Grey Matters - 400cc test - 1991 Honda VFR400R NC30 Review

In the early 1990s, 400cc race reps were all the rage. But that was nearly two decades ago. Are these pocket rockets still a viable buy in the secondhand market or simply relics from the past?

Posted: 29 July 2010
by Jon Urry

1991 Honda VFR400R NC30

A baby RC30 with a V4 engine and assortment of lurid paint schemes. Always pricey, but the best looking of the bunch

Click to read: 1991 Honda VFR400R NC30 owners reviews

Back in 1995 I owned an NC30. In my teenage eyes it was a thing of great beauty, despite a hideous paint scheme  – a mess of black, grey and fuchsia (!). I loved that bike. It was the first bike I got my knee down on, it took me to watch Joey Dunlop race in the 1996 TT and it also got me two free screws (in my right hand) from the NHS after a Nissan Primera pulled out in front of me. Happy days.

So, it was with a great deal of recovered longing that I sat on this secondhand NC30. Despite being fairly rough around the edges this bike felt exactly the same as the one I owned for nearly six years. The clocks had the traditional mph sticker over the top (the cheapest way of converting the speedo from kph but rendering them completely illegible due to the jumble of numbers). The square tank and ‘sat in’ riding position were strangely comforting, if a little compact. The high-pitched whine of the starter motor reminded me of teenage getaways before the frankly pathetic exhaust note coughed into life. That was always the problem with the NC30, it looked so good but sounded like an irate sewing machine. Happily this could be sorted with an aftermarket can, but it required cutting the original pipe and grafting the can on, something few owners braved. Then there was pulling away.

For some reason best known to itself, Honda gave the NC30 a ridiculously tall first gear, mimicking the RC30’s racing gearbox. Launching the Honda (especially with a fatty like myself onboard) requires a hefty dose of clutch slip and sometimes even a little paddle of the feet to give it a hand. But on the go the V4 engine is a charmer.

As well as its super-trick looks the NC30 always commanded a premium due to its V4 engine. This intricate powerplant is a masterpiece of design, completely bulletproof, yet hideously complex to work on should the need arise. Something most owners simply prayed wouldn’t. Compared to the almost two-stroke power characteristics of the ZXR and GSX-R, the NC30’s welly is delivered in a relaxed and constant flow. Yet it isn’t very inspiring and it’s a little, well, dull.

Unfortunately towards the end of the day our little NC30 had issues and refused to start, despite repeated coaxing and a great deal of pushing. If my memory serves me right the forward two cylinders of the V4 are prone to flooding if too much choke is used or the bike’s engine doesn’t catch quickly and the excess fuel on the tiny sparkplugs renders them useless. Not a gigantic issue and I’m sure that after a little rest it would have kicked into life again.

In its day the NC30 was the king, and a decent one would still deliver a great deal today. It’s a great handling bike, looks fantastic with superb build quality. For a new rider the CBR offers far more useable performance, but there is something about the NC that makes you forgive its few faults. It’s a very special bike with everything that made 400s so cool.

Suzuki's GSX-R400 follows

Honda VFR400R NC30 Essential Info

Prices

From £1,195 (1990, 19,500 miles) to £3,000 (1989, 25,000 miles)

For a bike only manufactured between 1989 and 1992, and sold in limited numbers as official UK spec machines, the NC30 has gained something of a cult following among British riders, probably due to its exceptional handling and soulful V4 exhaust note.

As a new machine however it wasn’t as well received as its list price of nearly £6000 was higher than that of its big brother, the VFR750, but as a used bike they’re popular with newer and shorter riders due to the sweet-natured 60bhp engine and modest dimensions.

Prices even for tatty examples are on the up due to their rarity and usefulness when it comes to embarrassing big sports bikes, while a well looked after 20-year-old machine can go for the same as a five-year-old sports 600.

Instant upgrades

  • Braided brake lines: upgrading to steel braided lines is a cheap way of making a huge improvement. Venhill offers a custom service to make lines to the exact specification an owner wants if the lines in their standard range aren’t appropriate (from £64.40, www.venhill.co.uk).
  • Rear shock: in good condition the little VFR is as agile as bikes get, but with age  the shock’s damping quality can deteriorate to the point where a new one makes a wise investment. British engineering would be the way to go and Hagon offers quality without the big price tag of other brands (£275, www.hagon-shocks.co.uk).
  • Tyres: a decent set of rubber is essential for full enjoyment. Dunlop’s GPR Alpha 10s are made specifically for small capacity sportsbikes and are popular with club racers. They’re an excellent choice for fast road and trackday riders (From £155, www.dunlopmotorcycle.eu).

Parts costs

Left hand fairing panel: £146.81
Clutch lever: £12.39
Screen: £164.11

Servicing

Minor service: £130
Major service: £400

Common faults

The watch-like V-4 internals of the bike are so tightly packed inside the frame it makes it tough and expensive to work on. This can lead to owners scrimping on maintenance vital to a rev-hungry engine. If some parts on the bike are still original they’ll more than likely need replacing by now; brake lines and seals dry out and perish, and bearings will be well past their best by now. Don’t expect plastics to be pristine either, stone chips and cracks should be expected if the bike has seen any kind of use.



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Discuss this story

I have one of these but it is the last -R version ('1995' is the stated year of manufacture but chassis number tells which version). Upgraded suspension as the only difference I am aware of, and I have also had '1988' Tri-arm NC23-J and two CB-1s (detuned and naked).

With bikes of this age the recorded mileage is unreliable and there is bound to be a wide variation of condition and riding experience. It is probably for this reason that I would still disagree with the first point made in the review. The second just seems wrong.

1. The brakes should have plenty of power and feel, fully in keeping with the sporting character of the bike.

2. The reasons given for the double bubble screen 'upgrade' are unconvincing. The latest 900cc fireblade is actually quite a bit smaller and I have not seen it suggested that it might be too tight for anyone over 5'10". The riding position (for 5'10 1/2" in my case) of the various CBR400RRs is magic. In the natural stance your head is already in relatively calm air above the turbulence created by the screen and sitting up or crouching down are not required. I haven't tried it but I guess the double bubble would just tend to remove this advantage.

There is room to move around but you don't need to, the seat is very comfy and there is something about the crouch which takes the strain off your wrists - I guess your knees being flexed more than normal is what supports the trunk.

For comparison the un-faired CB-1 with more upright riding position becomes uncomfortable above 60 or 70, while CB400RRs would let you cruise at 90-100, if it were legal. Don't bother with changing the screen!

Posted: 03/08/2011 at 18:15

worth getting the double bubble for looks alone!brakes on mine are brilliant.most important thing on these bikes are the tyres!more sticky the better.harder you ride it better it gets.low tax,low ins,140 mph on some bikes!what more can you seriously want???

Posted: 24/09/2013 at 21:03

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