The Honda VFR Story

Honda's VFR has stood for two decades as a machine which owners and press alike have claimed to be the world's most perfect motorcycle. Surprising, then, that the VFR story was almost over before it had begun

It's all very strange. Some argue the V4 is the perfect layout for a motorcycle powerplant. It's more compact and narrower than an inline four, it benefits from a shorter, stiffer camshaft and, with a 90-degree V-angle, it has perfect mechanical balance and therefore doesn't need any balancer shafts. Sure, placing all the ancillaries can be difficult, which also makes it a fiddle to work on and, despite water cooling, the rear bank of cylinders runs a little hot. Oh yes, and cost becomes an issue because you need to tool up for two lots of cylinder heads, barrels, camshafts, etc, but overall the V4 layout should be perfect for a motorcycle.

And yet if we wind back to the '80s (cue wobbly image and harp glissando) through the fug of petruli oil, pixie-boots and perms, we would see Honda desperately trying to recover from one of its biggest corporate failures with the first incarnations of its road-going V4s. And all this while fighting off the challenges of Yamaha, which was aggressively daring to match the Big H bike-for-bike in the marketplace.

As good as the V4 layout should be, making it work was another matter. In the early 1980s, if it was complex, costly and difficult, this meant it was perfect for Honda, who at the time had a penchant for building industrial strength jackhammers for cracking a peanut.

So while other manufacturers were still clinging onto air-cooling and two valves per cylinder, Honda was building machines like the VF400, VF500, VF750S, VF750F and VF1000. They signalled a brave new world for motorcycling with their anti-dive, inboard ventilated discs, Comstar wheels and liquid-cooled V4 engine layouts.

At the time, Honda's marketing men seemed intent on using the V4 to take over the world, but then came the 'chocolate camshaft' debacle. In early 1984, a substantial number of VF owners started complaining when their mechanical marvels' top-ends started going pop. Camshaft bearings were finally found to be the culprit, but Honda's image had taken an almighty battering. On the track the V4 was still the bike to beat, thanks to machines such as Honda's RVF racers, but on the road, customers' attitudes to any more Honda V4s cooled off distinctly.

That was until 1986, when Honda released its all-new gear-driven cam masterpiece: the VFR750FG.

At first, some were disappointed that this new 750 from Honda wasn't as racey as Suzuki's radical GSX-R750, or didn't have as many valves as Yamaha's FZ750, but beneath the sober white paintwork the first VFR was a real gem. Utilising gear as opposed to chain-driven cams - first seen on the mighty VF1000R - the VFR produced a claimed 105bhp at 10,500rpm and had a frame akin to a Honda factory racer. But despite the spec, compared with its peers in the then revitalised 750 class, the new VFR was the sensible option.

Notable beardy and now MotoGP commentator Julian Ryder was at the bike's launch in Jerez. He recalls: "'How did they do it for the money?' we asked. Mainly because they had to. Honda's V4 concept's cred was gone, the next one had to be good. We knew at once that it was good, although we were perplexed by the plain looks, and why wasn't it a race rep like the GSX-R or FZ? After the first road tests we knew it was very good. A year later we knew it was a classic. The '88 VFR with the 17-inch front wheel and faired-in indicators is still one of the greatest all-round motorcycles ever made. It had no weaknesses on the road."

Not everyone was so effusive in their praise. Tony Middlehurst was editor of SuperBike magazine and he selflessly admits that he took responsibility for all the best press trips, if little else. An invite to ride the new VFR750 fell squarely into this category. "Though it was touted as a sports bike," he says, "it struck me as too top heavy for serious scratching. You seemed a long way up, which meant it was a long way down. And that would have hurt because in '86 leathers were useless, bursting open at the slightest provocation or extra profiterole."

Either way, the VFR was a winner. Press and public reaction - and the performance of Ron Haslam on a stock bike during the '86 Transatlantic races - meant the bike would sell well.

With the '90 FL machine, the VFR was still a fairly sporty tool despite being heavier. Some of this was due to the adoption of the single-sided Pro-Arm. This came from Honda's Elf racing days and, while it hinted at sportier performance, the VFR750FL was most definitely a road-going machine. Albeit a supremely efficient one.

With the addition of small improvements (and despite the bike making just 100bhp, thanks to the short-lived 'gentlemen's agreement' power limit of the time) the bike had matured into a real quality item.

Motorcycle industry legend Graham Sanderson was working deep in the bowels of Honda UK during the onset of the '90 FL version and he came up with this famous, (but previously un-attributed) quote, which summed up the VFR perfectly. Although the FL retailed at around £6400 in '90, he said:

"I don't care how much the VFR costs, it's worth £1000 more." Hyperbole? Or does he still believe that it's true?

