10 of the Most Important Motorcycles Ever Made

1935 BMW R12 with centre stand down on street

Since the very first 1885 Daimler Reitwagen motorcycle, the passion for two-wheeled goodness has covered the globe. Motorcycles fill all manner of human needs, from basic transportation to mind-boggling adrenaline pursuits.

This naturally made me wonder, what would be some of the most important motorcycles ever made? I love these sorts of questions, the type to cause endless debate. Knowing this I shall once again seek to stir up that debate with my list of 10 of the Most Important Motorcycles Ever Made!

Most Important Motorcycles #10: 1925 Brough Superior SS100

1925 Brough Superior SS100 with kickstand downPhoto Credit: Mecum Auctions.

George Brough pioneered the earliest British Supersport bikes with Brough Superior and the SS100, the first production bike to achieve 100 mph.

An accomplished racer and holder of World Records, he built the SS100 with a 45 hp (a crazy figure for the day) 988cc V-Twin and multiple outsource components. Each bike was test-ridden prior to delivery, certifying its ability to meet spec.

Every owner was encouraged by Brough to suggest their own ideas for developing the SS100, which meant that almost all his motorcycles were uniquely hand-built and the design continually evolving.

Famous facts—Lawrence of Arabia bought one of the first SS100s in 1925.

Most Important Motorcycles #9: 1931 Royal Enfield Bullet

1964 Royal Enfield Bullet 350Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions.

The Royal Enfield Bullet is the ultimate “classic motorcycle”. The Bullet has an incredible production history that covers 89 years! Yes, this is somewhat debatable due to the move from England to India, and that there have been 350 and 500 models, but there is a darn near straight point-to-point connection here that makes these bikes iconic.

Royal Enfield evolved with the requirements of the day but always seemed to hold onto the essence of the single-cylinder OHV design it began from. Used for work, pleasure, war, and racing the Bullet holds a place in the hearts of riders of all ages around the globe.

Most Important Motorcycles #8: 1935 BMW R12 and R17

1935 BMW R12 with centre stand down on streetPhoto Credit: Mecum Auctions.

Why this BMW? It is the first motorcycle to have hydraulically damped telescopic forks, a configuration that to this day remains the most common and capable method of controlling the front wheel of a motorcycle.

While that alone is enough to make my most important list, the air-cooled, 745 cc side-valve boxer motor outputting through a Cardan shaft drive was an extremely reliable piece of military equipment. So good that many manufacturers “borrowed” ideas from the BMW R12 for their post-war motorcycles.

Most Important Motorcycles #7: 1958 Honda Super Cub

Honda C100 Super CubPhoto Credit: AutoEvolution.

The Honda Super Cub is the most popular motorcycle ever manufactured. Period.

Since 1958 in sizes from 50-125cc, the air-cooled single-cylinder machine with its step-through design, comfy seat, and luggage rack has become something well beyond just a motorcycle. They have been used for, and I am not even exaggerating—everything!

Honda has built over 100 million Super Cubs! That is more than 5 times as many vehicles as the VW Beetle. Of course, Honda had the marketing slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” so everyone wanted to own one.

Most Important Motorcycles #6: 1970 Harley-Davidson XR750

1970 Harley Davidson XR750Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions.

Finally caving to the pressure from foreign bike manufacturers, in 1969  the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), established new rules that there would be one maximum displacement for dirt track racing, 750 cc, with no regard for valve type. This move rendered the KR series obsolete and HD needed a replacement quickly.

It is true that the 1970 XR with its iron heads was not the fastest, it was the start of things to come and the eventual 29 Grand National titles. If that’s not enough—it was the bike Evel Knievel chose for his legendary stunts of the 1970s.

Most Important Motorcycles #5: 1974 Ducati 750SS

1974 Ducati 750SS with green frame and round casePhoto Credit: Mecum Auctions.

The “Green Frame,” Ducati 750SS was a run of just 401 bikes in 1974, but oh what a special production it was.

In 1972 Ducati, with Paul Smart aboard, won the Imola 200, smashing lap records along the way. Rather than just make a tribute type of replica bike, the 750 SS was built by the race department to the existing spec. When they appeared in 1974  among the most obvious external differences were the adoption of a center-axle fork and Brembo front brakes—otherwise, these were the same as the race-winning 1972’s.

The 750 SS received rave reviews in the motorcycling press, being hailed by Cycle magazine as “a bike that stands at the farthest reaches of the sporting world—the definitive factory-built café racer.”

