Ah, the 1960s: incredible music, the rise of youth culture, a changing world, in more ways than one. If the British were ruling the music scene, then their influence over motorcycling was starting to take a beating both from within – short-sighted management and a lack of investment – and from the inexorable rise of the Japanese. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, and the 1960s will be remembered for some fantastic motorcycles from all corners of the world that are still fondly remembered today. If the decade started with the continuation of existing models, by the end of the decade, things were almost unrecognizable with old names and models having disappeared and new names coming to the fore. Motorcycling would never be the same again.
10 1959 Triumph Bonneville T120: The Icon Of The 1960s
Triumph Bonneville T120 in blue and orange, facing right
Possibly the most iconic motorcycle of the 1960s, the Triumph Bonneville continued that company’s reputation for style and performance that had started with the original Speed Twin in 1938, under the watchful dictatorship of Edward Turner. The Bonneville was Turner’s last hands-on production design and came to define the 1960’s motorcycling scene. Always handsome and fast, but not always the best handling bike, a fact that gave rise to the Triton café racer – a Triumph engine in a Norton ‘Featherbed’ frame. The name came from Johhny Allen’s record attempts at the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Triumph-engined streamliner, which resulted in a speed of 214 mph in 1956.
9 1961 Honda CB77: The Bike That Educated The British
Honda CB77 in black, standing in a field
Looking back, it is hard to appreciate the impact the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers had on the industry in the 1960s. Even then, the threat was underestimated, the British seeing the Japanese as a benefit, thinking that models such as the CB77 would start people off on motorcycling before turning to the larger British machines of 500cc and 650cc, a class that the Japanese seemingly weren’t interested in. The CB77, or Super Hawk, had a twin-cylinder, 305cc engine that developed 28 horsepower, giving it excellent performance for its size, not to mention reliability. It was the first Honda with a tubular steel frame, unlike the pressed steel of earlier models. The engine was a stressed member of the frame, and the model would reach 100 mph, matching British bikes with over twice the displacement. The writing was on the wall, but the British were too blind to see it.
8 1962 Ducati Scrambler: Setting The Stage For The Future Of Motorcycles
Original Ducati Scrambler
This is a case of the tail wagging the dog or, to put it another way, a particular market dictating what a manufacturer should build. The Berliner Corporation in the U.S. sold a lot of European motorcycles, especially Italian motorcycles, and when it identified a market for a road-going scrambler model, it persuaded Ducati that this is exactly what they should build. The resulting Ducati Scrambler, based on the Diana model, was initially available in 250cc and 350cc versions, with a bevel-drive single cylinder engine. Later, a 450cc version would have bevel drive and Ducati’s famed Desmodromic valve actuation. While not a dedicated off-road model, the Scrambler was massively important for Ducati in the U.S. and paved the way for what was to come in the 1970s and beyond.
7 1964 Ducati Mach 1: The Fastest Of Its Kind
Ducati Mach 1 in red, facing right
Long before the V-Twin engine, Ducati was manufacturing potent single-cylinder engines with bevel drive to the overhead camshaft. Producing 27.5 horsepower, The Mach 1 was the fastest 250cc road motorcycle of its time, with a top speed of just over 100mph. Ducati equipped the Mach 1 with all the go-faster goodies any red-blooded enthusiast of the time wanted: clip-on handlebars, rear set foot pegs, and a racing single seat, not to mention fantastic performance and excellent braking. Only 2,000 were ever built, and one, ridden by Mike Rogers, gave Ducati its first victory at the Isle of man TT races in 1969, in the Production TT.
6 1965 Royal Enfield Continental GT250: The Cafe Racer To Have
Royal Enfield Continental GT250 in red, facing left
By the 1960s, the café racer was becoming ever more popular being, in effect, the race replica of its day and exclusively home-built by the simple expedient of fitting clip-on handlebars, rear set foot pegs and a single seat to a standard production motorcycle. Other home mechanics went further, combining different engines and frames to marry the best qualities of both (see Triumph Bonneville T120 above). Then, in 1965, Royal Enfield announced what would be subsequently recognized as the first ‘factory custom’, the Continental GT250, an off-the-showroom-floor café racer, featuring a 250cc, 20 horsepower single-cylinder engine and all the essential café racer bits and pieces. Good for 85mph, it was stylish and fast and unique.
