An introduction to the big motorcycle manufacturers
If you’re new to motorcycling, or simply want to know a bit more about the biggest motorcycle brands in biking, then our in-depth guide will help you better understand them. Whether you’re just looking to buy a small 125cc machine or a big old tourer to head out on your next motorcycling adventurer, we’ve got the run down of the best manufacturers out in the market today including their best-selling machines, notable success and much more.
Let’s dive in…
Country of origin: Italy
Best selling machine all-time: RS125
Current bestseller: Tuono V4 Factory
Other notable successes: RS250, RSV1000, RSV4
If you’re fairly new to motorcycling then you could be forgiven for thinking that Aprilia is most famous for exotic, expensive, large capacity four-stroke bikes that look amazing but don’t seem to do much winning at the races.
While that’s almost true of the past three or four years, Aprilia’s roots are steeped in racing and above all, two-stroke technology. Early production bikes were small capacity scooters and off-road bikes. The company even had a brief foray into world championship motocross and trials, the latter proving the most successful when Finnish rider, Tommi Ahvala won the 1992 world trials championship aboard the ‘Climber’, Aprilia’s first liquid-cooled trials bike.
Rossi’s claim to fame
But it was 125cc and 250cc Grand Prix where Aprilia really made its mark. Taking on the might of Honda seemed unrealistic for a small firm from Noale, but in partnership with Austrian engine makers, Rotax, it managed to produce fast bikes that handled incredibly well, delivering the Italian brand no fewer than 10 125cc world titles and nine 250cc titles with riders such as Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi beginning their rise to fame aboard Aprilia machinery.
Production road replicas of the GP bikes were a massive hit, with the RS125 selling more than any other Aprilia motorcycle —learner riders loved it and it spawned race series all over the world — top racers such as Cal Crutchlow and Casey Stoner learned their craft on these small machines in the UK Superteens series. The RS250 used Suzuki’s RGV250 motor in a beautiful chassis and is still very much sought after by collectors.
World Superbike success
More recently, in World Superbikes, Aprilia has taken three championship wins with the RSV4, a bike most road riders will be more familiar with as it’s based on the production machine you can buy for the road. Max Biaggi took his two titles in 2010 and 2012 with Sylvain Guintoli giving Aprilia its last world championship in 2014.
The RSV4 is still the flagship bike in Aprilia’s range in its various forms from top-spec track weapon to unfaired, straight-barred streetfighter in its V4 Tuono guise.
Old favourites include the twin-cylinder RSV1000 Mille and Tuono, bikes that arguably kept the Aprilia brand alive during tough times and are as desirable now as they ever were.
Aprilia has a range of bikes, but its two-stroke knowledge and racing pedigree means that these days its real strengths lie at two very disparate ends of the market — scooters and top-end sports bikes.
Country of origin: Germany
Best selling machine all-time: R1100/1150/1200GS
Current bestseller: R1200GS
Other notable successes: R1200R, S1000RR, S1000R
At the turn of the century, BMW had something of a reputation for producing bikes for old men. Robust, well-made and reliable touring bikes offered class-leading long-range comfort but very little in the way of excitement or style. BMW motorcycles were well known for being utilitarian, practical and purposeful, but not exactly passion evoking.
The current touring bikes continue to prove reliable and comfortable though improvements to chassis and the introduction of four-cylinder motors add a little performance to the party. When it comes to huge mileages and three-week tours, BMW is still very much up there with the best of them.
McGregor and Boorman take BMW on the ‘Long Way Round’
The GS range was already well established as the go anywhere, ‘Tonka toy’ of the two-wheeled world, but it wasn’t until 2004 when Charley Boorman teamed up with Ewan McGregor for the hit TV show, Long Way Round that sales of the GS1150 Adventure, and latterly the 1200, really took off.
Riders of all ages suddenly saw the GS as an object of desire and the popularity of adventure riding soared along with the sales of clothing and helmets that made riders feel as ready for a world expedition as they did a trip to the shops. Grey and blue textiles became more abundant on the UK’s roads than black leather and BMW’s excellent Off Road Skills course was booked months in advance as inspired riders trained for their own adventures.
Plenty of choice for younger riders too
Younger, less experienced riders looking for adventure are well catered for too. The GS 310 is both affordable and insurable. Lower power (and seat height) means riders learning their craft won’t be overwhelmed by the physical size and power of the 1200.
