2014 Martin Motorsports Modern Classics Show
Walter Barlow is back with another excellent writeup, this time covering 30 years of motorcycling history at the Martin Motorsports Modern Classics Show. I’ll let him take it away from here.
30 Years In Twenty Pictures From The Martin Motorsports Modern Classics Show 2014
Martin Motorsports. a fine multi-line dealer in Boyertown Pa. has for the last 4 years put on a motorcycling show they call “the Modern Classics”, a one day indoor show highlighting the iconic motorcycles of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. And, as they say “These are the bikes that made you a motorcyclist”. Certainly true for me, and I know for many others as well.
The show is my sometimes riding harbinger of, if not Spring, a sign that the regular riding season is near. Sadly this year, with 24 degrees showing on the thermometer when I left home for the 70 mile trip, was a “drive to” rather than a “ride to” occasion. Not only was it cold, but there was the usual (and hated) fine salt residue on the road that curses us in the Northeast during the winter, even as it winds down.
Each show has been terrific in and of itself and a great way to kick off what for many folks is the promise of a new riding season. Each year is a different theme/featured class, and this year’s was two-stroke powered motorcycles.
I thought it would be interesting to try to tell a quick American-biased history of the 3 decades in 20 pictures of bikes that were at the show. There’ll be a link at the end to a slideshow of all the pictures I took.
First a little background-setting. As the 60’s dawned, US motorcycling was dominated by the British motorcycling industry and Harley-Davidson. The legendary Triumph, BSA, and Norton were at the top of the sales heap; Royal Enfield, Matchless, AJS, and Velocette were on the 2nd rung, but heading towards oblivion.
AMC and Ariel were all but dead. BMW was around with stolid black and white bikes, as were various European brands in the lower displacement and dirt arenas.
Having said all that, the first bikes I’ll characterize as “bridge bikes”– developed and first sold in the 50’s but carried through into the 60’s.
The Harley Duo-Glide first came out in 1958, earning the new name because it gained a new frame that featured an actual rear suspension of shocks/springs– only 9 years after its predecessor (HydraGlide) gained hydraulic forks.
Our second bridge bike is a Triumph (58 Tiger?). Its roots go back to Edward Turner’s 1937 Speed Twin, and its branches carried forward through to the mid 70’s. Like the other large displacement twins from the other Brit manufacturers, they were generally stylish and good looking, pretty fast, decent handling, were reasonably comfortable, and stopped ok for their day.
They also vibrated to varying degrees of annoyance, often marked their territory to an embarrassing degree, were not particularly well made, and as a consequence were not paragons of reliability.
Though they were having sales success, they were having it with ancient designs, technology, and (most ominous) a way of thinking about the business that went as far back as the 1930’s and were treating the business as a cash cow and not investing in the future. Essentially, they owed a lot of their success to the fact that there weren’t a lot of alternatives.
The Japanese started exporting bike to the US towards the end of the 50s, concentrating on the low end of the market, but providing pretty well made quality machines along with the almost comic styling they had. Even as they climbed the displacement ladder, increased performance, and got a better sense of design aesthetic, the old line manufacturers didn’t get it. One of the Triumph execs, in a remarkable display of hubris, in the 60’s was even quoted as saying he welcomed Japanese competition as it would create a better market for them as people graduated to “real motorcycles”.
Anyway, the beginning of the end started with Honda’s “Nicest People” campaign and though the corpse went through the motions for a few years afterwards, the coffin nails really started with debut of the CB750 at the end of the decade.
So a few bikes from the 60’s
Though this one isn’t stock, the 350 Honda Twin was a early warning shot across the bow of the Brits that the Japanese would be going upmarket. It also presaged what would turn out to be a very popular type of bike– the street scrambler: basically a street bike with high pipes, a braced handlebar, and dual sportish tires.
Bridgestone (yes the tire folks) was a quality motorcycle manufacturer in the 60’s, and made some very high performance bikes in the in the 100-350cc categories. They also supplied tires to the other Japanese OEMs. Allegedly discussions took place, and Bridgestone had to decide if they wanted to continue to supply tires or produce motorcycles.
