Sunday Salon: 1969 Honda CB750 – The First Modern Superbike

(first posted 7/8/2012)    The expressions “game-changer” or “paradigm shift” are consistently overused. But the 1969 Honda CB 750 did both of those, and then some. Quite simply: it was the gateway to the whole modern era of motorcycles; everything can be categorized as either pre-CB750, or post-CB750. This is the four-shooter that assassinated the whole British motorcycle industry, exposing them for the fragile, leaky, living relics that they were. And although when it first appeared it was a true superbike, the CB750’s real genius was its civility, reliability, and affordability. Honda had re-invented the mainstream motorcycle: the CB750 was the Honda Cub 50 for the seventies. The superbike was now an affordable summer Sunday toy for Americans: you met the nicest people on a CB750.  That surprised Honda as much as the 750 surprised us.

Once upon a time a mid-size twin was the biggest Japanese street bike you could buy. The Honda CB 450 had a very advanced 444cc DOHC engine, and Honda felt it was more than enough to compete with the big 650 cc British bikes, despite weighing some 50 lbs more than the contemporary 650 Triumph. Nevertheless, it was very well made and a technological masterpiece. Still, in 1966 Honda’s U.S. sales waned, and American Honda told their parent that they needed a bigger bike to sell.  It’s been said that at Honda headquarters, nobody understood what the Americans wanted; like other Japanese manufacturers, Honda didn’t build anything over 650cc due to that country’s punitive insurance and tax rates on larger bikes.

 Supposedly during a visit to Europe, Soichiro Honda saw a policeman riding a bike that seemed to him a bit small.  When the officer dismounted, Honda saw that the man was in fact quite large, and so was his bike . And then the light came on: Bigger is better for certain markets.

The deal was sealed when a trusted source revealed details of the BSA Rocket Three: Honda had been targeting BSA in the U.S., and now the Rocket was set solidly in their crosshairs. The Rocket Three and almost identical Triumph Trident engines were essentially the ancient Triumph 500 pushrod twin with an additional cylinder.

Honda’s goal was to construct a 750cc engine that developed a maximum of 67 horsepower (one more than the 1200cc, 66-hp Harley 74 engine, although it was hardly the main competition). But Honda wanted to the bragging rights, and got them. “Nanahan” (750) became Honda’s code name for the project.

The 750 was announced in January 1969, which marked the beginning of Honda’s unsuccessful efforts to keep up with demand. From day one, demand was drastically out of balance with supply, and Honda scrambled for years trying to satisfy it. This is an early prototype.

It was a fast enough bike, but being the fastest is a very elusive target. Actually, Honda detuned the the 750’s engine after the first year to make it more civilized, as it quickly realized this was going to be a mainstream bike, not a hard-core all-out sport bike. Lovers of the original CB750 quickly missed the bite of the first year model (and its higher 8500 rpm power-peak), and Honda claimed only one hp was lost in the process (67 instead of 68), but it was all part of its growing mainstream acceptance.

In truth, simply being a Honda was what it did best. If you ever owned a bike from this period, you’d appreciate throwing a leg over this one. Having owned a 1976 model (and also several of its contemporaries), I can tell you that the CB750’s sophistication was rivaled only by that of its CB450 cousin, and it remained the industry standard until the arrival of…the next Honda,

 and of course the Kawasaki Z1, which upped the ante considerably.

The CB 750 was created to be a well-rounded bike. Besides going fast, it also featured five speeds, disc brakes, electric start and smoothness that a 10-year-old whiskey would envy. The 750 was a true paradigm-shifter for those of us who were around at its introduction. The first one I saw in the flesh was parked alongside 450’s and cubs, outside a bar in Yokosuka — and I must admit that I had no idea what it was when I spotted it. 1969 was a year of many mind-expanding experiences, and the CB 750 was certainly one of them. Four cylinder bikes were something one saw on the racetrack or in magazines, but not on Main Street; Yokosuka or Amarillo.

In August 1969, two teams of Honda employees raced their new bike in the Suzuka 10-hour endurance race, where they finished first and second. For good measure (and to serve notice to the Europeans), Honda repeated the feat a month later at Bol d’or.

For that race, Honda had prepared two specially-kitted bikes that lacked air filters and used special cams and exhausts. Both bikes, now with 72 hp on tap, were ridden by 19-year-olds: Micel Rougerie, who won, and Daniel Urdich, who placed second. Winning the prestigious Bol d’or (Golden Bowl) on a French track gave Honda a potent promotional boost just as things were starting to cool down.

Honda’s enlistment of longtime pro rider Dick Mann marked another 1969 milestone. Hired to help put them on the map, Mann did the job, winning the 1970 Daytona. There were other Hondas in the race, but this was the works bike. One race, one bike, one win — a win for which Honda was so grateful, they promptly fired Mann and then pulled out of racing. Naturally, the orders poured in.

Incidentally, perhaps it was Honda’s snub that inspired Mann to win the next year’s race on a BSA Rocket Three. Unfortunately for BSA, it was too little too late; shortly after winning Daytona and some transatlantic match races, BSA went out of business.

Meanwhile, the Honda 750 kept competing in (and often winning) races, and not only against two-wheeled competitors.  I recall seeing them at the drag strip around 1970-1971, when they still were pretty new, and was amazed at some of the cars they beat.  Usually, the cars were snorting and pawing to go while the bike sat quietly, just before it stomped them.

This picture shows a total of five CB750 engines in two bikes.  Soon after this picture was taken, the triple exploded. Its owner, TC Speed Parts founder TC Christianson, suffered a few broken bones but managed to emerge from the mess mostly intact.

The 750 engine has found a home in a variety of bikes, including this Moto Martin. If you’d like to read about additional applications for this bad boy, here’s a site specializing in SOHC Hondas.

I’m including this Trex bike for our readers in Oz as proof that gearheads won’t leave well enough alone. Its engine is a one-liter job.

Mike Hailwood is famous for winning the Isle of Man in 1977, at age 38. Phil Read had won it the year before. While Read had shown the good sense to win on a modified 750 Honda, Hailwood won his race on a borrowed Ducati.

This one comes under the heading “Kids, don’t try this at home.”  As far as I can tell, this is Rick Hocking, who took this CB750 bike and  modified it for the dirt track. Soon, it and other similarly modified bikes would join Kenny Roberts’ TZ750 on the outlawed list.

Perhaps the most enduring title earned by this Honda is UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle); after all, virtually every multi produced since has borrowed something from it. When I think of Honda technology, I first think of my CB450. When I think of Honda technology refined, I think of the CB750–and if I were to ride any modern bike, I imagine that much of its technology goes back to the CB that I owned.

I’ve owned both a Yamaha XS650 and a Honda CB750. If I wanted to go dirt-track riding or venture off-road, I’d convert the Yamaha since it’s somewhat lighter yet still has loads of torque. If I wanted something to ride to the grocery store, I’d likely choose my 350 Jawa.

But if I wanted to ride across the country, go to the drag strip or just show off ? I would want my Honda. In my opinion, it’s very possibly the best all-around bike ever made.