Top 10 Japanese Street-Legal Bikes Of All Time
You May Argue With The Choices, But These Are The Best!
We're just talking standard Japanese street-legal bikes here. No fairings, saddlebags or other whizbangery allowed. The motorcycle has to stand on its own merits, not just as a starting point for an accessory dump. My choices will be controversial as lots of people will wonder why there are so few modern motorcycles, or what this bike or that bike is doing here when that other bike is left out. How could you be so stupid as to skip the Kawasaki H1, The Suzuki Water Buffalo, the Suzuki Rotary, etc. Well, I believe a road motorcycle needs a four-stroke engine and no engineering development to date has changed my opinion. I'm making a passionate case of each of these ten and why they belong here, so I look forward to reading your input as to why I'm absolutely crazy.
#10: Suzuki Savage 650. This was the first street-going Japanese thumper to do it right. The Yamaha SR500 went into the clip-on British nostalgia Tavern to Tavern bike mode and that was the completely wrong direction. Yammy's thumper was heaven in the XT incarnation but was balky, slow and vibration-stung in its street going version. The Savage did it right with superb styling, extremely comfortable cruiser ergonomics, and what was essentially one half of a Harley 1340 cc engine. It sounded right, it moved right, it handled right, it was priced right and I'm amazed that Suzuki didn't sell a few extra million of them.
#9: Honda CB350 Four. How can I possibly leave the ultimate paradigm setter of all motorcycledom off this list, the hallowed and respected CB750 Four? Simple. The first 750 Fours were way ahead of their time and created the modern multi-cylinder engine and what was called UJM, or Universal Japanese Motorcycle, mold. But they were not particularly great bikes, especially the F1 first generation models with the bulky side-mounted oil tanks and the flat-bottomed fuel tanks that looked like a jerry can with a stripe. Now, the 350 Four was a jewel. A magnificent engine married with classic but absolutely timeless styling and the second-most aesthetically-pleasing fuel tank design any Honda has ever had (the first generation XL250 wins that category). The 350 Four was a triumph of technology, innovation and style. That's why Honda killed it after just one year and replaced it with the hideous CB400F with those four into one pipes that looked like the bike had just been T-boned by a truck.
#8: Honda CB100. Although motorcycles this size are now under the radar for most riders, the sturdy, reliable, bulletproof and nicely performing single cylinder CB100 engine turned out to live on to the present day, mostly as a 125cc and sold countless millions around the globe. The vehicular basis of some entire nations are based around this engine and its endless Asian clones. The 1972 model was the apex of its styling, with a refrigerator white tank and sidecover with tasteful color inserts.
#7: Yamaha XT500. The XT was never really at home in the dirt, so it definitely qualifies as a street-legal motorcycle. And what a motorcycle! Everything about this bike was absolutely spot-on. That thumper may well be the best dual-purpose single cylinder four stroke in history. The big number tag sidecovers passed on the illusion that you could actually wrestle this behemoth around a motocross track but it was just an illusion. There's absolutely no doubt that a modern WR450F would eat it for lunch off-road, but that wasn't the idea behind the XT500. It was a commuter that you could take fireroading on the weekends, then pack up and take the summer to ride the Alaska Highway. And it was so doggone beautiful!
#6: Yamaha XS650. This bike was a complete revelation. The Japanese took a Triumph Bonneville, fixed absolutely every single thing (of the many things) that was wrong with it, engineered single pieces where the Brits would use sixteen screws, seven brackets and two cotter pins, and ended up with a powerful, attractive, great handling, utterly reliable and oil-tight motorcycle for the ages. Since the Japanese could never stop messing with their great models, this was soon turned into the TX650 which destroyed the classic styling and the elemental essence of the bike.
#5: Honda CBX1000. It's no wonder that one of these six-cylinder masterpieces in good condition will fetch today at least four times its original dealership price. Just look at that angled engine and those amazing six exhaust tubes cascading out in a waterfall of chrome. Why Honda would decide the next year to cover all that magnificent motorwork in a cheap Rickman-type fairing will always astound me. The only change I would have made to the original CBX would have been to issue it with six into six exhausts. Now that would have turned even more heads in those days!
#4: Kawasaki 1500 Vulcan 2nd Generation. The first V-twin Vulcans were an embarrassment. Their styling was only acceptable if covered up with a tarp. They had this exact clone of a Sportster headlight brow that was butchered by sticking a chromed probe up from the top of it. They shared the Virago's idiotic chrome coffee can forward of the lead cylinder that looked like it was just screwed on there since they couldn't find anywhere else for it. And what were they thinking when they put the rear cylinder exhaust port on the left? Ugly and stupid all around. Kawi learned from their mistakes and by the millennium had a remarkable V-twin on the market, a truly righteous cruiser that any long-time Hawg rider would be proud to ride. The 2nd Generation 1500 Vulcan was the first real Japanese cruiser and some argue that it's still the best.
#3: Honda 1000 Gold Wing. Another bomb-shell revelation motorcycle from the masters at Honda. When I first saw a spy photo of this amazing four cylinder boxer, I thought that it was a wooden mockup, and that no motorcycle could possibly have that incredible configuration. It turned out to be very real, and formed the basis for all modern touring motorcycles. Even Harley had to admit that the full dresser a la Gold Wing was the right formula and came out with its TourGlides to complement the classic ElectraGlides. From the fuel tank under the seat, to the bulletproof shaft drive, to that oh so sweet powercurve from those horizontally opposed cylinders, the original Gold Wing is truly Golden.
#2 Honda 90. I know I'm going to catch loads of heat for placing this utilitarian snoozefest as the second best Japanese motorcycle, but hear me out. If you weren't alive in the early Sixties you cannot possibly understand what this silly little step-through with its scrawny horizontal cylinder did to the psyche of the American public. It introduced two wheeling to a nation that thought all bikers were renegade Marlon Brandos on Triumphs. The Honda 90 demonstrated that motorcycling could be a clean, healthy, fun, polite way to head on down the road and that changed motorcycling in America forever. "It's not a big motorcycle, just a groovy little motorbike, it's more fun that a barrel of monkeys, that two wheel bike, First gear, it's alright, second gear, lean right, third gear, hang on tight..."
And the number one, best standard Japanese street-legal motorcycle of all time is... The New York Steak!
#1: Kawasaki Z1 900. Wow. Just wow. It's been over 35 years and the Z1 still floors you. The fluidity of the fuel tank flowing into the seat with that naughty kickup and then whooshing out to the taillamp. That muscular and brawny black and chrome monster of an engine, it all leaves you breathless. Kawi engineers code named it The New York Steak because they knew that they were building it to appeal to the American market. And so it did! The Z1 was everything that the Honda 750 never was, it was blindingly fast, stunningly beautiful and hit all the right buttons. In the early Seventies, Kawasaki owned the dragstrips with their vibrating violent widowmakers, the two stroke three cylinder H1 and H2 that had all of the explosiveness and the reliability of a grenade with the pin pulled. The Z1 could spank an H1 at the strip and still yield a comfortable ride that would have you checking the map for the best scenic route to the opposite coast of the continent. Straight out of the dealership, the bike could break 155 mph. With a few tweaks, it owned superbike racing for more than a decade. Of all the standard street-legal Japanese motorcycles ever built, the Kawasaki Z1 900 is the undisputed all time champion.
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