fashion. It was what two-strokes were made for, basically. And, if the H1\’s handling was a bit imprecise – at least as compared with bikes of today – hey, it only added to the fun!

The H1\’s 500cc three-cylinder engine output 60bhp. The \’stroker\’ motor screamed all the way to a top speed of 120mph. It did so in a way that induced mile-wide eyes – and smiles – in those brought up on a strict \’Brit bike\’ diet. Heck, the sound alone was worth the asking price! The H1\’s slimmed-down weight of 383lb only added to its searing acceleration. Revs peaked at 7,500rpm – with a noticeable surge as they hit the power band.

Kawasaki\’s first forays into motorcycle manufacture had been influenced by BSA. By the time of the H1, though, the Japanese giant had forged its own style. Middleweight though it was, the H1 passed muster among the big Seventies \’muscle bikes\’. Naked aggression more than made up for its diminutive dimensions. The Kawasaki H1 hurled bodies and souls into two-stroke hyperdrive. Some \’70s bikers never fully recovered!

Honda CB77

Honda CB77 1960s Japanese classic motorcycle

The CB77 was a landmark bike for Honda. The firm started up in Hamamatsu, Japan. In a wooden shed! Just as Harley-Davidson had done, in Milwaukee, USA … except theirs was made out of tin! Okay – so sheds is where similarities end between the two marques! Of course – like Harley-Davidson – what Soichiro Honda\’s company went on to achieve is the stuff of motorcycling legend. Not surprising, really. That small shed was home to the Honda Technical Research Institute. In its early days, that is!

Three years in and Honda produced its first bike. The 98cc machine was dubbed the Dream. Sales were sound. That set the scene for the two bikes which put Honda on motorcycling\’s map – the CB72 and CB77. The larger of the two – the 305cc CB77 – was launched in \’63. It was up against the \’Brit bikes\’ of the early Sixties. They ruled the two-wheeled roost, at the time. Not for much longer! Next to the likes of Triumph and Norton, the \’Jap bike\’ came supremely well-equipped. In engineering terms, it blew them away, basically. While it did not quite clock up the mythical \’ton\’ – the 100mph so beloved of British riders – its acceleration was scorching. By comparison with Brit bikes, anyway. And – with a top speed of 95mph – it came close. The CB77\’s parallel twin motor revved out to 9,000rpm. The bike weighed in at just 350lb dry. Do the math, as they say!

Several factors gave the CB77 the edge over similarly-sized British bikes. Top of the list was engine design. A 180° crankshaft allowed the two pistons to move up and down alternately – balancing each other out. That took the smoothness of the ride to another level – at least, relative to the Brit bikes. The engine was held securely in situ by a tubular steel frame. Telescopic front forks – and twin rear shocks – raised the suspension game, too. Two sets of solid, sure-stopping drum brakes were fitted. The net result was that the CB77 accelerated smoothly, handled well and pulled up in short order. On top of all that, it was oil-tight and reliable. Not something that could be said of every British-made bike! In the States, it was sold as the Super Hawk. The CB77, then, was Honda\’s first attempt at a full-on sports bike. Suffice to say – there were others in the pipeline!

Royal Enfield Interceptor 750

Royal Enfield Interceptor 750 1960s British classic motorcycle

Royal Enfield may not be quite so celebrated as some of its \’Brit bike\’ brethren. Its logo, though, adorned a long line of sturdy, but stylish motorcycles. A perfect example was the Interceptor 750.

Power output for the Interceptor was 53bhp. Revs rose smoothly to 6,000rpm. Those stats no doubt impressed American – as well as British – buyers. Which was good, because the bike – and its 750cc capacity – were largely targeted at the US market. Indeed, the excellence of the Interceptor\’s engine made up for \’deficiencies\’ in other departments. The front brake, for example, was not the most reassuring ever made. And the forks could have been firmer.

Eventually, Royal Enfield suffered a financial meltdown. Sadly, it was one from which it never recovered. The Interceptor range had been in production throughout the Sixties. It might not have been at the cutting edge of Harold Wilson\’s \’white heat of technology\’, but the 750 certainly showcased some of the best of British innovation. After the collapse, the rights to Royal Enfield were licensed to India. In time, the marque became part of the \’retro revival\’ marketing boom. For sure, the Interceptor 750 helped inspire it. Royal Enfield now has the kudos of being the oldest motorcycle manufacturer still shipping product. Long may that continue!

