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The two-wheeled Honda game changers

These are the seven bikes that helped to steer Honda on it path to becoming the largest automotive manufacturer ever

 

IT'S hard to imagine a time when Honda was not a major force in the automotive landscape. And yes, it's true that most of the company's time, it has always featured near the top of charts in terms of technology developed and volume of sales. 

But the kind of success enjoyed by Honda doesn't happen by chance, you need your products to help push you on the journey. Here are seven bikes that helped to shape the Honda brand...

And three that missed the mark somewhat!

Honda Super Cub – simple, innovative transportation for the masses

The Super Cub began life back in 1958 with a 49cc OHV air-cooled four-stroke engine and went on to make mass transportation available across the world. With deflectors up front to protect the rider’s legs from splashes and road debris, the bodywork hid most of the engine and the under-seat fuel tank from view. Even the chain was enclosed to reduce maintenance and prevent lubricant from being flung on to the rider.

Unlike popular European scooters introduced some ten years earlier, the Super Cub’s engine wasn’t integrated with the rear axle. This allowed it to be placed more centrally for better balance, improved cooling and also the fitting of larger wheels for better stability and handling on Japan’s rough, post-war roads. A clutchless, three-speed gearshift eliminated the standard combination of levers and pedals needed to change gear that intimidated many non-motorcyclists - it was simply a case of twist and go. And go it did, eventually becoming the most produced motor vehicle in history.

The ubiquitous Super Cub is reckoned by many observers to have had as dramatic an influence on transportation in the 20th century as the Model T. And in terms of numbers, the Super Cub is unequalled. By October 2017, the dozen or so variations of the humble little step-through had accumulated a total of 100 million sales. And it’s still going strong, available in Europe as a 125cc version.

But it wasn’t just its design and technology that placed Honda’s Super Cub permanently and prominently in the automotive stratosphere. Its early US advertising campaign, which spawned the classic slogan ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’, remains a staple of marketing textbooks to this day because of the way it opened up the concept of motorcycling to an entirely new audience who would otherwise never have considered two wheels as a means of transport.

CB750 - the world’s first superbike

Seven years after its first foray into Grand Prix motorcycle racing and that famous first trip to the Isle of Man TT, Honda abruptly quit the sport at the end of 1966. Having claimed victory in all five of that season’s categories (50, 125, 250, 350 and 500cc), Honda didn’t have much left to prove, but they were convinced that their experience and technical knowledge from racing could be transferred into high-performance road bikes.

Soichiro Honda knew that bigger machines were becoming popular in Europe, particularly 650cc models from Norton and Triumph, and the message coming from the US market was ‘the bigger the better’. So his R&D department began work on a 750cc, SOHC, air-cooled, inline-four producing almost 70bhp, which not only boasted a disc brake, but also an electric starter – both a first on a mass-produced motorcycle. The four-cylinder engine, along with its four-muffler exhaust system, underscored the new machine’s direct link to Honda’s racing exploits and the CB750 Four, the world’s first superbike, was born.

The popularity of the Super Cub had led to Honda becoming the world’s leading producer of motorcycles but, when the CB750 was introduced in 1969, the firm combined volume production with new levels of performance and excitement. The markets were stunned, and the CB750 became an instant best-seller with its aura of pure, race-bred capabilities enhanced by that electric start, easy maintenance, low vibration, comfortable ergonomics and a silky smooth ride.

And when Honda announced that the price of this new superbike would be around 50% less than anything comparable on the market, the CB750 became an instant hit. The initial annual production forecast of 1500 units quickly became a monthly figure, and even that was soon doubled.

The CB750’s Grand Prix pedigree was highlighted at the following year’s challenging Daytona 200 event in Florida when a racing version, the CR750, was ridden to victory by American rider, Dick Mann. The circle was complete.