Most Important Motorcycles #4: 1980 BMW R80 G/S

1980 BMW R80 GS with centre stand down on forest roadPhoto Credit: BikesRepublic.com.

Using a motorcycle both on and off-road was certainly nothing new, people had been doing so since the very first bikes were built. Yet it wasn’t until BMW released the R80 G/S that anyone had actually engineered a machine with this intention.

Large displacement engine, long-travel suspension, a single-sided swingarm, and mono-shock all in a machine with lights and a license plate? BMW created a whole new way to ride with a dual-sport machine that went on to win the Paris Dakar rally multiple times.

G for Gelände “offroad” in German S for Straße “street”, BMW can be thanked for creating the Adventure bike category.

Most Important Motorcycles #3: 1982 Yamaha YZR500 (0W61)

1982 Yamaha YZR500 (0W61) with fairing removedPhoto Credit: Yamaha.

The Yamaha YZR500, a 1982 500cc Grand Prix racing motorcycle, was a huge engineering leap over one year. With the very first 2-stroke V-4 engine in a GP bike, Yamaha took everything further by suspending the engine under a totally new style aluminium frame with no undermount cradle supporting the engine.

This new frame developed by Spanish engineer Antonio Cobas was based on the theory that a triangle (delta) is far more rigid than a square. Using a new controlled flow die-casting process, Yamaha was able to make a very thin rectangular box frame material that was lighter and 4 times stronger than prior designs—ushering in what is now the well-known “Deltabox” frame.

Most Important Motorcycles #2: 1985 Suzuki GSXR 750

1985 Suzuki GSXR 750 with kickstand down indoorsPhoto Credit: Mecum Auctions.

The motorcycle landscape felt a shift in the force in 1985 with the introduction of the Suzuki GSXR 750. For the first time, the buying public was able to get a leg over what could only be called a track bike.

With over 100hp and weighing less than 400lbs, this sort of power to weight ratio had never been seen on public roads. Welcome to the Supersport world. With a powerband that was found near 10,000 rpm, and illegal speeds happening with the smallest twist of the wrist.

The slab-sided machine with the double bubble lights was destined to be a legend from day one.

Most Important Motorcycles #1: 2002 Honda RC211V

2002 Honda RC211V in Repsol livery with Valentino Rossi number 46Photo Credit: MotoGP.

Major rule changes occurred going into 2002 for the FIM Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing Association. Gone was the 500cc two-stroke division, in its place, was now MotoGP which allowed manufacturers to choose between running two-stroke engines up to 500 cc or four-strokes up to 990 cc.

Honda responded with the RC211V to replace the NSR500. Packing a unique 990cc V5 capable of over 210 hp at 14 000 rpm. So dominant was Honda with this new machine, it won 14 of the 16 contests it competed in that season, and 3 of the next 5 Constructors Championships.

Final Thoughts on the Most Important Motorcycles Ever Made

How do you stop at just 10 bikes? There is little doubt I have left many wonderful bikes off my list. Heck, I don’t even list anything from the last 20 years!

That being said, I stand by my choices but I certainly want to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with these? Any you would swap out? I chose to list them by year made rather than attempting to rank them but if forced I would put the Super Cub number 1. How can you argue against over 100 million bikes produced?

Leave a Reply

  1. While I like your entries and see your point I am surprised that the Honda CB750 sohc was not only not #1 but not even on the list. I never owned the sohc but was lucky enough to own both the Suzuki GS750 and a few of the dohc versions of the Honda. You have to give the nod to the original engineers that started a run of impressive machines.

    1. I agree. I was a proud owner of a K2 with a Moriwaki 836cc kit.

      The Honda 750/4 is the most important production
      bike imho.

  2. In my view over 64 years of riding the Honda CB72/77 was am absolutely critically important motorcycle as it was the transition from the unreliable and unrefined pre WW2 motorycle yes to a refined and reliable machine. The ads comparing the Vincent to the cb77 highlighted this of course. The earlier C72 77 was a poorly designed first try-the CB72/77 were the real deal.

    It’s also difficult to rule out the Suzuki 250 Hustler, which shaded the Ducati Mach one as THE high performance all round motorcycle.

  3. EXCELLENT read!! i continue to learn + be amazed by earlier offerings from when i had less interest + was away in the military. thanks again!!

  4. nice picks, but there a few more, first off all these bikes were fast, but lacked stopping power as did most early bikes. VINCENT BLACK SHADOW, AERIEL SQUARE 4, 1000cc which sounded likw an indy car with megaphones, KAWASAKI 4 cylinder ,ZUNDAP 2CYCLE 3cylinder

    1. There were plenty of great British bikes to choose from, I stand by my choice of the Bullet being the most important of them all.
      Are you sure Steve McQueen would choose the Triumph Bonneville? It is well documented that his favorite bike was a Métisse Mk3 that he put many hours into building himself.

