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The Universal Japanese Motorcycle

[Ed. Note: Tanshanomi brings us his weekly dose of all things two-wheeled. Enjoy!]

The Honda CB750 bookended the UJM era: The '69 was the first, the 2003 was the last.

The forthcoming Honda CB1100 is being wildly heralded as the return of the UJM. The term is, well, universal; every motorcycle enthusiast is familiar with it. It can be an insult or a praise, or simply a convenient bit of verbal shorthand.But what, exactly, does does “UJM” really mean?

"Universal Japanese Motorcycle" was first used in this issue of Cycle Magazine.

The term first appeared in the November 1976 issue of Cycle Magazine, in their first test of the brand-new Kawasaki KZ650:

“There is developing, after all, a kind of Universal Japanese Motorcycle…. conceived in sameness, executed with precision, and produced by the thousands.”
From the mid 1970s well into the 1980s, the engine specs for large and middleweight Japanese bikes were strikingly similar: nearly all new designs were air-cooled, four cylinder motors with transverse crankshafts, overhead cams, integral five-speed transmissions, horizontally split cases, and four individual carburetors.

It had all started with the original Japanese Four: Honda’s 1969 CB750K0. It is so iconic today that younger riders might be forgiven for believing it was the first four-cylinder motorcycle; it wasn’t. There had been plenty of transverse-four Grand Prix bikes from many manufacturers, and MV Agusta had been selling a road-going production four for several years before Honda got into the act. But the MV Agusta was an expensive, temperamental, limited-production exotic. What set Honda’s new CB750 apart was that it was a four that the general public could afford to buy and easily live with. It brought GP technology to Everyman. It was not just as reliable as the lower-tech Harleys and Triumphs popular at the time, it was clearly more reliable, more durable, and more refined in just about every way, with no sticker penalty. It even had a disc brake. The market went Honda’s way overnight.

Kawasaki had gotten this far on their own UJM prior to learning of Honda's CB750.

It is equally tempting to think that all UJMs were a direct response to Honda’s CB750, but that would also be incorrect. When the CB750 was introduced in 1968, Kawasaki was already developing a remarkably similar 750cc transverse four, although with dual overhead cams. The stunning introduction of Honda’s four sent them back to the drawing board…but not for long. By 1973, not only had Kawasaki one-upped Honda with their bigger, more powerful, equally reliable 903cc Z-1 four, but Honda themselves had introduced a range of scaled-down fours as small as 350cc that differed from the 750’s layout only in detail.

Cycle coined the term UJM just after Kawasaki unveiled the KZ650 and Suzuki announced their new GS750 and GS550 fours (especially remarkable when you consider that Suzuki had never built any four-stroke motorcycle before). The magazine quote became even more accurate in hindsight when the last of the Japanese “Big Four,” Yamaha, introduced its own UJM in 1978: the huge, shaft-drive XS Eleven. Things became even more similar as Honda imitated the imitators and migrated to dual overhead cams the same year. Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha would all offer shaft-drive UJMs and 900-1100cc UJM flagship superbikes until at least the mid ’80s.

Yamaha's first UJM, the 1978 XS Eleven, was the first to feature shaft drive. It didn't stay a unique feature for long.

But just as the UJM became truly universal, the market began to change. Looking to differentiate themselves, Honda and Kawasaki tried to up the ante with six cylinders, but buyers didn’t take the bait. Turbos and liquid-cooled V-fours arrived (and in most cases, went). The do-it-all standard motorcycle was disappearing as riders became more sophisticated and specialized. Cruisers wanted V-twins, sport bike riders wanted race replica “crotch rockets.”

Perhaps the most inveterate UJM, the Suzuki GS850G

A new crop of supersport bikes arrived, wearing names like Hurricane and Ninja, with full fairings and radiators hiding their 600cc-and-larger engines. They were liquid cooled (or at least heavily oil cooled, in the case of the GSX-R), and soon sported downdraft carbs (or even fuel injection), monoshocks, upside-down forks and perimeter spar frames. They were still transverse fours, and still similar, but were they UJMs?

Can a UJM wear a radiator? The liquid-cooled Honda CB1000

To be fair, we must remember that the UJM phenomenon is hardly unique in the history of motorcycles; there were previously UAMs in the ‘Teens, (V-twins from Indian, Excelsior, Pope and Harley), UGMs in the ’30s and ’40s (Boxer twins from BMW and Zundapp), and UBMs in the ’50s and ’60s(transverse parallel pushrod twins from BSA, Triumph, Norton, Royal Enfield, Matchless). In the 1950s, it could even be argued that the body-on-frame, V-8, rear drive car was the Universal Detroit Automobile and a transverse FF unibody hatchback is the Universal Economy Car.

The return of the UJM: 2010 Honda CB1100

To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about obscenity, riders claim to know a UJM when they see it, but we can’t always agree on a definition. If the FZ-6 and Concours 14 are simply a new generation of UJM, than they’ve obviously never left us. Conversely, if the CB1100 returns to the U.S. as the only air-cooled transverse four on the market, it will be the only one of its kind…which makes it somewhat less than universal, don’t you think?

