The Japanese know a thing or two about motorcycles, and it all began back in 1969. That was the year that Honda launched the CB750. Here was a motorcycle that outdid its rivals in almost every way. It packed in more performance and reliability, had better equipment, cost less than its competition, and was manufactured with what we now recognize as typical Japanese precision.
It wasn’t just Honda. The rest of the big Japanese motorcycle manufacturers — Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha — all came to the fore in the ‘70s with motorcycles that more or less bore the same characteristics. This is where the term UJM, or Universal Japanese Motorcycle, was born. The common characteristics included an inline-four cylinder engine configuration with overhead camshafts, disc brakes, an electric starter and a standard riding position.
10 Honda CB750
Active Years: 1969-2003
During the 1960s, Honda’s ambitions became evident through a notable lineup of 450cc twin-cylinder roadster models. These offerings rivaled the performance of British 650cc counterparts like the Triumph Bonneville and BSA Lightning, while setting themselves apart with traits like reliability, seamless operation, and freedom from leaks. This development didn’t trigger immediate concern among the British manufacturers, as they believed riders would initiate their journey on smaller Japanese models before progressing to the larger-displacement British motorcycles.
However, the landscape shifted dramatically with the introduction of the CB750. This introduction instantaneously rendered every other vehicle on the road as ancient in both appearance and sensation. Swift, polished, dependable, without any leaks, and adorned with modern features like disc brakes and electric start, the CB750 encapsulated an unparalleled level of performance. The Honda CB750 was a masterstroke.
9 Suzuki SV650
Active Years: 1999-2023
Regrettably, its days numbered, the Suzuki SV650 emerges as potentially the epitome of a UJM. While its design may seem straightforward, it encompasses the core UJM characteristics, all without any noticeable drawbacks. Its simplicity is complemented by the distinctive V-twin engine.
It lasted for a near-quarter-century production run, a rarity in today’s world, and this motorcycle’s excellence and sustained popularity raise the question of why Suzuki would consider discontinuing it. While the forthcoming “replacement”, the GSX-8S, is poised to be an advancement, continuing the UJM concept, whether it will evoke the same charm remains an open question.
8 Yamaha XSR900
Active Years: 2016 Onwards
The Japanese motorcycle manufacturers’ somewhat reserved stance toward the retro trend is notably reflected in the Yamaha XSR900. Derived from the immensely popular MT-09, it has undergone a modest cosmetic transformation to result in a seemingly retro-inspired model, albeit lacking a distinct lineage. While the three-cylinder engine acknowledges the legacy of the XS750 and XS850, its connection is rather limited.
Nevertheless, the core principles of the UJM continue within this model: a commendable all-purpose bike devoid of glaring shortcomings, albeit without any exceptional attributes. Its versatile nature allows it to seamlessly serve numerous roles with practical efficiency and reliability.
7 Kawasaki KZ650
Active Years: 1976 Onwards
UJMs weren’t confined solely to larger engine sizes. In fact, the term was first introduced during a 1976 Cycle Magazine road test of the Kawasaki KZ650. They described a “universal Japanese motorcycle” as a creation conceived in uniformity, executed with precision, and produced in mass quantities. Despite the differences between various models, they shared a common structural blueprint. However, the dynamics started evolving in the 1980s due to the growing market demand for distinctive identities from models and manufacturers.
This transition was marked by significant shifts: Honda and Kawasaki unveiled six-cylinder motorcycles, while the trend of V-twins, V-fours, and turbochargers came and went. Fairings, water-cooling systems, mono shocks, and perimeter spar frames gained prominence. While many of these engineering solutions were collectively adopted by Japanese manufacturers, this marked the departure from the era of the UJM, as models and technologies diversified, and the motorcycle landscape evolved accordingly.
6 Yamaha XS Eleven
Active Years: 1978-1981
Four-cylinder motorcycle engines were not foreign to Yamaha considering their absurd creation: the two-stroke, inline-four cylinder engine deployed in the TZ750. While the sizeable displacement two-stroke engine didn’t find many fans, exemplified by the Suzuki GT750, Yamaha took a bold step, venturing into the realm of four-stroke inline-four cylinder engines with their first design.