NSU Supermax

NSU Supermax 1950s German classic motorcycle

NSU began by knocking out knitting machines. Then it branched into bicycles. It built its first motorcycle in 1901. The German firm went on to release a steady stream of successful motorbikes – including, of course, the Supermax. It carried on doing so until the early Sixties. On both road and track, NSU was at the forefront of bike design and development. Cars, too, were added to its catalogue. NSU, then, deserves its berth in motoring history every bit as much as its illustrious compatriot, BMW. Well, almost!

NSU hit pay dirt when – in \’29 – it recruited Walter Moore. Previously, he had worked for Norton. Moore helped shape NSU\’s first bike to be fitted with an overhead-camshaft engine. No doubt partly due to his past employment, the result was not entirely dissimilar to the Norton CS1. Wags at the British firm suggested NSU was short for Norton Spares Used! Ignoring such ribaldry, Moore pressed on regardless. He must have done something right. By the time of the Second World War, NSU was one of the world\’s biggest bike manufacturers.

A decade after the end of the war came NSU\’s finest hour. The 250cc Supermax was launched in \’55. Thankfully for NSU, it lived up to its billing. The Supermax did pretty much everything well. Acceleration and braking were equally impressive. Handling-wise, too, it excelled. The mix of its single-overhead-cam motor, pressed-steel frame and leading-link forks was bang on the money. The Supermax sailed to a top speed of 75mph. Said performance, though, came at a price. Sadly, one which most motorcyclists were not prepared to pay. As a result, the \’60s saw NSU switch to car production. But not before it had secured its place in the annals of bike racing. In \’53 – on NSUs – Werner Haas won both 125 and 250cc World Championships. He was the first German rider to achieve such a feat. In \’54, Haas took the 250 title again. Indeed, \’55 found NSU taking the 250 crown for the third time in as many years. So, BMW\’s bike division always had a rival. NSU, too, produced a panoply of sublime motorcycles. None more so than the Supermax!

Panther M100

Panther M100 1930s British classic motorcycle

A swift glance at the Panther M100 showed up its most striking asset. Compared with your average engine design, the M100\’s looked distinctly skewed. Enter the 598cc Sloper motor. It was tilted forward 45°. If that caused technically-minded riders to be concerned about oil circulation, no worries. The M100 was eminently reliable.

The Sloper\’s cylinder block was blessed with a long stroke. 100mm, to be precise. Hence an abundance of neck-twisting torque. In a good way! That was handy – since many M100s had side-cars attached. This was before automobiles were two a penny. The M100\’s top speed was 68mph. If you were the one wedged into the Watsonian, that was probably quite quick enough!

Panther was based in Cleckheaton, Yorkshire. No surprise, then, that its bikes were solid, rugged and dependable. Panther started out as Phelon and Moore (P&M). The first Sloper-equipped bike appeared in 1904. The single-cylinder push-rod powerplant came with two air-cooled overhead valves. Sporting its dramatically-inclined mill, a parked-up Panther was guaranteed to draw a crowd. It was only made bigger by the way in which the exhausts swooped down from the steeply-banked ports. And this from a bike born and bred in Yorkshire … not a county associated with razzmatazz. As alluded to, this was a time when motorcycles and side-cars were still standard family transport. It followed that a Panther\’s top priority was to get from A to B – and back again – with a minimum of fuss. The M100 accomplished that – and with style thrown in, for good measure. Connoisseurs of classic motorcycles rejoiced!

