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10 Crazy Myths And Facts About The Origins Of Motorcycle Names

CBR, GSX-R, ZX – Do You Know The Stories Behind These Motorcycle Names?

Updated August 27, 2018

There are more than a couple of motorcycle names out there that give us a headache. Sure, we know most of the big abbreviations – “SS” means Super Sport and we all know that sticking an “R” on the end of anything makes it go faster – but what about the rest? Motorcycles get christened with some very strange initials, but what does CBR really mean? Or GSX-R? What the blazes is a Desmosedici anyway? And what does a Ninja have in common with a motorcycle? We’re going to take a look at some of the most outlandish myths that surround motorcycle names and try to work out what information is true, and what’s false. We’re by no means the first people to tackle the motorcycle name question, but with a bit of luck we’ll be the last.

Motorcycle Names - Logos

There’s no shortage of articles trying to decipher the meanings of these abbreviations and names but while there’s a high volume of content, there’s not a high volume of fact, so we’ve decided to put everything we know together, both right and wrong, in one easy to find place. To make things easier, we’ve also ignored some of the more obscure motorcycle names and focused on the most discussed serial codes and name designations instead.

Motorcycle Names - GSX-R Logo

So without further ado, here are some of the most misunderstood motorcycle names in the industry. You’ll already know a few of these myths, but maybe there are one or two facts out there that interest you. Now, let’s get the ball rolling with one of the most debated acronyms out there…

10 Motorcycle Names That Cause Crazy Debates

#10. Honda’s “CBR” Name

Motorcycle Names - Honda CBR1000RR SP

The Myth: Lets jump in with one of the most often discussed motorcycle names of recent years, the Honda CBR series. If you spend enough time on any motorcycle forum, you’re bound to stumble across a thread that discusses the origins of the CBR abbreviation. And in amongst the nonsense like “Cool Boys Bike” and “Crashed By Retards” you’ll find some suggestions that look legitimate. The two most popular ideas going around are the “City Bike Racer” and “Cross Beam Racer” theories. There’s enough logic in both of them for them to be credible suggestions. Some Honda enthusiast champion the “Closed Body Racer” angle which they purport to be Honda’s in-house name for fully faired motorcycles – which is nice, but almost certainly not true.

The Truth: Ah, the truth. Well let’s look at both of the front running contenders. “City Bike” is often suggested because many believe that the original CB moniker stood for City Bike. While the “C” designation has been a part of Honda history since the beginning, with CA being the designation for the old school Dreams, and CL being for off-road, with CB for on-road, the whole CB/City Bike feels more like a convenient myth than actual truth. It might have meant something for the naked CBs, but for CBRs, top-level Honda employees like Dan Hancock have explicitly explained that “CBR” stands for “Cross Beam Racer” – a nod to the engine’s location across the beam of the model’s frame. At that should be the end of one of the most repetitive debates on motorcycles names gracing online forums.

#09. Suzuki’s “GSX-R” Name

Motorcycle Names - Suzuki GSX-R1000

The Myth: The legendary and iconic GSX-R series is arguably one of the most recognizable and well-known sport bike series of all-time, but where did the GSX-R moniker come from? There’s got to be some reason why the Gixxer was called the GSX-R, right? According to legend, the term GSX-R stands for Grand Sport eXperimental Racer. And while that sounds nice and romantic, it’s not quite true. However, there’s a degree of logic behind it, and whoever dreamed up the Grand Sport eXperimental Racer idea wasn’t too far off – because the letters do actually stand for something, and it’s not just a completely random jumble of letters that sounds good.

The Truth: As you’re going to learn going through this list, the vast majority of name designations have pretty boring origins. Instead of the GSX-R’s Grand Sport eXperimental Racer, the letters actually stand for different design and component designations on the model. The “G” is the Suzuki designation for a street-oriented motorcycle, the “S” denotes that it has a four-stroke engine, the “X” refers to the four-valve-per-cylinder engine style, while the “R” simply stands for “Race replica.” Well, that’s what a Suzuki PR guy said a few years ago anyway – and we definitely prefer that explanation over some anonymous forum “expert” anyway. It’s not as romantic, but it sounds about right – these are motorcycle names anyway, not book titles.

#08. Kawasaki’s “Ninja” Name

Motorcycle Names - Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R

The Myth: The name “Ninja” has become synonymous with sport bikes – to the point that people who don’t know anything about motorcycles often refer to all sport bikes as “Ninja” bikes. The fools. Originally, the first ever Kawasaki Ninja was called the GPX900R, and it was powered by a 908cc, inline- four-cylinder engine that could produce a fierce 115 hp, and reach speeds in excess of 150 mph, which was an industry first for a stock road bike. As for the name though, it was originally going to be called the “Panther” but the legend states that Mike Vaughn, Kawasaki’s Marketing Director for the USA had a hand in its naming…but rather than write that in the “myth” section, we’re putting into the “truth” paragraph – because the story, quite remarkably, is true.

