In today’s increasingly nerfed and safety-obsessed world, motorcycles remain one of the very few tried and true means of injecting some much-needed excitement and adventure into your day-to-day routine. And while practically every motorcycle ever produced affords feelings of freedom and raw speed, there are a handful of models that stand out from the pack, whether this is owed to innovative features or idiosyncratic setups or components. With motorcycles now having existed for well over a century, there’s been a slew of noteworthy models from a myriad of manufacturers and eras that have since garnered cult and/or legendary status.
As the saying goes, “it’s the things we don’t do in life that we regret most,” and this very much applies to piloting motorcycles. So, while you may not have the ability to add some of these iconic two-wheelers to your own personal stable, you still have the option to experience riding a great many of these bikes firsthand, whether this be through borrowing bikes from friends or utilizing rental services. So, with this in mind, we’ve pored over more than 100 years of moto production, hand-picking some of the most important and historically significant models to ever leave the factory in order to deliver this highly-curated guide to the best bucket list motorcycles to ride before you die.
Dreamed up by Alejandro de Tomaso — the legendary auto designer and the force behind iconic supercar models like the De Tomaso Pantera — the Benelli Sei is a standard-style motorcycle that’s kicked along by an air-cooled 747cc six-cylinder engine. Produced from ’72 through ’78, the Sei 750 — which is Italian for “six” — had a 76hp powertrain that was loosely modeled around Honda’s CB500 four-banger, albeit with an extra set of cylinders tacked onto the lump. The success of the Sei would also prompt other marques to follow suit with their own inline-six-powered bikes such as Honda with its CBX in ’78 and Kawasaki with its Z1300 the following year in ’79.
The Bimota Tesi was originally born out of a college project from the boutique firm’s designer Pierluigi Marconi, explaining its monicker which translates from Italian to “thesis.” This insanely idiosyncratic design aimed to improve cornering and handling characteristics and tried to accomplish this through the implementation of what’s called a “hub-center-steering” setup replacing a bike’s traditional front fork. This admittedly strange setup makes for a super unique riding experience, and while it didn’t end up revolutionizing motorcycle suspension in the way Bimota had hoped, it’s still well worth trying first hand if you ever get the chance. What’s more, more recently, Kawasaki bought out the small Italian marque and will soon be selling a modern supercharged Tesi H2 model with a similar hub-center-steering configuration.
Whether it’s Honda, Harley-Davidson, or Ducati, practically every major manufacturer currently produces an adventure motorcycle — a segment that can be traced back to a single bike; BMW’s original R80G/S. This modified version of the Bavarian brand’s R80 featured an off-road-friendly 21” front wheel and suspension with more travel, amongst a slew of other tweaks. Shortly after the bike made its debut, the R80G/S would go on to prove its immense all-terrain capabilities when it won the third-ever running of the now-infamous Dakar Rally — a win BMW celebrated with a special Paris-Dakar edition R80G/S (seen here). So, while it admittedly may be pretty long in the tooth compared to today’s Ténérés and 1290 Super Adventure Rs, as the grandfather of an entire class of motorcycles, the R80 “Gelände/Straße” (meaning “off-road/on-road”) is something every rider should experience for themselves at least once.
It may have only been around for a few years, but there really is nothing else on the road quite like the CAKE Kalk&. Weighing only 174lbs at the curb, this featherweight two-wheeler puts down an astounding 185.6ft-lbs of torque — at the rear wheel — which is absolutely insane. For reference, Ducati and Harley’s most powerful bikes make 91.5 and 130ft-lbs of torque, respectively, and do so while weighing hundreds of pounds more. Its lack of weight and unparalleled oomph make the Kalk& one of, if not the most fun motorcycles we’ve ever had the privilege of piloting. Its ridiculously svelte curb weight also allows you to perform maneuvers that you’d probably otherwise never try on a regular motorcycle such as hopping curbs and backing the rear wheel into corners. Simply put, do yourself a favor and make sure you get to experience one of CAKE’s Kalk& — or Kalk or Kalk OR — bikes in your lifetime.