While the GS range is undoubtedly BMW’s crowning glory, its first attempt at a (conventional) sportsbike was also a massive success. The S1000RR was launched in 2010 and started winning Superstock championships immediately. With around 20bhp more than its rivals of the day, the German machine was a hit with privateer racers, many of who ditched their Japanese machines mid-season to jump on the speeding S1000RR bandwagon.
Isle of Man TT success
While it never quite managed a World Superbike title, it’s been a top contender in Superstock since its launch and is the fastest machine ever to lap the Isle of Man TT course, with Peter Hickman lapping at an incredible 135.452mph in 2018.
Eight years on, the S1000RR is at the end of its development, with a new bike coming for 2019. Expect prices of 2018 models to be dropped slightly as dealers clear stock to make way for the new model — if you’re in the market for one of the best sportsbikes ever made, you could be in for quite a bargain.
Introducing Cafe Culture
And if touring, adventure or sports aren’t your bag and you prefer a little café culture, then we suggest you check out the über-cool RnineT range — functional bikes with enough style for even the most fashion-conscious.
Indeed, the German brand has thoroughly reinvented itself for the 21st century.
Country of origin: Italy
Best selling machine all-time: Monster (range)
Current bestseller: Multistrada
Other notable successes: 888, 916, 996, 998, 1098, 1198, Panigale (V-twin and V4)
The Ferrari (or rather Lamborghini, as this famous Italian marque is owned by the same parent company, Audi) of the two-wheeled world, when it comes to racing heritage and ‘passione’ few firms can rival Ducati. Until the recent introduction of the Panigale V4, Ducati’s motorycles were exclusively V-twin powered, setting them apart from the four-cylinder machines of the Japanese with a completely different sound and feel.
Iconic race winners
From fairly humble beginnings, Ducati worked towards considerable racing success throughout the 60s and 70s with British racer Paul Smart winning the Imola 200 in ’72 while Ducati’s first TT win came in ‘78 in the hands of the legendary Mike Hailwood. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the beautiful 888 and 916 machines started to dominate World Superbikes, first with American Doug Polen in ’91 and ’92 before ‘King’ Carl Fogarty’s reign with saw the Lancastrian take four titles taken in ’94, ’95, ’98 and ’99. It’s fair to say Ducati has quite some racing pedigree — as well as a history of success with British racers.
Ducati’s V-twin sports bikes continued to dominate into the new millennium. With Fogarty forced to retire through injury, Australian Troy Bayliss took the’01, ’06 and ’08 titles with two more Brits, Neil Hodgson and James Toseland adding further titles aboard the 999 in ’03 and ’04 respectively. Spanish star Carlos Checa remains the last rider to win a WSB title on a Ducati when he won in 2011 on a 1098.
Ducati has just one MotoGP championship title to its name thanks to Casey Stoner (Australian but learned his craft in the UK!) who took the title in 2007.
A change in ownership, a change in style
Changes of ownership have seen Ducati alter its approach and broaden its range. These days the entry-level Scrambler is a brand within itself, and this retro-styled machine is a great introduction to this legendary brand thanks to accessible power and a low seat height. Similarly the Monster street bike was always a firm favourite with road riders of all abilities but the rest of the range often lacked the diversity needed to attract touring and adventure riders.
Things have changed under Audi’s ownership however, and this more contemporary, and more comprehensive range truly has something for every rider. Street bikes of various capacities, cruisers, tourers, sports tourers right up to the latest 200bhp Panigale V4. And all with the trademark sound and feel that have helped to make Ducati the desirable, soulful brand that it is.
Country of origin: USA
Best selling machine all-time: Sportster 883
Current bestseller: Street Glide
Other notable successes: Softail and Dyna ranges
Bikers seem to have a love or hate relationship with the big American bike brand. Anyone who loves customs and cruisers will argue that if it’s not a Harley, then it ain’t the real deal. A chopper simply has to wear the Harley-Davidson shield.
But the Milwaukee firm has really evolved over the last few years, with a new approach to engineering and the realisation that to grow its share in the motorcycle market, it needs to broaden its appeal beyond the gaze of the hardcore Harley fan.