Make sure to check out Tanshanomi’s site: Tanshanomi.com

Currently there are "28 comments" on this Article:

  1. acarr260 says:

    Minor threadjack:
    I've been seeing the older Honda motorcycles like the 750 for reasonable amounts lately ($1-2.5k USD). I've also been thinking of getting a bike, but I'm 6'3" with long legs. If I buy one of those as a starter bike of sorts, will it be comfortable at all or will I loathe it after one season?

    • Tanshanomi says:

      An older standard four will probably fit your legs better than just about any new cruiser or sportbike. If you loathe it, it will be because it's old and unreliable, not because you don't physically fit it.

      • acarr260 says:

        Thanks! I looked at new bikes two years ago, but I had to get the largest bikes made in order to properly fit on the bike. I like the looks of the classic Hondas and my friend's was reasonably reliable.

        • Number_Six says:

          I'm 6'2" with long legs and I've happily owned and travelled far on a couple of different UJMs. As Tanshanomi says, they will fit you well. One nice feature of the banana seat is you can slide back and forth on it when you need to move around. You can't do that on most other bikes, whether they're cruisers or sport-tourers.

          I'm of the opinion that you have not had a proper motorcycling experience until you've put some real mileage on one of these beauties.

        • dculberson says:

          If you can handle the vibration, try out a KLR 650. It's really, really tall. Single cylinder, so it's not especially fast, but I love mine. Hop curbs and hoon around town. Not great for long rides though because it's so tall and thumpy.

          • ptschett says:

            +1 for the KLR. I bought one 5 years ago thinking it was going to be just a learner bike and I was going to get something else once I figured out how to ride… now the same bike is still in my garage with 30,000+ more miles, and the bikes I ogle the most at the bike shop are still the new KLRs.

            • dculberson says:

              You make me happy that there's a fellow thumper fan here, but mildly ashamed that I put so few miles on my bike. Mine's a 2007 and only has 11,000 miles on it at this point. But then, I've put about the same number of miles on my car since then – I don't drive or ride a whole lot. I live just a few miles from work, so it takes about a year of commutes to put a thousand miles on. Anything beyond that is joy riding.

    • nollid51 says:

      I bought a '78 Honda CX500 as my first bike about 2 years ago. I also have long legs since I'm 6' 4" and its very comfortable for me. From what I've seen on ebay, the 750 commands a bit more coin than say the CB550 which is just as good. I would save the cash by getting a 500~550cc UJM and spend it on better tires or gear.

    • rocketrodeo says:

      If you want to ride, don't get an antique. modern bikes have serious advantages over anything that's eligible for historic tags.

      This is where i would usually make a longwinded speech about making yourself a motorcyclist before you worry too much about the motorcycle itself. As in, take the state-sponsored course (they supply the bikes), get the best gear money can buy, and then get a bike that is much more light and nimble than fast. At your height, though, many popular starter bikes are a little cramped. A Suzuki SV650 would be a decent choice. The Nighthawk 750 in the top pic is a little heavier than ideal for a new rider, but it's very forgiving and nearly bulletproof. It drops well. And they're cheap.

      • dculberson says:

        +1 on the state sponsored course. It's actually a ton of fun (once you get out of the classroom and onto the range) and they teach you things that riding alone just won't. It's amazing to see people that have been riding for years taking the class as moral support for, say, a spouse that's taking it as well. They frequently do worse than the spouse! Not looking through turns, not knowing how to move their butt to make low speed maneuvers, etc. Speaking of which, I really need to go through the intermediate courses this year. Hope they haven't filled up yet!

        Also +1 on riding a modern bike. I started buying a CB175 and while that bike was cool I never got it running. Moved on to a '67 Suzuki and had no end of trouble. Got an '87 Virago and loved it but still had tons of trouble with it (those carbs are hopelessly touchy). I ended up on a '99 GS500e and that was a revelation. Awesome starter bike. Too short, though. Moved on to a KLR a few years ago and absolutely love it. That's not exactly "modern" but it's recently manufactured.

      • littlejohn says:

        The trouble with modern bikes is that if you don't want a cruiser, you have to put up with very low bars. I would give anything for a modern UJM with standard (easily replaced) handlebars. I'm 6-foot-2, but my legs are short and my upper body is very long. It's no fun bending over so far that I have to crane my neck in order to see anything other than my own front tire. I used to own a CB750SS and it was disappointingly top-heavy and sluggish compared to modern bikes. But the seating position was perfect.

  2. BЯдΖǐL-ЯЄРΘЯΤЄЯ says:

    Remarkable how the original CB 750 K0 still looks easy on the eye. Put a 4 in 1 straight pipe on it and you have one of the nicest sounding bikes too.

  3. Thrashy says:

    My old roommate's '84 Kawasaki GPz-750 is in pieces at the back of the garage, gathering dust. I don't know why he thought a balky, modified 25-year-old 750 would make a good first motorcycle, but he doesn't care for it anymore and it tears me up every time I go back to the house and see it.

