Independent by nature, bikers select two-wheelers that are reflective of their personality and individual style. So, we knew that choosing the top motorcycles of all time would be highly subjective and polarizing. However, most can agree there have been some truly ground-breaking designs that have moved certain machines to the front of the pack.
After going through the history books, chatting with esteemed colleagues and having a few arguments along the way, here is what we have come up with by year. Did your top two-wheeler make our list?
1920 Indian Scout
Designed by Irishman Charles Franklin, the Scout was the model that saved Indian Motorcycle. First seen in 1920, the 600 cc V-twin mirrored Indian’s Powerplus model but was smaller, lighter and more efficient. And the bike became an instant sales success. In response to demand from police forces across the US, the bike’s engine was enlarged to 750 cc and sold as the Police Special. A civilian version of the 750 Scout, the Model 45, came along in 1928 and was sold alongside the 600 cc version. The 750 was subsequently renamed the Model 101 in 1928. Franklin also designed the 1,000 cc Indian Chief of 1922 and the 1,200 cc Big Chief.
1921 Moto Guzzi Normale
The distinctive horizontal engine—with the large external flywheel—that powered the first production Moto Guzzi was itself derived from the prototype G.P. (Guzzi-Parodi) designed by Carlo Guzzi and Giorgio Parodi in 1919. The design was a hallmark for decades to come and was seen in motorcycles varying in size from 250 cc to 500 cc, as well as other vehicles such as light trucks. Even the all-conquering racing models that took five consecutive 350 cc World Championships were derivatives of the original configuration. Continuing to be used through the Moto Guzzi Falcone model, the horizontal-engine concept lasted until 1976—a production run of 55 years.
1923 BMW R32
This is the motorcycle that started it all for BMW. Created at a time of intense manufacturing development in the 1920s, the BMW R32 was the company’s first bike after originally building engines for the German air force in World War I.
The flat-twin/boxer design mated to a shaft final drive became the blueprint for BMW’s subsequent two-wheel models, with the design still used on the majority of the company’s machines. A 494 cc motor allowed the bike to reach a speed of 60 mph. Wrapped in a timeless aesthetic, the R32 remains one of the most desirable motorcycles ever created, 97 years on.
1937 Brough Superior SS100
The world’s first superbike. The SS100 was delivered with a certificate signed by company founder George Brough guaranteeing that the motorcycle would crack the magic 100 mph mark. Using a 990 cc, air-cooled 50-degree V-twin engine, the SS100 punched out a remarkable 48 hp at a time when anything above 30 hp was considered enormous.
T.E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—owned eight Broughs, including the one pictured here (model year from the 1920s). He eventually lost his life on one when he crashed near his home in Dorset, England. The Brough Superior name has since been resurrected by Mark Upham, with 21st Century SS100’s now being manufactured.
1938 Triumph Speed Twin
It wasn’t the first overhead-valve parallel twin, but the 500 cc Triumph designed by Edward Turner became a concept that was copied by almost every other major British manufacturer. When it appeared at the 1938 Earls Court Show, resplendent in Amaranth Red, Triumph’s Speed Twin caused a sensation, as did the sportier Tiger 100 which followed a year later. The bike’s new twin motor was so compact that it fit straight into the single-downtube frame used on the existing Tiger 90 single. The same basic design, subsequently enlarged to 650 cc (and much later to 750 cc) formed the basis for the Triumph range for decades and made Turner a very successful and influential man in the industry.
1950 Vincent Black Shadow
If the Brough Superior was the world’s first superbike, the Vincent Black Shadow was the forefather to the Suzuki GSX-R1300R Hayabusa. It was the world’s fastest motorcycle. Manufactured between 1948 and 1955, the Black Shadow had a top speed of 125 mph from its 55 hp, 998 cc V-twin behemoth.
The Black Shadow parked itself in popular culture, immortalized in the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, who famously wrote, “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society.”
1957 Harley-Davidson Sportster
There’s likely no motorcycle that provokes more passion, more staunch patriotism, than the Harley-Davidson Sportster. Still in production today, the Sportster first appeared in 1957 using a four-stroke, 45-degree V-twin. Of the latter, the first used was the Ironhead motor that ranged from 900 cc to 1000 cc, and was later changed to the Evolution motor (883 cc to 1100cc).
The Sportster line is easily the most important and lucrative to Harley-Davidson. It has powered the company through multiple financial hardships and is as much a part of the American motorcycle fabric as Harley-Davidson itself.
1958 Honda Super Cub
Honda’s 50 cc C100 Super Cub is the biggest selling motor vehicle in history, having racked up 100 million sales in the last 63 years, and is still going. With a simple 49 cc pushrod engine, automatic clutch engagement, large 17-inch wheels, pressed steel-spine-type frame and plastic leg shields and mudguards, the Super Cub could be ridden by anyone, and with nominal fuel consumption. The electric-start C102 version, introduced in 1960, further extended the appeal to riders who flocked to showrooms, partly due to a catchy and effective advertising campaign that simply stated, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”.
