- Featuring the steam-powered daddy of them all
- The classic motorbike that broke 200mph on the Utah salt flats
- The modern day monsters on every superbike lover’s wish list
From mid-century furniture to 90s fashion, retro is firmly atop the style agenda – and bikes are no exception. After the race replica designs that proved so popular in the 80s and 90s, modern motorbikes borrow more from the classic models than their most recent predecessors. The key difference? Beneath the retro exterior lies present-day performance.
The bikes featured below have all had an important impact on the design of the modern motorcycle, with the most iconic and aesthetic aspects often living on in bikes today. These design choices have made all these bikes significantly sought after as collectors, despite their price, age and cost to keep them insured.
Talk to any diehard biker, however, and they will likely admit to having a poster of at least one of these beauties on their bedroom walls – and not just when they were a kid!
1869 Roper Steam Velocipede
This is one of three machines that are heralded as the original motorcycle, none of which were powered by a petrol engine. Its inventor, Sylvester Howard Roper, fitted a 'bone-crusher' bicycle with a charcoal-fired twin cylinder engine and conrods, which directly powered the rear iron-banded wagon wheel.
It anticipated features still found on bikes today, like the twist-grip throttle. Twisting it towards you tightened a cable that opened a steam throttle valve. The exhaust, or chimney, sensibly ejected steam behind the saddle – but was still scalding to the touch.
1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller
You're probably familiar with the phrase 'liquid-cooled four stroke'. That's exactly what the first mass-produced motorcycle came equipped with, admittedly only creating 2.5bhp at a measly 240rpm.
Even the huge 2300cc Triumph Rocket III idles at three times that – 850rpm to be exact. The H&W's 1,498cc also dwarfs a modern 50cc Aprilia SR50 two-stroke despite the new scooter making 3.8bhp.
1914 Triumph Model H
Enough of push bikes with engines! By the First World War, motorbike firms were developing real machines. Triumph's 4bhp Model H was the British Army's horse upgrade – they could ride all night and didn't eat all the apples. A belt drive similar to modern Harley-Davidsons meant that the rear wheel was no longer directly driven by conrods.
A three-speed gearbox operated by a lever and a chunky knob located near the right knee kept the engine pulling to a top speed of around 45mph. Despite its 'Trusty' nickname, the front fork spring was prone to breaking over bumpy ground, so dispatch riders would wrap a precautionary strap around it.
1923 BMW R32
This R32 was BMW Motorrad's first bike. Its transversely mounted flat twin engine is a configuration still seen on their most popular models today. Just take a look at the guts of an R1200GS next time one passes you on the M25.
It also shares the same type of final drive as the modern bike – a shaft runs from the transversely mounted crank to a ring gear attached directly to the rear wheel. This arrangement removed the opportunity for rear suspension but did allow the wheel to be easily removed. Even in 1924 BMW was prioritising mechanical simplicity and reliability above weight reduction.
1924 Brough Superior
Called the Rolls Royce of motorcycles with the carmaker's explicit blessing, Brough's 50º V-twin crammed a stonking 45bhp into their two-wheeled steed. It was capable of doing a hair-flattening 100mph and each bike was individually tailored to its purchaser, right down to the shape of the handlebars.
Between 1919 and 1940, approximately 3048 bikes were hand-made in Nottingham, but it is the SS100 that has been immortalised by T.E. Lawrence.
Bikes were regularly upgraded with new components: in 1934 a 75bhp OHV J A Prestwich engine was given to the Alpine Grand Sports edition, and rear suspension was introduced by Brough in 1928.
1959 Triumph Bonneville
In 1956, Johnny Allen took a Triumph engine to 214.4mph on some salt flats in Bonneville, Utah and nabbed himself the land speed record. Three years later, the Triumph Bonneville was born.
It's one of the most well-known motorcycle profiles in the world with a cradle frame, long pillion seat and space between the 649cc vertical twin and the 18.2 litre tank.
New bikes stay faithful to the original but combine new tech with classic styling: twin Amal monobloc carburetors now hide a fuel injection system.
1988 Honda VFR750R
Introducing the original race replica. The RC30 was the first race bike to be given headlights, a registration plate, and sold to euphoric members of the public. Each bike was hand-built by Honda in Japan and featured a 110bhp 748cc V4 and jaw-dropping single-sided swingarm.
Thanks to a racy 1470mm wheelbase and 26° rake, the bike even handled like we'd only dreamed a race bike would perform. It was twice as expensive as the competition at the time and tidy examples cost £15,000 today.
2015 Kawasaki H2R
The big daddy of supercharged superbikes is the most powerful production bike on the planet. Its stonking 310bhp fulfilled all expectations when it arrived in 2015.
A centrifugal supercharger spins up to 130,000rpm to fling air into the engine's airbox, which in turn feeds the greedy 998cc engine. The result? 249bhp at the rear wheel without the effect of ram-air, and a staggering 121lb-ft maximum torque.
The H2R isn't a stable enough machine to come with a warranty, and its engine needs a full service after just 15 hours’ use, but it is the ultimate performance motorcycle.