GL1000 Gold Wing - transcontinental touring in opulent style

If the Super Cub unlocked the door to a global market for Honda, the 1975 GL1000 threw it wide open and put the world within reach of a single motorcycle. At the same time, it gave America in particular what it didn’t know it needed: a luxury, transcontinental touring motorcycle to devour the country’s endless, spectacular highways in style and palatial comfort.

Originally conceived as a flagship sporting successor to the CB750, Honda’s engineers revised the original GL1000’s brief to meet an emerging trend of US riders putting high mileage on their large capacity motorcycles. As they expanded their horizons, the GL1000 powered its owners further and faster with a one-litre, super-smooth, shaft-driven flat-four engine, which was liquid-cooled - a first for a Japanese four-stroke motorcycle engine.

Although the first Gold Wing was offered unfaired - without any bodywork or luggage options - it sold remarkably well, until Honda introduced a fully-faired, 1100cc version in 1980, which sold even better. Combined with panniers, a top-box, or trunk, and even an optional sound system, the new bodywork transformed the GL into a form that’s recognisable as a Gold Wing today, even looking back thirty years.

Honda’s ongoing quest for more power and smoothness, with less intrusive noise, led to a capacity increase to 1500cc in 1988, and that silky flat-four became the iconic flat-six - a layout that had originally been considered as an option in the GL1000’s early design stages.

The Gold Wing was now shrouded head-to-toe in aerodynamic bodywork and the sumptuous pillion seat integrated with the rear trunk. All of this, together with added accessories and that extra mass in the engine department, increased weight to the extent that a clever reverse gear was added via the starter motor to aid maneuverability while parking up.

While today’s technology-laden 1800cc Gold Wing (the first motorcycle to feature Apple CarPlay) resembles something that NASA might conceive and build, its beating heart and design principles still hold true to the ethos of its luxurious, globe-busting GL1000 forebear from 45 years ago.

CBR600 - everyday usability with super-sport performance

The mid-1980s heralded big hairstyles and even bigger shoulder-pads, while motorcycle manufacturers were beginning to tap into a growing market for sports bikes that reflected the action that fans were witnessing on track week in, week out. In 1985, a certain ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer won both the 250cc and 500cc world championships, a never-since-repeated feat that catapulted Honda to sporting prominence once more. So, when the firm announced its sporty CBR600F at the end of the following year, ‘wannabe’ Fast Freddies licked their lips in anticipation.

Intrigued they were, by a mouth-watering specification that featured a 598cc 16-valve DOHC inline-four mounted in a steel frame suspended by 37mm front forks and an adjustable rear shock, with 276mm front disks and three-spoke 17-inch wheels. And they weren’t disappointed when it arrived in early 1987, since the fully-faired supersport machine weighed over 10kg less and produced around 10bhp more than its closest rival, propelling it to a top speed approaching 240km/h (150mph).

The CBR600 won all nine rounds of that year’s new AMA Supersport production-based race series and subsequent variations of the model dominated middleweight club, national and world championships for the next 25 years.

What was even more remarkable about Honda’s new best-seller, however, was the fact that, after you’d raced it in a club outing on Sunday, it was docile enough to ride to work the following morning, and genuinely comfortable enough for a summer tour of Europe. It offered an almost perfect blend of power and weight, and quickly developed a reputation for bulletproof reliability.

While the 600cc sports sector has diminished in recent years, the original CBR600’s direct lineage continues in the current Honda line-up in the form of the CBR650R - still featuring a 16-valve DOHC inline four-cylinder engine, and still thrilling on a high street, a motorway or a racetrack.

CBR900RR FireBlade - redefining super-sport with total control

In the late 1980s, maverick Honda designer Tadao Baba studied what were then commonly known as big-bore ‘super-sport’ bikes and observed that, while they were phenomenally fast in a straight line, their cornering performance didn’t always match. His personal holy grail was a bike that could excel in both areas, offering riders what he called ‘Total Control’.

