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?
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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?