The history of the Honda CB 750, the machine that revolutionized the whole motorcycle industry.
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At the end of World War II, the defeated nations started a slow and painful reconstruction process. Both Germany and Japan had their major cities wiped out by the relentlessly Allied bombing, and now friends and foes had to get together to rebuild those two countries from scratch. In Japan, the Honda facility was in rubbles and what was left of the machinery, that could still have some use, was sold to Toyota, at a bargain price.
With some money in his pocket, Soichiro Honda, the founder of the company, put together a small team of 12 workers and began to assemble the “Type A” motorized bicycles equipped with a two-stroke, 50cc engine, bought as war surplus, and originally designed to be used as an electricity generator for military radios.
Soichiro Honda’s dream was to start producing automobiles but there was little interest in cars in the impoverished post-war Japan. What they really needed was an affordable way of transportation and the “Type A” was exactly that.
The hard work and good ideas paid dividends for Honda, in a matter of 15 years the company had a nice line of small motorcycles and had already won the 1961 Moto GP World Championship in the 250cc class.( htt ps://theclassicmachines.com/2020/03/08/mike-the-bike/ ). Honda was officially challenging the dominance of the European bikes, not only on sales but on the race tracks as well.
Honda goes to USA.
Honda was the first Japanese brand to try selling motorcycles in the US market, but they had a long journey before gaining the hearts and minds of the North American customers. In the early 1960s, the Japanese economy was still in the process of recovering and that means there was no place for big, fancy bikes over there. But in the USA, the bike market was completely different: in the land of “bigger is better”, the economy was doing fine and gas was cheap. The big motorcycle segment was dominated by Harley Davidson with engines as large as 1200cc and the median bike sector belonged to British brands like Norton and Triumph.
Changing the image of motorcycles
Back in the 1950s and 60s, motorcycles were firmly associated with troublemakers and outlaws, but Honda tried a different approach: with the slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”, they started targeting the “Good guys” customers, with small displacement bikes.
By the mid-1960s, the American Honda dealers requested the CEOs in Japan, a new, higher class bike, that could compete “mano-a-mano” with British products. Around this time, Honda had already established itself as a winner brand in the motorcycle GP races and it was time to transfer all that expertise to a new, high-performance road bike.
In 1965, Honda unveiled the Dream CB450, intended to be sold in North America and Europe. Equipped with a state-of-art twin cylinder, double overhead camshaft engine, cranking out 45HP, able to push the new CB to a top speed of 180 Km/h and it could easily leave any 650cc British bike eating dust. Honda was pretty sure its new creation would be a huge sales success.
The CB450 sold quite well but it wasn’t the smashing hit that Honda was expecting and that was puzzling the minds of the Big Guys in Japan. After all, this new bike was high-tech, fast, affordable, and it looked good too, so what was wrong with the American customers?
To find the answer to this question, Soichiro Honda himself, accompanied with a few CEOs, traveled USA to see the American bike market with their own eyes.
It didn’t take long for them to understand what was happening: the CB450 was in fact an awesome bike, but it was born with the same DNA found in the Honda racing bikes: to fully enjoy it, one must shift gears with the RPM needle well into the red line territory and that was absolutely not the way Americans like to ride their motorcycles back then. Instead of having a lightning fast motorcycle, with a screaming engine, they rather have a big and comfortable bike for long and relaxing open road rides, prioritizing torque over speed.
And there is only one way to have lots of torque, which is with lots of displacement.
Mr. Soichiro was truly committed to winning the American market, and he quickly gathered a team of Honda’s best engineers to develop a “big” motorcycle. They were running out of time since Triumph was getting ready to present the all-new Trident 750cc, with a three-cylinder engine.
The new Honda had to be different from the competition, it had to stand apart from the crowd and the engineers knew exactly how to make the bike unique. Honda had a good experience with multi-cylinder engines, after all, the company was racing in the 250cc World Championship with a bike equipped with an in-line 6 cylinder engine. Ok, the market wasn’t ready yet for a 6 cylinder street bike but an in-line 4 would be perfect.
Honda created a “state-of-art” engine, high-tech but yet simple, 2 valves per cylinder, single over-head camshaft, and air-cooled. The requirements were: good source of power, torque, and reliability (believe me, Japanese bikes, in the 1960s, were not quite as reliable as they are today). The new 750cc in-line 4 was able to crank almost 70HP @ 8500 rpm and 44.3 ft.lbs of torque, enough power to shame any other 750cc in the market; just to give an idea, the main competitor of Honda, the Triumph 750cc had only 40HP. To overcome the lack of reliability, the engineers put the engine through thousands of hours of tests and the standards of quality control were significantly raised.