If Scramblers were the stylin’ dirt-looking bikes of the 60’s, Yamaha basically created the dual-sport market as we came to know it with the introduction of the DT series. Pretty soon every manufacturer was in what became a huge market segment, but Yamaha maintained its early advantage for many years.
There was also a small contingent of riders whose motorcycling itch could only be scratched by Euro bikes, usually in smaller displacements in a single or twin configuration. Ossa, Bultaco, Ducati, Moto Guzzi, CZ and others. though most of them are no longer in business their reputations remain, as does owner loyalty. Though the small Ducatis are probably the best known with the largest “fan club”, probably no bike’s reputation was more burnished than the Bultaco Metralla .
A twofer of Brits. A Norton P11 Ranger on the large end of the street scrambler market (and representative of bikes known as “desert sleds”- large capacity usually British bikes for desert racing) and a shaker for the ages: and a BSA 441 Victor representing what was decidedly becoming old guard- the roadgoing single “big bike”. It sure had a pretty tank though..
You can’t mention the 60’s motorcycling without mentioning the CB750 – considered by many the most significant motorcycle of the 20th Century.
Ok, the sharp-eyed will holler that this is an early 70’s model, but the bike, though subtly refined over the years, was essentially the same as when it first came out.
Ok, leaving the 60’s with a couple of bikes that were introduced then but are bridges to the 70’s
The “Widowmaker” Kawasaki 500cc Mach III — the fiercest performing straight line bike to come out of the 60’s- for $999. This is a later model (74 iirc), which was a slightly more civilized version of the original.
The Suzuki 500cc Titan (originally called Cobra until Ford protested) was a long time largest mainstay Suzuki roadbike that was introduced in 1967 and lasted until 1977. Though initially positioned as a Superbike, the changing market positioned it below that class. Suzuki produced tens of thousands of these during its run, and a modified version has the distinction of being the first two stroke to win an AMA Class C road race.
If the Mach III was the “Widowmaker” the 70’s Mach IV had to be the “WIDOWMAKER” lol. I always liked this color and graphic combination.
Suzuki went with both more cylinders and bigger displacements with their two strokes in the GT series: air cooled (using ram-air technology) 380 and 550cc triples and a fine water cooled 750cc triple that put to rest many of the negatives usually associated with two strokes, and in the case of the 750 was as as good a touring bike as anything in the 70s that didn’t carry a Gold Wing badge. Affectionately (I suppose) known as Water Buffalos in the US and Kettles in the UK, the 750 was the first large scale production bike to offer dual disc front brakes and the first mass market two stroke to offer water cooling since the Scott Flying Squirrel.
Factory-made cafe racers were hot in the 70’s (at least to some of us). The hardest core was the Ducati SuperSport. here’s a 900SS version:
At the other pole was the BMW R90S. a fast and sophisticated road bike. In the mid-70’s (before the the inevitable rise of the Japanese brands) Ducati, BMW, and Moto Guzzi (to some extent) battled it out for the newly minted Superbike racing crown.
Also in the picture is a BMW from the 60’s. Not to ignore them, BMW built solid if unexciting roadbikes their entire history. The unexciting part ended with the R90S.
One more Cafe Racer– arguably the slowest one ever built (0-60 in eventually), but a superb handler. The Moto Morini 3 ½ .
From a streetbike perspective, the 70’s commercial landmark bikes were the UJMs- Universal Japanese Motorcycle: air-cooled 4 cylinder inline pipe frame with 1 or two disc brakes. Suitable for pretty much whatever you wanted to do with them; America’s garages got filled with CBs, GS, KZs, and XSs from 250cc to 1000cc. Here’s a cafe’d Honda 750, just one of the many things people did with UJMs (but mostly they rode them)
It took Honda a while to get serious (i.e. build two strokes) about off road competition bikes, but when they did, they rocked the world (again) with the CR125 and CR250 Elsinores in 1973. As revolutionary as the CB750 in 1969, they changed expectations about what people would expect in dirt bikes.
