The history of the two-wheeled medium is as rich as you might think, filled with stories, characters, and platforms that have helped to shape the industry as we know it today. Whether you’re someone who loves motorcycling due to its adrenaline-inducing experiences, introspective commutes, or spiritual relevance, the progenitors of our favorite means of transportation have set the groundwork for modern cycles — so, it’s about time we gave them the respect that they deserve.
It goes without saying that companies like BMW, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Ducati have become synonymous with motorcycling’s most prestigious platforms, but what about the companies that have done as much (or more) to progress the medium of two-wheeled transport? Here, we outline some of the most influential companies throughout the history of the motorcycling community, examine their most iconic platforms, and pay homage to the community’s greatest contributors. So punch the throttle a bit more, and let’s commute through our list of the greatest motorcycles of all time.
Simple & Steadfast
Standard motorcycles are the bread and butter of the medium, making up the vast majority of manufacturer’s tailored catalogs. Although they may seem relatively tame, these proven platforms have served the moto community in every facet, from racing and track endeavors, all the way to common urban commutes and bespoke customization projects, giving them an illustrious following that’s as passionate as they come.
BMW is a key contributor to moto culture’s prestigious lineage, and the brand’s iconic R100 has been detrimental to its growth, as a whole. This two-cylinder, 980cc cycle spent the majority of its life helping to round out the manufacturer’s T, S, CS, RS, RS Classic, RT, RT Classic, TIC, R, and GS series; and, although it had a short production run spanning close to twenty years, it’s made its mark as one of the last small-displacement airheads to have ever made their way off the factory floor. But, the bike’s real claim-to-fame lies in its architecture; it was the first to feature a standard frame fixed full fairing, making it the figurative progenitor of today’s modern Sport Touring cycles.
BMW R nineT
As one of the most heavily sought-after (and customized) platforms of all time, the BMW R nineT has earned its place on our list due to sheer popularity. Of course, the cycle wouldn’t be as popular as it is without the right qualities. Although it was introduced by BMW Motorrad in 2014, the 1,170cc air-cooled cycle has garnered a prestigious following thanks to its propensity for customization, including an easily-modifiable subframe, minimalist cosmetics, and separate engine and chassis wiring harnesses that make the bike an evolutionary candidate.
Harley-Davidson wears the badge of heritage character, boasting an extensive history as one of motorcycling’s most dominant companies. The XR750, which burst onto the flat-track scene in 1970, has helped to define the American moto brand for almost four decades. It was introduced in 1969 as a means for Harley-Davidson to remain competitive in the newly-adapted AMA Grand National Championship, where it would compete against the likes of Japan and Britain. Over its tenure, it would garner the most wins out of any other cycle in the history of the American Motorcycle Association (AMA), but not before solidifying its place as an icon in the moto community due to its synonymous association with racers like Cal Rayborn, Jay Springsteen, and stuntman Evel Knievel.
The Honda CB750 is one of the most iconic motorcycles, the world over, thanks to its dependable machining, illustrious power plant, and beautiful aesthetics. While the platform’s base model isn’t much to look at, the CB750 is an ugly duckling that can stand alongside the world’s most attractive cycles when customized, making it a go-to chassis for projects and dream builds. This air-cooled, four-cylinder moto boasts an extensive production history dating all the way back to 1969, making it a classic in its own right. But what makes the 750 truly interesting is its lineage; although manufacturers had marketed the transition toward transverse, inline-four engines in the past, the CB was the first to popularize the layout, bringing it to the limelight as the most dominant engine design of the era. Honda’s iconic powerhouse is the recipient of many prestigious titles, including induction into Discovery’s list of “Greatest Motorbikes Ever,” the UK National Motor Museum, and the AMA Hall of Fame: Classic Bikes.
Honda Super Cub
Honda’s Super Cub might come as a surprise, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a list of iconic motorcycles where it doesn’t make an appearance. The Super Cub paved the way for many of today’s modern cycles, and while it was introduced all the way back in 1958, the cycle has remained one of the best selling platforms of all time. Because of this, it’s maintained continuous manufacture for over six decades, making it one of the most heavily-produced variants the moto industry has ever seen. This four-stroke, single-cylinder bike comes in a variety of different displacements and can be found cruising the streets with everything from a 49-124cc power rating. In 2017, Honda reported that it had sold over 100 million examples of the Super Cub internationally. Needless to say, the interesting little platform is here to stay.
