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January 23rd, 2017

Story of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle and of Japanese Ingenuity and Brilliance

Back in our ColumnM den, there is a particular place that can travel through time. Whenever we sit there and talk about motorcycles, we transcend boundaries of time and travel back into the times that made motorcycling the way of life it is now. We always touch upon the motorcycling industry in the late 60’s to early 80’s. It was a time of unprecedented growth and popularity of motorcycles. As motorcycles began spreading into vast categories, legends were born, markets transformed and a religion truly set into a motion. And, when one speaks about it all, it is a crime not to mention the Universal Japanese Motorcycles (UJM) and their significance to the motorcycle world. The Universal Japanese Motorcycle was a phenomenon that changed the global motorcycle industry for good and forever.

Before we head into the story of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, we should talk about why there is a before and after for the year 1967. Before 1968, especially in the American market, there were the Harley-Davidsons and the Indians on one side while the British bikes of the likes of Triumphs, BSA and Nortons on the other side. The heavy cruisers from the American brands were dangerous and the British ones were finicky and expensive. This meant that motorcycling wasn’t really a much famous thing back in those times in the States. The Honda CB750 arrived in 1968 and it changed the game forever. We have dived deep into the bikes iconic history in our piece – Honda CB750- Worlds First Superbike. What followed became the base of what we know call as the UJM era.

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1968 Honda CB750 Universal Japanese Motorcycle

The idea behind the Honda CB750 was so simple and so brilliant that it became an instant hit among the masses. It was for the first time, great performance also became highly accessible for all. The bike did not just undercut its rivals by a fair margin but was much more reliable. Powered by a Grand Prix design based SOHC inline-four engine with a 5-speed gearbox, the CB750 had disc brakes up front and electric start for rider comfort. The bike made 67bhp and could sprint to 120mph easily. It was for the first time a mass-produced motorcycle brought such performance and features from the exotic segment.

The CB750 became a breathtaking success and established Honda and Japan as a maker of seriously capable motorcycles. Little did the world knew that the CB750 was also going to kick-start a war among the Japanese makers which would end up creating some of the most memorable motorcycles and racing legacies ever. Honda had beaten Kawasaki by bringing the CB750 to the market earlier than the 750cc bike being developed back at Hamamatsu. This saw Kawasaki scrapping the project completely and they set out to one up Honda in its own game and the ‘New York Steak’ project was born. The year 1972 brought the production model of the project and called the Kawasaki Z1 and its sole purpose was to beat the CB750’s dominance.

 1972 Kawasaki Z1 Universal Japanese Motorcycle

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The Z1 was a 903cc inline four monster with a peak output of 81bhp and in no time it became the new benchmark by being more powerful, faster and aggressive than the CB750. However, the Z1 shared many similarities with the CB750, the standard bearer of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle philosophy. Both had inline four cylinders, electric start, disc brakes and upright riding positions. Both Z1 and the CB750 were more powerful and reliable than their European counterparts. But it was the Z1 that took the game further. A slew of like-minded motorcycles from other Japanese makers followed suit. The Suzuki GS750 arrived in 1976 with the same formula, it was the company’s first 4-stroke motorcycle and made a commendable 60bhp. Cycle World had said that the GS750 was the quickest and the best handling 750cc in the market at that time.

1976 Kawasaki KZ650

Shortly after Yamaha followed suit with the bigger XS Eleven in 1978. But it was in 1976 while testing the Kawasaki KZ650, a smaller and a bit saner version of the Z1, that Cycle world had famously quoted, “In the hard world of commerce, achievers get imitated and the imitators get imitated. There is developing, after all, a kind of Universal Japanese Motorcycle…conceived in sameness, executed with precision, and produced by the thousands.” And the term caught on.

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UJM’s ruled the streets for another decade, but by the time 80s arrived, the motorcycle riders had started asking for more specialized motorcycles, especially in the race replica sports bike segment. This meant the UJM’s have gone out fashion, but they had managed to bring a majority to motorcycle riding that others could not. UJM’s stayed for a bit long but they had passed on the baton to new-age specialized motorcycles. And as for the silent war among the Japanese classic motorcycle makers to become the best, well, it continued and it a story for another day.

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