The Truth: When Kawasaki were trying to market the GPz900R in the States, they considered the name “Panther” however, Mike Vaughn threw his own suggestion into the ring. After spending some time in Japan and learning about the mysterious ninja from Japanese history, Vaughn thought that “Ninja” would be a far superior name to help capture the American market’s attention over “Panther” and the rest is history. Here’s a cool fun fact for you: “Ninja” was also the name of Vaughn’s very own sailboat, so he was quite attached to the name. And he should be proud – the Ninja is one of the most recognizable motorcycle names in two-wheeled history.

#07. Yamaha’s “YZ” Name

Motorcycle Names - Yamaha YZF-R1

The Myth: The “YZ” designation is also a huge cause for debate on the bike forums, with many riders insisting that their story behind the YZ moniker is more right than the last one. Here’s our favorite online myth about the YZ: apparently, the YZ is a reference to an old shop in California that made parts for early Yamaha trail motorcycles that turned them into competent racers…and that’s obviously nonsense. There’s also talk that “YZ” was an abbreviation for Yamaha Zinger. While the “Y for Yamaha” makes sense, the Z is a bit far-fetched and we can’t imagine any marketing executive signing off on that one. The truth about the YZ is a lot more mundane…like most motorcycle names really.

The Truth: While the Yamaha Zinger might still be a colloquial favorite, the YZ designation is a little less exciting. The “Y” obviously stands for Yamaha, and the “Z” is merely the engine designation. If you want to go a step further, the “R” from YZR would suggest that it was the “race” bike variant, and the YZF name’s “F” would designate the model as a four-stroke edition. So, your modern YZF-R1 would be a Yamaha, with a four-stroke engine, designed for racing, with the “1” being an abbreviated 1000, for the 1000cc displacement. Easy, huh? YZ is pretty much just a product code, with the other letters doing the real legwork in Yamaha’s motorcycle names.

#06. Ducati’s “Desmosedici”

Motorcycle Names - Ducati Desmosedici GP18

The Myth: There isn’t much of a myth behind the Ducati Desmosedici name – but there’s plenty of mystery because people simply just don’t know what it means. Well, sort of – but what does Desmosedici mean? Any Ducatisti worth their salt should know that Ducati favor reciprocating Desmodromic valves rather than conventional pneumatic valves, but what about the rest of the names. It all sounds very exotic, and you’ll be amazed at how many people mispronounce the word, even though it’s not the most complicated Italian word out there, but there you go. It’s the name given to Ducati’s current V4 MotoGP racers, the name of the legendary limited edition Desmosedici RR, and the name of Ducati’s new road-going V4 Panigale engine – so what does “Desmosedici” mean?

The Truth: You don’t need to be fluent in Italian to work out the rough meaning of “Desmosedici.” As we’ve already noted, the desmo part takes its inspiration directly from the desmodromic valve arrangement. Sedici literally means sixteen – and you get that number because the V4 engine has four valves per cylinder, totally sixteen valves. In conclusion, Desmosedici literally means, desmodromic distribution with sixteen valves but shortened into a nicer sounding word. Desmosedici – now you know, and it’s a great little fact to crack out if you need to flex your motorcycle knowledge muscles.

#05. What About The Ducati Panigale?

Motorcycle Names - Ducati Panigale V4

The Myth: Again, there’s not much of a myth behind the Panigale name, more just a lack of knowledge from where it really came from. If it’s not an obvious word, a straight forward serial number, or something completely logical, then the vast majority of us can’t comprehend what these “crazy foreigners” are up to. “Desmosedici” has a fairly logical and straight translation, and so does “Testrastretta,” which means narrow head – because the two cylinder heads of the engine are closer together than the older Desmoquattro, and “Multistrada,” which literally means many roads thanks to its dual purpose nature. But what about the Panigale name?

The Truth: Panigale doesn’t translate into anything – and that’s because Panigale is not a thing. It’s a place. You see, Borgo Panigale is a small quarter in Bologna, Italy – the home of the Ducati head office and the site of the original Ducati factory. The name “Panigale” was adopted for Ducati’s flagship sport bike as an homage to the company’s geographical roots. It’s not the only motorcycle to be named after a place either, think about Harley-Davidson’s new Milwaukee Eight engine, the Triumph Bonneville and Daytona, or the Honda Baja…but as motorcycle names go, the Ducati Panigale is one of the most exotic sounding out there.

#04. The BMW “GS”

Motorcycle Names - BMW R1200GS Adventure

The Myth: BMW is no stranger to myths and legends, with the old logo/airplane propeller myth still going strong. Firstly, the logo is not a spinning propeller. Despite the company’s close ties with the aircraft industry, the logo is actually derived from the Bavarian Free State colors on the Bavarian flag, but reversed because it was illegal to use national symbols for a commercial trademark. The propeller thing is just a funny coincidence that arose when BMW began making radial aircraft engines in 1929. As for the motorcycle one, the ever-popular BMW GS series is what we’re focusing on here. Because contrary to popular belief, it does not stand for “Grand Sport.” This is quite a common misconception.