Kawasaki’s W800 might be a bit outside of the wheelhouse for most, but what this parallel-twin motorcycle lacks in time-tested notoriety, it makes up for in performance, aesthetic, and dependability. In an effort to bring heritage styling to the company’s modern lineup, Kawasaki introduced the W800 in 2011. It was built atop an easily-modifiable chassis, a gutsy, 773cc parallel-twin power plant, and a shaft and bevel gear-drove overhead cam, making it a fan favorite on (and off) the roadway. The retro bike met an early demise in 2016; but, due to popular demand, it was reintroduced into Kawasaki’s manufacturing rotation in 2019, giving the motorcycling community another taste of the bike’s steady and smooth 48-horsepower orientation.
Norton has a long-running history throughout motorcycling, and the Commando is one of the platforms that helped to get them where they are today. Not only does the British-born OHV parallel-twin boast one of the most aesthetically-pleasing retro layouts of any bike on the modern market, but it’s also a favorite among petrol-loving enthusiasts that want a taste of the ’60s most iconic platforms. Back in 1967, the cycle was introduced with a 750cc power plant, and before its production came to an untimely end in 1977, it had garnered a multitude of different displacements. In ‘73, the Commando was boosted to an enthusiastic 850cc output, giving it a fun, adrenaline-inducing demeanor that catapulted it into popularity among the motorcycling community. During its decade-long run, it became an iconic cycle that would earn the title of “Machine of the Year” from 1968-1972 — an interesting notion, considering the bike’s old fashioned design principle.
Royal Enfield Continental GT
Royal Enfield is known far and wide for its heritage cycles, and as one of the leading proponents of the modern cafe racing movement, the company has continued to foster its iconic lineup as a favorite for customizers and aficionados. The brand’s Continental GT is, perhaps, its most important variant, boasting a slew of cafe-styled attributes that bring it into the realm of popularity. A minimalist outfit, wire-spoke wheel layout, and agile silhouette keep the GT at the top of the list for modification, considering it was built with the cafe style in mind. But, what makes the bike even more interesting is the addition of modern-day peripherals like performance-oriented Brembo brakes, Paoli rear-mounted shocks, and a co-op Harris Performance double-cradle frame that oozes structural integrity.
Triumph needs no introduction, and for most, the Bonneville namesake is one that they’ve heard time and time again. While this time-tested cycle has roots that stretch all the way back to 1959, it’s a favorite among modern riders who are looking for a taste of motorcycling’s prestigious past. The parallel-twin four-stroke was originally designed by Triumph Engineering in Meriden, England, demarcating the bike’s 1959-1983 (and 1985-1988) production runs, before being relinquished to Triumph’s Leicestershire outfit in 2001. Due to popular demand, the iconic moto made its return over a decade ago, sporting an elaborate design that calls upon the strongest aspects of the original. Fun fact: the Bonneville name was, in fact, based off of Utah’s infamous Salt Flats; a desert location where Triumph (and a multitude of motorcycling’s most prominent manufacturers) attempted to break motorcycle speed records on an annual basis.
The Yamaha Virago is a mean-looking cycle that’s as iconic as they come and bares the mark as the company’s first-ever V-Twin cruiser motorcycle. But, that’s not the bike’s only claim to fame; the 750cc platform was actually one of the first motos with a mono-shock rear suspension, helping to promote the evolution of the industry, as a whole. In 1981, the Virago made its debut, and it didn’t take long for Yamaha to take note of its success, administering a 500cc (and 900cc) variant for riders of different styles and experience levels. In 1984, the company made the choice to ditch the bikes mono-shock design for a new-and-improved dual-shock rear suspension, ushering in a slew of alternative upgrades for the Virago. The newly-revised cycle was such a hit in the North American market that Harley-Davidson, fearing the loss of their foothold in the US, turned to the country’s policymakers in hopes of a tariff on imported platforms.
Speed & Strength
Sportbikes are the thoroughbreds of the motorcycling world, boasting insane power figures, ridiculous handling characteristics, and a tenacious design principle that’s unmatched by any other platform. These coveted platforms are built for speed, and with a handful of the bikes on our list burning rubber on the world’s most iconic racetracks, it goes without saying that “performance” is the name of the game when it comes to these sporty, well-built machines.
Bimota Tesi 3D
Bimota’s Tesi 3D might not be a household name, but that doesn’t mean that the exotic platform is any less exciting. As one of the only bikes in history to utilize Hub Steering, this one-of-a-kind cycle boasts an insane frontend that improves upon the limitations set forth by modern motos. Improved slow-speed maneuverability, a new front swingarm that allows for more precise handling, and bespoke, left-hand steering links that serve to simplify the mechanical prowess of current machines, are only a few of the interesting concepts behind the Tesi 3D. But, while the cycle might not exude an aura of time-tested reliability, it goes without saying that any form of innovation is a quick way to garner attention — something which the Bimota line has been doing for quite a few years now.