Having been given his first lead role on a new sports project, Baba toyed with the idea of a 750 machine, but Honda already had the VFR750, as well as the larger sports-touring CBR1000F in the litre class. However, Baba realised that, by keeping the same bore but increasing the stroke of Honda’s inline four 750 engine, he could expand its capacity to 893cc, thereby achieving something like the power of a 1000cc sports bike within a much smaller chassis. An entirely new 900cc motorcycle category was opened, into which a genuine motorcycling legend was born - the CBR900RR FireBlade.

Above all, Baba was determined that his FireBlade should be easy and fun to ride and, when it was introduced in 1992, its specifications suggested that his demands (which, it is said, often turned into sheer stubbornness) had been met. At 185kg, the FireBlade weighed almost 40kg less than its nearest 1000cc competitor, barely more than a 600cc sports bike, and also had a similar wheelbase to match the smaller bikes’ handling agility. With a power output to challenge the litre-sized sports behemoths of the period, the FireBlade’s outright speed was never in question. As a result, it single-handedly re-wrote the large capacity motorcycle performance rule book.

As manufacturing techniques became more refined, the FireBlade’s original 893cc gradually increased over seven generations to a full litre capacity in 2004, shedding the capital letter ‘B’ in the name along the way – it was ‘retired’ as a mark of respect for Baba-san after ‘his’ last ’Blade was produced. The very latest Fireblade, unveiled for 2020, is producing peak power of 160kW and weighing only 201kg - a power-to-weight ratio almost 80% higher than the 1992 original. True legends can’t afford to stand still.

VFR1200 DCT – introducing a radical technical leap forward

The VFR moniker was first introduced by Honda on its 1986 VFR750F, whose V4 engine was the source of Honda’s all-conquering VFR750R, or RC30, homologated production racer. The VFR quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most refined motorcycles ever built.

Several incarnations later, its 2010 successor, the VFR1200F, maintained that reputation with its exceptional build quality and an all-new, intoxicatingly smooth and powerful V4 engine. But, maybe more importantly, it also featured perhaps its greatest technological contribution to the future of motorcycle riding - Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission, or DCT.

DCT is different to other ‘automatic’ transmissions that have been tried on bikes over the years, and is poles apart from, for example, scooter-style continuously variable transmissions (CVT). From the engine’s crank through the final drive to the rear wheel, DCT works like a conventional gearbox, via a series of shafts and gears. Two separate clutch packs work on the even and odd-numbered gears, with the relevant next gear always ‘pre-engaged’ so that gear changes happen in a barely-perceptible split second, with no loss of drive.

So, two clutches, but no clutch lever. What the rider finds instead is a choice between ‘paddle-shift’-style triggers to change gears, or twist-and-go, automatic selection of gears, with shift timings dictated by ‘maps’ which constantly read parameters including speed, engine rpm and throttle opening angle. In either case, the rider is freed up to concentrate more on their riding line, braking points, cornering and acceleration.

The technology has proved to be an enormous hit with Honda owners across Europe with more than 100,000 DCT-equipped models sold to date. Since its first introduction on the 2010 VFR1200F, DCT has been rolled out to other Honda models and now features on no fewer than eight models in the 2020 line up. The system is constantly developed and refined, and is likely to find its way on to more bikes in the future. Because, for many, it IS the future.

X-ADV – the first ‘motorcycle SUV’

In the same way that Honda’s original GL1000 Gold Wing showed touring motorcyclists what they didn’t know they’d been missing, so the X-ADV takes convention and turns it firmly on its head, and offers the kind of radical innovation for which Honda has become renowned over the last 70 years.

Daily commuting on two wheels needs practicality, agility and convenience but, when the weekly grind is over, the desire to swap the inner-city expanse for broader, more adventurous horizons requires different characteristics: performance and handling to cope with varying demands, all-round ride-ability and technology to match. In 2017, Honda’s R&D design team in Rome presented the result of their inspiration to create an entirely new machine that answered all these requirements in a new form - the X-ADV. It’s a two-wheeled SUV, a unique mix of adventure motorcycle (ultra-tough off-road styling, long travel suspension, wide handlebars, Dakar-style instruments) and scooter practicality (riding comfort, storage space and weather protection).