Something for everyone
Go on the website and the range is staggering. Bewildering, almost. The key is the word ‘custom’ and Harley riders want a bike that suits their needs to a tee. Indeed, as well as a massive range of what may appear to the uninitiated to be very similar bikes, there’s an incredible 10,000 add-on parts available within the glossy pages of the official Harley parts catalogue. For many, buying into the Harley-Davidson brand doesn’t stop with the motorcycle or the branded clothing — it’s a complete way of life, and creating a bike that’s unique to them is all part of the process.
Riding a Harley isn’t all about outright speed. Sure, the bikes are hardly slow and some of the bigger bikes have so much low down torque you barely need a gearbox. These bikes are about the joy of ownership, the experience, the thud of the big V-twin motor, the easy riding position but above all else, style. With many Harley-Davidson models the design comes first; function a little later.
It’s all about the Sportster
Entry to the range starts with the Street 750 at just £5,995, so getting your first new Harley could cost less than you’d imagine. The immensely popular Sportster range steps things up from £8,995 — in fact going through the range you may well be surprised how affordable even the Softails and Tourers are.
As we alluded to in the first sentence, Harleys aren’t for everybody. But most riders who throw away their preconceptions and give one a go often find a completely new motorcycling experience and a new mindset to go with it — indeed, a number of speed demons such as multiple British Superbike champion Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne enjoy the thump of a Milwaukee motor, as do F1 stars Nico Rosberg and Jensen Button. Television presenter and documentary maker, Reggie Yates rides round London on a Fat Bob.
Harley’s future is looking bright
Looking to the future, Harley-Davidson has some very exciting new machines on the horizon. An adventure bike that’s set to go head-to-head with BMW and KTM, a muscular-looking streetfighter to scrap it out with the Japanese and European manufacturers and an insanely fast electric bike. In fact, Harley-Davidson has promised to launch 100 new bikes over the next ten years.
The big American firm is changing to keep up with the times, that’s for sure
Country of origin: Japan
Established: 1937 (motorcycles from 1948)
Best selling machine all-time: C90 Super Cub
Current bestseller: PCX125
Other notable successes: CBR600, Fireblade, Pan-European, Goldwing, Africa Twin
The largest of the ‘big four’ Japanese manufacturers, Honda has been omnipresent in every division of world championship racing since the death of the British bike industry. Currently dominating MotoGP with the mercurial Marc Marquez, the list of racing legends that have won on Honda machinery is a long one and extends to practically every discipline, from rally raids to motocross, from trials to enduro.
Joey Dunlop’s Honda Success
The Isle of Man TT is also incredibly important to Honda. To the Japanese giants, this is one of the biggest tests of machine stability and reliability and of course, a great honour to win. Its efforts at the TT has resulted in an incredible 227 wins round the mountain course, the most successful Honda rider being the late, great Joey Dunlop with 26 victories.
Racing is certainly in Honda’s blood, but its street bikes have also earned it an excellent reputation. Ask any experienced motorcyclist which brand they’d rate as the most reliable and we’d have money on their answer being Honda.
C90 Super Cub
From the little c90 Super Cub (more Super Cubs have been produced worldwide than any other motorcycle, with figures nearing a staggering 100 million at the time of writing — and a new one is on the cards for 2019) to the colossal Gold Wing, reliability is superb.
Another key strength of Honda’s is how it can apparently make every bike suit every rider. Most riders, seemingly regardless of height or weight, tend to find that Hondas ‘just fit’. Top drawer ergonomics and ease of use seems to come as standard with every Honda motorcycle.
The current range sees the CBR600 dropped after 30 years of faithful service but the new generation of Hondas is packed with excitement. Smaller capacity machines such as the twin-cylinder CBR500R and CB300R are treated to improved aesthetics and glossy finishes — no longer are these bikes considered ‘town bikes’ or ‘workhorses’, they’re real lookers now too, as Honda looks to attract younger buyers.
An inclusive range by Honda
Further up the range, revamped bikes such as the CB1000R (all-new for 2018 after the 2008 original remained relatively unchanged for 10 years) are packed with the latest rider-assisting electronics that come from the mighty Fireblade, a real icon in sportsbike history.