1968 Norton Commando
In 1968, Norton did the unthinkable—it ditched its legendary “Featherbed” frame to create the Commando. True, the model wasn’t an entirely new design—the basic engine dated back to 1949, but the 750 cc Commando breathed fresh life into what had been an ailing brand. That engine was now suspended on rubber mounts within the new frame to cure the vibrations that plagued the Atlas model. The Commando Fastback Mk1 embodied bold new styling for the cycle parts, which was a big hit in Norton’s biggest market, the USA. In 1973, the engine was further expanded to 850 cc, which also expanded the model’s (and Norton’s) production life.
1969 Honda CB750
The CB750 was Honda’s first major hit, and marked the changing of the guard from British singles and twins to the four-cylinder Japanese machines that still dominate the landscape half a century later. The CB750 is commonly referred to as the first of the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle), and was one of the founding machines in what we now consider superbike racing, a motorcycle race series for production motorcycles. Honda had arrived, and the CB750 helped turn the company into the monolith it is today.
1969 Honda Z50A (Monkey Bike)
More than Honda’s CB750, the machine that really put the manufacturer on the map was the mini Z50A, referred to commonly as the Monkey Bike. How do you get non-motorcycle people turned on to riding? Make them laugh! The Monkey Bike did just that and was a roaring success, particularly in the United States, cementing the company’s Stateside legacy.
Using a simple 50 cc, single-cylinder four-stroke, the Monkey Bike was the exact opposite of what was being offered for sale from Harley-Davidson at the time—no rough-and-tumble biker image, just plain ol’ good times. It was such a hit, Honda brought it back to the US in 2018. Our test-ride revealed that the small model is still defined by its huge fun factor.
1971 MV Agusta 750S
MV Agusta has a very, very long history of producing stunning machines, but the 750S—produced from 1970 through 1975—is a landmark. The 750S was the final production machine that Count Domenico Agusta was involved in before his death in 1971. It used the MV Agusta 600’s motor as a base, but punched the capacity to 750 cc and wrapped it in a gorgeous café-racer aesthetic dressed in red, white and blue.
It was a mammoth success. At the time of release, the 750S was the fastest four-cylinder in the world, matched to a real race-spec chassis that was way ahead of what was on offer from Britain or Japan. They were rare in the early 1970’s (583 examples were created), but their value can now reach between $100,000 to $150,000.
1972 Kawasaki Z1
Honda may have set the ball rolling for four-cylinder street bikes, followed closely by MV Agusta, but Kawasaki was the one to really knock it out of the park with its Z1. Developed under the project name “New York Steak,” the Z1 was the first large-capacity, Japanese four-cylinder offering to come with double overhead camshafts, trumping arch-rival Honda’s CB750 as well as offering a 153 cc capacity hike for the rider. With 82 hp on tap and the potential to go over 130 mph, the Z1 became the ultimate 1970’s production sports machine on two wheels— at least until Honda started to hit back in the early 1980s.
1974 Ducati 750SS
Any motorcycle Top 25 list would be incomplete without listing the 1974 Ducati 750SS Green Frame. Comprising a production run of only 401 examples, the 750SS was based off the 1972 Imola 200–winning 750 cc racer, ridden by Paul Smart. The Green Frame, however, quickly grew to such levels of adoration that the Bologna-based factory soon produced a larger 900SS to satisfy demand.
The Green Frame was the only round case, bevel-drive desmo produced primarily for the street. Featured in the Guggenheim museum exhibit “The Art of Motorcycle,” it has become one of the single best investments in the history of motorcycling, with values often fetching well over $100,000.
1980 BMW R 80 G/S
In 1980, BMW not only created a new category, but an entire movement with the Gelände Sport, or G/S (the acronym was later changed to GS). A maxi-travel bike that could go anywhere, the G/S saved BMW Motorrad from financial extinction and is still considered the ultimate adventure bike to cross paddocks, states, or even countries.
Success in the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally, its starring role in Ewan McGregor’s hit television series Long Way Round and generations of happy adventure riders make the G/S the most important motorcycle BMW has ever built.
1985 Suzuki GSX-R750
Suzuki’s contribution to superbike history can be summed up in one name—GSX-R. The GSX-R750 of 1985 started this long, successful road for the company, a road paved with race wins and championship titles.
A rider had never before been able to purchase a machine that was as close to what was being raced by the pro’s around the world—until this model. And it proved an enormously successful enterprise for Suzuki, which still manufactures the bike today, even though the 750 cc class has long been considered deceased.
1992 Honda CBR900RR FireBlade
Often referred to as the Father of the Fireblade, Tadao Baba—a Honda engineer (now retired)—convinced the Honda board to create a new class of sport bike in the early 1990s, one that focused on the handling and power that riders really needed for the road, rather than the razor-sharp race bikes produced at the time. Thus, the Honda CBR900RR was born.