Ducati 750SS “(Green Frame”)
Though Ducati had already been in operation for more than 20 years, it wasn’t until 1972 that the company first really appeared on the map of the global moto scene when Paul Smart rode one of Ducati’s 750 Imola Desmo racers to victory at that year’s Imola 200. As a tribute, the Borgo Panigale brand would produce a limited production version of Smart’s racer, resulting in the Super Sport 750 — affectionately referred to as a “Green Frame” (in this livery) for what should be obvious reasons. Now, if you were looking for an archetypal cafe racer that clearly demonstrated and defined the genre, you really can’t do any better than Ducati’s original Super Sport 750. Routinely selling for exorbitant amounts at auction, this model represents cafe racers in their purest form and as such offers a remarkably genuine experience that’s on par with what 1970s racers got to enjoy.
Ducati’s 916 is an objective moto masterpiece, as well as arguably the most influential sportbike of all time, continuing to have an impact on modern production superbikes to this very day. Mimicking a woman’s hourglass figure when viewed directly from above, the 916 was penned by the late great Massimo Tamburini — who was also appropriately known as the “Michelangelo of Motorcycles.” Everything from its ductwork to its single-sided swing-arm to its under-tail exhaust to flat-topped tank have all become common design elements on contemporary supersports and superbikes. As good as it looked, the bike performed even better — especially the later 996 and 998 generations which were updated but still retained the 916’s bodywork — making the 916 a must-ride if you ever get the opportunity (the homologation special SPS-spec even more so.)
Ducati Desmosedici RR
In 2003, Ducati made its debut in MotoGP with Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi at the helm of their (then) all-new GP3 prototype racers. Half-a-decade-later in 2007, Casey Stoner would buck and slide his Desmosedici GP7 on his way to Ducati Corse’s first-ever MotoGP world championship title. The next year, Ducati would mark the feat by doing the unthinkable and releasing an ultra-limited-edition road-going street-legal replica of its factory MotoGP prototype racer known as the Desmosedici RR — or “Race Replica.” While it did have to be slightly watered down to achieve road-legal status, make no mistake, the Desmo RR is nothing short of a full-on MotoGP race bike with a license plate and headlights tacked on. As such, we probably don’t have to explain why this six-figure, V4-powered beast of a motorcycle is on this list.
Harley-Davidson Fat Boy
Harley-Davidson’s motorcycles may not always boast the most impressive spec-sheets, though these American bikes undeniably afford their own unique feeling and experience that has long played a major role in it being the most popular manufacturer on its home continent by a decent margin. A great many riders recognize the appeal of these “hogs” from the curb, though others have to experience them firsthand to fully wrap their head around and appreciate the experience of taking part in a more-than-century-old American tradition. So, if you happen to be armed with your motorcycle license and haven’t yet ridden a Harley, we highly recommend doing so — it’s also quite easy considering the wide availability of bike rental services that carry the MoCo’s motorcycles — and with its iconic appearance, distinctive firing order, and relaxed riding position, the Fat Boy is a great place to start.
The CB750 admittedly wasn’t responsible for introducing any novel technologies or components, though it was nonetheless a bonafide watershed model, offering high-end features like dual front disc brakes, an electric starter, and an inline four-cylinder engine in an attractive and, more importantly, affordable package that was accessible to the average rider. A legitimately game-changing motorcycle, the “City Bike” was an instant success and would usher in a host of successors across a slew of engine sizes and configurations that still remain in production today. Considered by some to be the very first “Superbike,” the Japanese bike, at least in its stock form, can act as something of a two-wheeled time machine, allowing you to experience production motorcycles in their most cutting-edge form from half-a-century-ago — making this a must-ride bike for anyone that’s more than casually interested in vintage motorcycles.
