Suzuki GSX-R1000 K1

50 Years of Superbikes – Part 2

Yes, we are back with our look-back at 50 (OK, 40) years of the superbike.

Why just 40? Well, it’s now 50 years since the machine that first coined the phrase ‘superbike’ was launched – Honda’s CB750 Four – but, while we love modern bikes of course, we are mainly into classics, so we’ve ignored the most recent decade and instead focused on the first 40 years of the genre.

1989-2009 would see the complete re-invention of the superbike itself with the coming of the Honda CBR900RR FireBlade. We’d also see the litre-class hyperbike decline in popularity, the 750 class would wither and the supersport 600 class would itself rise and fall in popularity.

1990 Kawasaki ZZ-R1100

Kawasaki ZZ-R1100vFor so long this was the fastest production bike in the World, until the Honda Blackbird turned up in 1997. The ZZ-R can claim direct lineage from the GPz900R, the GPZ1000RX Tomcat and later the ZX-10R and was really a hyper-sports tourer. Kawasaki pioneered its Ram-Air technology on the ZZ-R with the D model of 1993 which pretty much remained the same until the bike was replaced with the grey-brigade targeted ZZ-R1200 in 2002. Still an amazing speed machine for peanuts…

Price: £6499

Power: 147bhp @10,500rpm

Weight: 228kilos

Top speed: 174mph

Christmas No.1: Cliff Richard – Saviour’s Day

League champions: Liverpool

1992 Honda CBR900RR FireBlade

Honda CBR900RR FireBladeThe CBR900RR FireBlade was the bike to reverse the trend from the 1980s where sportsbikes were getting heavier and heavier. Instead, in came ‘light is right.’ Heck, the Blade didn’t even make more power than the opposition but it was a damn sight lighter.  At a snap, the FZR1000RU EXUP was history and became a sports-tourer. Mass centralisation, 110-120bhp, just 185 kilos and sharp handling bested the bigger litre-class beasts.

Price: £7390

Power: 120bhp @9500rpm

Weight: 185kilos

Top speed: 167mph

Christmas No.1: Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You

League champions: Leeds United

1994 Ducati 916

Ducati 916Looking back, not many Italian machines deserved the title of ‘superbike’. But – perhaps the Laverda Jota was one, maybe the Mk.1 Guzzi Le Mans, and the giant-killing Ducati 888 is another. The 916 was in fact derived from the 888 but added a big dollop of beauty. Yes, Ducati’s 916 did the impossible – it performed as good as it looked. Along with the Monster, the 916 helped turn Ducati around as well as starting a brief trend for V-twin road bikes in the form of Honda’s FireStorm, Suzuki’s TL1000S and Yamaha’s parallel twin TRX850. Out on the track Honda even went the twin-cylinder route with 1999’s SP-1.

Price: £11,800

Power: 114bhp @ 9000rpm

Weight: 204kilos

Top speed: 160mph

Christmas No.1: East 17 – Stay another Day

Premier League champions: Manchester United

1997 Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird

The Kawasaki ZZ-R11 had a long reign at the top of the ultimate speed charts until the end of 1996 when Honda released this monster. Well, it wasn’t a monster – instead it was a very refined, comfy and well-built sports-tourer. At its heart was a silky-smooth 1137cc inline four, nestling inside a beam-frame. So good was the ‘Bird that it was largely unchanged for its 11-year production run, save for new clocks, fuel-injection and ram-air (1999) but it always looked the same. Still a bargain now! The Honda Combined Brake System (which links front and rear brakes) can take some getting used to.

Price: £9495 (1996)

Power: 164bhp (claimed) @ 9500rpm

Weight: 223kilos

Top speed: 179mph

Christmas No.1: The Spice Girls – Too Much

Premier League champions: Manchester United

1998 Yamaha YZF-R1

Yamaha YZF-R1Honda’s FireBlade had been the best superbike for six years when the R1 came along. Sure, the Blade had to battle the exotic 916 and the neurotic GSX-R750 SRAD, but the R1 unquestionably had the Honda licked. It took sportsbikes and superbikes to a whole other level.

Price: £9200

Power: 150bhp (claimed) @ 10,000rpm

Weight: 177kilos

Top speed: 170mph

Christmas No.1: Spice Girls – Goodbye

Premier League champions: Arsenal

1999 Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa

Suzuki GSX1300R HayabusaOK, so the Busa looked a bit weird, but you couldn’t argue with that awesome motor or the top speed specs! Under those strange clothes lurked a 1299cc inline four pumping out around 173 claimed bhp. We would reckon on around 150 at that HUGE 190-rear-section tyre. Looks-wise, we seem to have warmed to the Busa a bit, don’t you think?