Buell’s XB12R Firebolt is a perfect example of modern engineering that’s been coupled with classic design terminologies, utilizing a Harley Sportster powertrain that was built with input from both companies. This 1,203cc cycle was introduced by the brand in 2003 and was marketed as one of the very first “street fighter” variants to ever accrue interest within the moto community. A high-tech aluminum frame, precise handling components, and a number of attributes yanked straight from the industry’s leading platforms, make the Buell XB12R an understated contender in our lineup of great motorcycle platforms — but, for the most part, it’s the “mad scientist’s” mindset that makes us love this bike without contempt.
No iconic motorcycle list is complete without the inclusion of Ducati, and when it comes to one of the most respected manufacturers on earth, even they have their legends. The 916 is a behemoth of a motorcycle — a fully-faired sportbike that’s fostered an insane following over the years due to its unique aesthetics, powerful displacement, and storied lineage on the world’s most competitive circuits. Aside from the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful platforms ever built, the 916 boasts a monstrous 916cc, fuel-injected V-Twin engine, lightweight trellis frame, and single-sided swingarm, giving it as much of an adversarial presence as humanly possible. Not only did the bike’s design lend itself to an enhanced characterization on the track, allowing for faster wheel swaps and exceptional aerodynamic performance, but it also led team Ducati to over 34 different victories from 1994-1998, solidifying the cycle in the annals of Superbike history.
Ducati’s 999R is the quintessential evolution of the manufacturer’s iconic 916, elaborating on the best aspects from the company’s 998, 996, and 916 platforms, and encompassing them in one dominant package. The 999R went into production in 2003 and enjoyed a brief three-year production run, before coming to a subsequent halt in 2006. The cycle was raced in a number of different World Superbike championships and fell under a bevy of critical acclaim due to its controversial styling. However, the 999R’s performance on the track proved that Ducati’s design orientation was still among the best, thanks to an L Twin Desmodromic Valve actuated engine layout and above-average torque and power figures. The company’s trellis chassis and performance-oriented suspension system made the competitive platform one of the most precise motorcycles of its era, giving it a leg to stand on as one of the best of all time.
Ducati Desmosedici RR
It might seem a little redundant, but Ducati is gracing our list for the third time with their lauded Desmosedici RR. Built as a limited-edition production variant of the company’s fabled MotoGP race bike, the Desmosedici burst onto the scene in 2004 and enjoyed a brief two-year stint under the manufacturer’s umbrella. These road-legal platforms gave buyers a taste of Ducati’s once-private race architecture, offering up a modest 1,500 examples over their limited production run. The Desmo was touted as the first true “road replica” of the company’s MotoGP racing platform and holds its place in history as one of the most expensive ($72,500), and most sought-after cycles to have ever been released.
Honda’s CBR900RR has been around for quite a while, and while the company’s CBR line has received nothing but praise from the motorcycling community during its generational production, this iconic variant sets the bar for the brand’s other offerings. Known as the FireBlade in select markets, the 900cc CBR900RR made its debut to the public all the way back in 1992, boasting a monstrous inline-four engine, a light 453-pound wet weight, and race-approved peripherals that gave it an edge on its competition. It surprised the community by claiming the title as the lightest over-750cc machine, beating out Yamaha’s FZR1000, which was 76 pounds heavier. In 1996, Honda opted to revise the bike’s chassis and suspension, upgrading its rigid stature, and after almost a decade at the helm of Honda’s flagship lineup, it was replaced by the more-powerful CBR1000RR.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R
Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R isn’t the strongest (or most powerful) bike on our list, but with a lineage that dates back all the way to 1986, this generational sportbike has been a formative aspect of the industry for well over two decades. Back then, it was introduced as the company’s flagship entry-level cycle, making it a fan favorite among multiple generations of riders who were looking to make their way into the medium. It served as a “gateway” into the two-wheeled world, boasting a subtle 249cc liquid-cooled four-stroke engine, a forgiving stature that falls somewhere in between standard and sport, and stylish body upgrades that have helped to define the industry’s transition into sportier silhouettes. In 2008, the Ninja received a substantial upgrade, utilizing all-new body panels, a revised engine and drivetrain, and performance enhancements that remedied many riders’ qualms with the original. Despite the first generation’s rough reception, the Ninja 250R has undergone three significant changes over its tenure, and today, it’s still in production thanks to Kawasaki’s dedicated fanbase.
