Worlds First Superbike – 4 Contenders For The Title


which was the worlds first superbike?

The term superbike was first used by the motorcycling press in October 1968 after the unveiling of the Honda CB750 at the Tokyo bike show. It’s not a given though that just because the Honda was the first to be called one that it was indeed the worlds first superbike.

Contenders for the crown of ‘World’s First Superbike’ in order of appearance are:

  • Honda CB750 – Oct 1968
  • Triumph Trident T150 – Sep 1968
  • Vincent Black Shadow – Feb 1948
  • Brough Superior SS100 – Nov 1924

Honda CB750

This early sand cast model sold for £25,300 at Bonhams in 2019

Release date: October 1968

If you wanted to pinpoint a moment in time when Japan became the dominant motorcycle manufacturer in the world and the British motorcycling industry was all but finished, it would be at that unveiling of the CB750 in Tokyo back in 1968.

There had been whispers of a new 4 cylinder inline engine for several years but it still caught the motorcycling world off guard. Kawasaki had already been working on a similar engine but immediately went back to the drawing board, unhappy that Honda had stolen their thunder.

Argument For The CB750

It wasn’t just the 4 cylinder transverse-mounted engine that impressed, it also had 4 carbs, a 4 into 4 exhaust system, hydraulic disk brake up front and an electric start.

It was a lot of bike for the money.

Bikers couldn’t get enough of the CB750 and when it was released in 1969 it sold in the thousands.

Argument Against CB750

It was a heavy bike at 220kg and it struggled to get the needle up to 120mph. The handling wasn’t great either, even by 1969 standards.

If I had to pin it down I would say the CB750 was the first thoroughly modern superbike. It started on the first push of a button and you didn’t arrive at your destination with your jeans covered in oil. For all its reliability and easy maintenance though, it lacked a soul. It was like riding a kitchen appliance compared to my old Norton which had a bag full of character.

Neil Kelly, owner of a new CB750 in 1969

The Triumph Trident T150

Release date: September 1968

The Triumph Trident story epitomised the problems of the British motorcycling industry at that time.

The prototype was completed in 1965 and engineer Bert Hopwood proclaimed it was so good it was ready for immediate production.

The original 1965 prototype Trident as Triumph wanted it.

BSA management though, who Triumph were collaborating with on the triple, didn’t like – among other things – the fact that the styling made it look too much like a traditional Triumph.

Production was delayed by 3 years while alterations were made during which time it was redesigned by Ogle who had been subcontracted in. Ogle were well known in the UK for designing the Reliant Robin – a fibreglass 3 wheeler car. Seriously, I could weep!

Triumph Motorcycles were owned by Triumph Engineering who in turn were owned by the Birmingham Small Arms company – AKA BSA.

The plan was to develop the triple together and then each sell their own version. The BSA was to be known as the Rocket III. Clearly management rivalries weren’t considered when this plan was drawn up.

That 3 year delay meant all the positive press the Trident received was cut short by the launch of the CB750 just 4 weeks after the Trident appeared.

But here’s the thing – The Triumph Trident was faster than the Honda.

 For you performance buffs, let us state that the Triumph Trident is the fastest street machine we have tested, bar none.

Cycle Guide Magazine

The Trident, together with its sister the BSA Rocket III, was the fastest motorcycle currently in production once it was finally released in 69 and would remain so until the Z1 arrived. It also handled better than the Honda.

In 1965, for the first time since the pre-war era Triumph and BSA were ahead of the game. Here was a smooth, super fast 3 cylinder motorcycle with nothing else on the roads apart from the big American V twins, British 650cc twins and a few small Japanese singles and twins, none of which could live with the Triumph Trident performance.

If they had pushed ahead with the production of that first prototype they would have had at least a one year jump on the Japanese motorcycle industry.

To add insult to injury, the all important American market were not happy that the Trident looked nothing like a Bonneville.

It would be 1971 – 3 years after launch – before they finally got the styling right (made it look like a Bonnie) but by then the CB750 was well and truly embedded both sides of the Atlantic.

Argument For The Trident

Not only will early Trident owners tell you the CB750 couldn’t live with them on the road, it was also track proven.

In 1970 Malcolm Uphill rode a Trident to victory in the North West 200 and then the Isle of Man TT 750cc production class.