This new 750cc motor was also “oil-tight”, a quality that the British bikes never had.
The engine wasn’t only powerful and reliable, it was gorgeous: 4 chromed exhaust pipes adorned the unit, going all the way to rear of the bike (just like the racing Hondas) and to improve performance, it was fed by 4 individual carburetors. To complete the package, the bike was equipped with a “silk-smooth” 5-speed transmission and electric starter. The new Honda was also the first street bike to be equipped with a disc brake.
The final design resulted in a “badass” looking bike, something like a race-ready machine, but Honda wanted the 750 to be more like a “Touring” than a “GP” bike and for that reason, during its development, a great deal of time was dedicated to the “ergonomics” of all the components in order to make the “CB” very comfortable.
The new Honda was presented to the public for the first time at the 1968 Tokyo Auto Show and it was an instant hit. At this point, the front disc brake wasn’t even fully operational and the system still had to go through a lot of development and testing before making the bike available for the dealers.
The Honda Dream CB750 “K” hit the American market in January 1969 and it was a nice surprise to the customers: it was faster than a Triumph 750cc (190.4 km/h vs 200 km/h) and more powerful than a 1300cc Harley-Davidson (65HP vs 67HP).
In 1969, the price of a “big” bike in America was something in between $2,800 and $4,000″, and Honda started selling the CB 750 for $1,450. For the customers, it was like a dream come true, and quickly the dealers across the USA were flooded with orders. The original sales estimate of 1,500 units a year became a monthly figure and quickly it grew to 3,000 bikes/month.
With the demand growing faster than the production, it didn’t take long for the dealers to cash in on this situation: in order to “leapfrog” the waiting list, some customers were willing to pay 50% or even 80% more for the bike.
Suddenly, the dominance of European bikes in the American market was shattered, Triumph, Norton, Ducati, Moto-Guzzy, BMW, neither one of them had anything close to the 750 K
The picture above is a good example of how the competitors were caught off guard: When compared to the new Honda, the 1969 BMW looks like an antique from the 1930s.
Among all bike brands racing to put something new in the market in the late 1960s, Kawasaki was the one that came the closest to ruin the Honda “Dream”, in 1968 they had the prototype of an in-line 4, 750cc ready, but Honda was faster to put its bike into production. When the CB750 came to the showrooms in 69, Kawasaki decided to go back to the drawing board and change its project.
In 1972, Kawasaki unveiled the “Z1”, a 900cc, dual camshaft, in-line four beast, capable to reach 220 km/h of top speed. The “Z1” might be bigger and faster than the “CB” but it is obvious from where Kawasaki got its inspiration.
While the other brands were struggling with 2 and 3 cylinders engines (and even a “Wankel-Rotary” engine by Suzuki), Honda and Kawasaki laid down the foundations for the “Super-Bike” segment.
It was only 1975 that Honda officially adopted the name “Four” in order to emphasize the most important attribute of the bike. Between 1976 and 1978, an interesting optional was available: the automatic transmission.
The original CB 750 was produced between 1969 and 1978. In 1979, Honda unveiled the redesigned version of the bike, with the typical square-shaped gas tank that would become the signature of all bikes throughout the 1980s. But more important than the new design was the adoption of the 16 valves, dual camshaft engine, able to produce 77 HP.
In 1981 was released a more “Americanized” version, called “Custom” or “Night Hawk” in the USA.
The CB 750 was also a considerable success in other countries around the world, like Australia, South Africa, and Brazil.
After 34 years of production and a myriad of different versions and special editions, Honda decided to end the production of the CB 750 in 2003, only to bring it back again in 2007 but at this time, only for the Japanese market. Anyway, this last revival was short-lived and lasted only two years.
Some “scholars” will argue that the Brits created the first “Superbike ( and the Norton Commando is probably the chosen one), but what the CB brought to the customers was a collection of qualities in one single product: performance, reliability, style, comfort, and affordability. At that moment, the British bikes were light years behind this package. But the more important detail is the legendary transversally mounted, in-line four engine that became the signature of the Superbike segment, in the same way, the V8 engine is the signature of the Muscle car movement.
In 1969, the CB 750 revolutionized the whole bike market and the competition had to change and adapt to a new reality. It was a game-changer for motorbike consumers. From that point on this segment would receive the attention it deserved: each brand started offering its customers, products with better quality, and a wider variety of models to choose from.
*NE: The title: “Bike of the Century” was awarded in 2012 by the Motorcyclist Magazine, during its 100th anniversary celebration.