10 Most Significant Motorcycles of the Last 50 Years

The following feature on the 10 most significant motorcycles of the last 50 years first appeared in the March issue of Rider as part of our new “Rider Rewind” feature, a monthly tribute to various aspects of either motorcycling history or the 50-year history of the magazine, which was founded in 1974.


During Rider’s 50‑year history, we’ve announced, featured, tested, and toured on thousands of motorcycles. We’ve covered a wide spectrum that includes pretty much anything with a license plate: cruisers, tourers (sport/luxury/traditional), sportbikes, standards, adventure bikes, dual‑sports, cafe racers, classics, scooters, trikes, electric bikes, and some that defy easy categorization. Here are 10 significant motorcycles that changed the course of two-wheeled history.

1. 1975 Honda GL1000 Gold Wing

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1975 Honda GL1000 Gold Wing

We’ve got a soft spot for the Gold Wing because it was introduced soon after Rider got started. With its driveshaft and liquid‑cooled engine, the Wing has evolved over the past 49 years from a naked high‑performance machine to a luxury tourer, from four cylinders to six, and from a displacement of 1,000cc to 1,833cc. Its first dresser version all but killed the aftermarket for fairings and saddlebags, and later versions introduced the first motorcycle airbag and were available with Honda’s automatic Dual Clutch Transmission.

Honda Gold Wing Timeline: 1972-2018

2. 1981 BMW R 80 G/S

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1980 BMW R 80 GS

The R 80 G/S was the first motorcycle that delivered on‑road comfort and performance and genuine off‑road capability in equal measure, and its air‑cooled “boxer” flat‑Twin and driveshaft could be traced back to BMW’s first production motorcycle, the 1923
R 32. Between 1981 and 1985, the G/S (the slash was later dropped) notched four wins in the grueling Paris‑Dakar Rally. After launching the adventure bike revolution and becoming BMW’s bestselling model, the completely new R 1300 GS was unveiled on BMW Motorrad’s 100th anniversary.

2024 BMW R 1300 GS Review | First Ride

3. 1984 Harley‑Davidson FXST Softail

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1984 Harley-Davidson FXST Softail

In 1983, Harley‑Davidson was in deep trouble. Its old Shovelhead motor had run its course, so the MoCo introduced a new 80ci Evolution motor, an air‑cooled, 45‑degree V‑Twin with aluminum heads and numerous improvements. It was offered in several ’84 models, including the new custom‑look Softail, which appeared to have a classic hardtail frame but concealed dual shock absorbers under its engine. That Evo motor helped save the company, and the Softail was a huge success, paving the way for the Harley‑Davidson juggernaut of the ’90s and beyond.

See all of Rider‘s Harley-Davidson coverage here.

4. 1986 Suzuki GSX‑R750

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1986 Suzuki GSX-R750

Before the Gixxer appeared, a “sportbike” was a standard motorcycle to which the owner had added engine mods, a lower handlebar, and suspension and braking upgrades, all in an exhaustive and expensive effort to improve power and handling. With its oil‑cooled inline‑Four and aluminum frame, the lightweight GSX‑R750 was track‑ready right out of the box. The GSX‑R launched the sportbike wars among the Japanese Big Four, and 600cc, 750cc, and 1,000cc models sold like hotcakes and won numerous championships.

Suzuki GSX-R750: The First Generation 1986-1987

5. 1987 Kawasaki KLR650

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1987 Kawasaki KLR650

When it punched its KLR600 dual‑sport out to 650cc for 1987, Kawasaki struck a near‑perfect balance between on‑road comfort and off‑road capability, and it went on to sell a boatload of KLR650s without making significant changes for decades. A true do‑it‑all, go‑anywhere machine that was both affordable and bulletproof, the KLR became a popular choice for round‑the‑world travelers and helped launch an ADV aftermarket cottage industry. It got its first major update in 2008, and fuel injection finally arrived in 2022.

Requiem for the Kawasaki KLR650 (1987-2018)

6. 1990 Honda ST1100

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1990 Honda ST1100

By 1989, sport‑tourers were either a low‑buck Kawasaki Concours or a high‑dollar BMW, both of which had been adapted from other models. In 1990, Honda made the bold move of introducing a purpose‑built sport‑tourer with a full fairing, integrated bodywork, removable saddlebags, and shaft drive. Its liquid‑cooled, longitudinal V‑Four was designed specifically for this model, which was known for its plush suspension, comfortable seat, and huge 7.4‑gallon tank. The ST1100 was a big hit and helped establish the open‑class sport‑touring segment.

Retrospective: 1990-2002 Honda ST1100

7. 1993 Ducati M900 “Monster”

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 1993 Ducati M900 Monster

Known for exotic, sophisticated motorcycles that win races and steal hearts, one of Ducati’s most endearing and enduring models is the Monster. Embracing simplicity, designer Miguel Galluzzi said, “All you need is a saddle, tank, engine, two wheels, and handlebars.” The M900 (nicknamed “Monster”) had a steel trellis frame, an air‑cooled 904cc L‑Twin, a “bison‑back” gas tank, a tubular handlebar, and a round headlight. An instant hit, it spawned numerous Monster models and came to define what a naked bike should look like.

