A great example of how the Honda CB750 changed everything is how the Harley Davidson Sportster was perceived by magazine reviewers before the Honda’s introduction and after. While doing a little research for the Honda article I came across reviews of both the 1968 Sportster and also a 1970 model. The Honda wasn’t mentioned by name but the effect on perceptions was clear.
The 1968 Sportster developed 58 horsepower, ran the 1/4 mile in 13.68 and managed 114 mph in stock trim. This was the musclebike of the day and as the review said, “… what this shorthaul superbike does best is to carry a knowledgeable rider over a road course as rapidly as possible.” This was the top of the heap in those days, if you showed up on a Sportster, everyone knew who had the hot bike.
The next year the Honda CB750 was unveiled and things changed. The big (for Honda) 750cc machine had 10 more horsepower than the Harley, a quicker 1/4 mile and higher top speed. It was civilized and refined in ways the Sportster didn’t pretend to be, so what changed?
The 1970 Sportster was reviewed and now “seniority was a disadvantage” but “Harley’s hottest had the advantage of yearly refinement.” Now it was “the original TT bike. The TT stands for Tavern to Tavern.” The refined Sportster now had 2 less horsepower at 56 and ran the 1/4 mile in 14.25 seconds, almost a half second slower than the ’68 with an all out top speed of 112 mph, a loss of 2 mph from the ’68. Most telling of all though was the reviewer’s words describing how the Sportster was “in a league by himself – a stud machine for studs. He doesn’t make much pretense about being functional.”
The Sportster went from performance king to non functional bar hopper in just over a year, it hardly changed at all, really, but the world around it changed dramatically. It would have been interesting if Harley Davidson had taken up the challenge and pushed performance, at least in the Sportster line, instead of falling back on tradition and image. What might have been?
Further thoughts: In more recent times, many Harley Davidson fans are fond of asking “What’s the rush?” when seeing someone on a high performance motorcycle, it’s great verbal defense when anyone comments on the lack of performance from the average Harley. Now, it’s all about the ride, the tradition and the image, but as hard as it may be to believe, it wasn’t always that way. Before the Honda knocked the Sportster off its high performance perch, Harley ads touted the “Harley Davidson Out Performers” and performance was a big part of their advertising but like a prize fighter with a glass jaw, one good shot and the Sportster was down for the count. They could have easily picked themselves up and built up the Harley but, instead, they just walked away from the competition. There was plenty of room for a high performance Harley among all of the other touring bikes but now, after shunning performance all of these years, that crowd has moved on and getting them back is a tough sell. The V-Rod sells poorly and the Harley crowd treats it like an outcast rather than as the high performance Harley it is. The XR1200 has some aspirations of performance and Harley isn’t offering it in the U.S. As I asked above, what might have been? What do you think?