Some characters are iconic. Some actors are legendary. Some films are classic. And some motorbikes are masterpieces. Occasionally, all these factors come together to form cinematic magic that help define the film, and, sometimes, the pop cultural zeitgeist. But which are the best movie motorbikes? Who are the silver screen stand outs? From virtual vehicles and ingenious inventions to real world rides you can buy today, here are the top ten bikes in film history.
1. The Batpod (The Dark Knight, 2008)
When Bruce Wayne reappeared for the follow-up to Batman Begins, he brought some new toys. Among his gorgeous gadgets was the Batpod – a chunky beast of a bike, incorporating 20” tyres and armed with grappling hooks, cannons and machine guns. Ridden by an infamous comic superhero, it’s a top contender for the coolest ever bike created for a movie. Reappearing in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, the Batpod would be an amazing real-life ride; traffic jams would be a thing of the past – although road rage could get devastating.
2. Harley-Davidson (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1992)
When Arnie returned for a Terminator sequel in the early 90s, he needed your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle. Specifically, he wanted a 1990 Harley-Davidson FLSTF. Thematically, the biker identity works well: the terminator is an anti-establishment figure. An outsider. A rock star. And sitting atop the purring engine of the Harley, Schwarzenegger is almost too cool for school. Along with the shades, the leathers and the shotgun, the Harley-Davidson has become synonymous with one of cinema’s most memorable characters.
3. The Power Bike (Akira, 1988)
Akira is one of the most celebrated anime exports of all time, and the slick red modified motorcycle ridden by central character Kaneda is central to the look and feel of the whole film. Set in a surreal dystopian future, the red bike is a symbol of status and power, and coveted by one of the story’s other main character’s – Tetsuo. The film and its red mechanical star have achieved cult status among film geeks, and a fan-made replica of Kaneda’s amazing bike has even made it onto the road.
4. Triumph Thunderbird (The Wild One, 1953)
Marlon Brando’s gang leader Johnny is the star of the show in The Wild One. Well, he is the wild one; rebelling against anything and everything established society throws in his way. While Brando’s 6500cc Thunderbird isn’t the most visually stunning bike on this list, the sight of Brando sitting atop it is a classic cinematic image. Incredibly, this film was banned for 14 years in the UK. But while the violence in the film seems timid today, the shots of Brando as a rebellious biker still resonate.
5. Tron Light Cycle (Tron, 1982)
Tron has an aesthetic style and feel that is unlike anything else in the history of film. Simultaneously naff and cool, Jeff Bridges’ adventures literally inside the digital game world (as imagined by Disney in the early 1980s) provided cinematic visuals and excitement that still look awesome today. The star of the show is Bridges’ Light Cycle bike, a fluorescent and super sleek ride used to compete in death races. From a film geek perspective, the Light Cycle is up there with the Batpod in the battle for über cool points.
6. Kawasaki GPZ750R (Top Gun, 1986)
Top Gun hit a pop cultural sweet spot in the mid-80s with its theme of cheesy and macho rock-stars-of-the-sky. While star Tom Cruise spent most of the time in showers, playing volleyball and flying an F14 fighter jet, he also took to the open road with this Kawasaki GPZ750R. The image of Cruise speeding down the highway (to the danger zone?) with his pilot jacket, Aviator shades and wind-blown hair is one of the defining images of 80s cinema. Ironically, when Cruise tried to replicate the Top Gun magic with motor vehicles, in 1990’s Days of Thunder, it didn’t work.
7. Norton International (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004)
Walter Salles’ adaptation of Che Guevara’s physical and emotional journey across South America features some serious period cool in the form of the Norton International. The film was a well-received hit, and oozes indie chic as stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna don some beautiful retro attire and travel around the Latin continent on ‘The Beast’, as they call it. Nortons are gorgeous vintage vehicles, but require some proper classic motorbike insurance; interestingly, Salles claimed that the old British bikes were more reliable than the modern bikes used in stunt scenes.
8. Turbo Charged Z10000 (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, 1981)
The first Mad Max sequel took the visceral and unsettling post-civilisation hints of its predecessor and brought them to the screen. The Road Warrior sees Mel Gibson’s eponymous protagonist pitted against Vernon Wells’ bad guy Wez – and his Z10000. In an industrial desert wasteland, Wez and his band of feral fellow bikers terrorise the innocent on their absurdly modified rides. The climax to the film is an incredible road chase featuring a range of post-apocalyptic mechanical carnage.
9. Prince’s 1979 Honda CM400A (Purple Rain, 1984)
Purple Rain was a vehicle for Prince in more ways than one. Designed as a shameless profile-boosting marketing campaign, the movie is essentially a series of music videos strung together by a paper-thin plot, a la Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. As ‘The Kid’, pint-sized popster Prince rides his Honda CM400A through the neon-lit urban streets and golden sun-lit rural roads, looking intense and moody and, well, a bit like Prince. The story is ultimately superfluous; this is a movie about watching Prince being a pop star in the ‘real’ world. Which he does very well.
While The Great Escape is a classic ensemble piece, the image of Steve McQueen riding his stolen German BMW R75 in a failed bid for freedom cemented his status as one of the coolest movie stars of his generation. It was daring. It was memorable. It made war look fun – which, admittedly, might not be a good thing. Anyhow, McQueen rocked on his R75. Except he wasn’t riding a R75 at all; it was actually a Triumph TR-6 Trophy 650, which was modified to look like a Nazi ride. Movie magic, eh?
Andrew Tipp is a film geek and pop culture noodler. He is a man of science, and of reason. He is also a man of action. And he likes coffee. And bacon. He has previously written for backpacking website gapyear.com and youth media magazine IP1.