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Honda Fireblade History: The Gathering

There's no bigger name when it comes to big sportsbikes than the FireBlade, and that was all the excuse we needed to line up every model since 1992 for a right good knees up at the wooded and wicked Oulton Park

Big sportsbikes are separated into two eras. Pre-Blade and post-Blade. You see, some big sports machines may have won more races, plenty have cost an awful lot more and, at times, others have bested the 'Blade, but no bike has set the sporting cat among the race-replica pigeons like the Honda FireBlade.

The big H realised there wasn't a great deal either 'super' or 'sporty' about the supersports class at the beginning of the '90s. The company's own CBR1000F was plenty quick, but about as exciting as tea at your nan's, while Kawasaki's ZZ-R1100 - although frighteningly fast - was out of its overweight and underbraked depth at the track. Even the racetrack choices of the class (Suzuki's GSX-R1100 and Yamaha's FZR1000) required a blend of rider skill mixed with brute force, bloody-mindedness and the blessing of whichever god the rider favoured.

Life was looking gloomy for big sportsbikes in 1992 and with 750s at the time not only making up the lion's share of larger sports sales, but also dominating production racing into the bargain, it seemed inevitable that the big boys would soon be shuffling off to the sports-tourerdom that surely beckoned.

And perhaps this would have happened, had Honda in its wisdom not decided to turn everything on its head. All that was needed was a litre bike that handled like a 750. The fact that no one else had managed this miraculous feat eluded Honda's R&D men who, led by the now legendary Tadao Baba, set about making the FireBlade.

Unlike today's crop of big bore sportsters, the 'Blade's original design wasn't led by racing. Obviously the bike had to be a serious track performer (it would be one duff sportsbike if it wasn't), but developing a world-beating superbike platform was never the plan with the FireBlade. After all, winning WSB races was what the RC30 was for and it was doing very nicely thank you. Instead, the Blade's aim was simply to be the best mass-produced sportsbike the buying public had ever had dangled before them.

Looking back now, you'd wonder how the FireBlade could ever have failed. With 1000cc power, 750cc weight, a super-cool name even your dad could remember and a fearsome reputation from the off, this bike had 'modern classic' written all over it.

And a modern classic is exactly what it's become. So we lined up one of each generation of FireBlade for a damned good road, track, strip and dyno thrash in the finest sunny weather this paltry summer has yet seen fit to offer us.

1992 Fireblade

1992-1993 >>  Generation 1 CBR900RR-N, P

Dawning of a new era. Early '90s big sportsbikes didn't go around corners. Then this appeared

I stumbled across a mint 1992 twin headlight FireBlade a few months ago, nestling inconspicuously among the massed ranks of used bikes at a local dealership, and it stopped me dead in my tracks and sucked me straight back to 1992.

Sure it looked kinda old, but somehow it didn't look dated. The mute aggression and malevolence that scared me back then when I wondered what a bike like that would really be like to ride was still there. I know any of the modern 1000s would turn it inside out and leave it for dead, and I also know it may even struggle up against a well-ridden 600 from the latest crop, but there was still very much something about the old Blade as it sat there, just daring me to accept its challenge.

Both fortunately, and also surprisingly, our 1993-vintage first generation Blade for this test was a minter. Fortunately because it made the experience pleasurable, and surprisingly because there can't be a bike out there more oft abused, crashed or plain old accessorised to hell than the FireBlade - let alone an 11-year-old one.

But ours was standard throughout, apart from a moderately crappy end can and some frame protectors (carbon, natch, in true mid-'90s style). That's not to say it was perfect mind, thanks mainly to a disastrously worn, aged, mismatched set of tyres. Although the fine lads at Speedfreak track days dug us out a replacement rear and fitted it for us, we still had the issue of the shonky front to deal with.

Throw in the fact this bike wears a 16-inch front wheel and I was somewhat less than thrilled to be taking this bike out in the fast group at the beginning of the day.

The 16-inch front wheel was part of Honda's quest for less weight. Although the rest of the sportsbike world has run 17-inch front wheels pretty much without exception both before and since the FireBlade, Honda persevered with the smaller hoop on the Blade. It made it turn quickly, made it flighty, made it exciting and it went against conventional wisdom. In short, it encapsulated just what the FireBlade was all about, but wobbling down pit lane I wasn't convinced. Ten laps later and I was impressed. 

This bike could genuinely still cut it with the best of them. Fair enough, the once fearsome power delivery was anything but, feeling torquey, smooth and controllable without ever being too much, and the supposedly laser-quick handling (as talked about in hushed tones on the launch) was merely adequate, but the overall experience was much more.