The range is very inclusive. With five 125cc machines to choose from, a plethora of novice-friendly machines, a rugged adventure bike in the form of the reborn Africa Twin and longstanding legends such as the VFR800F and Gold Wing, there’s a bike for everyone. Even potential TT winners.
Country of origin: Japan
Established: 1896, motorcycles from 1952
Best selling machine all-time: GPZ500
Current bestseller: Z900
Other notable successes: ZXR400/750, ZX-6/7/10/12, GPZ range, Z range
Some 56 years after Kawasaki Heavy Industries was founded, the company that had made its millions through shipbuilding, aerospace, defence equipment and rolling stock turned its hand to making motorcycles.
And while we’re unsure of the reasons why the aircraft division decided to make the first Kawasaki motorcycle, the Meihatsu 125-500, we’re glad they’re did.
‘King of Speed’
Through the 70s and early 80s the ‘Z’ range of machines proved massively popular with the 900cc Z1 becoming the most powerful production motorcycle of its time — an accolade Kawasaki was later to become well known for, with numerous models being launched to retain its title as the ‘King of Speed’.
In 1984 the GPZ900R arrived and, once again, rewrote the production bike speed records — flat-out the bike could reach an incredible 158mph. It also brought with it a name now associated solely with Kawasaki: Ninja.
The speed records were maintained over the years by the ZZR1100, ZX-12R and ZZR1400, large bikes that handled but were above all else, quite simply the fastest bikes around, although in truth, rivalry between the manufacturers ended with a gentleman’s agreement that to bring an end to the (frankly insane) race to 200mph, a 300kph (186mph) limit should be placed upon their fastest bikes.
Championship title success
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a company so apparently obsessed with speed, Kawasaki has had its fair share of success in production racing. American Scott Russell took the World Superbike title on the ZXR750 in ’93. More recently the ZX-10R has taken the top honours for four of the last five years, with Tom Sykes winning in ‘13 and Jonathan Rea claiming victory in ’15, ’16 and ’17. Rea looks odds-on to take his fourth consecutive title for ’18.
Back home in the UK, John Reynolds won the 750/F1 championship in
’92 on the ZXR750. The ZX-10R took the British Superbike title twice with Shane Byrne in ‘12 and ‘14.
A real mix from Kawasaki
Kawasaki’s range today is a real mix that ranges from practical and utilitarian to borderline psychopathic and unhinged. And we mean that with the greatest of admiration and respect.
Bikes such as the Versys offer practicality, the latest generation of Z bikes offers various capacities with similar slick street styling, the modern classic take on the Z900 offers a retro twist and the ZX-10R gives you a chance to win races, should your skill set and wallet allow.
But we think that Kawasaki’s long-running desire to build bikes that are faster than anyone else’s should be applauded. And so the final words have to go the supercharged Ninja H2 and H2R — the former a bike described by Motorcycle News as the ‘fastest accelerating bike they’ve ever tested.’ The H2 may top out at a limited 186mph but the R version is a ‘track only’ machine capable of a claimed 400kph (248.5mph). Utterly bonkers, and we love it.
Country of origin: Austria
Best selling machine all-time: EXC enduro range
Current bestseller: EXC enduro range
Other notable successes: RC8, Super Duke, LC Adventure range
Ready to Race. That’s the slogan for this Austrian firm and it tells you all you need to know about its approach to building motorcycles. KTM doesn’t do soft and dumbed down. It builds brilliant bikes that are designed to win races.
KTM is most famous for its off-road machines. Having won more world enduro championships than any other manufacturer with its EXC range, along with numerous world motocross championship victories, this relatively small company has consistently beaten the Japanese at their own game. Oh, and it’s won every Paris-Dakar race since 2001.
They’ve had success on the tarmac too, with Moto3 championship wins in ’12, ’13 and ’16 with Sandro Cortese, Maverick Viñales and Brad Binder respectively. KTM also build chassis for various teams in the Moto2 class and supply race bikes for the Red Bull Rookies class. Its commitment to racing is plain to see and is mightily impressive.
Even the website images for the 1290 Super Duke GT ‘touring’ bike show riders in full race leathers with knee sliders. Forget the humdrum way of touring, this is KTM, this is full-bore!