A Les Williams prepared Trident named Slippery Sam won the same Production class TT race for the next 5 consecutive years 1971 to 75.

In the 1971 200 Daytona a Triple took all top 3 places with the Rocket III 1st and 3rd and the Triumph Trident in 2nd.

Argument Against Trident

There’s no getting away from it though, the Triumph Trident looked dated at the side of the CB750.

At $1,765 US they were $300 more than the CB750 and nearly double the price of a Bonneville.

Vincent Black Shadow

Vincent Black Shadow

Release date: February 1948

The World’s Fastest ­Standard Motorcycle. This is a Fact, Not a Slogan.

Vincent advert that ran at the time of the launch of the Black Shadow

The Vincent Black Shadow is one of the most coveted motorcycles ever made and if you aren’t in the CB750 camp as worlds first superbike, chances are it’s because of this bike.

Riding a Vincent Black Shadow was so fast and terrible that it made the extremely fast CB750 seem like a harmless toy.

Chris Bunche, Editor of Choppers Magazine 1972

Philip Vincent wanted to build the best motorcycle in the world, the new Brough Superior. Back in 1928 when HRD had gone bust, he was advised to buy the rights to it rather than start his company from scratch.

His first motorcycles followed the well worn path of the Brough Superior and others by using the tried and trusted J.A.P. engine. In 1934 though, after a disastrous Isle of Man TT he decided it was time he was building his own engines.

Phil Irving joined the team and designed the single cylinder OHV 500cc engine which Vincent put in the Meteor and Comet motorcycles.

By 1936 Irving had fused 2 of these engines together and created a very powerful V-twin. After fitting it into a spare frame to test the new engine it proved to be exceptionally quick. So quick they called the new motorcycle the Vincent HRD Rapide, the forerunner to the Black Shadow.

After a forced halt to production during the war years the release of the radically improved Series B Rapide model quickly followed the end of WWII.

February 1948 saw the release of Series C which was called the Vincent Black Shadow. It was a Rapide but the engine casings were all coated black.

The Black Shadow could do 125mph straight out of the box with no tinkering.

Also released was the Black Lightning which was a race track version of the Black Shadow and capable of 150mph. Less than 20 of these were built and 17 with matching numbers are known to survive.

The Black Lightning was the fastest motorcycle Vincent built but with so few produced (they cost £500 which was a decent house at the time) it doesn’t qualify as a production superbike.

Engineering way ahead of its time, much of the Vincent Black Shadow design would be used for decades and some of Irving and Vincents ideas are still used today.

They did away with the traditional tubular frame and instead used the large engine as a stressed member which linked the steering head to the rear sub frame. This had the added bonus of exposing the engine to be viewed in all its glory as well as reducing weight.

The rear suspension was unique for its time too. Pivoted behind the gearbox similar to a conventional swing arm but connected to the main frame under the seat with 2 spring loaded dampers. At first glance it looked a hardtail. A design Triumph would replicate some 70 years later with their Bonneville Bobber.

Also unique were the 2 large twin drum brakes front and rear.

In 1948 Rollie Free established a new American speed record for 1 mile at 150.3 miles per hour on a Vincent Black Shadow at the Bonneville flats. The bike had been prepped by the Vincent mechanics.

It’s said his first run smashed the record with a speed of 148mph but believing the bike capable of the magical 150mph and with the stitching failing on his leathers, he stripped down to his underwear to minimise wind resistance and promptly smashed the 150 barrier. The picture would become one of the most famous motorcycling photos in history.

There has been much debate as to whether the motorcycle used was a Black Shadow or a Black Lightning. As the Lightning was just a lighter, tuned up Shadow I believe it to be a moot point.

Argument For The Black Shadow

The Vincent Black Shadow had tons of power and torque to spare. It’s said the huge speedo was to ensure the rider was always aware of his current speed because 60mph, with the engine ticking over in fourth, felt more like 30mph. It could do 60mph in first when asked to do so.

Capable of 125mph straight out of the factory it was the fastest production motorcycle of its day and would remain so for over 20 years.

Just let that sink in…. It was faster than both the Honda CB750 and the Triumph Trident that would arrive on the scene some 21 years after the first Vincent Black Shadow.

When production of the Vincent Black Shadow stopped in 1956 it was the BSA Gold Star Clubman that became the new fastest in production motorcycle with a top speed of 110mph.