The bike still needed plenty of rider input to get into a corner, but once shoved hard it dived quickly and cleanly for the apex and could be held on line surprisingly well as long as you had the power on - shut off at any point mid-corner and the whole plot went haywire.

Feedback wasn't amazing, but there was still plenty despite 17,000 miles of previous owners' abuse. The brakes were still excellent too. If it could still impress now, no wonder this bike set the two-wheeled world on fire way back in the dark days of 1992.

JON URRY'S SECOND OPINION

There is a saying that goes "never meet your heroes." I now know why. I had never ridden a 1992 Blade before and was really looking forward to a go on the bike I had a poster of on my wall through my teenage years, but it was a massive let down. Yes it still looks fantastic, yes the engine is quite strong but the handling, well what there was of it, was simply terrible. Wozza blamed a mis match of tyres, which could be the problem, but my dreams were already shattered. I'd love a go on a mint one but, tragically, this  has left me cold.

1994 FireBlade

1994-1997 >>  Generation 2 CBR900RR-R,S,T,V

Foxy Foxeye. You make me wanna get up and scream

That first FireBlade may have taken the world by storm in '92, but even so, Honda took it to town for a revamp in 1994.

Cosmetically, the front end was overhauled and the twin spots were replaced with a single sleek unit. Not only was this 20% lighter, it also earned this model its 'Foxeye' moniker.

The bike also lost a little more weight and gained some power. The instrument panel was shaved down, a magnesium cylinder head removed another 300g and Bridgestone were tasked to make the tyres lighter.
A kilo came off the weight, but it also gained fully-adjustable front forks with slicker internals to silence criticism of the early ones being wooden, and owners could even get a U-lock under the pillion seat.

By 1996 - and with the competition closing in - Honda tweaked the Blade again. The looks remained, but more power was added. The capacity went up to 918cc and it gained some five horsepower. But despite more power, the Blade was relaxing slightly.

Honda seemed to be reacting to criticism  that their Blade was too extreme and too scary for most riders. The riding position was eased for '96 with higher bars and lower pegs, and more flex was engineered into the frame for better road-based feedback.

Unlike our first generation bike, our '96 Foxeye was a bit of a minger and, in true FireBlade style, it looked like it had been coated in glue then ram-raided through the nearest bike accessory shop. It was wearing more carbon-fibre than the space shuttle, had a hideous double bubble screen that made Bruntingthorpe's runway look like a bad acid trip during speed testing, and 'fettled' suspension which left the bike uncertain about quite what it should be doing over bumps.

That motor was strong and felt surprisingly fresh for its age, pulling hard everywhere, while the brakes were still bang on the money too. The 16-inch front wheel still gave that 'falling-off-a-cliff' feeling as you hauled it into a turn before somehow arresting itself at max lean and peeling you around the apex of your choice. Despite the shock triying to pogo you out of the seat if you were anything less than silky-smooth in closing the throttle while heading into corners, the Foxeye acquitted itself very nicely indeed around Oulton's testing Tarmac.

As for increased rider comfort, out on the road you'd never believe this was once a sportsbike. Admittedly, the huge aftermarket screen made the bike feel much fatter and lower than it was, but even so this was a seriously comfortable motorcycle.

MICHAEL RUTTER'S SECOND OPINION

It's amazing how smooth that motor still feels, and it's very comfortable too - she's a big old girl but you can still see how she was good in her time.

I raced one at the TT in  '96 and it went pretty well, although I was still learning the course then.

I raced another Blade at the Island in 1997, but this time it was for V&M. It was a fantastic all-round bike that handled really well, but the biggest surprise for me was just how fast it was - especially for the time.

1998 FireBlade

1998-1999 >>   Generation 3 CBR900RR-W, X

I like big butts. Big and bulky Blade beaten by Yamaha's R1

By now Honda had a problem. The Blade had been at the top so long that everyone had ample chance to take it apart, scrutinise it and attack it from whichever angle they could. It was Yamaha's R1 which finally wrested away Honda's sports kingpin crown, with Kawasaki's ZX-9R in hot pursuit.

We were treated to the biggest Blade yet at the start of '99. Admittedly, it was also the most powerful and lightest to date, but it had ballooned physically, and against the ever shrinking competition - especially the super-squat and aggressive R1 - it suddenly looked very old and very sensible.

That is if you can call anything in turquoise, red and orange sensible. This bike has to stand trial as perhaps the most misguided colour scheme since someone at Fieldsheer decided fluoro pink and yellow would be a good option on their legendary 'worm' suit.

Honda are no turkeys when it comes to making motorbikes work and although the '98 bike smacked of a make-do-and-mend stopgap effort while they worked on something really serious behind the scenes, it could still do the business when asked.

The first thing you notice riding it now is that it's the first FireBlade knocking on the door of modern litre-bike shove, thanks to a myriad of lightening and tweaking measures in that 918cc mill. Where the previous incarnations feel fast enough but muted in their overall firepower, this one's got a bit of kick to it, even if the redline does still seem to appear too soon.

It's also a deceptively light bike that can still be flicked through a tight set of esses with remarkable ease for something that looks about as large as the Titanic, especially with those of smaller stature on board, like our very own Daryll Young who almost needed a step ladder to get on and off the thing.

Brakes seem no better than any of the previous bikes, despite the larger discs (up from 296mm to 310,) which just highlights how impressive those early efforts really were. What we're left with here is a bike that's fast, pleasant and that can boogie hard when asked. The only thing is that it just doesn't quite make you feel like asking it to.

Not a bad bike necessarily, but very much the least bad-assed Blade in the family tree and no doubts about it.

MICHAEL RUTTER'S SECOND OPINION

I rode one of these to a win at the Northwest 200 road race just after it had come out.

Then for the TT, I had the same bike but they did a bit of work to the engine. I'm still not exactly sure what it was, but if the thing was fast before, now it was a missile. The front hardly touched the floor - I remember firing it off the start line and the front was off the ground until I was halfway down Bray Hill. That was fun - you wouldn't think that something that started life as a road bike could go that quick.

2000 FireBlade

2000-2001 >>  Generation 4 CBR900RR-Y, 1

Have you lost weight? The new, improved Blade comes bouncing back for the new thrillennium

We were treated to a new FireBlade for the new millennium. Gone were the bulbous lines, banished were the carburettors that had fuelled every Blade since 1992 and the motor, which had already crept from 893cc to 918, took another step up to 929ccs.

The 2000 Blade was the biggest overhaul of the model yet and dragged the bike kicking and screaming into line with the increasingly small and more powerful competition.

Somehow though, Honda retained the Blade's civility. There was still plenty of rider room onboard, there was still an acceptable pillion seat with space for a lock under it.

The bike leapt forward with improvements, like the new frame housing the motor further forwards (which allowed a shorter wheelbase but a longer swingarm for faster steering and better stability), titanium exhaust headers and a mid-range boosting exhaust valve. But it still occupied the less extreme ground alongside the mental R1.

All of this tended to see the FireBlade coming second in group tests, still just short of the Yamaha in sports terms alone. Broaden the scope however, and the Blade stood out above everything else as the easiest, fastest bike to live with mile after mile that could still go bonkers on track when needed.

As for what we make of the 2000 FireBlade experience today; it's weathered the storm pretty darned well I'd say, and is a far cry from the previous models, which just feel e-bleedin'-normous by comparison.

Just rolling out of the pits towards the track, this bike feels far tauter and harder than its predecessors. The front end in particular feels sharp and bang up for it.

On occasions, in fact, it can be just too up for it, getting more than a little lively through some of Oulton's more taxing sections. At least this adds to the excitement, although a steering damper could be a smart move for serious track addicts.

The odd headshake withstanding, this bike is still a serious piece of track kit and can be pushed hard and fast without any loss of accuracy, all aided in no small part by a superb set of anchors up front that haul things up admirably on demand.

At the heart of this baby is that bigger-than-ever (at the time) 929cc fuel-injected motor. It doesn't scare you the way an R1 of the same era could, and nor does it howl as a ZX-9 might, but there's still an effortlessly smooth way small movements with the right hand are transferred into very fast forward motion.

This is on the verge of being too sensitive low down and first gear hairpins need a bit of caution, but the experience is sublime into the mid-range and beyond.

And it's this combination of high performance attributes, allied to the bike's solid reliability and handy day-to-day extras (that underseat storage space to name but one) that make it such an all-round winner. Some of the competition may be packing more firepower, but this Blade still makes a good choice for the smart money when it comes to a used superbike you can live with.

MICHAEL RUTTER'S SECOND OPINION

To be honest, this feels like a 600 to me. It wasn't as comfortable as a road bike compared to the earlier models either and it didn't leave too much of an impression on me.

It did feel sharper to turn in, and the bottom end felt a lot stronger too. Those narrower yokes made it feel a bit lively and twitchy in my hands, although I found that it never got too out of shape.

2002 FireBlade

2002-2003 >>  Generation 5 CBR900RR-2

No substitutes for cubes. Not so much a Blade, more a precision scalpel for Tarmac surgery

Now we're talking. By taking subtle and considered steps in the same direction the 2000 Blade had set them off in, Baba-san and his men managed to raise the Blade's game to a whole new level with the RR-2.
Refusing to follow the lead set first by Yamaha's R1 and subsequently by Suzuki's new conqueror, the GSX-R1000, Honda stayed under the litre capacity bracket, boring the Blade out from 929ccs up to 954.

This Blade had a separate oil spray dedicated to the underside of the pistons to help keep them cool in flat-stick situations. The fuel injection, which had finally graced the bike since its previous version, got a
cleverer brain and 42mm throttle bodies, instead of the old bike's 40mm numbers.

What this means in practice is that the mid-range rush and feather-light throttle response remain, but now the slow speed stuff can be attacked harder, thanks to some of the initial throttle snatch being removed. With more power, this bike is only 3bhp down on a GSX-R1000 of the same vintage.

The swingarm is a work of art and the only bikes looking that good at the back in 2002 were in GPs. And it didn't just look good either, because it also lopped another 300 grams off the weight.

And with more power, sharper handling and demon brakes, this bike is an absolute ripper. It'll leap onto its back wheel at the slightest provocation, it'll annihilate back roads as quickly as you dare and it could batter its rivals into submission on the track thanks to better handling out of the crate.

The nub of the handling experience all stems from that front end and those brakes, which work so well together you can pin the front as hard as you dare in total confidence on the brakes, before peeling in with seamless accuracy to head for the exit. From here, let the motor take over until the next corner hoves into view. Repeat to fade...

As testament to the hardiness of these bikes, a mention here has to go to our test bike. Owned by our MD, it may be ridden with vigour on occasion but more often than not it languishes in a windswept car park in all weathers and is more likely to see the next millennium without an oil change than it is to see the business end of a can of chain lube or a bucket of soapy water.

If it were a child, the NSPCC would have had it away years ago, but after a spell on the battery charger, a fresh tank of gas, some air in the tyres and some lube for the rusty chain this bike still rode like a beauty.

MICHAEL RUTTER'S SECOND OPINION

This was an improvement on the last one because there was a little more room to move about on it and with those extra 30ccs, you could notice the extra poke all round straight away. The fuel-injection felt a bit on the statchy side to me, Wozza said this is a bit of a Honda character, but overall it's a top bike and good fun to ride thanks to the motor, which feels really strong. I was also very impressed by the brakes, considering it's a road bike they are amazingly powerful.

2004 FireBlade

2004 >>   Generation 6 CBR900RR-4

Superbikes are go! Honda blasts to the front of the pack with GP-derived BLADE

Twelve years in the making and here she is: the brand new Fireblade. It's been a long road and it's not always been a smooth journey, thanks to the likes of Yamaha's R1 and Suzuki's GSX-R1000 in particular. Even so, every Fireblade has always been a faster and easier bike to ride than its predecessor.

Riding the new bike back to back with the '92 model, they might as well be from different planets. From the ancient clocks and massive indicators, right through to the tall riding position and moderate peak power, that first Blade is at loggerheads with the new one and its electronic steering damper, underseat exhaust, and pure racer riding set-up.

Although they're from different planets, they're definitely from the same gene pool. It may be old in every way, but that first Blade is still a demon piece of kit that'll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you really cut it loose. The new bike is just the same, yet both will gladly potter about with utter civility at more normal speeds.

The biggest difference between this new bike and every Blade that's gone before is this is the first one that's ever been designed to go Superbike racing. Until now, Honda has used limited production as the basis of its superbike efforts with the RC30 and 45, or they've gone for pricier exotica on a larger production run as they did with the SP-1 and 2. Now the Fireblade steps up to shoulder superbike duties, and it shows in the most track-focused Blade we've yet seen.

Just climbing aboard, it's obviously harder than the rest and it's way smaller too, although the wide bars give it a roomy enough feel. Then there's that super-tall first gear which makes wheelies less obligatory than they have been previously, so show-offs may want to look elsewhere for their kicks. However, if getting off the line as fast as possible is on your agenda, you'll find the new Blade does this in its sleep.

This bike is less comfortable on the road than its predecessors. It'll gladly slap a big smile on your face there, but it always feels  slightly out of place on the road. Deep down, you know it needs to be on the track.

It makes ultra-fast easier than you can believe and it'll rarely feel like it's even trying and that's what Blades have always done best.

MICHAEL RUTTER'S SECOND OPINION

After the TT in '98 on that year's Blade, I thought a road bike couldn't get better. Then this comes along.
It's a rocketship: it brakes hard, steers fast and pulls stongly too. This is a pure race bike and has everything the older bikes don't in this respect. 

It's a race bike even as you buy it. Although my BSB bike is more extreme, I felt right at home on this road bike. Compared to the old Blades, it's  a much racier riding position - you're right over the front end, all tucked in.

I'll take this one please, don't bother to wrap it...