Small capacity but big personality
The current road range is understandably smaller than its bigger rivals (though check out the enduro range, it’s huge!), but every bike punches above its weight. Even the small capacity bikes ooze personality and the potential to be tuned to within an inch of their lives!
New riders wishing to learn to ride on the very best 125cc machines can go for the naked Duke or the sports faired RC125 while qualified young riders can keep insurance affordable without compromising their cool with the bigger 390 versions of each.
It’s all about the orange
The rest of the naked Duke range is pure muscle and aggression and then there’s the much lauded, go-anywhere adventure bike range, derived directly from all that success in the heat of two decades of Paris-Dakar battles.
If you like excitement, aren’t too conservative and are partial to a drop of orange, then the spirited KTM range could yield the perfect bike for you.
Country of origin: Japan
Best selling machine all-time: –
Current bestseller: –
Other notable successes: GSX-R, V-Strom, Burgman, GSF Bandit, SV, TL, RM motocross range
Hard to believe that a firm set up to produce looms for the Japanese silk industry diversified into engine building and finally the production of cars, motorcycles, quads and outboard motors.
While Suzuki’s cars are well known, the Hamamatsu firm is most famous for producing motorcycles, with a large bias towards high performance machinery for the race circuit, road and motocross track. Like most Japanese brands, the challenge of competition and honour of winning races runs deep within Suzuki’s bloodline.
GSX-R cult following
The GSX-R series of machines has something approaching a cult following. The history of this machine goes back to 1985 when the 750 was launched — since then multiple different versions and capacities have been produced, but all with the same hardcore, race-focused attitude that won it both races and showroom sales in the mid 80s. After a bit of a dry spell in production racing, Suzuki launched a new GSX-R1000 in 2017 and is currently enjoying a fair degree of success in the UK in both the Superbike and Superstock classes. It’s a great road bike too; sprung well to cope with the often less-than-perfect UK road surfaces and with excellent electronic rider aids to tame the best part of 200bhp. We’re still a little saddened by the disappearance of the 750 and 600 models, though. The mighty GSX13000R Hayabusa, once the fastest production bike in the world, remains in the range for 2018 though we have a feeling this could be its last year — fingers crossed there’s a replacement waiting in the wings.
It’s not all about top speeds and racetracks
Suzuki aren’t all about top speeds and ‘owning the racetrack’ though. The GSX-R derived four-cylinder GSX-S range of naked street bikes offers something for real world riding. Similarly, the excellent twin-cylinder SV650 has made a return to the range (it never really left, but the renamed ‘Gladius’ didn’t really catch on) so it’s good news for riders who need to be mindful of running costs but don’t want to miss out on too much fun.
Just one cruiser remains, though strangely we could only find the Intruder 1800 available through dealers, and not on the official Suzuki GB website.
For touring types the V-Strom range of machines really offers something for all ages, with 250, 650 and 1000cc models, all with myriad configurations to tailor each bike for your kind of adventure.
If big scooters are your thing then they don’t get much better than the Burgman and there’s a great choice of stylish learner legal 125cc machines as Suzuki join the ever-increasing number of manufacturers keen to get new riders on board and on brand.
While Suzuki GB has streamlined its range, there’s still an excellent choice for every kind of rider and plenty to get excited about!
Country of origin: UK
Established: 1885 (rescued by John Bloor in 1983)
Best selling machine all-time: Bonneville
Current bestseller: Tiger 800
Other notable successes: Daytona 675, Speed Triple, Street Triple, Rocket III
One of the most famous of all the British brands, and the only one remaining with a competitive range and mass production capability, Triumph very nearly disappeared into an abyss of financial despair in the early 80s.
What was known as Triumph Engineering became Triumph Motorcycles as self-made building magnate, John Bloor bought the rights and went about rebuilding the brand.
One of the most famous British brands
Triumph’s ‘phoenix from the flames’ to become the success it is today wasn’t plain sailing though, and it took several years before it could be considered a real rival for its Japanese and European counterparts. Relying heavily on older riders buying into the Triumph name, old classics such as the Bonneville and Thunderbird were resurrected along with a range of staid touring bikes in conservative shades of racing green and navy blue.
The three-cylinder T595 sports bike brought a little sound and colour to the party in 1997 at a time when it really needed to attract the sportsbike-mad buyers of the time. It proved a hit and was arguably a real turning point for the Hinckley firm.