Graham says: "I believed it then and historically I agree with it now. The 'chocolate cam' crisis had massive repercussions. As problems started to affect the VF750 and VF1000 and, to a degree, the VF500, Honda did things which had far-reaching consequences. First, the engineers went back to basics with the inline four, which led to the birth of the CBR600 and CBR1000 in 1987. Second, they decided to get the V4 working properly and threw everything at it until they got it right."

Sanderson reckons that the proof of the pudding came as the bike celebrated its 10 years in existence in 1996. "I think I was chatting to Steve King, ex-of Abingdon Motorcycles, and we worked out that with the '86 bike costing around £3500-£4000, a decade later you'd still have to pay that for a second-hand '86 bike. That's impressive."

For '94 the bike changed once more and became the VFR750FR, with a new, sleeker and sportier look. As capable as the bike was, by now the VFR was most definitely a sports-tourer, with other 750s such as the GSX-R750W and ZXR750L being outright sports bikes. Besides, for racing Honda had the much-maligned RC45.

As the RC45 came good, it also lent its guts to the '98 VFR800FiW. A 2mm longer stroke gave 781cc, while the fuel injection system was also derived from the RC45's. The bike featured Honda's then fashion for semi-pivotless frames and side-mounted radiators. It was a little more portly than the 750 it replaced, but still a winner.

Dave Hancock has held down most posts at Honda UK, but cherishes his role of test rider most. He's had an association with the VFR going back many years since he joined Honda in the late 1980s.

"The best thing was working with Satoru Horiike," recalls Dave. "He's now managing director of HRC, but then he was 'just' an engineer. That's how he described himself."

Horiike has designed road and race legends such as the oval-pistoned NR500 race machine, the NS500 triples, the original 1984 NSR500, and 1985 NSR500 and 250. Production machines he's been partly responsible for are no less impressive: the oval-pistoned NR750, 1994 RVF RC45, the 1995, 1997 and 1999 CBR600s, and the 1998 VFR800FiW

"Horiike was special for the work he did on the CBR600 and the VFR," says Dave. "Honda used to get owners to park their bikes in the centre of Donington for the British GP, and I remember Horiike's face when he saw rows upon rows of VFRs. 'So many VFRS!' he said. He then spent the day talking to owners. All this feedback went into subsequent models."

Attention to detail for Horiike san and Hancock was everything. "One day during testing," says Dave, "he ran up to me when I was parking a VFR prototype and asked 'Hancock san, how is the bike?' I explained to him that it was a small thing, but the indented Honda wing logo on the top yoke was too far to the right, so it was under the clip-on and hard to see. The design on this was already fixed. It would cost money to change it. He went away, came back 20 minutes later and said, 'Hancock san, I move Honda wing 3mm to the left!' He had phoned Japan there and then and told them to change the production die. Whenever I ride that model of VFR now I can tell people 'I moved that badge!' I doubt Honda will ever recoup the money it put into making the VFR and the V4 concept work, but this is typical of Honda. We make mistakes, but we don't make them twice."

With the coming of the VFR800, it also spelled the end for the RC45. With Honda using a longer-stroke version of the RVF's motor for the road machine, the original dies were altered, meaning no-more RC45s would be built.

Hancock explains: "The dies originally made to manufacture crankcases for the RC45 were adapted to produce VFR800 crankcases; they're almost identical. HRC's Suguru Kanazawa and Horiike san said it may be a big mistake, as it meant they couldn't make any more RC45s! These dies cost millions of pounds to make and will last for thousands of crankcases but changing them meant the end of the RC45."

Thankfully the demise of the RC45 didn't mean the end of the road for the VFR. While the race machines went down the V-twin route with great success, the road V4 stayed in Honda's range, receiving another radical update for 2002.

In came 'centre-up' exhausts tucked neatly under the seat, angular but fresh bodywork, stiffened frame, better brakes and a re-developed heart.

Inside the V4 was the biggest change, since the motor now benefited from Honda's VTEC system, in which two valves per cylinder operate below 7000rpm and the full complement of four kick in above seven thou', giving the rider a delicious punt up the backside, admittedly somewhat out of whack with the VFR's 'sensible' image.

So, looking back on the VFR's life, how should it be remembered? Tony Middlehurst: "I've always put the VFR's extraordinary longevity down to a healthy combination of cussedness on Honda's part and the support of a large, silent majority of motorcyclists whose simple need was for something reliable, comfortable and not too embarrassing. To me, the VFR was, is, and always will be a Japanese BMW. And you can take that whichever way you like."

However you feel about VFRs, you can't refute the beauty of the compact V4 design, a layout which made the bike as attractive with its bodywork off as on. As reliable as a Swiss watch, while the VFR may oft be copied, it will never be bettered.

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