Top Five Motorcycles That Changed the World

by: Somer Hooker

January 17, 2013

From pioneering performance to groundbreaking design and innovation that brought motorcycles to the masses, check out these top picks for the most influential motorcycles ever built.

Every motorcycle aficionado has ideas when it comes to naming the most important bikes ever built, and Somer Hooker is no exception. Hooker is a vintage bike broker with over 25 years in the business and he is also Chief Judge at the Celebration of the Motorcycle event in Del Mar, California. The HVA worked with Hooker to modify the current Preservation Award judging criteria to recognize preservation-class motorcycles.

The HVA Motorcycle Preservation Award will be presented at two shows in 2013. Click here to check out the list of judging criteria. But before you do, take a look at Hooker’s shortlist of the five most important motorcycles from the last 70 years.

Honda C-100 Super Cub

Super Cub

Claim to Fame: A reliable, excellent entry-level bike for neophytes that wouldn’t break the bank, the Honda C-100 Super Cub made owning a motorcycle possible for millions of new riders.

Since its debut in 1959, millions were (and still are) manufactured. This was Honda’s first major thrust into the marketplace—a small, simple utilitarian motorcycle that was easy to ride and hard to break. Motorcycles had a “dirty” image in the late `50s and early `60s, a problem Honda overcame through a brilliant marketing campaign with a crafty pitch: "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." Parents were known to come into showrooms and say, “Oh, we don’t want a motorcycle, we want a Honda!” This bike was responsible for putting millions of people onto motorcycles.

Honda CB 750 Four

CB 750 Four

Claim to Fame: With amenities taken for granted today, the CB 750 Four marked an industry shift into the modern age.

In 1969, the British motorcycle industry reigned supreme. Known for attractive but unreliable bikes with dicey electrics and a tendency to leak oil, British motorcycles of the era were also fitted with drum-style brakes and a manual kick-start. Suddenly, Honda introduced a four-cylinder motorcycle with electric start, disc brakes and a horizontally split crankcase that wouldn’t leak. Hondas were also dead reliable. Within five years most of the British manufacturers were on their way out. This bike was also the basis for a large aftermarket speed equipment industry, just as the flathead Ford and small-block Chevy spawned similar activity.

Vincent Black Shadow

Black Shadow

Claim to Fame: One of the first motorcycles that launched the age of the superbike, this record-breaking motorcycle was a new model for brilliant engineering and performance.

After WWII, the Vincent-HRD Works in Stevenage, England, pretty much hand built large, light V-twins that became the basis of numerous world-record runs. The most famous was the John Edgar/Rollie Free bike that, in 1948, ran over 150 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats with Free stretched out on the tank dressed in nothing but a Speedo, helmet and oversized tennis shoes. To this day, Vincent engines are still used as the heart of some land-speed record attempts.

Ducati 750SS


Claim to Fame: This motorcycle helped propel a relatively unknown Bologna factory into mainstream motorcycling and the world of the superbike.

Until 1972, Ducati was a small but significant manufacturer of single-cylinder motorcycles. They then produced a V-twin motorcycle (technically an L-shaped configuration) with desmodromic valves. Instead of being closed by springs, the valves are opened and closed mechanically. It was introduced at Imola race track in Italy in 1972 and took first and second place. This vaulted Ducati into the mainstream as a major motorcycle manufacturer and competitor on the track, a spot it still holds today.

1915 Harley-Davidson V-Twin


Claim to Fame: With a three-speed transmission and V-twin engine, it became the benchmark for motorcycling until WWII.

Harley briefly released their V-twin in 1909, but it had so many problems that engineers were forced back to the drawing board. Two years later, the V-twin became fairly reliable. In 1913, the company switched to a two-speed transmission and by 1915 they had developed a three-speed transmission. At this point, the bike became an excellent motorcycle for touring. Recently, in the Cannonball Rally for 1915-and-earlier motorcycles, 1915 Twins were the weapon of choice for contenders.

So what do you consider to be the most groundbreaking vintage motorcycle in history? The Historic Vehicle Association would like to know. Take a moment to comment below or head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page to share and see what other members are saying.



  1. Clancy Ross leesville, louisiana

    I would like to say Harley Davidson, but actually I think the Indian was the most impressive!!!

  2. James Terry New Jersey

    45 cubic inch Harley, The bike that won the war.

  3. Loren Johnson Centuria, Wi 54824

    With out Harley Davidson to lead the way the rest would have died.

  4. John Warsaw,IN

    I fully understand why you have included the Honda 750. Once upon a time, I had one. But, surely, as far as changing the world is concerned, you will have to agree, the Honda Dream paved the way for all motorcycles on the US. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda."

  5. Patrick Wiggins Salt Lake City, Utah

    I saw my first 750 while on R&R from Viet Nam in Tokyo in 1969. Love at first site. Once back stateside i bought a brand new off the showroom floor from Smokies (sp?) Honda in 750 in Tulsa, OK in 1973. I still have it (and all the original paperwork) and as the article reads it's been ""dead reliable".

  6. Larry May Mt. Sterling, Ky

    I agree with the 1915 harley and the 1969 honda 750, My other choices are the 1929 DL 45 harley flathead, the 1936 Harley Knucklehead and the 1965 Harley electra glide, thanks, Larry


    1973 BMW R90/S

  8. David C Roberts Strafford, New Hampshire

    I think it would be remiss to not include the opposed twin of the Boxer BMW. You pick the Model. It has been around for many many years, and still a current machine

  9. glenda sisson New Mexico

    The 'Indian' motorcycle of 1930d;s was a favorite ride of my father who raced them on obstacle courses .

  10. Don Watt Madison, AL

    I think the Honda CB77 Super Hawk should be added. This bike is still gorgeous and propelled Honda into the big league.

  11. Tommy T Deep East Texas

    Re the Honda CB750:: "British motorcycles of the era were also fitted with drum-style brakes and a manual kick-start. Suddenly, Honda introduced a four-cylinder motorcycle with electric start, disc brakes and a horizontally split crankcase that wouldn’t leak. Hondas were also dead reliable." Yes, but, just in case, it still had a very useable kick starter! I bought a CB 750 because the BMW did not have a kick starter as standard equipment.



  13. Richard Kiene MizzouRah

    My first bike was a 1964 Honda 50.I remember the ol man saying if the Japanesse ever got into auto making,we were going to be in BIG trouble.

  14. Mike Tennessee

    The Gold Wing was left out. Besides all of the innovations used on the bike in 1975 it also started the full dress touring market.

  15. Rob Joyner North Carolina, USA

    I like your list of the top five, however, a top ten list could be well received as well. There are other significant introductions in the MC world, though not totally ground-breaking, they were milestones, nonetheless.

  16. Somer Dixie

    I actually have a top 100 but something had to give ;-). On a sad note Bob Hansen who was a US dealer and manager for Honda passed away Sunday. Once in a meeting he poo-pooed Hondas idea for big twin cylinder bike. He then said "Why don't you do a four cylinder? Yoshiro Honda broke into a big grin and said "We have much experince with the four cylinder" Honda had decimated GP racing in the 60's with their multi cyclinder high reving bikes. Honda later gave Bob a Honda Four in appreciation of his contribution. RIP Bob Hansen 1919-2013

  17. bob washington. dc

    Iv owned 20 or so bikes and have enjoyed the road since my first susuki 125 in 1973. Notsure about that list. Esp any harleys! Maybe an Indian or Triumph

  18. Sam Florida

    If it were a list of six, I'd add BMW R80G/S - it defined a new category of riding