Named the FireBlade in all countries save the United States (until 2020), it changed the way the world looked at sport bikes and was the catalyst for the superbike category, eventually moving from 750 cc four-cylinder machines to the 1000 cc monsters of today.
1992 Honda NR750
Honda’s NR750 is one of those bikes you will never forget once you see it in the metal. A 747 cc, oval-piston V-4 with a staggering 32 valves, the 750 was the pinnacle of the NR program that started back in 1979 with the NR500 500cc Grand Prix machine.
The NR750 led a series of firsts for a production motorcycle: electronic fuel injection, carbon-fiber bodywork, inverted forks, under-seat exhausts and, of course, the oval piston layout that was reserved for only the very finest of Honda race bikes. So exquisite was the aesthetic that Massimo Tamburini freely admitted to copying the under-seat exhaust design for a bike that is often described as the most beautiful ever created—his Ducati 916.
1992 Britten V1000
There has quite simply never been a motorcycle like the Britten V1000. The product of the late John Britten and his team of hard-graft mates in a Christchurch garage on New Zealand’s South Island, the Britten challenged and beat the best twin-cylinder machines in the world, winning races at Daytona, all over Europe and in Australasia.
More than that, however, the Britten is a symbol of what happens when you dedicate your life to a single goal. John Britten was a visionary. The documentary One Man’s Dream is essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in motorcycles, and his untimely death from cancer in 1995—at the age of 45—robbed motorcycling of one of its finest minds.
1994 Ducati 916
Massimo Tamburini’s masterpiece. The Ducati 916 crossed boundaries, becoming a style icon that is still revered today. The motorcycle reflects the shape of a woman, at least according to Tamburini, and was instantly successful in competition. It won the World Superbike Championship three years straight and put Ducati onto the commercial path it now enjoys.
The 916’s impact on motorcycling as a whole can never be understated, moving design from the boxy, early 1990’s aesthetic to the flowing lines copied by so many now. More so than the 750SS, the 916 is without a doubt the most important motorcycle, both financially and culturally, Ducati has ever created.
1998 Yamaha YZF-R1
The R1 is the Yamaha sport bike. It brought levels of performance that were unheard of for production motorcycles at the time, and permanently changed how sport bikes were designed and packaged. Yamaha designer Kunihiko Miwa mounted the gearbox output shaft above the crankshaft, rather than in a line as per conventional wisdom. Thus, the world’s first vertically-stacked gearbox was created, and the tighter packaging flowed to every area of the machine to make the first “no compromise” superbike, as Miwa coined it. The R1 continues to capture the imaginations and wallets of riders to this day.
2000 Harley-Davidson XR750
It’s not entirely fair to single out the 2000 XR750 for special mention, as it is part of a story that stretches close to half a century on America’s dirt tracks. The XR can legitimately claim the title of ‘most successful race bike of all time’ in any class, in any form of competition.
It was considered the only bike to be on for much of the 50-odd years it raced in AMA Flat Track competition, piloted by greats like Jay Springsteen, Scott Parker, Joe Kopp, Jared Mees and Brad Baker. It was retired from competition when the XG750R came into being in 2016, a machine that has an impossible task ahead of replicating the reputation of its predecessors as the greatest flat track racer in history.
2001 Honda NSR500
The Honda NSR500 was the most dominant 500 cc Grand Prix racing motorcycle of all time. Between 1984 and 2001 (1997 model pictured), the NSR took over 130 race wins as well as 10 rider and 11 constructor world championship titles with Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Àlex Crivillé and Valentino Rossi.
In 1984, the model started life with 140 hp from its 499 cc two-stroke engine and ended its Grand Prix tenure with 185 hp and a wet weight around a scant 285 pounds. The NSR was the ultimate two-stroke racer in an age of unruly machines that were incredibly difficult to ride at the limit.
2015 Kawasaki Ninja H2R
This is Kawasaki’s “because-we-can” motorcycle. The Ninja H2R has a supercharged, 999 cc, inline four-cylinder motor with a claimed 310 hp on tap. When you think of the current climate that is riddled with litigation, it’s amazing Kawasaki allowed themselves to build such a bike and sell it to the public.
The H2R signaled the start of Kawasaki slowly bringing supercharged technology to the market, and it’s ironic that a motorcycle so blisteringly fast will likely be the forefather to supercharged motorcycles less than half its size and based on better fuel and emissions economy, rather than outright speed.
2020 Ducati Superleggera V4
Named Robb Report‘s Best Performance Motorcycle for this year, the Superleggera V4 is the finest Ducati Superbike available on the market. Carbon fiber abounds with the Superleggera V4, including the bodywork, wheels, frame, swingarm and subframe. And the model’s 224 hp motor gets bumped to 234 hp when you fit the racing exhaust.
Only 500 examples will be built, each priced at $100,000. This is as close as the public can get to owning MotoGP technology (not including the 2015 Honda RC213V-S). It offers incredible agility, arm-wrenching horsepower and the very top tier in electronics—all wrapped in a beautiful, biplane-winged body. Ducati at its best.