Moto Guzzi LeMans
Moto Guzzi’s LeMans made its way into the public spotlight in 1976 and was introduced as the company’s ambitious offering for the world’s most daunting 24-hour motorcycle endurance race. The bike’s name was used strictly as a designator; in reality, it was a perfect venue for the brand’s first 850 prototype — a cafe-style racer that utilized a bikini nose fairing and clip-on handlebars. Over the course of its racing career, the LeMans would help to motivate Moto Guzzi’s technological innovation, and it wasn’t long before the bike made the transition into a sports-touring style that would utilize the brand’s new three-quarter fairing. It spent the majority of its life competing against the likes of Laverda and Ducati on the world’s biggest stage, before falling out of production sometime in the 1990s.
The Suzuki GSX-R750 is one of the most iconic platforms in existence, and aside from its lauded power plant and attractive orientation, it served to define the company’s ambitious future in motorsports. It was introduced in October of 1984 and was touted as the first consumer-oriented racer-replica to hit the market. Not only was the GSX-R750 a powerful, precise platform that was built with a focus on everyday road use, but it also gave riders the perfect medium for modification, weekend racing, and track outings, acting as one of the primary catalysts to spurn the rise of sportbike culture across the globe. For over three decades, the GSX-R line has placed an emphasis on air (and oil) cooled technologies, offering riders top-of-the-line performance enhancements, race-spec components and materials, and continuous evolution through production and innovation.
The Yamaha R7 holds the title as one of the world’s most influential race homologation bikes, and despite its limited-production run of only 500 units, it made its mark on the industry due to its revolutionary, sport-focused implementation. The R7 was initially designed to compete in the Superbike World Championship and Suzuka 8 Hours endurance races, giving interested parties a taste of track-oriented stature thanks to a 749cc, DOHC 20-valve engine, and an enhanced “race edition” that would break the scales at a monstrous 135 horsepower. It was one of the first homologated bikes to hit the market with a bespoke ECU update, activated fuel injectors, and an upgraded exhaust system; and as such, it was offered at a staggering $32,000 in 1999.
Petrol & Passion
The motorcycling world wouldn’t be where it is today without the classics. These platforms have carved their names into the annals of history as the first of their kind — a selection of rough and rugged, yet beautiful, bikes that continue to pave the way for their contemporary brethren. From BMW and Harley-Davidson, all the way to Indian and Moto Guzzi, these iconic machines hold a special place in our heart as the most original cycles of all time.
The R32 is iconic in its own special way; as the first motorcycle ever produced under the BMW namesake, it came at a time when the company was looking for a sustainable transition out of aircraft engine construction. Following the implementation of the Treaty of Versailles, BMW was forced to diversify its portfolio and turned to industrial engine design as a way to focus on domestic projects. After Franz Josef Popp, the Director of BMW at the time, proposed a Douglas-style transverse-crankshaft to Design Director Max Friz in an early variant of the company’s Helios motorcycle, it was scrapped due to improper cooling of the rear cylinder. After a significant redesign, the BMW R32 was born. In 1923, the bike would head to production, boasting a newly-implemented M2B33 engine capable of 8.5 horsepower, and a top speed of just 60 miles per hour. As a result, the R32 would establish BMW’s boxer-twin, shaft-drive powertrain layout, which is still in use today.
Brough Superior SS100
Brough’s Superior SS100 was designed and built all the way back in 1924, innovating the way that consumers were presented with “modern” cycles. Each bike was tailored to customer specifications, and boasted individually shaped attributes like bespoke handlebars, seats, and body panels. By 1925, only 69 examples had been produced. Marketing to the company’s audience as the “Rolls-Royce of Motorcycles,” the Brough Superior SS100 was catapulted into popularity as one of the most dependable motos of the era. Each variant was capable of speeds surpassing 100 miles per hour, and utilized components from many different suppliers throughout England, giving buyers a feeling of true customization. Powered by a twin-cam KTOR JAP V-Twin engine, the SS100 would make its mark as one of the premier cycles of the era, and today, it’s renowned among historians for its prodigious strength and handling.
The Harley-Davidson WLA made its debut as an all-encompassing military bike in the years surrounding World War II, boasting elaborate utilitarian enhancement over its civilian counterpart, the Harley-Davidson WL. After it was contracted to be put into production for the US Army, the American company called upon their unique “45 solo type” platform, which utilized a 45-cubic-inch engine displacement and a bespoke, single-rider orientation. To meet the standards of life on the war front, the bike was outfitted with improvised fenders to impede the buildup of mud, a heavy-duty luggage rack for ammo and necessities, and an oil bath air cleaner that was built to fight against excessive amounts of dust. Later, Harley-Davidson would call upon the WLA (and WL) to inspire the company’s three-wheeled Servi-Car, the “G” family.