This inaugural effort culminated in a 1,101cc engine. The resultant performance was nothing short of awe-inspiring, although the motorcycle itself carried weight, and the frame’s capacity to tame the available power was at its limits.
5 Kawasaki Z1 900
Active Years: 1972-1975
Kawasaki had been crafting their 750cc inline four-cylinder engine; however, the advent of the CB750 prompted Kawasaki to re-evaluate their approach. The result was a comprehensive three-year endeavor culminating in the creation of a 900cc engine that eventually found its home in the celebrated Z1. In essence, the Z1 mirrored Honda’s concept, featuring a transversely-mounted engine within a tubular steel frame, a front disc brake, electric start, and an upright or “standard” riding posture.
The Z1 was no slouch, delivering a remarkable 130mph with an uncanny level of smoothness, and its chassis managed to just about contain this potent blend. The standout feature differentiating the Kawasaki from the Honda CB750 was the adoption of double overhead camshafts. This innovation would subsequently become the norm, reshaping motorcycle engineering from that point onward.
4 Yamaha XS750
Active Years: 1976-1979
In Yamaha’s quest to claim its share of the market, it ventured into a slightly distinct avenue concerning its engine approach. The company created an inline-three cylinder engine and coupled it with a shaft final drive, echoing the strategy used by BMW. The XS750 leveraged its unique three-cylinder powerplant, attaining commendable sales over its four-year span before yielding to the XS850 in 1980.
However, Yamaha smartly recognized the prevailing direction and acknowledged that aligning with its domestic rivals necessitated entering the world of four-cylinder motorcycles.
3 Suzuki GS750
Active Years: 1977-1983
Similar to Yamaha, Suzuki remained dedicated to two-stroke motorcycles throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. However, as they recognized the evolving trajectory of motorcycle design, the shift to four-strokes became imperative. The GS750, then, emerged as one of the peak examples of the UJM principle.
The GS750 embraced an air-cooled engine with twin overhead camshafts, drawing inspiration from the Kawasaki Z1 model. This engine found its place within a dual-cradle steel tube frame, complemented by telescopic forks, twin rear shocks, and a front disc brake. Although the chassis layout bore resemblances to its counterparts, the GS750 gained a reputation for superior handling that outstripped its contemporaries.
Notably, the GS750 marked the inception of Suzuki’s legacy of meticulous engineering, a tradition characterized by over-engineering that could withstand various forms of abuse.
2 Kawasaki Z900RS
Active Years: 2018 onwards
There’s no denying that there’s a resurgence for retro motorcycles, and the Japanese manufacturers has easier access to inspiration compared to the American or European motorcycle manufacturers. This leads us to a return of the UJM concept, manifesting as a versatile bike designed to excel in various roles – a companion for daily commuting, navigating through traffic, and equally engaging when embracing the open road. This is where the Kawasaki Z900RS comes in.
Channeling the essence of the original Z900, the Z900RS encapsulates the classic appeal of yesteryears. The hallmark inline four-cylinder engine and steel tube frame come together to resurrect the distinct feel of the past. In essence, the Z900RS serves as a tribute to the very kind of motorcycle that revolutionized the motorcycling world during the early 1970s.
1 Honda CB1000R
Active Years: 2019 Onwards
Among all the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, Honda has shown the least enthusiasm for embracing the retro trend. While the CB1100ES stands out as a notable effort, even that attempt seems somewhat half-hearted. However, where the Japanese manufacturers are truly excelling is in the introduction of straightforward and basic models reminiscent of the initial UJMs.
These modern renditions typically house inline four-cylinder engines within competent chassis, resulting in motorcycles that navigate the middle ground in terms of capabilities. A prime example is the Honda CB1000R, a model that even manages to mirror the slightly restrained sensation found in the early Japanese four-cylinder engines. Just as its predecessors demanded high revs to unleash performance, the CB1000R maintains that trademark smoothness and reliability that characterized those early engines.