The first UJM was the Honda CB-750, offered for sale in the US market in 1969. To understand just how radical the UJM concept was at that time, you must understand what the motorcycle market was like back then. By the late '60s, the American street motorcycle rider basically had three choices: He could get a bike that was expensive, underpowered in its stock condition, heavy, bulky, leaked oil onto the driveway, and was most commonly identified with sociopaths: The Harley-Davidson. Or he could get a British bike that was fast, maneuverable, prone to electrical problems, and also would leak oil in the driveway. Finally, he could choose from the emerging class of small Japanese bikes like the Honda 305, a bike that was cute, well made, and didn't leak. Unfortunately it was also small and goofy looking (though that's a personal opinion) appearing more like a 'scooter' than a real motorcycle.
The 1969 CB-750 changed that. Here was a bike that could run circles around a Harley, outclassed even the fast Brit bikes in most ways, was reliable, and had an electric starter and a disc brake. Now you could get Japanese reliability without the cuteness of "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" You could go long distances without the questionable performance and reputation of a Harley, and you could get neck-snapping performance without the stain in the driveway or the unreliable Lucas electronics of a Triumph.
1969 Honda CB-750 -- The first UJM
Most importantly, the CB-750 meant that a regular person, not a die-hard motorhead, could have a high-performance motorcycle, and best of all, it was relatively inexpensive. The CB-750 will remain the motorcycle that put high-performance in the hands of millions of Americans, and fittingly, remains one of the few UJMs to still be available in the US today, as the Nighthawk 750 (at least as of 2002.)
The Kawasaki KZ-900 was the next UJM to make it to US shores in 1973, hot on the tail of the successful CB-750. But where CB-750 was content to merely challenge the Brit bikes for performance, the Kawasaki was clearly designed to beat them in every conceivable category, and did exactly that. In fact, the KZ-900 was the bike that finally knocked the legendary Vincent Black Shadow off its perch as the fastest production motorcycle, a record which the Vincent had held for more than a decade after the company went out of business. With its dual overhead cam engine (the Honda had a SOHC) and dual disc brakes (the Honda again having a single) the KZ-900 was the ultimate hotrod bike of the early '70's, a two-wheeled counterpart to the Mach 1s and AC-Cobras that had dominated the streets in the pre-gas crunch days. The KZ-900 (also called the Z-1) was the first motorcycle to be dubbed a "superbike", a name which lives on in a class of racing machines today.
With these two bikes leading the way, motorcycling suddenly became accessible to millions who had stayed away from it before. The oil crisis and inflation had summarily ended the reign of the muscle car, but hot rod bikes could smoke tires at a stoplight and still get better mileage than even a Pinto or a Gremlin. By the middle of the decade, Honda was making UJMs in 350cc, 400cc, 500cc, and 750cc. Yamaha was trying to get by with their 650 and 750 twins, which copied the best parts of the Triumph but put in an overhead cam, electric starter, and trouble-free Japanese electronics, and Kawasaki and Suzuki were experimenting with big 2- and 3-cylinder 2-stroke street bikes (Many sentimental accounts have been written about the phenomenal acceleration of these lightweight oil-burners, but they were doomed from the start -- concern over the environment and excessive noise would not allow these smoky, buzzy, fast bikes to remain long on the American market.)
The UJM, however, endured. By the late '70's, the Kawasaki KZ had grown to 1000cc, Suzuki got onto the UJM bandwagon with their GS- series, and Yamaha introduced their UJM-like triples, the XS-750 and XS-850 (they were UJMs in every respect except that they had 3 rather than four cylinders.) Finally, in 1978, Yamaha introduced the new King of the UJMs, the XS-1100. Like the XS-750 and -850, from which it was derived, the XS-1100 was shaft driven, and riders were suitably impressed with its performance. Although noted for it's speed and acceleration, the XS-1100 and other big UJMs like the Suzuki GS-850 and Kawasaki KZ-1000 were seen more and more doing duty as touring bikes, a growing segment of the American motorcycle market.
Specialization of UJMs begins
Initially, UJM design was a functional one, along the lines of the successful British bikes that were their main competition. This was primarily because the Japanese were marketing their products to a world market, rather than to a US market. The Japanese did not (yet) have the ability or desire to compete with Harley Davidson for the lucrative American market on Harley's home turf. In the British style of Triumph, BSA, Norton and Royal Enfield, most UJMs featured a relatively short wheelbase, flat handlebars with a slight rise, a large, boxy fuel tank, and a flat seat. Although this suited riders in Europe and Asia, where motorcycles were a viable alternative to an automobile, in the US, where motorcycles were a recreational vehicle and a "lifestyle accessory", it didn't cut the mustard. The evolution of UJM styling began to evolve in the late '70's and went in 3 directions: Sport bikes, touring bikes and "customs".
