Now in general motorcycles don’t scare me at all. I have ridden some monstrously powerful and insane bikes over the years, but even I have scared myself at times. Some motorcycles have a tendency to do that more than others and there are a few bikes that over the years that have earned the title of Widow Maker. Some deserve it more than others.
This is my list of the ten scariest, most lethal motorcycles I have encountered in my many years of riding.
These stories are from my own experiences. There are different reasons behind the unerring ability of these bikes to leave you terrified and speechless, wondering how you survived. It isn’t always just brutal power that makes them scary.
What I realised when compiling the list is that these are some of the most fantastic sounding bikes that have ever graced our roads. Because of that I decided to leave some of the fantastic exhaust notes of the bikes in the video. Their sound often just adds to the reputation they have, although there are exceptions to that rule.
You will notice a distinct lack of modern bikes on this list too. Most modern motorcycles are designed to make things easy for the rider. The bikes here are mostly from a golden era of the motorcycle industry. A time when an “Anything Goes” approach really tested the limits of bike and rider. It also led to some real breakthroughs in motorcycle design.
This was an era when the only rider aids you had were the brakes, clutch and throttle. They weren’t controlled by computer systems meant to fool the rider into thinking they actually have the skill to ride them. These were motorcycles that took no prisoners. Bikes that would bite at the slightest provocation.
Some newer bikes may well be more powerful and faster. However, I don’t necessarily consider them scary or insane in the same way, and most would seem a little out of place here I think.
Pushed To The Limit
The chassis and handling of many of the motorcycles of this era was often an afterthought. Scaffolding bolted around a ballistic engine that was pushed to its absolute limit. These quirks meant the bikes were often flawed in different ways. Health and safety and environmental impact assessments hadn’t been invented to limit the designs manufacturers were putting together. The only limit was how far they dared to push things.
I will give an honorary mention here to the now legendary Yamaha RD350LC, and indeed all of the RD range. They were fast and powerful compared to most bikes of the day. However, I haven’t included any of them in the list. That is because they didn’t have the insane design flaws of these other bikes here. They were fantastic, rideable, powerful and light bikes. They were great to ride compared to most of the motorcycles on this list.
So, without further adieu here is my list of the top 10 most malignant and downright murderous production motorcycles that have ever been made.
Number 1 on this list is the legendary Maico 700. This motorcycle was originally made in the mid eighties and then resurrected in 2009 until 2014. Very small numbers are still made to this day and variants of the engine fill the leaderboards in Sidecar-Cross championships across the globe., the original Maico 700 was a motorcycle that took no prisoners. It was and still is possibly the scariest 2 stroke motorcycle ever built. It was built in very small numbers and there were variants up to 760cc.
I can’t comment on the later versions but I imagine they are just as hard to tame as the originals, just hopefully with better brakes and suspension now. The torque of this massive 2-stroke single meant that however gentle your throttle hand was it was almost impossible to control. The chassis wasn’t the problem with this bike. The engine was just brutal.
The engine is still used in sidecar-cross racing, but even with a sidecar attached it will tear your arms off given the slightest chance. The original bike weighed just 100kg and produced over 80bhp as standard. There have been very few bikes made over the years that can offer the sort of adrenaline rush you get from riding a Maico 700.
I was lucky enough to ride one once, at a time when my tuned RD350LC was my everyday ride. I didn’t ask again.
Yamaha V-Max VMX1200
Next we have the ubiquitous Yamaha V-Max 1200. First released in 1985, the V4 1200cc Vmax was designed to challenge Honda’s VF1100C Magna in the all new power cruiser category. It didn’t just challenge it. The Vmax swept the V65 Magna into the annals of history with a gentle pat on the head.
Yamaha increased the power of the engine by enlarging the intake and exhaust valves, adding aggressive camshafts, lighter pistons and huge carburetors. They then added the fabled “V-Boost” system. This effectively supercharged each cylinder by using a servo to allow the motor to draw extra fuel once it hit around 6,000 RPM.
