Honda CB750

The big game changer

The Honda CB750

This is probably the most significant motorcycle of all time! Think about it, it marked the end of British big bike domination and began the Japanese multi cylinder revolution that continues to this day. Honda had already built an excellent reputation with smaller capacity bikes and racing successes before dropping this bombshell that floored the opposition. It had excellent build quality, superior performance and brakes, an electric start, a smooth running engine, didn't leak oil and you could ride it anywhere with the confidence that it would get you back again. What's more, it would start first time after you pressure washed it.

The CB750 engine set new standards for smoothness and reliability

A shock to the British system

The British bike industry and the hardcore followers it had built up over decades weren't going to give up without a fight though, the problem was, they didn't have anything to fight with! After years of complacency and spending very little on research and development or upgrading worn out production machinery and methods, this new attack on their market domination was something that they didn't really know how to deal with so they buried their heads in the sand. The hardcore British bike enthusiasts at first refused to even acknowledge that it was a real bike and often described it with derogatory comments such as "Jap Crap". Little did they know.

The first model, the 1969 K0, had vents in the sidecover and a different badge

Accepting the challenge

By the late sixties, Honda had already established itself as the world's largest manufacturer but the closest thing it had to a big bike was the underrated CB450 twin. This was a good bike with a gem of a motor but it didn't sell particularly well. Honda in the U.S. were pushing Soichiro Honda to build a bigger bike and he could see that the market was ready. Honda Japan had learned from a reliable source that Britain's Triumph was developing a high-performance model with a 3-cylinder 750 cc engine. This bit of news determined the engine specification. By October 1967, the outline for Honda's new larger capacity model had been defined: it would be powered by a 750 cc across the frame four cylinder engine having a maximum output of 67 horsepower (one more than Harley-Davidson's 1300 cc unit, whose maximum output was 66 horsepower). After a year's development the CB750 was set loose with retail price of US$1495. It first appeared in the Tokyo Show in November, 1968. After it was tested, Cycle magazine called it, "the most sophisticated production bike ever" and Cycle World said it was a "Masterpiece".

Not much by today's standards, but the front disc was groundbreaking at the time

A cultural change

Not long after the CB750 came out, the movie Easyrider was released and instantly became a cult classic. After this, every man and his dog wanted to own a big bike. The die-hard British bike fans didn't go away (and still haven't) but Easyrider made instant bike enthusiasts out of people who weren't brought up on British bikes. Harleys were expensive and suffered some of the problems of the British bikes so the logical choice was the Honda four and at that time there were no restrictions in engine size for first time license holders. It soon became a sales success establishing Honda as a technical innovator to go with the build quality and reliability reputation it had built up with its smaller bikes. There were Honda fours everywhere.

The film "Easyrider" greatly influenced bike sales


It was a fantastic bike but it wasn't perfect. When pushed it would wallow around coming out of corners. The suspension was pretty ordinary. Fitting a set of aftermarket shocks was a huge improvement and Konis were the top choice at the time. Despite its less than perfect handling, it was predictable; you always knew what it was going to do. Ground clearance was another problem. The rider's footpegs were low but the pillion pegs were mounted between the two mufflers and stuck out a lot further scraping on the road very easily. Most riders accepted the drawbacks as the amount of positives were overwhelming. The smooth running motor made for tireless all day touring, effortless starting at the push of a button, excellent braking from the new to the market disc, clockwork like reliability and an overall build quality that set new standards for others to aspire to.

Dick Mann on the CR750 at Daytona

Early racing

Soichiro Honda already knew that racing success sold motorbikes so he wanted to do something about beating the Triumphs and Harley Davidsons in the US. The Honda factory produced four works CR750s, a racing version of the CB750 for the March 1970 Daytona 200. A three bike Japanese team was formed with UK-based Ralph Bryans, Tommy Robb and Bill Smith being the riders. The fourth bike was ridden by Dick Mann and entered by a US team. The three Japanese-prepared machines all failed during the race with Mann just holding on to win by a few seconds with a failing engine. Dick Mann's Daytona-winning CR750 is on display at Le Musée Auto Moto Vélo, a transportation Museum in Châtellerault, France. Two 'official' Honda CB750s were also entered for the June, 1970 Isle of Man TT races, again ridden by Irishman Tommy Robb partnered in the team by experienced English racer John Cooper. The machines were entered into the 750 cc Production Class, a category for road-based machines allowing a limited number of strictly-controlled modifications. They finished in eighth and ninth places. Cooper was later interviewed in UK monthly magazine Motorcycle Mechanics, stating both riders were unhappy with their poor-handling Hondas, and that he would not ride in the next year's race "unless the bikes have been greatly improved".

A CR750 replica by Joe King Racing

In for the log haul

Despite it's shortcomings, the bike was a game changer setting the stage for an exiting new era. It remained in the Honda line up for ten years, with a production total over 400,000. When Honda first released the CB750, the goal was to capture part of the big bike market dominated by the British bikes and Harley in the US. The fact that they succeeded beyond probably their own expectations is history but I don't think that even Honda would have thought that their bike would start a revolution that would change the face of motorcycling forever.

Written by Paul Harmon
Bibliography: Honda Motor Co., Wikipedia

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