Though it’s been almost three decades since the last unit left the factory, Honda’s NR750 still epitomizes the term “rolling exotica.” Penned by Mitsuyoshi Kohama, the NR750 was powered by an insanely advanced oval-piston four-stroke V-4 engine with titanium connecting rods, eight valves, and two fuel injectors, though its exotic nature didn’t stop there. Boasting a 160mph top speed, the NR also got carbon fiber bodywork, a single-sided swing-arm, and an equally advanced titanium-coated twin-spar, aluminum frame. The NR also featured distinctive side-mounted radiators to cool its advanced powerplant. With less than 330 units produced in total, you have to be particularly well-connected — or deep-pocketed — to experience the honor that it is to ride an NR750, though we’d still urge any riders to put this model on their moto bucket list.
Uneqivicoally representing one of Honda’s most elite and sought-after motorcycles across its entire history, the RC-30 — or VFR750 — was a spare-no-expense homologation special that the Honda Racing Corporation produced in an effort to gain supremacy in World Superbike competition. In order to compete in the series, Honda had to produce 300 limited production units that were available to the public in the late 1980s for a price of $15,000 — or $35,000 today when adjusted for inflation. Because of their popularity with collectors, the whereabouts of a surprising number of the 300 units produced are still known, and there are far more running examples than one would guess for such an old model, albeit an elite one. Add to that the fact that most RC30s are only valued at around $15K to $20K, riding — or even owning — one isn’t all that far-fetched of a possibility.
Not unlike Harleys, Indian’s motorcycles are another breed of bike that every rider should get the chance to toss a leg over at least once in their life. The Chief is a stellar model to pick, regardless as to whether you opt for a modern version or an antique model, as the former boasts classic looks while concealing some impressive modern tech while the latter affords a wholly unique riding experience characterized by its sense of freedom, all-day comfort, and adventure. It’s also worth noting that while the Chief is capable of around-town duties, this bike really lends itself to touring and as such performs best out on the open road. And, similarly to Harley-Davidson’s offerings, bikes from Indian Motorcycle are widely available through moto rental services and apps.
Kawasaki H2 750 Mach IV
Less-than-affectionately-known as the “widow-maker,” the Kawasaki H2 750 Mach IV was the fastest thing on the road (at least on two wheels) upon its release in ’72. At the heart of the bike was a three-quarter-liter two-stroke triple that generated gobs of torque and equally irresponsible horsepower figures. Its ridiculous power output was really what made this model special, and is also why we suggest every rider get to experience it themselves, as even compared to modern superbikes, the widow-maker is one seriously exhilarating ride. This is largely because the Mach IV’s chassis, brakes, and suspension hadn’t progressed as quickly as the model’s immensely potent triple, making them ill-equipped to accommodate or handle all the speed and power — hence the nickname.
Kawasaki Ninja H2R
Far from being race regulation, Kawasaki’s Ninja H2R was the result of the Japanese moto marque setting out to engineer the most bonkers, high-performance superbike possible, starting from scratch — and with a blank check. The end result is a supercharged 998cc superbike draped in winglet-equipped carbon fiber bodywork that offers a top speed of 250mph, a 0-60mph time of 3-seconds flat, and an output of 310hp and 115ft-lbs of torque. Though now more than half a decade old, this track-only model still boasts an unparalleled riding experience characterized by its speed and acceleration abilities which are only matched by seven and eight-figure hypercars — making this another must-ride motorcycle, especially for supersport and superbike enthusiasts. In addition to still producing the H2R today, Kawasaki also offers a street-legal Ninja H2 that still packs an ultra-potent supercharged powertrain.
Taking its name from the Japanese word for “peregrine falcon” — a predatory species that preys on the Blackbird, the monicker of Honda’s direct competitor — the Hayabusa is a bonafide motorcycle icon that takes ample inspiration from drag racing bikes, and as such is all about raw power and straight-line speed. Suzuki also treated this iconic model to a major update for its latest model year, bestowing it with a host of modern tech and riding aids. But regardless of which generation you opt for, the GSX-R1300 is another motorcycle that offers such a unique riding experience that every rider should make an effort to pilot one of these at least once — a fairly easy task considering the popularity and widespread availability of the ever-mighty ‘Busa.