This took the engine’s power up to a massive 145 HP, easily surpassing the 100HP of the VF1100C. Even at the hefty weight of 274kg, it would propel you from a standstill to 60mph in just 3.3 seconds, 100mph came within about 5 seconds and before you had time to realise it you were up to a maximum speed of around 150mph.
After the first year most models across the globe were restricted to produce gradually less and less power. Some never even had the innovative V-boost system at all. However, their die hard fans worked various ways around these power restrictions.
It was such a heavy bike with big heavy cast wheels, that getting it to change direction wasn’t always easy. The standard braking system was wooden with almost no feel, and these 2 things led to a lot of accidents. It became notorious as a motorcycle for the hooligans out there.
The way it produced its power was addictive, with a huge rush of both power and torque descending at 6000rpm and continuing until over 9000rpm. The only problem ever really was stopping it.
Kawasaki KH750 H2
A monster of a two stroke with a 3 cylinder air-cooled engine. This was always known as a frightening motorcycle back in the seventies! In 1971 when Kawasaki first built the H2 they didn’t just tear up the rule book, they burn’t it to ashes. Their only focus was speed.
It was the fastest production bike in the world at the time, producing over 75HP but it was a handful to ride. The frame flexed like a fishing rod and the brakes were inadequate at best, and downright dangerous in the wet.
These traits earned its nickname ‘the Widow Maker’. It was the first bike to earn that title I know of and it was well deserved. 75HP might not seem much by the standards of today but the 77Nm of torque hit like a sledgehammer at 6500rpm. After 1974 it got reworked steering geometry and a longer swinging arm. This did make it a little more manageable, but it never handled well.
Next we have the legendary Suzuki TL1000R. Another motorcycle that earned the name Widow Maker, the TL1000R was an animal of a motorcycle. The TL1000S was already a handful of a bike, but the engine was reworked to make the most powerful V-twin engine of its day.
It produced over 135HP and that brutal power could be snatchy at low revs. However, it was smooth and usable once above 5000rpm. From that point there was just a surge right the way up to 9000rpm and beyond. Then this engines incredible strength and power seemed to go on forever.
It had an ultra short wheelbase with very aggressive steering geometry. This made it very twitchy and the rear suspension was questionable to say the least. The addition of a steering damper did improve the handling, but the chassis just wasn’t up to the job of taming that incredible engine.
Now every list needs a good oddity, and this is the oddity in my list. Built in England, the Quasar was a feet forward motorcycle designed so the rider was sitting down inside it rather than sat on it. It had an all around body shell that certainly looked different but it always felt a bit dis-concerting.
Its rider space offered some protection from the weather but the low seating position did restrict vision, especially in traffic. It’s very low centre of gravity and hub centre steering gave it a lack of feel. This meant there was no warning when things started to let go.
It was an ungainly bike to ride, with a huge turning circle. However it did have excellent aerodynamics because of the full fibreglass roof. The bike came originally with a 750cc four cylinder Reliant car engine. It could comfortably cruise at 100 mph indefinitely and reach a max speed of 110 mph.
They built the Quasar in Bristol, but due to a lack of funds there were only about 6 bikes produced between 1976 and 1979. After that, various other engines were tried. However the design just didn’t resonate with either motorcycle riders or car drivers, so it just never sold.
Suzuki RG500 Gamma
King of the 1980’s race replicas the 1986 RG500 Gamma was effectively a road going version of Suzuki’s GP race bike. It had been used in various forms by Barry Sheene, Tom Heron, Marco Luchinelli, Steve Parrish and many others. More powerful than the Yamaha RD500LC it had a fantastic chassis and good brakes. So why was it so scary?
For anyone who has ridden one they will know. There was little power below 6000rpm. The rev-counter didn’t even count below 3000. Peak power came in at around 9000rpm. Then there was a dip to 9500rpm. If you chose to, and were fast enough, was the perfect time to change gear.
If you didn’t, when the revs hit about 9600rpm, you were instantly catapulted to over 12000rpm and past the supposed top speed of about 147mph. This 2nd phase of the power band happened almost instantaneously. It was the cause of many high side crashes, on track and road. It was all but uncontrollable for the average rider and even experienced racers found it difficult to handle.