      1. Sure he would have chosen a Triumph, he raced Triumphs (500/650s) until the Metisse frame improved on them weight and strengthwise, eventually he moved to Husqvarna

  5. Nothing wrong with your list, but I would’ve added the Honda Blackbird, Suzuki Hayabusa and the Kawa ZX 1400. These bikes changed history by being the first real “Hyperbikes”

  6. Lawrence of Arabia owned a Brough Superior, when as AC 2 TE Shaw stationed at RAF Mount Batten , Plymouth. Lawrence had no knowledge of m/cycle engines, and my Dad CPL. Bill humble whose section Lawrence worked in used to service “ THE BROUGH “ When i asked Dad what is it like to ride? My father answered, this was Lawrences motor cycle I would never have dared asked to ride it. This a TRUE STORY, trust me.

  7. The 1990 Yamaha FZR 1000 with the deltabox frame and forward canted 5 valve per cyl head and exup valve system was years ahead of its time.

  8. There were designed dual-sport machines long before 1980. I owned a few in the 1970s. However, as far as I know, the first GS was the first large (both physically and displacement-wise) OEM road bike with built-in semi-serious off-road capabilities. Of course, the off-road capabilities of the GS line have increased greatly over the years.

  9. The Honda CB750 SOHC – without a doubt. I am older than I admit sometimes and witnessed the takeover of the British and North American bike market by the Japanese bikes. The CB750 was the catalyst.

    1. As I said above, not including the CB750 was a tough choice. Any list of ten means casualties. The SOHC engine was an epic item and trust me I thought about this a lot, but in the end, I felt the Cub had to be included, and the RC211V is such a critical part of GP history it had to be on my list.

  10. For me, it was the Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM). Mine was the 1977 Yamaha XS750 with every factory touring accessory available as well as several aftermarket accessories. With one bike I could tour the country, then strip it down to ride the boulevard and Daytona Beach. Then mount clubman bars and rearsets with sticky tires and have fun in the north Georgia mountains.
    Today bikes are so specialized that is is near impossible to own only one or two bikes.

    1. Yes, we now have ultra-niche machines alright. Cannot own just one, hence my buy and hold philosophy. One bike is never enough and selling motorcycles you own is just plain wrong LOL. Building bigger garages is the only acceptable choice.

  11. This is a great list. Sometimes my favorite part of an article like this is that it allows everyone to think of their own list, too. I know some of mine would be different, simply because I’m a different rider. I would agree that the CBs have to be on my own list. Probably at #1, but certainly in the top three. That said, there are so many amazing machines that we have all been blessed with throughout history I wish I could ride ‘em all!

    1. Thank you. This is exactly how I feel, and why I love you all making comments and starting discussions around bikes that are off my list. Tell me about the bikes you feel should be swapped out, how you would make a list.

      What we all ride and how we ride is definitely a factor in how we perceive “important”. Nothing better than starting another great water cooler debate.

  12. Hodaka Combat Wombat. Ok, ok, the Wombat does not deserve to be on this list. But, it is on my list because a ’76 Combat Wombat was the first motorcycle I ever owned. Plus, it has one of the greatest names in all of motorcycledom.

    1. That is an awesome bike name. Thank you for educating me. I had never heard of a Combat Wombat, but now I have a new rabbit hole to go reading down. 51 years old and today I learned, LOL.

  13. All of these were racing bikes. Not a touring or street bike among them or comfort rather than speed. What about the Honda Gold Wing?

    1. I spent a lot of time debating the Goldwing. I own one, a 2001 GL1800A, and that bike was a game-changer in the world of touring.
      In the end, I looked at it as a bike that elevated a well-established segment of riding. Bikes like the BMW GS created a whole segment when they hit the market. The Honda Cub brought the world a bike that became a daily use tool. The Bullet stayed in production forever and was a part of so many peoples early riding memories.
      The list is heavy on race bikes, but without racing a huge amount of innovation would never have been developed, I just cannot ignore their importance.
      I love my Wing, and trust me it was in consideration.

  14. I initially thought that no such list which omitted the CB750 AND the 1000cc Goldwing could possibly be competent. Then I went back and re-read the title; it was not the most INFLUENTIAL motorcycles but 10 of the most IMPORTANT motorcycles. And it wasn’t THE 10 most important, but 10 of the most important. With that in mind, the article held much more validity for me. Nice work.