1978

For those paying attention in the 1960s the signs were clear. And those who ignored them payed a heavy price. Coming from a world where motorcycling was dominated by Harley Davidson in the US and England everywhere else, the Euro/Japanese ascension into the big bike arena was imminent. Setting the pace, Honda’s Four lit the burner under a decade that grew progressively hotter, eventually reaching the boiling point we remember as 1978...(continued)

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Moto Guzzi V7

Entering the marketplace just as the motorcycle industry was undergoing drastic changes, the V700 might be the most important motorcycle Moto Guzzi ever produced. What did it establish? Guzzi’s now traditional v-twin stands out as the most important engineering element, but without the V7’s solid, over the road performance and composure, it’s almost a certainty the Mandello firm would not have survived....(read more)

 

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Which of these 70s classics is most underrated?



1978

As I write this, I have another story in the works; a 900SS Desmo feature for RealClassic magazine.. Introduced in 1975 (my test is on the nearly identical 1980 version) the 900SS was an early, yet profound salvo fired at the booming big bike market. Basically a bored version of the 750SS round case, the 900 was a hit for several obvious reasons. By the mid-70s, 750cc wasn’t exactly a big bike anymore and most of the major players were gearing up to introduce their personal vison of bigger and better. Sensing I’m knee deep in Desmo delirium, I hope you Jota and Le Mans fans don’t click off in anger before I explain the big Laverda and LeMon were superior in many ways. Still, as a no frills, full PR-spec flyer, the fat free 864cc Duke had few flaws. Willing to endure the rest in exchange for Desmo speed the three years following saw the 900SS gain almost mythical status. But 1978 was not kind to legends.

Approaching this new model year, history shows all four of the Japanese makers making a solid commitment to the big four stroke, This is important, mainly because Yamaha and Suzuki’s shifting philosophy after producing some masterful two-stroke models. Most are surprised to learn the motivation was nearly equal parts emission standards and market expectation. Four-stroke sophistication had won, keeping safe the time honored tradition of comparing cam, carb and valve specs. Several liter-size models debuted in 1978, and the motorcycle press had its hands full covering them all. The reoccurring theme of big impact, laudātiōn then complete afterthought played out repeatedly in 1978. Comparing these facts and figures, I discovered a timeline exists in the info and notes I’ve collected researching the Ducati and tracking its long run at the top. Those numbers prove 1978 was not just a year, but a target.

Setting the editorial standard for over twenty-five years Cycle magazine had nearly one-half million subscribers in 1978, mainly due to the staff’s experience and accomplishments, Cycle’s coverage during 1978 documented –and in some cases orchestrated- the monthly drama that unfolded. Marketed brilliantly with some pre-release cloak-n-dagger stuff, Yamaha’s XS Eleven started the year on the cover of Cycle’s January, 1978 issue. An 1100cc freight train, the Eleven was Yamaha’s first four cylinder four stroke, engineered to be the fastest production motorcycle available. That lasted until the February issue was published with Honda’s bold new CBX 1000 cover bike. Delivering its technology with a wicked left hook, the editors were taken with the six and so was the public, especially after it cleared the ¼-mile in less time than the record setting Yamaha had one month before. Leaning nicely, Editor Cook Neilson and the Suzuki GS1000 shared the March cover and this proclamation: “Best handling multi!” Not comfortable playing a supporting role, American Turbo Pac and Kawasaki teamed up later in 1978 to build the Z-1R TC, then basically allowed the bike to destroy itself in order to regain the speed crown.

Highly underrated, the XS Eleven lost its quarter-mile bragging rights rather quickly, but owners loved the Eleven’s composure during fast touring, its shaft drive, durability and mid-range wallop. For two full years or more the XS Eleven was motorcycling’s roll on king, repeatedly gunning down all comers. The Yamaha did pretty well in some international endurance events too. The CBX’s handling flaws and complexity were exposed pretty quickly too, but the Honda’s outrageous dominance and wailing speed earned it a place in history as the definition of an impact motorcycle. Not as sexy as the CBX and lacking the Yamaha’s brute pull, the GS1000 proved to be the best of the bunch, combining quality and comfort in a package that simply outperformed everything else from Japan. And the Turbo? Nothing can be said of that machine or the effort you haven’t heard, but the TC’s explosive performance wasn’t as important as its message: Kawasaki would never take a backseat to anyone when through-the-gears power or prestige were measured. Since then, Kawasaki has used that motivation to produce brilliance.

There were other notable players in 1978, and more than a few leftover standouts from 1977. Laverda’s decision to invest time and advertising in the larger 1200 triple probably wasn’t the best move…considering the Jota 1000’s strong performance following. Despite not having the R90S’s sexy pumper carbs the R100S was a better motorcycle, and the first BMW to record a 12-second quarter. Owners of Guzzi’s Le Mans snickered at Japan’s power advantage and routinely swept past in the corners, as did the slightly more sporting Desmo which retained the handling crown well into the 1980s. What replaced it? That’s another subject for another time, but isn’t it ironic that the most collectible of these; the Ducati, CBX and the Z-1R TC, demand the most mechanical attention? The lesson regarding market impact should be clear to everyone by now.

Most interestingly, the machines of 1978 didn’t ultimately influence sport bike technology; that honor goes to specialty makers like Rickman and Bimota. 1977’s GS750 -powered SB2 was the future, shrinking the entire package with compact frames, premium suspensions and less weight. What eventually came from Japan strongly indicates the engineers there had developed a strong respect for the Europeans, and chasing the Desmo for nearly ten-years probably influenced their thinking too. We’ll remember the superbikes of 1978 for different reasons and respect the era as motorcycling’s golden age. A time when innovation and performance and competition met to deliver excitement in great heaping buckets. No question about it, 1978 was one hell of a year. Nolan Woodbury


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