Z1, CB750? Nah. If you’re looking for a groundbreaking Japanese bike, Suzuki’s Super Six is the one
Most people would name the 1969 Honda CB750 or 1972’s 1000cc Kawasaki Z1 as the most significant of the early Japanese motorcycles, the ones that signalled the beginning of the end for a long era of British, European and American domination of world motorcycling. It’s natural, big bikes always command the most attention.
But my personal choice as the bike that truly ruptured the existing order was a 250 that arrived three years earlier than the Honda. The Suzuki Super Six, launched in Britain in 1966, was a machine so fast, so smooth and so refined that you wondered where something so meticulously thought-through had come from. How could a nation with no deep heritage of motorcycle engineering produce, almost from nowhere, a sixspeed, 29bhp, 90mph marvel at a time when Britain’s once-dominant BSA company was offering the mundane 250cc C15 – a pushrod single with just 15bhp and a 73mph top whack?
Most new things are a development of what has gone before. The 1000cc Yamaha YZR-M1 that currently dominates MotoGP first appeared in 2002. The Kawasaki ZX-10R that won this year’s Superstock TT, and which you can buy in the shops, shares basically the same layout as that CB750 Honda (and before that the Gilera four that dominated the 500 GPs in the 1950s).
It was as though the creators of the Suzuki Super Six, also known as the T20, had existed in another dimension and had no consciousness of what motorcycles had been, or how they had been manufactured. I remember riding a Super Six shortly after its arrival in Britain; you could sing this two-stroke twin through its then-novel gearbox with just a 500-700rpm difference between the six ratios, making it easy to keep the engine spinning in its 7000-8000rpm powerband.
I was just the ship’s boy of road testing in those days, and I would grab the T20 in moments when the senior blokes at Motor Cycle News were not giving it a good thraping. They took it to Santa Pod dragstrip and recorded a 16.26-second standing quarter, with a terminal speed of 82mph, and pushed it thought the timing lights at the end of Snetterton’s Norwich Straight at 89mph. Predictably, this was below Suzuki’s claims of a 100mph top speed and a 15-second quarter, but it still made the T20 the world’s fastest production 250 (I believe it was also the world’s first six-speed road bike).
More importantly, it demonstrated a significant characteristic of early Japanese motorcycles: the T20’s cruising speed was close to its maximum speed. You could spin the bike all day in the 70-85mph window, and nothing would break, fracture or seize. British bikes crumpled under that kind of treatment. I’ve written before that the king of British 650s, the Triumph Bonneville, was a great bike for A-road thrashing in the 80-90mph zone, and of the list of component failures that would ensue if you did so.
The T20 had another feature that even most of its Japanese successors lacked: short, flat handlebars which meant that you naturally sit low on the bike to savour its performance. I know I’ve rattled on a fair bit about riding position in this column, and it’s not a sexy subject like high-lift cams or magnesium crankcases. But for all the Z1’s 82 horsepower, it was an uncomfortable, concentrationsplintering motorcycle to try to ride at continuous high speed because of its shopper-bicycle riding position.
In 1966, the year that the Super Six reached Britain, motorcycle dealer Harry Thompson entered the Australian rider Barry Smith on a T20 in the 250cc Lightweight TT. Apart from the usual circuit fettling – racing tyres and brake linings, glassfibre fuel tank, higher gearing, etc – the bike was standard. Mike Hailwood won the six-lap race on his factory Honda six at an average speed of 101.79mph, but Smith lapped consistently at between 81 and 84mph and took this undeveloped project into 12th place in a field stacked with pure road racing machines made by the likes of Yamaha, Bultaco, Villiers, Jawa and Aermacchi.
Outstanding speed, styling, innovation and durability – the Suzuki Super Six gets my vote as the best of the those fledging Japanese imports.