In the mid-1970s when Japanese motorcycles were exploding in popularity overseas, Suzuki opted to take a pretty major risk in an effort to corner a larger piece of the market by rolling out a rotary-engined motorcycle with its RE-5. Propelled by a 62hp liquid-cooled half-liter Wankel motor, the RE-5’s use of a rotary engine was supposed to offer more power in a smaller, smoother package. However, for one reason or another, the style simply failed to gain much traction and the RE-5 was removed from production after only three years. Despite its untimely demise, the RE-5 still affords a massively unique experience in the saddle thanks to both its power delivery, appearance, and engine sounds — making this another one worth adding to your moto bucket list.
Borrowing its name from the salt flat proving grounds of Utah, the Triumph Bonneville is unequivocally one of the most iconic motorcycles of all time, first hitting the market at the latter end of the 1950s and remaining in near-continuous production to this day, save for brief periods from ’83 to ’85 and ’88 to ’01. In the same way the Ducati “Green Framer” represents cafe racers in their purest form, the Bonnie wonderfully epitomizes the classic British parallel-twin. Its appearance has also continued to resonate with riders, with the Bonneville still influencing a great many modern-retro models that are currently in production. So, while it might not be the fastest or most powerful from its era, the Bonneville is another definitive bucket list bike that every rider needs to saddle up on at least once.
Vincent Black Lightning
Another motorcycle sometimes referred to as “the world’s first superbike,” the Vincent Black Lightning was an objective game-changer of a model, boasting speeds and performance capabilities far beyond that of anything else in existence at the time — and remained several steps ahead of the competition for more than a decade. Alongside the next-level performance for its era, the prestige and rich history of the Vincent brand have made its models — very much including the Black Lightning — some of the most prized and expensive motorcycles on the planet, routinely fetching record-setting sums that run well into six-figure territory. As a result, the Vincent Black Lightning is another important bucket list model that every rider should aspire to experience in their motorcycling careers.
First introduced in 2018, Yamaha’s Niken is another wildly idiosyncratic model that instantly distinguishes itself from other motorcycles with its second front fork which holds a third wheel — a leaning arrangement that legitimately affords far more traction and stability while cornering. Built on the platform of Yamaha’s Tracer 900, the Niken — which is also offered in a touring-ready GT-spec — combines its leaning dual front-wheel setup with a modern frame and suspension package that further contributes to this model’s cornering feeling like it’s being done on rails. And, whether you’re out exploring winding country roads or merely ripping through the city, the versatility of this model allows it to lend itself to a wide variety of settings — just one more reason Yamaha’s immensely unique Niken should have a spot on your moto bucket list.
Offering nearly double the power of four-stroke engines that pack twice the displacement, two-stroke powertrains were utilized by motorcycle manufacturers for decades until increasingly stringent emissions standards forced firms to opt for four-cycle engines, resulting in road-going two-strokers all but going extinct. Yamaha was one brand that, like many others, had produced oil-burners for years, and while finally pulling the plug on dual-cycle mills, the Tuning Fork Company gave two-strokers one final goodbye with the RZ350. Essentially a sportier version of the RD350, the RZ350 was also produced in a special version that paid homage to “King” Kenny Roberts’ AMA Grand National Champion-winning Yamaha flat tracker with its iconic yellow “Speed Block” livery. With its small-displacement engine producing a shocking amount of power, the mighty little RZ is another thrilling experience that every rider should get to enjoy in their lifetime, earning it a rightful spot on this list.
The 15 Classic Cars to Drive Before You Die
Want to check out an additional selection of vehicles that we’d urge every gearhead to experience in their lifetime? Then be sure to cruise on over to our guide to the best classic cars to drive before you die for more than a dozen legendary rides that every auto enthusiast should get behind the wheel of at least once in their lifetime.