Honda CR250 Elsinore
Honda’s CR250 Elsinore debuted all the way back in 1973 and burst onto the scene as one of the premier “scrambler” platforms of the era. Originally, it was built with a two-stroke single-cylinder engine (which was capable of 29 horsepower) and a lightweight orientation of only 229-pounds, making it the cycle of choice for commuters in the rural (and urban) areas of Japan. The CR250 was, in fact, Honda’s first two-stroke production race bike, and throughout 1971-1972, it was tested on motocross tracks in both Japan and California, citing the need for the company to build a bespoke example from the ground up that wasn’t based (or adapted) from one of their old street platforms. It featured a chrome-moly frame and plastic fenders, both of which have become trademark characteristics of the CR when reflected upon in the modern-day.
The CT90 might not look like much of a motorcycle, but from 1966 to 1979, it served as one of Honda’s best selling step-through platforms. Following its introduction to the Japanese market, the CT90 was slated to be released in two different variations: a Trail model, and X model. Essentially, the CT90 was an elaboration on the company’s Super Cub, boasting gear ratio (and tire) upgrades that were catered toward the “off-road” rider. Perhaps the biggest change came with Honda’s replacement of the bike’s cantilever-toggle front end with a telescoping-tube that was found in many of the era’s most prominent cycles, bringing the 89cc four-stroke air-cooled single into competitive standing with a vast majority of non-step-through bikes.
Indian’s Chief is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic motorcycles on this list, and today, it’s touted as the most recognizable platform in the company’s lineup. It made its debut in 1922 when it was built and manufactured by Hendee Manufacturing Company (and Indian) as the company’s flagship “big twin.” It served as the primary platform for the company’s output-focused consumer base, boasting the largest displacement in Indian’s catalog of bikes. While its more nimble brother, the Scout, was utilized for its agile characteristics, the Chief was the family favorite, and following the climax of World War II, it was the only platform to be recalled and put back into production by the brand. The cycle would continue to define Indian’s flagship lineup until it went out of production in 1953 — but not before it had made its mark on the motorcycling world as one of the most iconic platforms of all time.
Moto Guzzi V8
Moto Guzzi’s V8 is a classic variant that was designed by renowned engineer Giulio Cesare Carcano for the company’s racing endeavors. In 1955, the bike would hit the production line for its debut as the team’s confidant during the upcoming Grand Prix, where it was utilized as Guzzi’s primary platform until 1957. It featured an unprecedented water-cooled, 500cc V8 engine, alongside dual overhead cams, and a separate carburetor for each of the eight cylinders — making it a revolutionary concept for its era. The V8 served as a historic milestone for engineering, as a whole, while also fostering a hefty amount of praise for its unique design, beautiful looks, and iconic pedigree.
Royal Enfield Bullet
Royal Enfield’s Bullet motorcycle is one of the most formative bikes of the past century, boasting an overhead-valve single-cylinder four-stroke engine that has since become one of the brand’s most recognized implementations. While the bike is an undeniable classic, it’s the longevity of its namesake that’s garnered so much acclaim. Coming into production in 1948, the Bullet is still being produced today, helping it to secure the title of the longest ongoing production run of any motorcycle in existence. To elaborate even further, the marque itself is even more transcendental, boasting over 75 years of continuous production since it was contrived, all those years ago.
Triumph Speed Twin
Triumph’s Speed Twin motorcycle started out in the company’s lauded Coventry plant, before being moved to continual production at the acclaimed Meriden factory. The cycle was put into production in 1937 by Triumph’s Chief Designer, Edward Turner, and featured a 500cc OHV V-Twin that was absolutely asinine, especially for the era. It was housed inside of the cycle’s dubiously lightweight frame and is annotated as the first time a British parallel-twin would find market success in the first quarter of the century. Following World War II, the Speed Twin would serve as the primary contributor to the survival of Triumph as they transitioned back into civilian manufacturing.
Vincent Black Shadow
Vincent’s Black Shadow is a beautiful beast, produced by Vincent in their Stevenage factory in February of 1948. Not only was the cycle touted for its evolutionary design, it also achieved a handful of ambitious engineering feats, while retaining a mesmerizing facade that’s been noted as one of the most handsome of the era. Although the brand was already advertising their previous platform, the Rapide, as the fastest production motorcycle in the world, the Shadow would overtake the prodigious bike, boasting a top speed of over 125 miles per hour. It would remain in production until 1955, when Vincent would close its doors to any (and all) motorcycle-oriented manufacturing.
The Best Custom Motorcycle Builders
Now that you’ve brushed up on your knowledge of the industry’s most influential platforms, head to our guide on the best custom motorcycle builders to see them in a new light.