This meant the worlds fastest in production motorcycle title would go to something slower than the previous record holder, the first and only time this has happened outside of war years.

The Vincent Black Shadow would remain the fastest production built motorcycle on the road until the Kawasaki Z1 appeared in 1973 with a top speed of 130mph.

Argument Against Black Shadow

None.

Brough Superior SS100

Brough Superior SS100

Release date: November 1924

I’ve made a case for the Brough Superior before and I’m not the first to suggest it was the worlds first superbike.

The SS100 was known as the Rolls Royce of motorcycling. Hand built with meticulous detail, you could also make a case for them being the worlds first custom built motorcycle.

The purchaser was given a fitting much like ordering a new suit and they were encouraged to offer input into the design. Handlebars for example, were shaped specifically to suit the reach of its rider.

The name SS100 stood for Super Sport 100mph. Each motorcycle was tested over the quarter mile and came with a signed guarantee that it had exceeded 100mph on the test track. It was nothing unusual for bikes to better 110mph during this testing.

Not bad for a motorcycle fast approaching its centenary year.

Lawrence of Arabia was a huge Brough Superior fan and had eight of them. He was to George Brough what Steve McQueen was to Triumph.

In the video at the end of this article it’s said Lawrence of Arabia once raced a Bristol Fighter aircraft on one of his SS100’s and pulled away from it.

George Brough helped promote the sales of the SS100 by racing it to over 50 wins. It was also the holder of 7 world records and in 1927 a factory tuned SS100 was the first motorcycle to do over 130mph and it did it more than once with several different riders. I believe the SS100 that achieved this is featured in the video lower down.

Argument For The SS100:

Apart from the fact the quality of build was head and shoulders above anything else available, its speed was the unique selling point. The roads of 1920’s Britain were decades behind the capabilities of the SS100.

It is worth noting that your average car would do 35mph flat out in the 1920’s while a sports motorcycle might be able to touch 60mph.

The Brough was Superior in name and on the road.

Argument Against SS100

Brough didn’t actually manufacture the major parts for his bikes. He would purchase the best parts available and then his engineers would put everything together and tune it for performance.

The engine for example was supplied by J.A.P. (J. A Prestwich) and later by Matchless. The late versions of the Matchless X would have the same engine (albeit with less performance than a Brough tuned option) but cost less than the Brough Superior.


Summary

I was originally going to include my personal favourite ‘modern’ superbike, the Kawasaki Z1. Once I actually started though I realised it didn’t make sense to include anything produced after the CB750 because the Honda was the first superbike to be labelled so.

As such, the worlds first superbike is either the Honda or a superbike that was produced before it.

So, I worked backward from the release of the Honda 750 looking for possible candidates. In truth I already knew I would be including the Brough Superior and the Vincent Black Shadow as they were the stand out options for title ‘Worlds First Superbike.’

I surprised myself though by the lack of other candidates I found.

The Trident was included because I once heard a 1960’s TT winner make a very convincing argument as to why it should have been given the title instead of the Honda.

My own opinion, having done all the research, is that all 4 of these motorcycles should be considered superbikes. It would be very difficult to make a case against any of them not being.

It follows then that if you accept that these are all superbikes then the worlds first has to be the Brough Superior SS100. Unless of course, you know of a motorcycle before the SS100 that could be considered a Superbike. If you do, let me know in the comments below.

The best of my shortlist? That has to be the Vincent Black Shadow.

What of the Honda CB750? I would award it the title of the first of the modern era superbikes and it would be followed by many more.


If you can spare the time to watch this video you should find it interesting. 3 experts try to choose between a Brough Superior SS100 and a Vincent Black Shadow.

It includes clips of both running and both the bike owners and the experts know their stuff.


What’s Your Pick For Worlds First Superbike?

Let me know your pick and why you have chosen it in the comments below.

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Sources

Trident & Rocket owners club

The Brough, Vincent and Honda images are all from previous sales at Vintage motorcycle auction specialists Bonhams.

Top speed info can be found at Visordown

Prototype of the Triumph Trident courtesy of Wikimedia

Ancient Hippy

Ancient Hippy has been back in the saddle since 2017, having fallen for the Triumph Bobber. Mounts owned in a previous century include several pre-unit Triumphs, an old school chopper, an Honda CB750 Cafe Racer and an XT500 thumper. Click here for more about Ancient hippy

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