From a dedicated roadracing perspective, the decade basically began and ended with Yamaha – as no manufacturer stepped up and provided professional racers of all levels the tools to go racing and have at least a theoretical chance of winning. Yeah, other manufacturers were involved and built some race bikes you could buy; but the odds any week were that most of the winners would be on bikes with a tuning fork badge. TZs in 250, 350, and 750 sizes dominated their classes like no bikes before or since.
The end of the 70s looked very different from the beginning in fundamental ways:
– the Japanese owned the market, and BMW did ok in its niche.
– the British bike industry was dead (the Triumph Cooperative notwithstanding)
– H-D was struggling mightily, as were the Italian brands, which were variously funded by the Italian government or by Argentine industrialist Alejandro deTomaso. Husqvarna, CZ, Ossa, Bultaco and a couple other brands filled off road niches.
Some other changes taking place were that the Japanese started to figure out how to make bikes handle and, beginning with the Gold Wing, started market segmentation as we know it today.
While the 79s ended strong, the early through mid 80s got stagnant and bikes started piling up on dealership floors. Japan was convicted of product dumping and a tariff was put on bikes over 700cc for a declining schedule of 5 years- essentially an extra tax to provide Harley-Davidson with some breathing room as they were struggling to get going again after the management bought the company back from AMF. It worked- and H-D asked that the tariff be stopped a year ahead of schedule in 1987.
Criticize the politics if you want, but realize that virtually every country uses tariffs to protect home industries. There’s a real good synopsis of the tariff story here. Read it before you complain.
Ok moving on, here are some notables from the 80’s that were at the show.
Cruisers, and power cruisers in particular, were one of the segments that the Japanese manufacturers mined very successfully. They basically took standard models and installed peanut shaped tanks, buckhorn handlebars, slightly extended forks, skinnier front and fatter rear tires, and a very stepped seat. Each company had a family of them, usually starting at very small displacement level and going up through the open class.
The Kawasaki cruiser model range was called CSR and ranged from 305cc to 1000cc. This was the CSR1000
This was also the time that Sportbikes as we know them today were first produced. Kawasaki, which always traded on its performance reputation, hit marketing gold with the Ninja name- arguably the most recognizable name in motorcycling today (for better and worse). Bike-urious recently featured the 900.
The 600 and 750 were top notch as well. The name only stuck because they bikes worked so well.
Bike-urious also recently featured a pair of 500cc two strokes from Yamaha (RZ) and Suzuki (RG) which were about as close to GP spec machines as you could buy. Shown here next to an RZ500 is a Yamaha RZ350 (– a water cooled two-stroke that (afaik) was the last street legal smoker for sale in the US (thanks to having the first motorcycle catalytic converters). They came in traditional Yamaha roadracing red/white as well as this yellow/black Kenny Roberts Edition.
Yamaha 350s had been breaking the hearts of larger displacement-riding sportbikers since the mid 70’s- the RZ continued the tradition.
In partial response to the “Harley Tariff” the Japanese manufacturers all came out with 700cc versions of what were generally their 750s. With clever engineering and some tweaking these bikes lost little or no performance compared to their 750cc brethren, most of which were produced alongside the 700s and sold at a premium that from a performance pov did not make financial sense. However, it did have the 750 badging.
One of the best of these “tariff beaters” was the Honda Nighthawk S, which went against the norm- being an enlarged 650 rather than a downsized 750. Shaft drive and hydraulic valves provided very low ownership costs. It still looks good and works well today.
One trend that started towards the end of the decade was fully enclosing bodywork. Bimota had several early bikes with this “egg style” bodywork, but it was brought somewhat to the mainstream with the Ducati 750 Paso in 1986, and then fully with Honda’s 600 and 1000 Hurricanes in 1987. Honda then went all-in with this design aesthetic took to an extreme with the Pacific Coast.
There’s a 1000 Hurricane in the background, but the Ducati 907 i.e. although a 90’s development of the 750 Paso, is visually similar to it..
Ok, it actually took 23 pictures, sue me LOL.
I should mention that Martin sells memorabilia from the show, including some real nice books of past years bikes. Contact them for information.
A slideshow (182 images in total, with no rhyme or reason) is available at
Pictures available at
Text and images from Walter Barlow.
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