The Return Of The Superbike
What’s the next big thing in serious, super-fast road cred? These handsome beasts are ready for their moment
After decades in the fashion wilderness, the motorcycle has become the go-to prop for advertising campaigns. The shadow of Mr Steve McQueen looms large, while A listers Messrs Pitt, Clooney, McGregor and Beckham are regularly photographed with a custom motorcycle between their legs.
The trend du jour for the man about town is “shed-built”: rough and ready, low and lean Harley-Davidsons and Triumphs and tough-looking BMW and Hondas with wide handlebars, off-road tyres and rude exhaust notes. But, as is always the way, there are individuals hunting “the next big thing”.
In style terms, Japanese superbikes from the late 1980s and 1990s are the polar opposite of the low-key shed-built bikes. Superbikes are bright, brash, defined by their wind-cheating fairings (a shell placed over the frame) and quicker than 99% of other traffic. They are race replicas, road-going approximations of Grand Prix and Formula One bikes, pandering to the wants of speed freaks while remaining surprisingly practical. All the major manufacturers still market a superbike, the current king is the BMW S1000RR, but classic 1990s Japanese superbikes offer Ferrari velocities for less than the price of a weekend in Paris. Plus there’s an alluring hint of Akira about them all. Or The Bride’s arrival in Tokyo, as seen in Kill Bill: Vol.1, if you prefer.
While time hasn’t done much to dull the electric blues and magenta splashes their bodywork left the factory with, rarity has added a certain charm. The right man, in the right outfit, could make a hell of a statement with a lime green Kawasaki ZX-7R and contrasting Ruby Castel helmet.
We have picked a short list of our favourites for those who feel the need for speed.
Honda CBR900RR FireBlade
In the late 1980s, under the eye of the founder Mr Soichiro Honda, the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer reinvented itself, becoming the bike maker who set the standard by which all others would be judged. After a period of appalling design and sometimes shameful quality control, Honda’s attention to detail outshone the competition. After putting its house in order, Honda could then move on to winning the performance arms race.
When launched in 1992 the FireBlade was revolutionary. It had the performance of a 1100cc brute, but the dimensions and mass of a lithe 600cc middleweight. This principle of high performance/ small package made it the bestselling superbike of its era.
The name – memorable in a world dominated by code-like letter and number nomenclature – didn’t harm its legacy either.
Any FireBlade has the potential to blow a first-timer’s mind, but the original 1992 (unchanged for 1993) is the exemplar and a solid investment. The father of this family, chief engineer Mr Tadao Baba, chooses the 2002 model as his personal favourite.
Released in 1985 and still in production today, the GSX-R750 is a working-class hero that offered true race-bike performance to the masses.
The GSX-R (we advise avoiding the slang, “Gixxer”), was the first bike to mate an inline four-cylinder, four-stroke engine with an aluminium frame and full fairing – ingredients Grand Prix legend Mr Valentino Rossi is still racing, and winning, with now.
The early models (1985-87) are cult icons, but so many have been crashed by overenthusiastic riders they are becoming rare. Later oil-cooled models (1988-91) are bombproof and have the best looks. Water-cooled GSX-Rs (1992-95) are currently largely ignored and perhaps the ideal compromise, with the most 1990s graphics of any bike ever made (think Liverpudlian shellsuits or US rapper Vanilla Ice’s smart casual attire).
Choosing a GSX-R750 earns instant respect from the sports bike fraternity.
Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird
Another memorable name from Honda, this time alluding to a spiritual connection with Lockheed’s SR-71, the world’s fastest aeroplane. That tells you much about the two-wheeled Blackbird.
Compared to the FireBlade or Yamaha R1, it is relatively long and heavy, but also less nervous, more comfortable, less frantic and more suited to long-distance touring while carrying a close friend. Search out a stretch of unrestricted Autobahn and arrive in Hamburg or Berlin doused in your own adrenalin.
The Blackbird hides its potential beneath an unfussy fairing, presented in a range of middle-aged hues such as graphite or metallic wine red, yet this is a bike capable of close to 180mph straight from the showroom floor.
In other words; a gran turismo at Captain Kirk speeds for H&M prices.
Incredibly, it took six years for the rest of Japan’s big four (that’s Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki) to steal any of the FireBlade’s thunder. Until 1998, Yamaha’s overshadowed effort was the ridiculously monickered Thunderace. Physically larger and heavier, the Thunderace was clearly from an another era. Yamaha’s fortunes were changed with the introduction of the R1. A pure sports bike, it is free of 21st-century rider aids, such as traction control or ABS brakes and therefore demands respect.
Having said that, all the bikes in this feature are well-behaved at low speeds. They will happily commute through central London without losing their cool, if your wrists and shoulders can cope with their low handlebars.
The R1 is beautifully made, ageing well, yet when stirred it has acceleration so violent your very breath will lodge in your throat waiting for permission to move.
If 1000cc of R1 is too much for you or your insurance broker, the 600cc YZF-R6, introduced a year later, is less expensive, and while a buzzier, busier, higher-revving ride, still an impressive machine with 140mph-plus potential.
Truly avant-garde, the GTS1000 is the result of Yamaha’s short love affair with Rimini-based superbike builders Bimota. The Italians had experimented with hub-centre steering (HCS) since the young engineer, Mr Pier Luigi Marconi, brought his revolutionary university project, with its wacky steering mechanism, to the company in the early 1980s. The offspring of that pioneering study was a bike called the Bimota Tesi (Italian for thesis). When Yamaha formed an alliance with Bimota, the Italians benefited from cutting-edge engines in return for chassis know-how from the Italians.
Yamaha’s hub-centre-steerer was more conventionally styled than the Tesi and, while still a very quick bike, it was a far more sensible option.
The GTS worked well enough, but no better than the common alternative, and it was heavier than other 1000cc superbikes, so the exceptionally conservative market largely ignored it. Now buyers will be investing in one of Japan’s last great superbike experiments and the kudos that comes with it.
Honda RVF750R RC45
This homologation special is the wealthy connoisseur’s choice. Made in limited numbers it was produced so Honda complied with rules that would then allow the RC45 to race in the World Superbike Championship, a title it eventually won in 1997.
When it launched in 1994, the Honda was pitted against Ducati’s 916 and lost the battle for hearts, minds and filthy lucre. It was also regarded as a disappointment by the data-obsessed specialist press of the time, mainly because it cost twice what a bike with comparable vital statistics did. However, that was missing the point and the RC45 is now an extremely collectible machine.
Powered by a fuel-injected V4, the overall feeling is one of understated quality. There are very few components that are either glamorous or ostentatious. If it were a wristwatch it would be a Panerai, to the Ducati or MV Agusta’s Breitling.
If the RC45 is out of your price range, then perhaps consider its smaller, but very similar-looking little brother, the well-loved RVF400, for around a fifth of the price.
Feline, tinted twin headlights and simple, flat colours marked Kawasaki’s ZX-7R out in a line-up of often garish 1990s Japanese superbikes. Rarely, if ever, the leader of the class in pure performance terms, the ZX-7R sold well and, unusually for a Japanese bike, barely changed throughout its seven-year model life.
Solidly built, but never with quite the same polish as comparable Hondas or Yamahas, ZX-7Rs sold well and have an enormous amount of presence. They are dirt cheap now (just look how many turn up on motorcyclenews.com), and they are far more of a statement of intent that turning up on an old BMW boxer twin.
Combine that with the fact they scorch to 0-60mph a whole second quicker than an Aston Martin DB9 – and all for less than the price of your lady’s new handbag.
Do try to avoid ones that say "Ninja" down the side. Unless, of course, you are a ninja.