That night remains indelibly etched in my mind. It was a Friday night at about 10pm in December 1971 and I was heading home from a movie at the 20th Century Cinema in Nairobi on my Yamaha 180cc 2-stroke twin.
Just after Panafric Hotel this monster of a motorcycle came on to Valley Road from the direction of the Starlight Club. The rider had a female pillion on board, but they pulled away from me up the hill with consummate ease and the four-cylinder engine produced the most melodious grunt I had ever heard. This motorcycle was the Honda CB750 and must have been one of the few that had just been imported by Sohan Singh, the local Honda dealers.
Until 1969, the British motorcycle industry could console itself with the thought that, while Japan was the source of lots of small bikes, if a rider wanted adult-strength motorcycling with 100 percent testosterone certification, he had to buy a hot, vibrating British twin from Triumph, BSA or Norton.
Over the years many articles had been written about the “all-conquering” MV Augusta four-cylinder racers, but there was no point in lusting after anything of its kind because economics forbade it. Four-cylinder machines were exotic and sounded great but were inherently too expensive for the market.
Edward Turner, the designer of the original British twin, the 500 Speed Twin of 1937, visited Japan in 1960. At the time it was fashionable to regard Japan as “a nation of copyists” churning out cheap goods by sweat-labour.
What Turner found instead was the most modern and highly automated production lines, backed by well-equipped R&D labs, staffed with graduate engineers. He knew the Japanese were coming to world markets because Honda had run 125cc twins in the Isle of Man TT the year before and, had followed that with 250cc four-cylinder factory racers in the spring of 1960.
For nine years Honda campaigned an expensive foray in top-level Grand Prix road racing to bring attention to their engineering prowess. The decision to pull out of Grand Prix racing at the end of 1967 certainly eased the company’s bottom line (further boosted by the end of their hugely expensive and largely unsuccessful Formula 1 campaign the following year), but it meant an uncharacteristic absence from the limelight.
Soichiro Honda was not one to sit still for long. Honda went back to the drawing board. By February 1968, Soichiro had appointed Harada to head a team of about 20 engineers to come up with something big and fast after visiting the markets in USA and Europe. On October 28, 1968, a turquoise blue and gold 736cc prototype appeared at the Tokyo Motor Show.
The production candy gold model CB750 was unveiled in April 1969 at the Brighton Motorcycle Show in the UK. It ticked every box: four-cylinders, single overhead camshaft (SOHC), five-speed synchromesh gearbox, electric starter, a single disc front brake and to crown it all, a competitive price. This was the first time that a disc brake had been available as standard equipment on a production motorcycle.
Technically, the engine was a marvel of straightforward thinking and precision engineering. The crankshaft was a forged one-piece item with 36mm big-end diameters with slipper bearings and five main bearings.
Effectively two 180-degree twins, the outside pistons reached top dead centre together and fired on alternate strokes, while the middle pair did likewise. Honda chose a slightly under-square layout (60mm x 63mm) to keep the engine as narrow as possible.
For once, here was a motorcycle with clean lines, outstanding colour schemes, clean instrumentation, easy maintenance and one that did not leave dribbles of oil everywhere you went!
With accolades still ringing from the motor shows, demand far outstripped production. As tumult from the CB750’s release engulfed the USA and Europe, Honda struggled to up production to 2,000 units per month and importers waited impatiently. The Honda CB750 had re-written the script of motorcycling at a price that was affordable.
Arguably the Honda CB750 was the first superbike as we know it today, but Honda did not “productionise” their racers each of whose cylinders had four tiny valves moved by gear-driven double overhead camshafts (DOHC) all implemented with a watchmaker’s precision. Honda knew that cutting parts cuts production costs, so two valves took the place of four, and SOHC the place of DOHC. Instead of expensive gear drives as in the racers, chains drove both camshafts and gearbox. The CB750’s four mufflers resonated well with the public who had so many times seen the images of four jutting megaphones of victorious Honda racers.
Solidifying the reputation of the new machine was Dick Mann’s emphatic win of the 1970 Daytona 200-mile road race on a tuned version of the CB750.
This year marks the 50th anniversary since the launch of the iconic Honda CB750.
The British motorcycle industry directed by finance men rather than engineers and realists, made the predictable mistakes and failed to read the writing on the wall. In a short while that industry melted away.
Today two basic motorcycle types predominate the market; twins and four-cylinder machines, thanks to the Honda CB750 of 1969 that changed motorcycling forever.
The Honda CB750 is one of the most collectible classic motorcycles today. A good restored example will fetch up to £20,000.
Last year a pre-production 1968 model fetched £161,000 to become the most expensive Japanese motorcycle ever sold at auction.