Why The 90s Were The Golden Years Of Superbikes 


Summary

  • The 90s marked the rise of sleek and agile superbikes that were faster than ever before, but their momentum was curbed by regulations.
  • The Ducati 916 reshaped the superbike template with its sleek design and influenced the shift to compact and sexy superbikes.
  • The Honda CBR900RR Fireblade transitioned the superbike segment from slow and unyielding to agile sports bikes without compromising speed.


Every decade since the inception of motorcycles has been unique in its own way. Look at the current decade — superbikes are race-spec machines with functional aerodynamics and more electronics than you can count. Modern superbikes are above most riders’ skill set, and with the electronics switched off, they’re nearly impossible to ride safely. Similarly, the 80s marked the inception of superbikes, thanks to the Suzuki GSX-R750, which set the initial template for supersports to come.

But when it comes to superbikes, the 90s was perhaps the most important decade. This was a time when motorcycles were fat and built for one purpose: top speed. But during this decade, the segment underwent a metamorphosis, marking the rise of sleek, tech-savvy, and agile superbikes that were faster than ever but also handled like smaller Supersports. In many ways, superbikes truly arrived in the 90s, but their momentum was curbed by emission norms and the Gentlemen’s Agreement. Heck, even Harley-Davidson jumped on the bandwagon with the 1994 VR 1000!

To give you the most up-to-date and accurate information possible, the data used to compile this article was sourced from manufacturers, and other authoritative sources, including Motorcyclenews.com, Motorcycle.com, and Motorcyclist.com.

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The Speed Wars And The Gentlemen’s Agreement

The speed wars were nothing new; ever since we plonked engines on bicycle frames, we have tried to go as fast as possible. The trend began with the 1984 Hildebrand and Wolfmuller, but the competition came to its peak in the 90s, almost a century later! The 1990s was the decade of speed wars, where every manufacturer was trying to go as fast as possible. Thanks to technological innovations, especially in terms of engine design and aerodynamics, motorcycles were faster than ever.

The race wars peaked with the Honda Super Blackbird, aptly named after the legendary SR-71 Blackbird. But quick to overtake it was the Suzuki Hayabusa, named after the peregrine falcon that hunts blackbirds — it was 10 MPH faster than the Blackbird. Unfortunately, it was too fast for European regulators and politicians, who threatened an import ban on high-speed Japanese motorcycles over the fear of illegal racing.

The Hayabusa killed the race wars and embedded itself as the world’s fastest bike for many years to come. Manufacturers decided to limit their motorcycles to 186 MPH, and this agreement is known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement. No manufacturer has ever acknowledged this agreement, but a few instances prove its existence. For example, the much-awaited 2000 Kawasaki ZX-12R that was rumored to pass the 200 MPH mark or the post-2000 Hayabusa never crossed the 186 MPH mark. Coincidence? We think not.

1999 Suzuki Hayabusa Performance Specs

Engine

1,299cc inline-four

Frame Type

Aluminum twin-spar

Power Output

175 HP

Torque Output

99 LB-FT

Weight

474 pounds

Top Speed

194 MPH

1/4 Mile Acceleration

10.4 seconds

(Specs sourced from Motorcycle News)

Superbikes Started Taking Shape: Sleek, Savage, And Stunning

Ducati 916
Ducati

Look at modern superbikes, and you’ll see gorgeous works of art and engineering on two wheels. The modern superbike is sleek, looks fast even when it’s standing still, and turns its head everywhere it goes. But superbikes weren’t always so sexy. Before the 90s, superbikes were boxy and big; you wouldn’t be wrong to call older superbikes fat, either. But the 90s changed that, marking a shift in motorcycle design that would set a template for superbikes to follow. Of course, the likes of the 1985 Suzuki GSX-R750 are still pretty to look at, but they’re still bulky.

Two motorcycles come to mind, the Honda NR 750 and the Ducati 916, and both motorcycles have more in common than a V-configuration engine and two wheels. Take the NR 750, a fat motorcycle with sleek styling, featuring dual slit headlights, under seat exhaust, sweeping lines, and a single-sided swingarm. It may not be the prettiest thing on the road, but it was enough to inspire Massimo Tamburini to design the Ducati 916.

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To Some, The Ducati 916 Was The Most Beautiful Motorcycle Of Its Time

1998 Ducati 916 side right exterior shot
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That brings us to the most beautiful motorcycle ever built: the Ducati 916. This motorcycle was designed to have a 50:50 weight distribution, but its perfect chassis and perky engine only tell half the story. The design is what makes the 916 so influential. The Ducati 916 was designed to be sleek, taking cues from the NR 750, including the under-seat exhaust and single-sided swingarm.