AJS Model 30

AJS Model 30 1950s British classic motorcycle

AJS – Albert John Stevens – set up shop in 1909, in Wolverhampton, England. Though the firm bore Albert\’s initials, it was in fact a Stevens family concern. In its own right, it lasted until \’31. After that, the AJS brand-name went through several changes of ownership. Pay attention, as this does get complicated. First off, AJS was subsumed into Matchless – based in Plumstead, London. Then, in \’38, the AJS marque merged into AMC – Associated Motor Cycles. In \’67, AMC were taken over by Norton Villiers – along with AJS. Two years later – in \’69 – the \’classic\’ period of the AJS timeline came to an end. So – in the sixty years since its founding – AJS lived through a sizeable chunk of modern British history! Because of its connections to several other big British brands, it can be seen as something of a hybrid. The Model 30 was released in \’56. As a result of all the marque-mixing, it was in many ways the exact same machine as the Matchless G11! Well, apart from the AJS livery and exhaust set-up. Matchless were keen to keep AJS devotees onside. So, the \’two\’ bikes were effectively twinned. In like manner – following the AMC takeover – some \’AJS\’ stock had Norton parts fitted. Classic bike nerds never had it so good!

At the circuits, though, things were much simpler. AJS won a lot of races! In 1914, its race team took the Junior TT title. Finer feats were to follow. In \’49, AJS made racing history by winning the first 500cc World Championship. Les Graham rode a Porcupine twin to the title. Was that painful? He had previously been an RAF pilot – in World War II. One cannot help but wonder which was the more exciting! Arguably the most iconic AJS competition bike, however, was the \’Boy Racer\’. A single-cylinder machine, the 350cc 7R hit the grid in \’48. The 7R\’s motor was subsequently enlarged to 500cc – to power the Matchless G50 racer. So, it was not just AJS roadsters which mixed and matched with sibling marques, so to speak.

The Model 30\’s 593cc engine powered it to a top speed of 95mph. The bike handled well, into the bargain. It was also comfortable, reliable and economical. In other words, the Model 30 was a paragon of motorcycling virtue. Entirely fitting, then, that a company of the calibre of AJS was the source of its two-wheeled excellence. Saying that, AJS did make cars as well. Though not, perhaps, to the same standard. In the opinion of Model 30 owners, at any rate!

Henderson KJ

Henderson KJ 1920s American classic motorcycle

As early as 1929, the Henderson KJ was hitting 100mph. It came courtesy of a 1,301cc in-line four engine – outputting 40bhp. What made the top speed stat yet more impressive was that the KJ weighed in at a portly 495lb. The KJ\’s plucky powerplant was an air-cooled eight-valve inlet-over-exhaust unit. Whatever its configuration – it clearly worked!

In its day, the KJ was a luxury motorcycle. It flaunted a long list of fancy features. For starters, electric lighting, a fully-enclosed chain and leading-link forks. State of the art stuff, in the Twenties. As was the illuminated speedo\’ on the gas tank. And the KJ\’s straight-line stability – thanks to its long wheelbase – would have given ample opportunity to consult said clock. Bill Henderson – the firm\’s founder – must have been proud.

Mercifully – by the time of the Great Depression – Henderson had moved on. Ace was his new venture. The company which bore his name fared badly in the crash. The KJ\’s finery did not come cheap. It had no chance of selling well amidst serious austerity. Henderson struggled on as best it could – but it was always a lost cause. In \’31, Schwinn – the new owners – threw in the towel. With the demise of the KJ, America lost a beautiful motorcycle. Its pinstriping, in particular, was close to perfect. And the rest of the design followed suit. In short, the Henderson KJ was class on two wheels … direct from the USA!

Harley-Davidson WL 45

Harley-Davidson WL 45 1940s American classic motorcycle

These days, the Harley-Davidson WL 45 is seriously old school. That is a good thing, of course! \’45\’ referenced its engine capacity – in cubic inches. The side-valve 45° V-twin slung the WL to a top speed of 75mph. A long way from Harley\’s high-tech Evo powerplant of today. Still, that was plenty enough speed, given the WL\’s suspension set-up – or lack of it. Well, at the rear, at any rate. The WL was a full-on factory hard-tail … no concealed shock absorber here! The WL\’s sprung saddle, though, kept it comfy. At the front, however, things were looking up – hopefully, not literally! \’49 saw the introduction of Harley\’s Girdraulic damping system. It was duly fitted to the WL\’s \’springer\’ front fork assembly. Friction damping was thereafter consigned to the Harley history book.

The WL\’s motor made 25bhp. That was an improvement on the W model – compression having been upped a tad. 4,000rpm was now available. The 3-speed gearbox was controlled by a hand shift and foot clutch. While the roadster\’s performance was not exactly earth-shattering, Harley\’s WR race bike did what it could to redress the balance. To be fair to the road bike\’s output, it did have its work cut out. 528lb wet was plenty of weight for the WL to heave. Saying that, it was not excessive for a bike of its size. Bear in mind that in the Forties, carbon fibre was just a glint in a scientist\’s eye!

