In the years following World War II, motorcycles were incredibly unpopular, aside from police officers and servicemen who rode them their work. Before 1960, less than 600,000 motorcycles were registered in the United States. At the time, the majority of bikes sold in the US were Harley-Davidsons and Indians: slow, heavy and dangerous cruisers that quickly became (somewhat erroneously) associated with biker gangs and rebellious youth. There also was the British sports bike, including motorcycles from Triumph, Vincent, BSA and Norton. These bikes were lighter and faster, and could handle a twisty road. But, owning one was not for the faint of heart — they were incredibly finicky and too expensive for the average rider.
Come 1959, Honda began to establish itself as a contender in the United States motorcycle market with its US subsidiary, the American Honda Motor Company. In an effort to dispel the stigma of the motorcycle being for the rowdy and dangerous, Honda launched its infamous “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” campaign. Rather than targeting preexisting motorcycle buyers, Honda aimed for those who hadn’t considered two-wheeled transportation before. The plan worked. By 1965, motorcycle registration in the US increased to nearly 1.4 million motorcycles. By 1966, Honda had over 60 percent of the American motorcycle market.
At that time, Honda’s offerings were small. Central to the “You Meet the Nicest People” campaign was the Honda 50 (known in non-US markets as the Super Cub), and the biggest motorcycle Honda made in the mid-’60s was the CB450 “Black Bomber” — a fantastic middleweight, but lacking for riders who wanted more performance. Hondas made for great starter bikes, but, as Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) chairman Edward Turner noted in 1965, people quickly wanted to graduate to large bikes, which were only supplied by the British brands. Rather than give up future sales to the Brits, executives at American Honda implored their parent company to develop a bigger, better Honda.
“In the hard world of commerce, achievers get imitated and the imitators get imitated. There is developing, after all, a kind of Universal Japanese Motorcycle…conceived in sameness, executed with precision, and produced by the thousands.”
The result: the Honda CB750. First unveiled in October of 1968 at the Tokyo Motor Show, the CB750 shocked the world. The power plant of choice was a Grand Prix-derived SOHC inline-four engine, and stopping power came by way of a disc brake on the front wheel. The CB750 also utilized an electric start and a five-speed gearbox. Though these features weren’t entirely unheard of for a motorcycle at the time, never before had they been combined together on an attainable, mass-production motorcycle.
The CB750 immediately became a performance benchmark and made its rival of the time, the BSA Rocket 3, look instantly antiquated. Its 736cc engine made 67 horsepower (the BSA made 58) and could propel the bike and its rider to over 120 mph. What’s more, it was reliable. It didn’t have the tendency to leak oil like the British bikes and the electric start made it far more user-friendly. And with a starting price of $1,495 (about $9,689 today), it seriously undercut prices for similar bikes from British manufacturers.
When Honda revealed the CB750, Kawasaki was well into its own project for a 750cc four-cylinder bike. But since Honda beat them to market, Kawasaki scrapped the bike and went back to the drawing board in order to one-up Honda. So began the “New York Steak” project, which in 1972 yielded Kawasaki’s newest heavyweight, the 903cc, 81 horsepower Z1. More powerful, faster and more aggressive than the CB750, it became the new benchmark, although the Z1 and CB750 weren’t all that different. Both had powerful (for the time) four-cylinder engines, electric starts, disc brakes and upright riding positions; both bikes offered more power and more reliability for considerably less money than their European counterparts; but the Z1 pushed the limit a bit farther.
As consumers caught on to the value of these bikes, more Japanese standards began to arrive in America, all taking the same basic formula and continuing to improve it. In 1976, Suzuki debuted the GS750, a four-cylinder standard with just over 60 horsepower that Cycle World called “the quickest and best-handling 750 on the market.” (Not bad, considering this was Suzuki’s first four-stroke motorcycle.) Yamaha also joined the party two years later with the bigger XS Eleven. In 1976, when testing the KZ650, a smaller spinoff of the Z1, Cycle World summed up the phenomenon thusly: “In the hard world of commerce, achievers get imitated and the imitators get imitated. There is developing, after all, a kind of Universal Japanese Motorcycle…conceived in sameness, executed with precision, and produced by the thousands.”
Their versatility and their ubiquity appealed to a variety of riders at different skill levels and helped to further increase the popularity of motorcycling in the ’70s.
The term “Universal Japanese Motorcycle” (UJM) stuck as the descriptor for these standard, four-cylinder Japanese speed machines, but the “universal” moniker was not just limited to aspects of their design. UJMs were also universal in appeal. Riders had simple, upright bikes that were comfortable, easy to use, reliable and served as a practical means of two-wheel transportation while still being quick and nimble. Their versatility and their ubiquity appealed to a variety of riders at different skill levels and helped to further increase the popularity of motorcycling in the ’70s.
But by the ’80s, the marketplace and tastes had changed. Riders who had cut their teeth on UJMs and other standards had come to want more specialized bikes like tourers, race-replica sport bikes and cruisers, and thus the UJM fell out of vogue. “The standard has evolved into the cheap one in the publics mind,” motorcycle designer Wayne Moulton said in a 1985 issue of American Motorcyclist. “If you wanted a plain vanilla model then you bought the standard. But nobody wants to be caught dead on a cheap motorcycle.”
Japanese manufactures soldiered on making standards that fit the UJM mold, but by the ’90s they became somewhat lost in the fold. That isn’t to say they disappeared, though. Honda made the Nighthawk 750 up through the early aughts, a continuation of the original CB750. Kawasaki had the Zephyr ZR550 during the ’90s, a revitalization of the Z1 and its subsequent variants. And even today Honda has the CB1100, a modern interpretation of the UJM.
Though their presence in the industry in recent decades has been minimal, UJMs left a lasting mark on the US industry. In a time when the American motorcycle market was limited to American cruisers and unreliable European sport bikes, the CB750 and its competitors fostered an interest in motorcycling, and made Japanese manufacturers — and motorcycling — thrive then and now.