Introducing the Daytona 675
Fast forward to 2006 and another seminal bike rolled off the production line — the Daytona 675, a bike that wasn’t so much a turning point as a completely new chapter in Triumph’s history. Incredibly, this bike nearly didn’t happen as cautious executives wanted to steer the firm away from competing head-to-head with the Japanese sports bikes after the ill-fated TT600 and Daytona 600/650 sports models failed to make an impact.
Happily, the Daytona 675 was more than up to the job and went on to be a massive hit with road riders as well as a success in domestic racing, winning races and championships in British Supersport and smashing the 600cc TT lap record. Triumph’s association with three-cylinder (triple) motors is now as much a part of the brand as V-twins are with Ducati, bringing a real identity and soul to the British brand.
While the Daytona 675 proved successful, it has been discontinued as Triumph once again shifts its focus, this time to the growing adventure bike market. The launch of the revised Tiger made Triumph a real force to be reckoned with a few years ago, and now, with an even broader range of go-anywhere machines to choose from it’s going from strength to strength.
Speed and Street Triples
For those who still want to enjoy the tarmac, be that on road or track, there’s plenty of naked fun to be had with the Speed and Street Triples. Superb handling and a unique soundtrack offer something very different from the usual inline-four.
Triumph is on the up, that’s for sure. The contemporary range is bang up to date and the retro machines add something a little more traditional for nostalgic riders and hipsters alike — it’s just a shame there are no learner legal machines or low capacity machines to attract a younger audience to this fine British brand.
Country of origin: Japan
Established: 1887 (motorcycles from 1955)
Best selling machine all-time:
Other notable successes: RD250 and 350LC, FZR range, YZF range, MT range, Super Ténéré, FJR1300
Another Japanese manufacturer that started in a completely different industry, musical instrument makers Yamaha started making motorcycles in the mid-50s.
Lots of Yamaha legends
Like its direct rivals, it didn’t take Yamaha long to start competing in racing at the very highest level with success coming quickly. Yamaha racing stars include legends such as Giacomo Agostini, Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and more recently of course, Valentino Rossi, arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time.
There are plenty of legendary Yamahas too. The 50cc FS1-E became a smash hit with 16-year-olds in the 70s with many claiming a top speed of 60mph. In reality it was lucky to little more than 45, but at least it was better than 30mph which later ‘Fizzys’ and indeed all 50cc bikes were limited to from 1977.
Those same young riders would likely to have gone to enjoy the RD250 or 350LC, bikes that are now objects of desire for collectors the world over. A screaming two-stroke menace of a bike in its day, if you had one of these machines your coolness was beyond question.
The FZR became the must-have Yamaha in the mid 90s before the YZF750 and then the YZF-R1, a bike that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and the flagship of the current Yamaha range.
Yamaha’s current range is very diverse. Not only are there different model types (and even a bizarre ‘reverse’ trike in the amazing Niken), but perhaps more engine configurations than any other manufacturer, with V-twins, parallel twins, triples, inline-fours and in the R1, an inline-four with a crossplane crank and a firing order that makes it behave more like a twin but with the top end power of a four. When it comes to being bold with new ideas, Yamaha has never been shy.
Check out the adventure bike models
The adventure bike market is ably catered for by the super capable Super Ténéré with a smaller, more agile 700cc machine in the pipeline for 2019 or 2020. Touring types have the choice of the contemporary touring/adventure hybrid Tracer while traditionalists who want to enjoy large capacity cruising, both in terms of motor and carry capacity, should suit the FJR1300, a bike that has been a part of Yamaha’s range for eons.
The café culture, retro scene is huge at the moment and again, Yamaha has some superb machines that blend old-school charm with modern technology.
Naked street bikes vary from the learner legal MT-125 to the ferociously fast R1-engined MT-10.
Yamaha is one of the only manufacturers producing 600s
And finally the sports bikes. Yamaha is one of the only manufacturers left with a 600 in its range and it’s fair to say the 2018 R6 is a fitting finale to the 600 class — there has simply never been a better sports 600.
The flagship R1 comes in two flavours, with the exotic R1M costing a cool £20,149 while the massively capable stock version comes in at £16,499.
Yamaha’s current range is really quite something with bikes to suit learners and legends alike.