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Born to Be Wild: Motorcycle Styles Through the Decades

Since the dawn of the 20th century, the motorcycle has evolved from super fast pedal bike to war-time sidekick to an art form in and of itself. Ask any motorcycle enthusiast and they can probably tell you their favorite motorcycle style faster than a Kawasaki Ninja can reach 100mph.

Here we take a trip back in time to explore 100 years of iconic motorcycle styles that forever made their mark on history. Whether you love the early British and German styles that started it all or prefer the extravagant, custom builds of the 60s and 70s, there’s no denying that these innovative motorbikes from yesterday became today’s timeless, must-have rides.

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The 1920s was a boom time for most industries, including the motorcycle industry, which saw advancements in engineering and pushed the humble motorbike to new creative heights. The sidecar, like the fully restored one here, was so popular it even spurred the creation of an even more popular cocktail.

1920s green motorcycle with sidecar attached

1928 Harley-Davidson JD w/Original Sidecar from Factory, found on eBay Motors.


While the Great Depression and battered economy of the 1930s may have put the brakes on any major advancements in the moto industry, manufacturers of the time still managed to create iconic styles that live on today. Most notably, the Harley Davidson EL “Knucklehead” model – a bike so popular that it’s believed to have pulled the American company through the depression.

1930s Harley-Davidson Knucklehead motorcycle

1938 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead EL Vintage Antique Restored, available on eBay Motors.


A decade that straddled both World War II and peace times, the 1940s saw a boom in motorcycle sales as droves of returning veterans wanted their own military cruisers to ride back home.

1940s vintage military motorcycle

 1944 Harley Davidson WLA Military motorcycle, found on eBay Motors.


A motorcycle era defined by Marlon Brando, leather jackets, and the birth of rock and roll – the 1950s defined what it meant to be a biker. With a thriving postwar economy and lots of rebellious teens ready to hit the road, this decade put the motorcycle front and center of popular culture and solidified its place as an American icon.

1950s blue Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle

1951 Triumph Thunderbird 6T, 650cc engine, from Mecum Auctions.


1960s Easy Rider chopper motorcycle

A transformative time for the moto industry, the 1960s saw the beginning of the end of British influence, a rise in Japanese builds, and a ton of American ingenuity – especially when it came to the custom chopper. Made even more popular by films like “Easy Rider,” the stretched out bike with high handlebars and an over-the-top paint job is still considered a “quintessentially American folk art form.”

Bobber Chopper Rolling Chassis Frame Harley Kit Roller, found on eBay Motors.

1970s: LOW RIDER

While the 1970s oil crisis may have been devastating to the car industry, the opposite can be said for motorcycles which saw a huge surge in sales due to their accessibility and great gas mileage. This decade also saw a rise in Japanese brands – like Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki – where the price point was right and the quality was even better.

1970s Kawasaki motorcycle

See a 1976 Kawasaki KZ400, found on eBay Motors.


Japanese brands continued to soar in the 1980s – a decade defined by big hair, big shoulder pads, and super fast, streamlined motorbikes, like this ever-popular Honda Cafe Racer.

1980s red ascot cafe racer motorcycle

1982 Honda Ascot 500 FT Cafe Racer, found on eBay Motors.


While the 1990s was a great time for sportbike enthusiasts who put speed above all else, this decade was also an excellent time for riders looking for comfort on the road. Enter the Touring Motorcycle. While this big beauty may have been around years before the 90s in a variety of shapes and sizes, this decade saw a huge push in comfort, stability, and functionality.

1990s Harley Touring motorcycle

See a 1999 Harley Davidson FLHCI Touring Road King Classic, found on eBay Motors.

2000s and Today: POWER MEETS THE PAST

Today’s motorcycle enthusiasts don’t have to choose between classic style and modern innovation – they can have the best of both worlds! With bike manufacturers and custom restorers bringing new life to old, vintage styles – bikers today can live in their favorite era without losing out on speed, reliability, or power.

2000s black Indian cruiser motorcycle

See a 2017 Indian Chief Cruiser, found on eBay Motors.

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