    • Tanshanomi says:

      Old bikes are just like old cars…unless you like the wrenching at least as much as the riding, they'll just cause you frustration. Nearly all of my "dream garage" motorcycles are from the '70s and '80s, yet I just plunked down a handsome sum for two brand spankin' new '09s. Why? Because my wife's idea of fun is the two of us going riding together, not me disappearing into the garage by myself for days at a time, and it's her money, too.

  4. I'm not much of a motorcycle guy I don't know a damn thing about bikes, so it's pretty cool to read Tanshanomi's posts each week. I feel like I learn a little somethin'-somethin', and it makes me almost consider maybe picking up a little weekender one of these days. Then I come to my senses and realize that riding one anywhere even remotely close to this area is a death wish.

  5. Luntburger says:

    Until 2008, I rode a 1982 Yamaha Virago, which I sold before moving overseas. At least once a year, I'd do some serious soul searching as I contemplated replacing parts that would cost me nearly what the bike was probably worth. However, every spring for the 10 years I owned it, I'd rouse it from winter hibernation, fire it up, nail the throttle in first gear and fall in love all over again.

  6. MrHowser says:

    Did they really stay with a rear drum all the way through '03 on the Nighthawk? I would have assumed they would have done at least a small update from my '91.

    • rocketrodeo says:

      They did. I can't think of a single thing Honda changed between '91 and '03 other than engine and panel paint. Still, one of the most versatile bikes ever made.

  7. I'm not much of a bike guy, but I really like the classic Hondas and Triumphs. If I was going to get a bike, it'd either be an old CB750 or a new Bonneville. It'd be worth it just to annoy all the "You're not cool if it's not a Harley" types I work with.

  8. rocketrodeo says:

    I've had three Honda 750s: a '72, a '73, and a '75 Supersport. Great bikes, especially for the time, but today they're pretty heavy, the brakes aren't all that good, the fork is spindly, and you can't fit modern ( = safe) rubber. I also had a CB350 Four, a little jewel of a bike. I'm convinced Honda built this bike just as an expression of their technical prowess. There was no other reason to build it, since it had to have been as expensive to build as the full-size CB750s, and it was slower and heavier than the cheap and lively CB350K twins. Slow, yes, but boy it sounded just right. SOHC Hondas have an unmistakable sound that, to me, sounds like what a classic UJM should sound like.

    When the GF moved up from her CB200T starter bike, we shopped for a Nighthawk 750. Close to maintenance free as any modern bike; no valves to adjust, just change oil, chains and tires, and add gas. It was the 90s expression of the UJM–versatile and competent, but not exactly exciting in and of itself. But in this era of extreme market segmentation–it's choppers on one end and race replicas on the other–it seems like there would be more room in the market for this kind of bike. There wasn't, so you can get them cheap.

    • dculberson says:

      Doesn't the CB350 Four have a flat plane crank? That thing does sound amazing if it's the one I'm thinking of. Like an F1 car.

      I've always had a soft spot for the CB bikes, especially the CB350. But for anything except nostalgia, when compared to the modern stuff they're pretty lousy bikes. I still regret the inaction of seller of that first CB350 I saw: it was a local bike junkyard and they got a nice CB350 in right before I got there. They told me they would call me when it was ready to sell, but of course I never heard from them. Stopped back by a week or two later and it was sold. Bastards.

  9. Another month, another round of 2011 BMW M5 spy shots. It never fails. But this latest smattering of pics shows off even more of the Bavarian luxo-bomber’s exterior, including its shapely, M3-inspired fascia, bulging hood and camo-covered (and trademarked) fender vents aft of the front wheels.

  10. Tim says:

    Love the Universal Japanese Motorcycle…I'm interested in knowing if a 1982 Suzuki GS 850L, a cruiser, qualifies as a UJM? Wasn't sure if the UJMs needed to have a standard street bike, upright stance. Thanks…

    • Tanshanomi says:

      An 850L is definitely a UJM. The term pre-dates cruisers, but had more to do with the engine than the tank and seat (which is really the major difference between L-models and standards of that era).

  11. Dennis T Farmer says:

    This is a one fine motorcycle. Japanese, no doubt, makes the best among the market. I just post a Yamaha and motorbike accessories perth as part of my goal for this year. I have been driving my dad's motorbike, so it's time to have my own.

  12. norton says:

    Owned several in the day. My first was a 1978 CB 750K (last year for the SOHC version. Then the 1978 GS 10000, and on and on another CB 750, this one a 16 valve- to the last one a 1995 CB1000 (the Big One). Wish I had that one back. They were all great bikes, capable road burners, tourers.
    Everybody, ride safe.

  13. Davidwristen says:

    There's some talk here about old bikes not being reliable .I have a 1982 Yamaha maxim. 750 that I paid $1200 for 7 years ago and other then basic maintenance I haven't had to do anything to it. I would trust it to take me anywhere and with bc colector plates I pay $200 a year for insurance ,it's comfortable enough to ride for 4-5 houres at a time and Evan with me at 260lb has tons of power

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