Posted: 01 Jan 2012
Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson started making one-cylinder motorcycles in a wooden shed in Milwaukee in 1903, but it was their 1000cc machine in 1909 which started the company’s legendary association with V-twins.
As for the shed, it was kept in pristine condition for decades as a reminder of the company’s humble origins until it was accidentally demolished by contractors in the 1970s. Doh!
Christened the Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles by H D Teague of The Motor Cycle newspaper, 3,048 Brough Superiors were made, 1,000 of which exist today. The Nottingham company’s well-heeled customers included George Bernard Shaw and Lawrence of Arabia, who died after crashing the seventh one he owned.
Most were custom-built to the customer's requirements, and each motorcycle was assembled once for fitting all components, then taken apart and assembled a second time for painting and plating.
Every motorcycle was then test ridden, the SS100 model at 100 mph or more and the SS80 model at 80 mph or more before delivery. If any motorcycle did not meet specification, it was returned to the shop for work until it performed properly. Prices ranged from £130 to £180 in the 1920s and 1930s, more than the average house at a time when the normal weekly salary was £3 per week.
In 2010, an SS100 sold in the UK set a world auction record of £286,000.
Although this racing motorcycle, named after the spiky fins on its cylinder heads, won the 500cc World Championships in 1949, it had a reputation for being finicky and unreliable.
Only four of the E95 models were built, and in 2011 one sold at auction in the USA for $228,620, equivelant to £140,325.
Even rarer than the Brough Superior was the 998cc V-twin Black Shadow, a highly tuned version of the earlier Vincent Rapide.
With the use of aluminium alloy and an engine which was part of the frame, it was an exceptionally light 208kg, the same as a pre-war 500cc machine, and had a top speed of 125 mph.
Only 1,700 were built, and a mere 31 of the even rarer 150mph Black Lightning before financial problems stopped production in 1952.
After several of Norton’s so-called Garden Gate frames broke through the stress of racing, the firm commissioned self-taught Belfast engineer Rex McCandless and his brother Cromie to design a new one. It was tested by three-times Isle of Man TT winner and Norton test rider Harold Daniell, who promptly declared that it was like riding on a featherbed.
The name, and the legend was born. That summer, Geoff Duke won the Senior TT on the new design, setting a lap record of 93.33 mph and breaking the overall race record, finishing in two hours, 51 minutes and 45 seconds.
Today, the Mota-Electra company in the USA is racing a Featherbed with an electric motor; proof that the 62-year-old design still works.
In Italy, style is everything, and when the exquisite little two-stroke Vespa PX 125 came out in 1946, it was the perfect relief from postwar austerity.
And it still is: 17 million Vespa PX 125s have been sold worldwide since then, on the way becoming the symbol of mods, La Dolce Vita, rebellion, romance and freedom – not to mention becoming a movie star.
In 1952, Gregory Peck gave Audrey Hepburn a lift on one in the film Roman Holiday, resulting in over 100,000 sales. In 1956, John Wayne used one to get between takes on sets, and Charlton Heston did the same when Ben Hur was filmed in Rome in 1959.
Most of the PX models produced are still running today, with the look of the current model retaining the classic style envisioned by owners Piaggio when it filed a patent in 1946 for the original Vespa as “a motorcycle with rationally placed parts and elements with a frame combining with mudguards and engine-cowling covering all working parts", of which "the whole constitutes a rational, comfortable motorcycle offering protection from mud and dust without jeopardising requirements of appearance and elegance".
Also known as the Otto, this was designed for the 1955 to 1957 Grand Prix seasons.
The engine was an unprecedented water-cooled 500cc V8 with twin overhead cams and a separate carburettor for each of the eight cylinders. Weighing only 45kg on a bike which weighed a mere 148kg, it produced a remarkable 78bhp at 12,000 rpm, giving the Otto a top speed of 172 mph 20 years before the speed was reached again in Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
Tyres, brakes and suspensions, however, lagged behind the engine, making testing difficult and racing dangerous. The Otto crashed on its maiden run, several racers had spectacular tumbles on it, and some even refused to ride it. The engine also proved complex and expensive to build and maintain.
By 1957 there were two bikes available and no one willing to race them, and Moto Guzzi withdrew from racing entirely in the 1957 season.
With more than 60 million manufactured, the Super Cub is the best-selling motor vehicle in history. The original Cub was a clip-on bicycle engine, so when Honda launched its new 49cc four-stroke 10 years after the company started, it decided to keep the name but add the prefix Super.
In 1964, two more powerful versions were offered, the C65 and CM90, and in the 1980s, a 100cc model was introduced for the Asian market. And although the Cub hasn’t been as big a star as the Triumph Bonneville or the Vespa PX 125, it was the subject of the Beach Boys’ song Little Honda, and Top Gear presenter James May bought one for a special edition of the programme in Vietnam.
Named after the Bonneville Salt Flats, home to many motorcycle speed records, the Bonneville parallel twin was hugely popular in its early years for its performance compared to other British bikes, and established a cult status after appearing in a string of movies.
Famous film riders included Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff, and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
Bob Dylan crashed his in 1967, and in 1968 Evel Knievel used one for his attempt at jumping the Caesars Palace fountain. Knievel said he would have preferred to continue using the Bonneville but Triumph wouldn't sponsor him, whereas Harley-Davidson offered him money and free maintenance to use one of their machines.
Originally a 650cc parallel twin, it was boosted to 750cc in the early 1970s, and although sales suffered abroad because of Japanese and Italian competition in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the UK it remained the best-selling 750cc motorcycle and picked up the Motor Cycle News Machine Of The Year award in 1979.
And it was still starring in movies: Richard Gere, who bought a Bonneville with his first pay cheque while touring the UK with the Broadway production of Grease in the mid –Seventies, rode Bonnies in An Officer and A Gentleman and later in Mr Jones.
The current version, produced since 2001 by the modern successor of the original company, is a 900cc parallel twin which retains the looks of the original.
Honda introduced the CB750 motorcycle after success with their smaller motorcycles, targeting it mainly at a US market which demanded bigger bikes.
Offering unprecedented features for a mainstream affordable machine such as a front disc brake, an overhead cam straight four engine with an overhead camshaft, an electric starter, kill switch, dual mirrors, indicators and easily maintained valves, it caused a sensation.
Cycle magazine called it "the most sophisticated production bike ever" and Cycle World called it “a masterpiece because of a 120mph top speed, fade-free brakes and comfortable ride.” The bike sold more than 400,000 in its lifespan.
At its debut, the 916 was instantly admired because of its combination of stunning design and innovative technology to create a perfect marriage of form and function.
The beautiful single-sided swingarm also made wheel changes faster during races, and the underseat exhausts gave the bike very clean lines and lower wind resistance.
Although the V-twin engine had lower outright power than Japanese fours, it produced a smoother power delivery combined with a characterful sound.
Its designer, Massimo Tamburini, went on to design the equally beautiful MV Agusta F4. Both it and the 916 featured in the Guggenheim Museum's 1998 The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition.
Do you own one of these fantastic legendary bikes? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget that Bennetts offer bike insurance on all the top bike manufacturers.