5 1967 Norton Commando: The Norton Brand’s Swan Song
Norton Commando front three-quarter shot
In the 1960s, 500cc and 650cc were seen as the top displacement limits for the parallel-twin engine design, but Norton had already gone to 750cc with the 1962 Atlas model. By this time, engine vibration was chronic and a far cry from the smooth 500cc engines of similar design. To combat this, the engine and gearbox of the new Commando were rubber mounted to isolate the rider from the vibrations. It didn’t cure the inherent problem and badly adjusted rubber Isolastic (as they were called) mounts could affect handling, but the Commando 750 and later 850 were fine motorcycles and the model lasted through to 1977.
4 1968 Yamaha DT1: The First Off-Road Ready Motorcycle
Yamaha DT1 in white, facing right
While the Ducati Scrambler was more of an off-road-styled road bike, the Yamaha DT-1 was designed to plug an important gap, that of the factory-built, off-road-ready production bike. Up to that point, enthusiasts either had to modify existing road bikes or invest in expensive specialized machines from the likes of Bultaco or Husqvarna. The Yamaha DT-1 was a factory-built road-legal trail bike that needed no modification for off-road leisure or competition riding – the world’s first such motorcycle. The engine was a 246cc, 18 horsepower, single cylinder that was mounted in a rugged frame with good ground clearance. Light and excellent off-road, it started a trend that still exists today.
3 1968 Triumph Trident: The Three-Cylinder Bike
Shot of a Triumph Trident standing in a warehouse
By the mid-1960s, it was apparent to some in the British motorcycle industry that the threat from Japanese manufacturers was more serious than commonly thought. Also, the Triumph twin engine was getting very long in the tooth, and a replacement was needed. Doug Hele and Bert Hopwood, Triumph’s chief engineers, effectively grafted another cylinder onto the parallel twin to create an inline three-cylinder. Management showed little support until rumors of Honda’s forthcoming four-cylinder bike caused them to force it into production before it was properly ready. While this caused teething problems, there was little doubt that the triple was a huge step forward, being smooth and powerful. Styling was another matter and it wasn’t until the 1970s that things improved in this department. By then, sadly, the writing was on the wall for Triumph, but that didn’t stop the Trident being a very good bike for the time.
2 1969 Honda CB750: The Influence Of The Future
A studio shot of a Honda CB750 from the early 70s
Quite simply, the motorcycle that foreshadowed the next 50 years of motorcycling engineering, and that influence shows no sign of abating yet. When it arrived in 1969, the Honda CB750 confounded the British motorcycle manufacturers, who thought that the Japanese would continue to build small-displacement motorcycles and leave larger engined motorcycles to them. Immediately, it moved motorcycling forward, being smooth, powerful, reliable, oil tight and technically advanced, with reliable electrics, electric start, and a front disc brake. 500,000 of the CB750 ‘K’ models were sold in just nine years, by which time, the British were gone, albeit temporarily, and motorcycling would never be the same again.
1 1969 Kawasaki H1 Mach 3:
Studio shot of the 1969 Kawasaki H1 Mach 3
Even though this piece is titled ’60’s bikes that are still great to ride, that might not completely count in the case of the H1. It was nicknamed the Widowmaker for good reason, as its willowy frame was not up to the task of containing the brutal power delivery of the 500cc, 60-horsepower two-stroke triple-cylinder engine. Perfect for the stop light to stop light drag race – if you could keep the front wheel on the ground! – things weren’t so rosy when a corner came into view, when the whippy frame and drinking-straw front forks were simply too weak for predictable handling. Apart from that, however, build quality was excellent, as was reliability, and by the time the 750cc Mach lV model came along in 1972, most of the handling problems had been sorted out, even if it was faster and more hooligan than ever.