Updated: Aug 20, 2021
These are the road bikes that were hot fifty years ago when motorcycles in the 650 to 750cc class were as fast and as powerful as it was possible to get. When 120mph and 60 horsepower were superbike figures. These shots of bikes that were top of the class as we entered the 1970s will bring on the nostalgia for those who were riding back then and possibly raise a patronizing smile from those riding machines from only a decade or so later, let alone today's two-wheeled rocket-ships. We've chosen a selection of the fastest big bikes that were on sale from the mid-sixties but still amongst the top dogs throughout 1971 and also included three 500cc models that punched above their weight, .
BSA A65 LIGHTNING CLUBMAN
The BSA A65 twins were in production for a full decade from 1962 until the BSA company folded at the end of 1972. The 650cc Lightning, especially in Clubman production racer trim (above) was one of the most powerful options and highly desirable in the UK. Especially as Mike Hailwood had won an important production machine race on one at Silverstone in 1965, beating Phil Read on a factory Triumph Bonneville in the process. The Lightning Clubman was only produced in 1964 and '65 and just 200 examples were made. Which meant that it and other A65 high performance options like the Spitfire, were still some of the hottest bikes in the UK at the start of the new decade.
Meanwhile, over in the USA, the Hornet street scrambler (below) was a popular choice, especially on the West Coast where riders loved its desert racer styling. In fact, a stripped-down version purely for off-road racing was a BSA catalogue option. The Hornet engine was equipped with the same high-performance parts as the Lightning and was winning on the American half-mile and mile track dirt ovals until the mid-1970s in the hands of riders like Dick Mann, Jim Rice, David Aldana and Don Emde.
BSA ROCKET 3
The BSA Rocket 3 (below) was a three-cylinder 750cc machine introduced in 1968 and produced until 1972 along with its near identical sibling, the Triumph Trident. Over 27,000 of the BSA Triumph triples were made during that period. They laid claim to being the first superbikes and that was backed up by a win in the 1970 Isle of Man Production TT by Malcolm Uphill on a street-legal Trident and in the 1971 Daytona 200 Mile race in the USA by Dick Mann on a racing version of the Rocket 3.
By 1971, the Rocket 3 had been restyled and lost its distinctive 'ray gun' silencers. The model below is the US market version with high rise handlebars and small 'peanut' fuel tank.
The Triumph Trident was at first distinguished from its BSA Rocket 3 sibling by its upright, cylinders, whereas those on the BSA were inclined forward to try and make the point to the motorcycling public that BSA and Triumph were still two different brands. When it came to the triples, of course, nobody was going to believe that, even though further down the range with the 650s and 500s it was still the case until the whole BSA Triumph edifice came crumbling down at the end of 1972.
The Triumph Trident (above) also got a styling makeover in 1971 and, as a result, acquired the same forward-inclined cylinders as its BSA Rocket 3 counterpart.
The Triumph Bonneville 650cc twin first appeared in 1959 and even outlasted the collapse of the BSA Triumph conglomerate in 1972, It was produced under different ownership until 1983 and the brand name was so strong that it was utilised again by the resurrected Triumph company in 2001 for a modern machine with very similar looks to the 1960s icon (above). The original bike was given its name as a tribute to the 214.40mph world record set in 1956 by Texan Johnny Allen on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA, driving a streamliner powered by a Triumph 650 twin. In the late 1960s the Bonneville was the most successful production racer with several international long-distance endurance race wins to its credit - including the 1969 Production TT on the Isle of Man. That was won by Malcolm Uphill who became the first man to lap the fearsome Mountain Circuit at over 100mph on a street-legal production machine. Incidentally, Malcolm repeated his IOM success in 1970 on a Triumph Trident triple.
TRIUMPH 500 DAYTONA TWIN
The 500cc Triumph Daytona twin (below) was the fastest 500 on the planet until the two-stroke Kawasaki triple took over in 1969. Its performance came from lessons learned on the racing model that twice won America's most prestigious race, the Daytona 200 Miles, firstly thanks to Buddy Elmore in 1966 and then Gary Nixon a year later.
The BMW R-Series models with the air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, flat twin 'boxer' engines have always had their devotees and now have a cult-like following. This is the 1970 750cc version.