In 1971 Suzuki decided they wanted to build the most powerful motocross bike they could. The bike they built was the TM400 Cyclone. The frame was so light that it just couldn’t handle the power. Even without the stresses of motocross it was prone to flexing and bending. The engine was a monster producing 40HP, but it was pushed so far that it just never ran consistently.
With such extreme tuning and a less than reliable ignition system, the power could come in anytime between 3500 and 5000rpm. When it did come in you just had to hang on and hope. The later TS400 model was built significantly heavier, and the engine was detuned. Even this bike was a handful so you can imagine what the earlier lighter TM400 Cyclone was like.
Harley V Rod
Now this might not be a motorcycle you would expect to find here. However, as I said, scary and insane comes in many forms. At the time the V-Rod was the most powerful Harley ever made. The engine is, in all honestly one of the best Harley (with the help of Porsche) have ever built. In many ways it is a great bike, but it has one very serious flaw.
The V Rod is built low, so the lean angle was always going to be limited, but 30 degrees makes getting around even gentle corners a nightmare. However, it doesn’t stop there. There is a wide cantilevered section just in front of the rear tire. When leaned over in a turn, unfortunately if you hit a bump and compress the suspension, the sub-frame can lift the rear tyre off the tarmac. This comes with a big jolt which can quickly send you sliding across the road on your ass with no apology. That one design flaw puts it in this list.
Kawasaki GPZ750 Turbo, Suzuki XN85, Honda CX500 Turbo, Yamaha XJ650 Turbo.
Now I’m cheating here I know., but this is a special case. In the mid eighties the big 4 Japanese companies had discovered the Turbo-charger and were determined to make them work on motorcycles. Kawasaki built the GPZ750 Turbo, Suzuki the XN85, Honda the CX500 Turbo, and Yamaha the XJ650 Turbo. Suzuki were still suffering the losses made by the RE5 rotary engine bike at this point, so the XN85 was probably the least well funded of these bikes, but they were all just bad.
They all had plenty of power. However they were very heavy and the turbo-charger technology just wasn’t well developed. It didn’t suit motorcycles in the same way it suited big diesel engines either. All the bikes produced had flaws. Keeping the high temperature of the Turbo down, and away from any tender fleshy areas, was a difficult task. Imagine putting a formula 1 engine in a hippo and you will have some idea about how these motorcycles rode. It could get really painful very quickly.
Suzuki X5 and X7
Last mention on the list here is another special mention. Sorry Suzuki, you seem to have made the list more than any other manufacturer. But I had to include the Suzuki X7. It was cheap, fast and light and just a little temperamental. This was the 250 built to take on Yamaha’s fabled RD 250. It had a tendency to shake its head and push the front wheel into the sky at the slightest twitch of the throttle. It was hardly the best motorcycle for learners. However, 1970’s learner rider regulations said anything up to 250cc was fine. Every young rider wanted one of these cheaper versions of the RD250.
If you couldn’t afford the X7, there was no need to worry. Suzuki made an even smaller and lighter 200cc version called the X5 that was even cheaper. The performance of the X5 in the real world meant it could often keep up with the 250’s. However, being lighter it was even more prone to the same handling issues the X7 had. Many young riders found themselves buried in a ditch wondering what had happened when they had reached the limits of the bikes mechanical grip. Tyres just weren’t as sticky in the 70s and 80s.
I hope this journey through time has sparked some memories for you, just as it has for me. Revisiting the bikes that have left an indelible mark on my own brain has been an interesting journey. I understand that I may well have missed a few, and I would love to hear about your experiences.
What are the motorcycles that have earned a place in your personal list of the most lethal bikes in history?
These bikes were all from a time when raw engine power was the focus of the manufacturers of the world. That power outstripped the capabilities of the suspension, chassis, and tyre technology, which just hadn’t caught up.
Tell me about your experiences with newer bikes too, because in another chapter we can dive into the modern era of motorcycles, where technology has caught up and every aspect of these machines is optimized for maximum thrills and excitement.
So hold tight, there will be more 2 wheeled antic’s posted soon.
Ride free everyone.