2023 Ducati Monster SP | First Look Review

8. 2001 Triumph Bonneville

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 2001 Triumph Bonneville

Few motorcycles are as iconic as the Triumph Bonneville. First introduced in 1959 and named after the famous Utah salt flats where Triumph set a world record, the Bonneville was advertised as “the fastest production motorcycle made” and became hugely popular in the U.K. and America. After Triumph went bankrupt in the early ’80s, the marque was resurrected by John Bloor and relaunched in the mid ’90s. But it wasn’t until 2001 that a modern Bonneville was born, offering a perfect blend of retro style and modern engineering.

2022 Triumph Bonneville Gold Line Editions | First Look Review

9. 2001 Yamaha FZ1

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 2006 Yamaha FZ1

The FZ1 offered liter‑class sportbike performance in a comfortable, street‑friendly package that could be used for commuting, canyon carving, sport‑touring, or trackdays. Derived from the mighty YZF‑R1, its 998cc inline‑Four was retuned for midrange torque but still made 120 hp at the rear wheel. The FZ1 paved the way for powerful, practical sit‑up sportbikes such as the Aprilia Tuono, BMW S 1000 RR, and KTM Super Duke. The 2006 FZ1 (pictured) was our Motorcycle of the Year, and its spirit lives on in Yamaha’s MT‑10.

2006 Yamaha FZ1 Road Test Review

10. 2014 KTM 1190 Adventure

10 Most Significant Motorcycles 2014 KTM 1190 Adventure

Derived from its Dakar Rally‑winning LC8 950R, KTM’s 950/990 Adventure models were the most dirt‑oriented big ADVs on the market from 2003‑2013. In 2014, KTM launched the 1190 Adventure, which offered sportbike levels of street performance while still being highly capable in the dirt. Its LC8 V‑Twin cranked out 150 hp, and its state‑of‑the‑art electronics included not only ride modes, traction control, and electronic suspension but also the world’s first cornering ABS system, ushering in the current era of high‑tech ADVs.

2014 KTM 1190 Adventure | Road Test Review

So do you agree? Or do you have other opinions on the most significant motorcycles of the past 50 years? Comment below or visit our Facebook or Instagram pages. We’re sure there will be some lively debate on this one.

And now that you’ve taken this blast down memory lane of our choices of the 10 most significant motorcycles, be sure to check out Rider‘s 2024 Motorcycle Buyers Guide for some newer bike choices.

39 COMMENTS

  1. Why wasn’t the Vmax not on this list? It was the hottest thing in the mid 80s. It was also known as a widow maker.

    • The Yamaha V-Max was indeed a hot bike in its day, but once you get past its motor and “V boost,” it didn’t perform very well. The modern Vmax (introduced for the 2009 model year) had a hellacious engine and a fantastic chassis, but like its predecessor, it proved to be a niche machine.

      • It is the original and greatest muscle cruiser ever produced, why do you think the Ducati monster came from, it’s one of the 10 most significant bikes of all time! Niche bike, it created the whole damn genre!!

  2. Being a Honda fan, I’ll just comment on those. While I applaud the inclusion of the GL1000, the exclusion of Honda’s CB750 in this list is surprising. It’s impact on motorcycling is well documented and had an affect on every other motorcycle manufacturer in some form. While the Gold Wing carries on in it’s current evolutionary form, the pattern of the 4 cylinder UJM Honda has mostly disappeared. So perhaps that is why it was overlooked in favor of the GL1000? I have a 1976 GL1000 squirreled away in the back of my shop. Feels like its time to bring this back to life! As to the ST1100, this is another excellent bike that has faded away over time. I rode for many years with a friend who owned one of these. His bike got fantastic gas mileage and was well suited for long distance travel. Sad to see these go away.

      • The Ducati 916 was certainly one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever built, but the Monster proved to be Ducati’s more enduring model/platform. When there are only 10 bikes on the list, some hard decisions had to be made.

    • While the BMW R100RS was the first motorcycle to be offered with a fairing and windscreen tested in a wind tunnel, the motorcycle itself was not designed specifically to be a sport-tourer. The R100 platform included several different models, including the R100, R100S, and R100RS. The Honda ST1100, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to be the ST1100 – it did not share its engine, chassis, fairing, etc. with any other model.

    • I agree with most of your pics. I would also like to add the Honda nighthawk cb 450 to the 650.s they were in a class that started the Average person to see and experience what most of us take for granted. Thanks for recognizing.

  3. I’ll go along with the first four. Some of your other choices, though, I think are off the mark. Your argument for the Bonneville in particular is extremely weak.
    A list like this should include:
    Honda 600 Hurricane – first sporty street bike with full bodywork and 17″ wheels, a formula which became the norm for decades since
    Ducati Pantah 600 – the original ancestor of the belt-driven camshaft Ducatis
    Honda V45 Sabre/Magna/Interceptor – liquid cooling, 4 valves per cylinder, V4 engine, chain- and shaft-drive models in 1982? Groundbreaking.
    Kawasaki 900 Ninja – the first big liquid-cooled inline four, whose lineage continues 40 years later in the ZX14
    Kawasaki Z1 – included as a technicality, I will concede, since it debuted in 1973 but the ’74 model was largely unchanged and the big Kawasaki was undoubtedly a milestone

    • Bud, you’ve recommended some great motorcycles. With our list limited to 10 motorcycles, some hard decisions had to be made. Had we expanded the list to the 25, 50, or 100 most significant motorcycles then it could have been more inclusive and exhaustive.