Bikes like the WL45, then, were a bridge between Harley\’s vintage crop and its current range. 45ci equated to 750cc – or middleweight, in modern money. The 45-powered bikes were hugely important to Harley. Indeed, they helped the firm weather the Great Depression. Were it not for those bikes, Milwaukee\’s finest may well not have survived. Many a biker\’s life would have been lessened – such is the impact Harley-Davidson has had. So, much is owed to the WL 45 … and its pioneering predecessors!

Sunbeam S8

Sunbeam S8 1950s British classic motorcycle

Even in England\’s \’Black Country\’, the sun still shines. Aptly, then, Sunbeam\’s factory was located there – in Wolverhampton, West Midlands. From the outset – in 1912 – the company gained a name for classy, reliable motorcycles. They became known as \’gentlemen\’s machines\’. The Sunbeam S8 was one of them. It was made between \’49 and \’56. Innovation was thrown in, too, for good measure. The first Sunbeam, for example, featured a fully-enclosed chain – keeping both bike and rider clean. Assuming the owner had oiled his chain, that is!

It is fair to say that the S8\’s predecessor – the Sunbeam S7 – did not exactly smother itself in glory. It was comfortable, certainly – but that was about it. The S7 was overweight, lacked manoeuvrability – and its brakes were not the best. Those deficiencies were redressed – to some extent, at least – by the S7 De Luxe version. It fell to the S8, though, to get the good ship Sunbeam fully seaworthy again.

The S8 was a sports bike. That was only to be expected. After all, development engineer George Dance set speed records on Sunbeams. And, in the early Twenties, Sunbeam won the Senior TT – twice. As far back as 1913, a single-cylinder 3.5bhp Sunbeam raced to success. The twin-cylinder S8, then, was the latest in a string of performance-based Sunbeams. Plainly, S8 stylist Erling Poppe had been inspired by BMW\’s R75. Indeed, rights to the German-built bike had been passed to BSA – as part of war reparations. Then, in \’43, BSA acquired Sunbeam – from AMC. Under Poppe\’s design aegis, the S8 shed the portliness of the S7. Plus, it now sported a solid set of front forks. Even the exhaust note had been modified for the S8 – to something more sonorous. Top speed was a heady 85mph. Handling had come on leaps and bounds … not literally, of course. So, all things considered, the Sunbeam S8 shone a warm ray of light on its Black Country roots!

Rudge Ulster

Rudge Ulster 1930s British classic motorcycle

The Rudge Ulster was based on the Rudge Multi. The latter – launched in 1911 – came with 21 \’infinitely variable\’ gears. \’Multi\’, indeed! In theory, there was not a slope in the UK it could not get up. An intricate rear pulley system auto-adjusted the bike\’s final drive belt. The ratios were selected via a lengthy gear-lever, located to the left of the fuel-tank. From early on, Rudges sported spring-up stands. Back mudguards were hinged – facilitating wheel removal.

A production racer Multi won the 1914 Senior TT. And – for the Rudge race team – there was more success to come. It was in \’28, though, that the firm secured its place in history. A Rudge won that year\’s Ulster GP. A street-legal version duly appeared. It was named after the illustrious Irish road race. The Ulster inherited the engineering subtleties of its Rudge roadster predecessors. Unsurprisingly, it was a serious seller. Graham Walker was Rudge\’s sales manager. Fittingly, it had fallen to him to pilot the Ulster to victory.

The Ulster only added to the roll-call of Rudge\’s technical innovations. A 500cc single, its engine was fitted with four valves. They helped output 30bhp. That pushed a dry weight of just 290lb. The Ulster featured Rudge\’s linked braking system. The foot-pedal retarded both drum brakes – while the hand lever applied added front-end bite. Ahead of the game, to say the least. On the racing front, Rudge carried on winning well into the Thirties. In \’39, however, financial problems came to a head. Rudge folded shortly thereafter. The Ulster, though, had carried the flag for one of the most forward-looking firms in motorcycling history!