The nineties were quite simply the era which gave birth to the modern day superbike. Sure, previous decades had their idea of what a superbike was, but nothing which you could ride today and still really scare the pants off yourself.
The fact most of these superbikes are only starting to look dated today also says a lot about their original design. Ask someone who doesn’t know much about motorcycles and they will likely struggle. The key giveaways from the last 6 or so years has been the ‘hidden’ front lights, and the stubby tail. That’s about it.
The rise and rise in popularity of World Superbike (WSBK) saw increasing investment from manufacturers keen to topple the dominant Ducati 916 series racing bikes. This lead to an incredible array of diversified machinery. The rulebooks stated four cylinder bikes needed to be no more than 750cc eventually forcing manufacturers to head in different directions both from a racing and product perspective by either exiting the series or effectively creating homologation specials.
Power figures were quickly on the rise necessitating wider rear tyres. The 90s super bike saw the introduction of the 190 rear section tyre which has only been superseded by the 200 rear in the past few years.
In terms of impact, I’m struggling to draw analogies with the car world. Perhaps nineties cars? Arguably nothing that special or innovative came out during that time from Europe bar a few Porsche’s. Maybe comparisons can be made with the Japanese sports cars of the era with all manner of engines, designs, layouts that can still look remarkable today. The difference here is though, it all ended by the end of the decade whereas the superbikes of the same era created a production legacy that can be seen today.
Honda CBR900RR Fireblade
It seems right to start at the Honda CBR900RR Fireblade. Honda had a bike racing in WSBK quite successfully (see RC45) and didn’t need to adhere to regulations for their road going versions. So what did they do? They stuffed a huge (for the time) 900cc engine into as small a frame as they possibly could. The original Fireblade was mental when launched, and evolved quickly to reflect more modern styling come the early to mid 90s. Faster, lighter, and more focused machinery would edge it on track, but the Fireblade remained the lunatics choice, that is until a certain Yamaha turned up…
Honda RVF750R RC45
Let’s talk homologation specials. Honda’s racing department HRC needed a bike that could challenge and win the World Superbike championship and so created the RC45. It’s predecessor, the RC30, had a similar engineering philosophy but it was the RC45 which brought the title to Honda in 1997. The bike also competed in World Endurance racing garnering even more success.
Today, an original RC45 is worth quite a bit and deservedly so.
There’s a familiar theme running through a lot of these bikes, and that is the catalyst for their inception: getting beaten by Ducati year after year. Suzuki were the first to build a machine in response to Ducati’s dominance by utilising the same V-twin engine configuration. It was a beautifully built machine, inconsistently fast in the right hands but one that was ultimately flawed. Featuring a rotary rear damper, and extraneous dimensions, Suzuki failed to take advantage of the compactness the V-twin engine offered. For racing, they continued with the GSXR750 consigning the TLR1000R to comfortable road blaster status.
Yamaha R7 OW-02
Yamaha’s answer to Ducati dominance was to produce a homologation special called the R7, and sneaks into the nineties list. Tricked out with Ohlins and geometry from Grand Prix racing it handled superbly but ultimately failed to live up to expectations as a street bike, mostly due to the detuned engine. Only 500 were made, the bike living on today as a beautifully engineered racer with potential. The R7 didn’t yield Yamaha a Superbike World Championship with the manufacturer exiting the series shortly after.
Suzuki were one of the first to bring the idea of a road racer to the street in the 80s when they released their first GSX-R750 in 1985. But it was the 1996 T-designated SRAD (Suzuki Ram Air Direct) series which shook the game up. Based on Suzuki’s RGV 500 GP racer at the time it was light, nimble, and fast and looked the part and established Suzuki’s hardcore track-derived philosophy that is still seen today. In racing, the GSX-R750 battled valiantly against the more exotic homologation specials from other Japanese manufacturers yet had limited success. That didn’t stop sales as it proved a weapon everywhere else, on the road, and in other national championships.
At roughly the same time as Suzuki released their SRAD GSX-R750, Kawasaki gave us the ZX-7R. Famed for its front end feel and looks, the praise essentially stopped there as it failed to best the agile Suzuki mostly due to weight. As a road bike the Kawasaki was still popular—and capable, but there were more enticing options at the time. The World Superbike racer proved to be more effective achieving quality results but far from title contention. In fact, it was its predecessor the ZXR-750 which brought Kawasaki its first WSBK title, and they would have to wait another 20 years before Tom Sykes won on his ZX-10R, the type of bike Kawasaki needed to build in the first place.
No other super bike in history compares to the lasting impact the 916 has had on the motorcycling world. No other bike was as small with a capacity that big nor looked just so achingly perfect from every angle. The lumpy V-twin engine provided the animalistic soundtrack that screamed ‘exotic’. The fact it handled so sweetly as well meant it simply ticked every box despite it costing more than its contemporaries. In the hands of Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser (and eventually Troy Bayliss in 2001) the 916 and its evolutionary brother the 996 won 6 WSBK titles. Yes the rules may have favoured the Ducati but not by much. Known to be troublesome mechanically and torturous over even short distances, 916 ownership is not for the faint hearted with a bank balance running on fumes. Maintenance costs are high, much like any supermodel of the era.
MV Agusta F4 750
Sneaking into the list comes the model that resurrected a brand. The MV Agusta F4 was the Ducati 916 follow on act by designer Massimo Tamburini, evidenced by the single sided swing arm and compactness. It was released as the F4 750 Serie Oro and limited to 300 examples worldwide. While it produced stunning riding dynamics, it came at a time when power started to dominate both the street and circuit and the 750cc mill in the F4 just wasn’t quite meaty enough. Still, the design language of the original F4 has lasted essentially two decades with only iterative changes, testament to the late Tamburini’s prowess as a designer.
Aprilia RSV Mille
Long before Aprilia dominated WSBK with their RSV4R, they had a fighting chance with the RSV MIlle, a 1000cc Rotax built V-twin housed in typical Aprilia race-derived engineering. Using their knowhow from producing multiple championship winning GP bikes, the Mille was a serious alternative to a Ducati, sporting all the best quality components. Sadly this didn’t translate into a WSBK title but the Aprilia certainly didn’t embarrass itself. This was the model that got Aprilia’s super bike DNA off to a flying start.
The second biggest game changer on this list (the first being the Ducati 916), has to be the Yamaha YZF-R1. Launched in 1998 it had the competition beaten before a head to head could even take place. Massive 1000cc engine (none of this 900cc business) stuffed into a 600-class chassis, it was always going to be fast, a handful, and an absolute lunatic. Kawasaki launched the rather apologetic Ninja ZX9-R, while it took Suzuki another three years to reply with the GSX-R1000. Stunning looks helped too. It didn’t have the assured finesse of the Ducati but it made up for it with that engine, and forever changed the blueprint for what ‘Superbike’ means.
Probably the most elaborately schemed bikes of the 90s is the Honda NR. So expensive at the time (and still today for collector reasons) the NR showcased Honda’s ingenuity and flair. Flush headlights, single-sided swing arm. under-seat exhaust, oval pistons, digital speedo, use of carbon fibre…all in 1992. Much like hypercars of today, the chances of this being ridden with any amount of its potential is non-existent so expensive are parts.