Up until it began planning a 500 V-twin as a Grand Prix racer in 1970, Ducati had only manufactured single-cylinder bikes with a maximum capacity of 450cc, and they could not compete against the multi-cylinder sport bikes that were starting to appear in the marketplace. But while laying down the plans for the 500 GP machine the Italian brand's management decided to simultaneously develop and produce its first sport bike. The first design sketches for the 750 GT V-twin were made by Fabio Taglioni in mid-1970 and in the winter of the same year the first prototype was ready. Initially conceived with large front drum brakes, Taglioni later opted for a single-disc front brake for the first production models (below) that were on sale by the summer of 1971. They were very well received and the 90-degree V-twin concept turned the company's fortunes around, Especially after a 1-2 domination of the important Imola 200 race by Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari on a new 750SS.
MOTO GUZZI V7 SPORT
The Moto Guzzi V7 Sport had a 750cc V-twin engine with its opposed cylinders set across the frame. It had performance to match its racy looks and shared the top of the Italian tree with the Ducati 750GT when they both went sale in 1971. Later on it had various performance enhancing modifications and was renamed the Le Mans after the famous French endurance race. Contrary to he legend that has grown up around that renaming, the Guzzi Le Mans never did win that race or any other endurance classic. The best that a V7 ever did in Europe was a fourth place in the Barcelona 24 Hours for the earlier Sport Model. A Le Mans did win the 1977 UK Production Machine series, however, and in the USA the bikes tuned by Reno Leoni and Dr. John Wittner won numerous times in the American Motorcycle Association's Pro Twins series in the hands of riders like Mike Baldwin and Doug Brauneck.
HARLEY DAVIDSON SPORTSTER
The Harley Davidson Sportster may not look very sporting to European eyes but to the thousands of diehard Harley fans it looked ready to rock. And with 6obhp on tap it drag raced with the best. You could choose options like the small gas tank on the model below that emphasised the dragster look so important for those traffic light tournaments.
HONDA CB750 FOUR
When it was first revealed in 1969 the four-cylinder, single overhead camshaft Honda CB750 changed the face of motorcycling overnight. and eclipsed the BSA Triumph triples. In 1970 it underlined its performance capabilities when Dick Mann rode one to victory in America's 'great race' - the Daytona 200 Miles. Six months earlier, however, two young French riders had already proved that the CB750 had both performance and staying power when they won the Bol d'Or 24 Hours race.
KAWASAKI H1 MACH III 500 TRIPLE
In 1969 the Kawasaki H1 Mach III astounded the motorcycling world with the performance of its 500cc three-cylinder two-stroke engine. It was on a par with any rival 750 back then and was the fastest 500cc production bike in the world. Motorcycle Files publisher, Bruce Cox, made that official when he took one to the Bonneville Salt Flats as part of a road test for his Motor Cycle Weekly (USA) newspaper in 1969 and went back to the office having set the record at 117+mph.
SUZUKI T500 TWIN
Introduced in 1968, the 500cc Suzuki T500 (the Cobra or Titan, as it was named in certain and various markets) was the first large capacity two-stroke of the modern era. Its powerful twin cylinder engine was used in the factory's TR500 racers in races like the Daytona 200 Miles with a best-ever placing in that Florida classic being a second for Ron Grant in 1969. Elsewhere on the US Championship trail that year, in 100-degree heat at Sears Point, California. Art Baumann took the first-ever win by a two-stroke in that series. This was followed by he and teammate, Grant taking a 1-2 victory sweep in pouring rain at Seattle International Raceway. Over in Europe a couple of years later, there was another 'first' for the 500 Suzuki twin when Jack Findlay won the 1971Ulster GP = the first big class Grand Prix win for a tw0-stroke. And in 1973, Jack set yet another milestone marker by taking the bike to the win in the Senior TT - again a 'first time' for a big class two-stroke. Finally, Barry Sheene, who was heading for the World Championship heights in 1973. used his Seeley-framed TR500 for most of his 1973 races that won him the inaugural FIM 750 Cup Championship.
YAMAHA XS1 TWIN
The Yamaha XS1 was a twin cylinder 650 with single overhead camshaft. It was launched in 1969 and remained in production for ten years in various versions including custom models. A 750cc version of its parallel twin engine was what was used to propel Kenny Roberts dirt track racers during the 1973 & 1974 seasons when he won consecutive American Motorcycle Association's Grand National Championship series,