The sport bikes retained their "British Steel" look and often augmented it with small "café racer" fairings, "clip-on" handlebars and rearset footpegs to give the bike a "street racer" look that enabled every rider to imagine he was Mike Hailwood or Kenny Roberts, carving the curves at Nurburgring or Laguna Seca. The motorcycle manufacturers responded with bikes like the Honda CB-900F "Super Sport" and the Kawasaki GpZ series, available in three sizes from 550 to 1100. Eventually, even these evolved into fully faired (and radical) race replicas like the Suzuki Katana.
When UJM riders began taking their bikes on longer and longer trips (made possible by large, powerful and nearly trouble-free engines), they quickly discovered that the upright seating postions and flat handlebars were unsuitable for long distance riding. An enterprising entrepreneur named Craig Vetter quickly seized on this phenomenon with his futuristically designed (and very functional) series of frame-mounted fairings. Complemented with hard fiberglass saddlebags and trunks, these popular aftermarket accessories could turn any UJM into a continent-cruising tourer in just a few hours. Seeing another burgeoning market to be served, the manufacturers eventually began offering large, custom made fairings and hard bags of their own design, already bolted onto the bike, so that the rider could buy the bike, fill it with gas and baggage, and hit the road.
(nowadays usually called "cruisers" or "soft choppers") Since UJM "Cruisers" are my favorite type of bike, See This Separate Page For the story of the UJM Cruiser.
The UJM: Down, but not Out
Although the UJM cruiser was a thing of the past, the cruiser concept itself was taking off. Realizing that consumers wanted a cruiser with more "attitude" (and cynically understanding that most cruiser riders spent more time bending their elbows and posing at the Stumble Inn than they did Riding), all of the Japanese companies had cruiser lineups that included big V-engine bikes, as well as small-displacement, user-friendly "starter bikes." Yamaha Viragos, Kawasaki Vulcans, Suzuki Intruders, and Honda Shadows and Magnas made up the first category, designed to give the look and sound of Milwaukee without the cost or the reputation, and 2-cylinder Rebels, Tempters, LTDs and even a big, 650cc single from Suzuki, the Savage, all tried to hook the beginners. On the sport side of the house, water-cooled race replicas like the Ninjas, Katanas, and CBRs began to appeal to those with a need for speed. As in all evolution, success eventually led to more and more specialization.
But if the UJM was no longer king of the mountain, neither was it dead, not by a long shot. The advantages of the UJM design -- light weight, horsepower, small size, high RPMs, appealed mostly to the sport and sport-touring riders. Yamaha introduced its current UJM in the early '90s, using the name from their old XJ-line -- the Seca II. It's a low priced 600cc that is marketed to beginning sport riders and others who need more of an "all around" bike than a "pure sport" crotch-rocket. Suzuki has the distinction of making the biggest UJM still available in the US, the Bandit 1200 (they also make a Bandit 600, designed to appeal to the same market as Yamaha's Seca II.) The Bandit 1200 is marketed as a sport-touring bike with the emphasis on "sport."
The more things change, the more they stay the same: One of only 4 UJM's currently sold in the US is the latest version of the venerable Honda 750, called the Nighthawk. From Randy O's Nightawk Page.
And that brings us right back where we started from. Honda kept the 750 as the Nighthawk, a low budget, all-purpose street bike designed to appeal to those who want a big bike but don't need to race. As with the Seca II and the Bandit, it also appeals on the basis of price, for in the "bang-for-the-buck" department, it's hard to beat the 750cc Honda with any other bike, be it sportbike, cruiser or touring bike.
Update, 10 July 2003: I've just been reminded that I left out a UJM that is also currently available: The Kawasaki ZR-7 and ZR-7S are, respectively, the naked and faired versions of Kawasaki's venerable 750cc DOHC, air-cooled four. Unlike the Honda Nighthawk, the ZR-7 doesn't skimp in the brake area, having double disks in the front and a single in the rear.
The above information means that
all of the Japanese "big four" still make UJMs, a testament to the durability of this type of bike.
Update, 24 Dec 2003: Well, so much for that. The Yamaha Seca II, Kawasaki ZR-7S, Honda Nighthawk 750, and the Suzuki Bandit 600 have all been dropped by their respective manufacturers, dammit! That means the Suzuki Bandit 1200 is the last remaining UJM available as a new bike in the USA.
An Army riding buddy of mine, Stacey, has a beautiful 2001 Bandit 1200 that is just too gorgeous not to show, so here it is: