THE V4 engine is having a renaissance at the moment. Whether you look at the MotoGP field or the top-line superbike offerings from Aprilia or Ducati, you’ll find that V4s are the hot ticket right now.
But one firm remains so closely tied to the format that all these others seem little more than pretenders to the crown. Of course, that firm is Honda.
That Honda has managed to own the V4 so comprehensively is a spectacular feat of marketing as much as anything else. It was by no means the first to try the format in a bike; Matchless was at it back in the 30s, long before Honda even existed, and even Ducati – seemingly a latecomer to the format with the new Panigale V4 – made its first V4 in 1964, 15 years before Honda tried the layout.
But despite those earlier efforts, the mass-market V4 really came into its own in the 1980s, when Japan’s bike firms battled for supremacy across a range of technologies. The same development spurt that saw the introduction of turbocharged bikes from each of the Big Four and which simultaneously sparked the battle of race-rep two-strokes in the middle of the decade also led to a host of V4-powered machines from Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha.
And yet it was Honda that emerged as the master of V4 engines, even though it had a less than smooth start to the process.
In the beginning…
Honda might not have made a production V4 until the 1980s, but it was 1979 that saw a V4 Honda first hit the headlines. It wasn’t just any V4, either, but the oval-pistoned, 32-valve NR500 grand prix bike. A valiant – if unsuccessful – attempt to make a four-stroke that could achieve two-stroke levels of power by revving twice as high, the NR500 was a technological wonder.
But in reality it was more like a V8 than a V4. Two con-rods and eight valves were used in each oddly-shaped cylinder. It was a spectacularly complicated and expensive way to try to match the simple, lightweight two-strokes that Honda’s rivals were all using. Honda struggled on with the NR500 until 1982, and a decade later revived the ideas for the uber-exotic 750cc NR road bike, but it’s a sidetrack to the real V4 story.
In terms of production bikes, that began in 1982, just as the NR project was being shelved, and nearly ended in disaster.
1982: The VF750F Interceptor, VF750S Sabre and VF750C Magna
It was in 1982 that Honda’s V4 onslaught for the road really began, with the sporty VF750F and naked VF750 Sabre, while the US-aimed VF750C Magna offered a cruiser-style approach to the V4 idea. All share the same 90-degree, 748cc V4 with a 70mm bore and 48.6mm stroke making around 85hp. All was good until around 1984, when the issues of camshaft wear started to emerge. The now-famous ‘chocolate camshaft’ issue was eventually solved, but the damage to Honda’s reliability image was immense.
1982: VF400F (NC13)
While the 750cc V4s made headlines in Europe and America, in Japan Honda’s VF400F was just as big a deal. Sharing similar features to its bigger siblings, the VF400F achieved an impressive 55hp from a 55mm bore, 42mm stroke V4.
1983: VF1100C Magna
Back in 1983, the VF1100C Magna was a headline-making machine. The V4 was still a sexy, new engine format and the Magna was the biggest yet. At the time, 116hp seemed a lot, making the Magna the pick of the Top Trumps cards at least until the Suzuki GV1200 Madura and Yamaha V-Max (both V4s as well, but 1200cc) emerged a year or so later. But by the Honda had bigger fish to fry…
1984: VF1000R, VF1000F
The VF1100C Magna might have proved that the V4 was good for straight-line power, but Honda had been racing its RS1000 V4s in endurance events since 1981, so a proper big-capacity road-going superbike was well overdue. Enter the VF1000R. Fully faired, and with a 130hp 998cc version of Honda’s V4 under that skin, it was Honda’s first stab at an exotic V4 sports bike. Meanwhile, the same engine, in slightly softer 122hp trim, was bolted to the half-faired VF1000F Interceptor, offering a similar experience at a much lower price.
1984: VF500F, VF500C Magna
Given that Honda had only entered the V4 production bike arena in 1982, the spread of models two years later was enormous. As well as the 750s, the Japanese-market 400, the Magna 1100 and the VF1000 machines, there were also two 500cc V4s. Following the same pattern as the other ranges, the VF500F was a part-faired sportster, while the Magna was (hideously ugly) cruiser. In 500cc form (60.4mm x 44mm bore and stroke) the V4 was good for around 70hp.
1984: VF700F Interceptor, VF700S Sabre, VF700C Magna
Just two years on from the introduction of the VF750 models, the US versions of all three bikes were dropped from 748cc to 699cc by reducing the stroke from 48.6mm to 45.4mm. Sold alongside the 750cc versions, the smaller machines dodged under the American import tariffs on bikes over 700cc, allowing Honda to slash their prices. Power dropped to about 80hp, but otherwise the bikes were largely similar to their bigger-engined predecessors.
What a difference one letter can make. While the VFR750F was a replacement for the VF750F (and also bore the Interceptor name in America), it was a completely new bike from the ground up. The bore and stroke may have remained the same, but the engine got a 180-degree crank, new cylinder head design, new gear-driven camshafts (not chocolate this time), new pistons and rods and much more power – around 106hp. It was bolted to a new-fangled aluminium frame and started a line of machines that lives on to this day.
1986: VFR400R NC21
If adding one ‘R’ transformed the 750cc V4, what would happen when two Rs were attached to the replacement for the old VF400F? The new bike – the VFR400R (NC21) – was even sportier than the new VFR750F and achieved nearly 60hp from its 399cc V4. But it would last only a year before an even better version would appear.
1987: VFR750R RC30
Say ‘Honda V4’ and if one bike springs to mind, it’s probably the RC30. An out-and-out homologation special, developed from the 85 RVF750 endurance racer, the VFR750R stood head and shoulders above its rivals. Not only thanks to its gear-driven-cam V4 and aluminium beam frame, but also due to that single-sided swingarm and remarkable race results that would persist for years to come. No wonder they’re so expensive these days.