Price: £7995

Power: 173bhp (claimed) @10,000rpm

Weight: 215kilos

Top speed: 190mph

Christmas No.1: Westlife – I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun

Premier League champions: Manchester United

2000 Kawasaki ZX-12R

Kawasaki ZX-12RAt the time Kawasaki were the only motorcycle manufacturer to make aeroplanes, and it showed with the ZX-12R. Ram-Air was taken up a notch, while even the mirrors were aerodynamically refined. The frame was a monocoque, making it narrower than beam frame rails, while the motor was a real powerhouse. The bike handled nicely enough, it’s just shame the tank range was pathetically small and that there was a very strange step-by-step running in procedure.

Price: £9380

Power: 179bhp (claimed) @9800rpm

Weight: 210kilos

Top speed: 186mph

Christmas No.1: Bob the Builder – Can We Fix It?

Premier League champions: Manchester United

2001 Suzuki GSX-R1000K1

Suzuki GSX-R1000 K1Suzuki’s K1 litre sportsbike began to blur the edges of the two distinct lines of superbike development. Here was a bike almost as fast as a GSX1300R, almost as comfy, but which was far handier around a track. Perhaps now was when the hyper-bike sports-tourers lost their edge a little, in compatrison? The GSX-R1000 would continue to pop up as occasional leader of the superbike pack, most notably in K3 and K5 format. Bizarrely, the K7 became heavier but benefited from three switchable engine modes to suit road conditions.

Price: £8999

Power: 160bhp @10,800rpm

Weight: 170kilos

Top speed: 180mph

Christmas No.1: Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman – Somethin’ Stupid

Premier League champions: Manchester United

2004 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Kawasaki ZX-10R2004 saw a host of litre sportsbikes released, with Honda’s RC211V-inspired Fireblade, took on the 1bhp per kilo Yamaha YZF-R1, which now boasted under-seat exhausts. But it was the return of Kawasaki with their feisty and edgy ZX-10R Ninja that excited most sportsbikes lovers. After years with the almost sport-touring ZX-9R, at last we had a return of a ‘nasty’ Ninja, which really performed, thanks to a 100mph first gear(ish) and a slipper clutch. The 10R, Blade and the R1 all trounced the previous year’s title-holder – the GSX-R1000K3.

Price: £9045

Power: 160bhp @ 11,500rpm

Weight: 170kilos

Top speed: 179mph

Christmas No.1: Band Aid 20 – Do They Know It’s Christmas?

League champions: Arsenal

2006 Kawasaki ZZR1400

Kawasaki ZZR1400The ZZR name made a return with the 1400, promising what Kawasakis had been famous for since the Z1 – a monumental motor – and the ZZR1400 didn’t disappoint. More of a speedster than a sportsbike, Kawasaki’s brain-shredding speed saw the return of Kawasaki to making practical machines with a barking-mad top-end. The bike is still around today and people say it’s better than the trumpeted supercharged H2 SX sports-tourer.

Price: £8995

Power: 190bhp @ 9500rpm (claimed)

Weight: 215kilos

Top speed: 200mph

Christmas No.1: Leona Lewis – A Moment Like This

Premier League champions: Chelsea

2008 Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade

2008 Honda CBR1000RR FirebladeArguably 2008 saw the RR-8 Fireblade as the pick of the sportsbike crop. By now we were starting to see buttons which would give the rider different power outputs for various conditions but the Blade eschewed all of that. Instead the designers felt that you simply needed a better ‘feel’ of what was happening at that back tyre. OK, so the looks and muted colour schemes weren’t the best, but by now, manufacturers realised they were selling to the more mature market place.

Price: £8800

Power: 170bhp

Weight: 176kilos

Top speed: 186mph

Christmas No.1: Alexandra Burke – Hallelujah

Premier League champions: Manchester United


So that ends our journey into the first 40 years of the superbike. Since 2009 we’ve seen the rise in electronics such as traction control and anti-wheelie. We’ve now got intelligent ABS on bikes, even sports machines. We first saw the like of ABS on touring BMW machines from 1989…

If we apply the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club’s rolling 15-year rule, we can look back now at the bikes of 2004 as pukka classics, however much the purists will howl. This will go on, so the likes of BMW’s S1000RR of 2009 will – one day – be a bona fide classic. What goes around, comes around eh?

Here’s to the next 50 years of superbikes!