The Truth: The legendary BMW GS series is easily BMW’s best-selling motorcycle of all time, and some would even say the best that the firm has ever made – but what does the GS part of the name really mean, if not Grand Sport? GS, or rather G/S, actually means Gelande/Strasse – or Off-road/Road, in English. Essentially, it designates that the bike is capable of seamless travel both on and off-road, making it the perfect machine for adventure travel. If it’s got the GS name, it means that it can go anywhere, without a hitch. So, if you’re a GS owner, you might want to brush up on your German because someone will annoyingly ask you what GS actually stands for one day – and you’ll want to be ready to school them when the time comes.

#03. What About The Aprilia “RSV”?

Motorcycle Names - Aprilia RSV4

The Myth: Aprilia’s legendary RSV line has given birth to some odd myths. Naturally, most of the myths surrounding these Italian motorcycle names are just a bit of fun on forum threads and shouldn’t be taken seriously. While the ideas of a Recreational Super Vehicle or the more Italian focused Real Saucy Vermicelli are fun, they’re a long way from correct. The current serious fan favorites are Racing Series V-Twin, which would make a lot of sense considering Aprilia’s older V-twin engine machines, and specific RSV4 designation for their newer V4s. However, there’s also a compelling argument that RSV could stand for “Rotax Sport V” given that Aprilia motorcycles are powered by Austrian made Rotax engines…So which one is it?

The Truth: We’ve asked around, but no one from Aprilia wants to commit to a serious answer, not with their name put next to it as a source, anyway. So, we’re not really sure. However, let’s think about it logically: the RSV Mille came with an “R” designation, and an “R” suffix usually stands for Racing or Racer…so Racing Series V-Twin Mille Racer sounds a bit…wrong. That being said, Aprilia’s top flight race prototype the RS-GP probably wouldn’t wear the Rotax name as its first initial, would it? Rotax Sport – Grand Prix? We’re not sure which way to go with this one, so get a few buddies together and talk it out at the bar – then let us know what conclusions you drew. This is one of the great mysteries of the motorcycle names sub-culture…if there is one.

#02. The Triumph Thunderbird

Motorcycle Names - Triumph Thunderbird

The Myth: The Triumph Thunderbird was one of the most successful motorcycles of its day. The original Thunderbird was an over-bored 650cc version of the existing Triumph Speed Twin 500 designed and build specifically for the American market – nothing like the big 1700cc cruisers of today, or the old-school 885cc roadster from the mid-90s either. So, we’ve got a powerful motorcycle marketed for Americans – the logical conclusion for the name choice would be that Triumph were taking inspiration from the legendary, supernatural being called the Thunderbird that has a huge presence in Native American folklore. It makes sense…but it’s 100% wrong.

The Truth: Back in 1949, Triumph’s General Manager Edward Turner was traveling back from Daytona on his way to New York when he happened upon the Thunderbird Inn motel in Florence, South Carolina. The Thunderbird name triggered a figurative lightning strike of inspiration, and Turner decided that the name would be perfect for the new Triumph model. Funnily enough, Turner designed the paper dart logo too, making it all his own work. The Thunderbird became one of Triumph’s most successful model of the era, owing a great deal of thanks to Marlon Brando, who rode his own personal Thunderbird in the iconic movie The Wild One – a movie that Triumph were concerned about, believing that the Brando’s bad boy image could damage sales. And boy were they wrong. If anything, it only made sales skyrocket.

#01. The Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

Motorcycle Names - Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

The Myth: Here we go, this is one of the most enduring myths related to motorcycle names. According to many a Harley-Davidson aficionado, the Harley “Fat Boy” was christened so as a patriotic tribute to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs at the end of World War II. The myth’s reasoning is based on the fact that the name “Fat Boy” is a combination of the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” bombs that were dropped and that the color of the Fat Boy has a striking resemblance to that of the Enola Gay and Bockscar B-29 Super-fortress bombers that carried out the attack. The rumor also mentions that the disc style wheels resembles those that were used on B-29s, and that the yellow styling details found on the Fat Boy are reminiscent of the yellow rings painted on the side of the atomic bombs. That’s what the conspiracy theorists subscribe to…

The Truth:  You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the story mentioned above is quite obviously untrue. While it makes for a good story, the conclusion that has been drawn is mainly due to coincidences – a series of patterns that anyone could find in anything if they felt like looking hard enough. The simple truth is that the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy gets its name from its fat profile when viewed from straight on. It is genuinely a little bit on the fat side when compared to other motorcycles. And that is the mundane but accurate truth. If you don’t believe us, Snopes will verify it. As for the rest of the motorcycle names, we may be wrong or off the mark on one or two, but the rest is all correct. However, if we have made a mistake or if we’ve missed out something you think is worth including, don’t forget to write it in comments.

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Joe Appleton
About Joe Appleton

I’ve done a bit of work here and there in the industry – I’ve even ridden a few bikes for actual money but what it comes down to is this: I ride bikes, build bikes and occasionally crash ‘em too. I like what I like but that certainly doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than yours…

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