The technology is led by Honda’s remarkable dual clutch transmission offering four riding modes, including the G-switch taken from the CRF1000L Africa Twin. The G-switch is essentially designed exclusively for off-road riding and reduces clutch slip to improve the feeling between throttle and rear wheel, allowing the rider to slide the rear a little more on looser surfaces.

The X-ADV’s specification extends its practicality from the loose stuff - where a 17-inch front wheel and a 15-inch rear on long-travel suspension manage all terrains with ease - back to the tarmac with a powerful, torquey yet economical 745cc parallel-twin engine for impressive performance over a 300km range.

Honda took a chance on the X-ADV’s basic genre-mixing premise (and conceptual styling) and has created an entirely new breed of motorcycle, bringing genuine crossover philosophy from four wheels to two. It’s worked, too, with Honda having sold close to 30,000 units of the X-ADV, which seamlessly blends not only the twin concepts of motorcycle and scooter, but the two extremes of urban riding and off-road adventure. And, by design, it also copes brilliantly with everything in between.

Honda CBR1000RR-R SP review

AND THREE THAT DIDN’T - IMMEDIATELY - ‘CHANGE THE GAME’!

Soichiro Honda once said that success represents one per cent of your work, which results only from the 99 per cent that is called failure. No surprise, therefore, that for every Honda that has changed the course of motorcycling history, others have not left an instant mark…

DN-01

In 2005, Honda unveiled a concept bike at the Tokyo Motor Show designed to fuse a cruiser style with what was then described as ‘swift sportsbike performance’, all in a practical ‘twist-and-go’, scooter-style package. It re-emerged three years later as the mass production DN-01. Powered by a 60bhp liquid-cooled V-twin powerplant,  shared with the NT650V Deauville, the DN-01’s weight and long wheelbase meant it struggled to match ‘sportsbike’ levels of performance.

The concept, however, of combining the handling dynamics of a motorcycle together with the comfort of a scooter was revisited in 2016, with the introduction of the successful Integra, so-called because it integrates motorcycle and scooter in one package.

PC800 Pacific Coast

The intention behind the eye-catching 1989 Pacific Coast tourer was shared with that of the super-selling Super Cub, namely a desire to make motorcycles more appealing to non-motorcyclists. As such, the liquid-cooled 800cc V-twin engine delivered super-smooth power, with a shaft drive and rubber mounts that minimised vibration to keep it as quiet and car-like as possible. The bodywork extended the entire length of the machine, covering nearly everything that would tell you this was a motorcycle.

One of the key design features of the PC800 was the trunk, enveloping the rear of the bike and lifting the entire pillion seat to access it. Its cavernous proportions enabled it to accommodate two full-face helmets or luggage for a long weekend.

While never matching the sales success in Europe of other Honda tourers, this key feature of the Pacific Coast did re-emerge in 2016, when the idea of in-built luggage space was re-visited. As a result, the adventure-styled all-rounder NC700X featured an innovative luggage compartment in the area where the fuel tank normally is – big enough to accommodate a full-faced helmet. This practicality is one key feature that has kept the NC700X (more recently the NC750X) high in the sales charts since its introduction.

NM4 Vultus

Vultus, a Latin word, translates into English as ‘face’ or ‘appearance’ and that, clearly, is the dominant feature of Honda’s 2014 NM4 Vultus. All-black, long and low, with a super-wide front face, and sharp lines with chiselled angles a-plenty, the ‘anime’-inspired Vultus was designed never to go unnoticed. The rider sits enveloped in a cockpit-like surrounding, with feet planted forward, a multi-coloured digital instrument panel always in view, and a flip-up pillion seat that doubles as a backrest.

Although never a massive sales generator, the unique Vultus look did leave a legacy in a less ‘niche’ area of Honda’s range: the sharply-sculpted lines of the premium Forza 125 come from the pen of the same stylist who led the Vultus design project.

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