    • Throughout it’s 50-year history, Rider has focused on street-legal motorcycles and not covered dirtbikes or racebikes, so we didn’t include any off-road-only motorcycles.

    • Fantastic machine, no doubt – Motorcyclist called it the “Motorcycle of the Century” – but our list is limited to bikes introduced/released from 1974-2024.

    • Throughout it’s 50-year history, Rider has focused on street-legal motorcycles and not covered dirtbikes or racebikes, so we didn’t include any off-road-only motorcycles.

      As for the FZ1, you are correct and our description of the bike mentions that a 2006 model is shown in the photo (we selected the FZ1 as Motorcycle of the Year in 2006).

  4. Good luck picking the ten most significant motorcycles of any age. This is like an oil or tire thread, everyone has an opinion and no one agrees. At least you took a chance and gave it a try, thanks for that!

  5. How about a Moto Guzzi vee twin. All Guzzi’s can trace their heritage back to the original Loop Frame models. The 1974 Eldorado for example.

  6. As a springboard for discussion, this is a thought provoking list; ranking and sorting is difficult at the best of times. That said, I’ll add my rant to the ranting and suggest the omission of Honda’s 50 cc C100 Super Cub is baffling.

  7. How could the Honda CB 750 not be on the list. It was the bike that essentially put the UK out of the motorcycle business.
    It was fast, stone bridge reliable, (no Lucas electrics and didn’t leak oil out of everything but the headlight) comfortable, smooth running and affordable. Nite Triumph, BSA, Norton, Vincent. A new age was born.

  8. How about some from the Suzuki GS series? They were UJM’s but, they did raise the bar for smooth performance touring, comfort, ride and handling. My wife and I rode a 1979 GS805G for 27 years and over 100,000 miles while owning several other bikes that fit narrower catagories.

  9. Love the topic and the comments are fun, too! Interesting list, even if I don’t agree with some of them.

    The omission I think is most glaring is the Honda CB750. I remember when it was introduced and it rocked the industry and more or less ended Norton, BSA, Triumph and the rest of the British motorcycle manufacturers. Certainly, it was vastly more significant than the Ducati Monster, the Yamaha FZ-1 or its stablemates, the Gold Wing and ST1100.

    • Totally agree. The Honda 750 killed the English junk we’d been hassling with for years. Not to mention that Harley had to be saved by our government placing high import taxes on the larger Japanese bikes.
      Without that Harley would have died.

  10. I think some of the bikes omitted and mentioned in the comments were introduced more than 50 years ago. I was amazed that the original CB750 didn’t make it until I did the math…

  11. Nice article. Many of this type of list seem ai generated, but this sounds like a knowledgeable human wrote it. And the proof is that I agree with all the choices. I had/have 2 of these (Hondas). But all of them rocked our world. The minute I saw the first G/S I knew it would be a sensation.

  12. You guys must be smoking something, where is the Jawasaki 900z1 and the Honda cb750. No respect for your list what a linebof frap.

    • Our list is limited to bikes introduced in the past 50 years (1974-2024). The Honda CB750 was introduced in 1969 and the Kawasaki Z1 was introduced in 1972. Both are fantastic motorcycles, they just came out too early to make the cut.

  13. While I could debate a few I cannot disagree with a single choice. My only disagreement is with the description of the gsxr. My first “sport bike” was a kawasaki late 70s kz650 with rearsets, Superbike bars and a kerker which is what you described as what was available before the gixxer was produced. My 1985 ninja 600 and 86 interceptor track bikes beg to differ! My ELR and original katana 1000 and rz350 also were not nearly standards with mods. That said the gsxr was a game changer and a great choice.

  14. Totally agree with T.E. about the British machines (I had 2 BSAs, one Triumph, and a Norton. If they weren’t leaking oil, there wasn’t any oil in them. Thank goodness for my Mom’s old cookie baking sheets.

    Keep this as a regular article. You could even expand it: 10 biggest loosers,
    10 most reliable, 10 oldest bikes still being ridden, 10 most expensive antique bikes. Mabe 10 best selling bikes of all time, 10 best bikes that were ahead of their time and didn’t sell (My favorite, that I hit a deer on, the Honda PC800.
    Did everything well, but nothing great.)

    Get Clement Salvadori in on some of these. He’s probably owned many of them.
    Just a few ideas,

    Chaplain Bob DeSantis American Legion Squadron 107 Live Oak, Florida

  15. Greg, Honda’s Interceptor came 3 years before the GSX-R, sold well and rocked the competition on both road and track. There’s no doubt it was a sport bike. I don’t mean to dis the Suzuki, but I was riding their underrated GS750ES when the Honda came out and those V-4s were everywhere.

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