Ahhh 1990’s, they were awesome weren’t they? Music was arguably the best it’s ever been, fashion was at an all-time high, video games were getting great, TV shows were on the up and it was just an all-round fun time. But you know what one of the best things about the 90’s was? The motorcycles.
Motocross was bigger than ever (let’s not forget the outrageous colours of the jerseys and pants) and sports bikes were taking off.
In 1992 Honda turned the sports up world upside down when they released the CBR900RR or as many know it, the Fireblade. Things didn’t slow down there, in 94 Ducati released the iconic 916 and Honda updated the Fireblade in 1995. These were followed by some brilliant bikes including the Suzuki GSXR750, the Kawasaki ZXR750, Aprilia RS250 and let’s not forget the Yamaha YZF-R1.
But our story begins in 1990, when the motorcycle world became obsessed with speed.
At the turn of the decade, Kawasaki released the ZZ-R1100, also known as the Ninja ZX-11. The ZX-11 featured a 1052cc inline 4, pumped out 145hp and was the first production motorcycle to feature a ram air intake. So you are probably thinking, ‘Who care Curtis, bikes are way quicker now.’ Well, you are correct, but from 1990-1996, the ZX-11 was the fastest production motorcycle ever made. The big inline 4 tapped out at 283km/h. This big old rig was no slouch and could comfortably punch 10.4 second quarter miles.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some other quick bikes that were released just before the ZX-11. These include the Yamaha FZR1000 EXUP, the Honda CBR1000F and the classic Suzuki GSX-R1100. But the ZX-11 took things to another level. Now some argue that the beautiful Bimota YB8 Furano with 164hp was as quick or faster, but it wasn’t until 1996 that a new speed king emerged. Enter Honda. Yeah that’s right, boring old Honda.
The Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird was created with the sole intention of becoming the world’s fastest production bike. Honda wanted the bragging rights and the free marketing that came with it. They went so far as to name it after the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest ever jet engine aircraft.
The Blackbird got an 1137cc, carburetted, inline 4 that pumped out 164hp and a ballsie 119nm of torque. Honda did indeed achieve their goal of having the world’s fastest motorcycle; the sleek sports tourer dethroned the ZX-11 after a 6 year reign. How fast was it? 287.3km/h fast. Several sports bike magazines did some of their own testing, and the big Super Blackbird was roughly 6kmh faster than the venerable ZX-11. But you know who was feeling left out, Suzuki.
Suzuki through all caution to the wind when they developed the GXS-1300R, or as its most commonly known, the Hayabusa. Now where Honda were a bit cheeky by calling their bike the ‘Super Blackbird’, Suzuki took that further and throws the name Hayabusa in Honda’s face. Hayabusa is Japanese for peregrine falcon. Not only are peregrine falcons the fastest bird on the planet, what do they eat? Blackbirds.
With a name like Hayabusa, Suzuki had to deliver and deliver they did. The Busa had at the time, the largest displacement engine ever in a sports bike. That big old donk combined with unique aerodynamics blew the Blackbird away. The big Gixxer sped past the triple ton and hit 312km/h. I don’t care who you are or what you think, that’s quick.
Honda gave the Blackbird a major update in 1999, adding fuel injection, ram-air and a myriad of other updates. But it wasn’t enough, the Hayabusa still comfortably held the crown. Enter Kawasaki.
Kawasaki was known as the big speed guy for years and they wanted back in. Production began on the ZX-12R with a clear goal, to dethrone the Hayabusa. Early talk and rumours said the bike would break 200+ mph barrier.
But some people always have to step in and ruin things don’t they? In Europe a bunch of Karen’s and politicians caught wind of the latest batch of ‘death machines’. “But who will think of the children?” Karen murmured. There were fears that with bikes getting faster and faster, it would cause carnage on the streets and everyone would start street racing at 200mph. Logical right? Whether this is right or wrong, regulators and politicians took this seriously. They started to talk about introducing a ban on high speed motorcycles. And here my friends, is where the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ began.
In 2000 the Kawasaki ZX-12 launched and everyone was excited to see if it would dethrone the defending champ, the Hayabusa. So what did all the bike nuts do? See how fast it went of course, I would! But for some reason the ZX-12 wouldn’t go past 300km/h.
No one from the public knows what exactly happened, but the rumour is BMW’s people flew to Japan to meet their people to have a little chat about their bikes. Why? With all this talk of bikes getting banned, they didn’t want the bad publicity and they wanted to keep selling bikes. So everyone decided to electronically limit their bikes to 300km/h.
So the great battle of speed ended in an anti-climax or in this case a ‘Gentleman’s Agreement.’ Kawasaki and Suzuki have never officially acknowledged the agreement, but Honda has gone as far to say their bikes won’t be going past 300km/h. And while they may not have acknowledged it, their actions speak louder than words.
The ZX14 launched in 2006 as a successor to the ZX12. The bike is more powerful and accelerates harder than both the ZX12 and Hayabusa. A stock bike storms down the quarter mile in 9.47 seconds and hits 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds. This bike would no doubt crush those previous bikes. But the top speed? You guessed it, 300km/h.
The agreement was kept to for years, until a certain Italian manufacturer, went, ‘Nah, stuff that. We’re going to do our own thing.’
In 2007, MV Agusta released a new F4 R. To prove how little they cared about the ‘agreement’, MV Agusta took a leaf out of the Japanese manufacturer’s book. They not so subtly named the bike, the 312. Not only was it gorgeous, but the 312 was true to its word, clocking in at 310.99km/h in independent testing.
The next manufacturer to break the agreement is ironic, as they are the ones who were rumoured to initiate it. What’s even more hypocritical is, before the release of this bike, they never had a bike that could get close to breaking the agreement anyway. So as soon as they could break it, they did. That bike is of course the BMW S1000RR. The BMW hits cheeky 303km/h.
Ducati followed soon afterwards with their Panigale R. While a track only model, the bikes speedometer goes blank past 186mph and has been recorded at 325km/h.
So the Europeans, they don’t really care anymore. But the Japanese, namely Kawasaki, aren’t quite done yet either.
In a big F-You to everyone, in 2015 Kawasaki released the H2R. The H2R is a supercharged monster putting out 310hp. You know the best part? Kawasaki supplied racer Kenan Sofuoglu with a H2R and they hit in indicated 400km/h! Just to keep things civil, Kawasaki released a ‘detuned’ street legal H2 that is speed limited to how much? Yeah you know the figure.
So over 30 years later, the Gentleman’s Agreement lives on. Most litre sports bikes are capable of exceeding that magical barrier, but are still electronically limited. But the speed war still lives on, just look at the Kawasaki H2R.