Given that Iconic Motorbikes will regularly feature “homologation specials” of the 1980s and 1990s as part of our focus, an explanation of what that actually means is probably in order. Homologation is the process by which a race bike, race car, or even a race track is certified by the series’ governing body. Basically, if a manufacturer wants a car or bike to be able to compete, it needs to meet certain standards, as set down by the race organizers, and needs to be submitted for approval before being allowed to participate. For example, the Ferrari 250 GTO, or Gran Turismo Omologato, was homologated by the FIA to compete in the GT class of production-based automobile racing in the 1960s. The Pontiac GTO, on the other hand, just had a cool name.
Pure-prototype racing motorcycles like the ones found circulating the track in MotoGP obviously need to conform to a strict set of rules, but need share nothing other than the manufacturer’s name with regular production bikes. Most other forms of racing require that they be based, however loosely, on production machines available to the general public. Obviously, compromises are made on mass-produced machines to improve reliability, reduce costs, and simplify manufacturing, all things that are of minimal interest to a race team. And some of those compromises cause problems for people trying to go as fast as possible: a production steering-head angle chosen for stability might limit the racing version’s ability to quickly change direction. But if the rules require that the bike use a stock, production frame, race teams are out of luck and aren’t allowed to modify it. Enter the limited-production homologation specials, small batches of very exotic, hand-built motorcycles that looked superficially similar the regular production machines but were often anything but.
The idea was simple: if a race team wanted components or features that were too expensive or impractical to include in the regular production version, a manufacturer could whip up a limited number of “specials” that included the modifications and sell them to the public. Want your racebike to have a frame with thicker walls for additional rigidity and an adjustable steering head? A set of flat-slide carbs? Radically oversquare bore and stroke? Titanium valves and connecting rods? No problem. As long as a certain number of bikes that included the non-standard parts were made available for sale to the general public.
The number required varied, depending on the year and race series, and even the manufacturer: larger companies might be required to build more bikes in order to qualify. So if Kawasaki needed to build 1000 of their ZX-7RR for it to be allowed to race in World Superbike, Ducati might only need to build 200 of the 916SPS… Many of these now-collectible homologation specials appear deceptively ordinary at first glance. Suzuki’s GSX-R750R looked pretty much just like a GSX-R750, except for the solo tail with a red numberplate. Look closer, and you’ll see subtly revised bodywork and a host of trick parts, many of which were hidden inside the engine cases. Same thing with Yamaha’s FZR750R OW01, a bike that also looked very ordinary but was basically a hand-built racebike using the most exotic components available.
Honda on the other hand, being Honda, took an entirely different approach. The RC30, their original World Superbike Championship contender, and the RC45 that followed were built from the ground up to be road-legal racebikes and were often sold alongside Honda’s more conventional inline-four sportbikes like the CBR.
But a racebike doesn’t necessarily make a good roadbike. Yamaha’s OW01 and Suzuki’s GSX-R750R cost twice as much as the machines on which they were based, but offered little or no performance advantage for the average rider: flat-slide carburetors can be frustrating on the road and titanium connecting rods don’t have nearly the durability of steel parts. The differences were intended to offer race teams tuning potential they could unlock.
Since the goal was to build just enough examples to be legal for racing, the manufacturers often didn’t seem to care all that much about whether or not they actually found buyers: the rules only specified that you had to build 500 examples, not that you actually needed to sell the things.
But the idea of a barely-tamed racebike has always appealed to collectors, and these homologation specials allow racing fans to connect with a piece of the legends they may have watched or read about. And for anyone who appreciates motorcycle engineering and design, it’s hard not to get lost in the details and textures of hand-fabricated frames, sand-cast engine cases, and other trick, race-spec parts found on these exotic machines.