Apart from that, Tamburini’s magnum opus was designed by the wind and rain; he studied water streaks after rainfall to study aerodynamics. And his obsessive design strategy didn’t end there. To make an artistic impression with the headlights, he made his team redesign the headlights countless times. Finally, Tamburini compared the 916 design to the form of a lady when viewed from above.

We may not like such a comparison in 2024, but can you deny the artistic brilliance of Ducati? The 916 left a mark so deep in the motorcycling world that it reshaped the superbike template. Gone were big, boxy designs, and in came sleek, compact superbikes that didn’t just look sexy but also rode better.

1994 Ducati 916 Design Highlights

  • Tamburini rode the prototypes in the rain and let the raindrops dry on the fairings to study aerodynamics
  • It featured a single-sided swing arm that facilitated quick tire swaps for endurance races while improving the looks
  • According to Tamburini, the dual slit headlights were the most difficult component of the bike to design
  • It was awarded the Most Beautiful Bike of the Last 50 Years by Motorcycle News Magazine in 2014

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Superbikes Weren’t Just About Speed Anymore

Honda CBR900RR Fireblade Tadao Baba
Honda

We can’t talk about the 90s superbike without mentioning one of the most influential motorcycles of all time — the 1992 Honda CBR900RR Fireblade. The first Fireblade was to Tadao Baba what the 916 was to Tamburini. The Fireblade left a similar mark to the superbike segment — it transitioned the segment from being slow-steering, speed-focused monsters to agile sports bikes that were easy to corner without compromising on top speed.

The perfect way to describe the CBR900RR Fireblade is to compare it to a Wakizashi sword, which is smaller and sharper than a typical Katana. Ring any bells? Hint: Suzuki Katana. Baba-san took many radical decisions to shape the Fireblade, often going against the tide, but the result was worth it. The motorcycle made everyone realize that superbikes didn’t need to be slow and unyielding to be the fastest motorcycles — they could handle like a supersport, too.

1992 Honda CBR900RR Model Highlights

  • The CBR900RR was the lightest superbike at the time — it weighed only 397 pounds when its rivals weighed over 440 pounds
  • It used a conventional fork setup and 16” wheels to keep the curb weight as low as possible
  • Tadao Baba used its Total Control principle to design this superbike, which was fast, agile, and easy to live with (practical)

Innovation Was The Name Of The Game

Britten V-1000 Motorcycle
Barber Museum

Cover the basics. Top speed and performance? Check. Design? Check. Handling? Check. What’s left? Radical innovations. And the 90s superbikes weren’t far behind in this regard, either. The 90s saw some of the most innovative motorcycles ever produced, and the list is long, so we’ll only focus on a select few that stood out from the crowd. Spoiler alert: one came from New Zealand, not Japan or Europe.

The first bike is the NR 750, which was, at the time, the closest thing you could buy to a GP motorcycle. Keeping the design aside, the motorcycle came with some race-spec and first-ever features for the time. And its highlight feature was the oval V4 engine. Essentially, this was a V8 engine with cylinders combined, producing a shearing power delivery and a hellish exhaust note that would make even the most experienced riders sweat in feat.

1992 Honda NR 750 Model Highlights

  • The oval piston with eight valves per cylinder generated more power due to increased air/fuel mixture and compression
  • Only 300 street versions were ever produced
  • This was the first motorcycle to get carbon fiber fairing, USD forks, and electronic fuel injection

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The second bike, even more influential than the NR 750, was the Britten V1000. This race bike was designed by a Kiwi craftsman by the name of John Britten and his friends in a garage. Only ten of these were ever made and one look at this bike, and you’ll know it means business. Britten didn’t have the budget of other factory teams, but this bike offered stratospheric handling and performance — it was enough to beat even the most sophisticated superbikes of the time. Sadly, all the ten V1000s have retired to museum duty today.

Britten V 1000 Model Highlights

  • To make the bike more aerodynamic, Britten eliminated the wide lower fairing and used torpedo fairings
  • The radiator was placed under the seat to reduce the bike’s frontal area
  • Each exhaust system took 60 hours to build — easily one of the most ravishing exhaust designs in automotive history
  • The V1000 featured girder forks on the front for their versatility
  • Britten made his own carbon fiber wheels to save money and weight
  • The rear shock was located in front of the engine and actuated by an under-engine pushrod



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