Kings of the stone age - Yamaha XJR1300 V Honda CB1300

The two surviving muscle bikes of the modern age come together for a pose-down and a rideout, but which one is king?

The Southbank in the sunshine is as cool a place to ride bikes as any reasonable twisty road. Trade flowing for filtering and lean for lady watching – there is fun to be had. You may have to get used to having chicken strips on your tyres and will need to keep an eye out for plod and mental drivers, but if you can accept it as a ride rather than a battle, it is possible to enjoy a cruise deep in the capital, without having to head for an alleyway in Soho. Your choice of bike is paramount.

If you want to make the most of built up areas, say goodbye to sportsbikes. You need looks and speed in town, partly because absolute performance is a complete waste of time, you want people to look at you and mostly because you’ll spend a lot of time looking for your reflection in shop windows. What you need is some retro muscle.

The term “retro bike”, what does it mean? Does it define a bike that was so good out of the box that its popularity never waned, and to change it would be to lose sight of the original appeal? Or does it simply mean to dress up a new bike in old clothes and squeeze a few more sales out of glazy-eyed bikers, hungry to stand out from the crowd, but sensible enough to know when their back is more important than their bike. Either way, retro bikes have their own place in the British bike market.

Muscle bikes, such as these two, fall into the category of retro, and seem to have been around since time began. The XJR Yamaha and the CB1300 Honda are arguably the only surviving members of the muscle bike gang. Both have watched the Kawasaki ZRX and the Suzuki GSX 1400 come and go. So what is it that these two have that the others don’t?

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retro head turners

If like me, you find sitting down with a coffee and a fresh unread bike magazine one of life’s little pleasures, sit back and take a minute or two to drink in these bikes. They’re both pretty, but check out that Yamaha. It is simply stunning. The quality of the paint and the finish really is as good as it looks. We all have brands we prefer more than others and Yamaha rarely get my juices juicing. But I was sideswiped by the XJR.

The looks of this bike rank up there with the last thousand revs of a screaming second gear R6 and the comedy of seeing an MT-01 on the road. Rare moments of Yamaha pleasure that should be enjoyed as much as possible. XJR’s have only been around since the mid-1990s, but in this blue and silver metallic with the number boards, you can picture it rolling out to line up for an early eighties AMA race, Jimmy Filice aboard looking for another win. That said, it does bare more than a passing resemblance to Freddie Spencer’s Honda CB900F AMA bike, but then they do say that imitation is the best form of flattery.

Take a closer look though, and the detail touches keep coming. The pipes have bucked the trend of getting fatter in a bid to house the emissions madness and instead, you get slimline, swooping peashooters. The front brake calipers look woefully inadequate, just like they used to.

The Honda manages similar levels of appeal, but without sticking strictly within the guidelines of authenticity. The paint says old, but the fat can and smoked indicators give the game away. The clocks, though analogue, don’t have the chrome bezelled appeal of the Yam and while the engine cases look period, the PGM-FI sticker, three inches above them, tells a different story. The Honda looks cool, even with the bikini fairing, but in this company it looks like it’s trying too hard to look old, the XJR just pulls it off. It turns more than the heads of bikers too.

We ended up parking the bikes outside Liverpool street station at commuter o’clock. The amount of guys that slowed their pace to take in the bike was impressive, some just gave up getting to work and wondered around it, looking but not touching, clearly bikes this big are owned by brawny hard men. Right?

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bikes for body-builders

Both have comfortable, roomy seats and easy to reach pegs take the strain off the bottom half of your body, while high bars, with mirrors that work, make both bikes a cinch to ride at low-speed. I think the bars look too narrow on the Yamaha, making me think of a body builder that’s forgotten to work on his arms – huge broad shoulders and chest and then arms like a schoolboy.

However, once you’re onboard it doesn’t feel like that at all, though if this were mine I would stick a set of Renthal bars on for added effect. The Yamaha does have really pronounced edges on the seat, it also feels wider than the Honda, and even though it has a fairly low seat height of 795mm those with a short inside leg might struggle.

These bikes have a combined weight of 481kg, looking at them from the kerb you can’t argue they have huge presence, but once your riding they’re an absolute doddle to feed through traffic, with low seat heights and high leverage. At low-speed, the Honda has better manners due to super smooth bottom-end fuelling and a typically smooth Honda gearbox.

It’s not that the XJR isn’t easy to ride, far from it, it’s just easier to connect with what is going on when piloting the Honda. Both Rob and I agreed that if you can’t ride either of these bikes, you must have the co-ordination of a baby and should stick to the train.

Thanks to the inescapable stop-start nature of town riding, you soon get to grips with quick getaways and last-minute braking. Both bikes have similar power delivery, not overly exciting, but still quite quick. Thanks to lengthy wheelbases and high weight, the fear of flipping, or even lifting, can be pushed to the back of your mind, leaving you to wade on in at the traffic light grand prix, where you’ll see off the odd sportsbike if you commit. Don’t dial in sportsbike levels of rpm on the line though, get the clutch out, drive at low revs and you’ll be rewarded with big torque.

The Honda’s claim of 114bhp doesn’t seem too outlandish, they have made the best of it by giving you four gears you will use everyday and one you’ll only ever need on the motorway. Second and third gear round town feels perfect and you never feel as though you are thrashing the CB. At the same time you can let the speed drop right off and just dial in some torque, safe in the knowledge that the bike wont shudder away underneath you.

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is there a sixth gear?

These bikes were the David to London’s Goliath. We flitted from south to north, jabbing in and out of the traffic and evading everything the city could throw at us. Fun, but taxing at the same time. As soon as we could, we pushed north, round Aldenham Park and out towards Barnet. The fluid, compliant nature of these bikes isn’t limited to low-speed riding.

Out of town they will happily rip round the speedo and cruise at more than 100mph all day long. The XJR is down on power on paper, but it’s not so much of a gaping divide between the two, more a slim crack. A committed rider on the Yamaha will stay with the Honda easily (as displayed whenever I tried to get the drop on Rob and the Yamaha).

You will wear your left foot out looking for a sixth gear on both bikes, until you realise that five speeds is all you get. All thoughts of neck muscles being savaged can also be forgotten. Both bikes are as comfortable on the motorway as they are in town, the CB especially, with that tasteful bikini fairing. Getting big bikes like these on their ears is something that, unlike all the other riding aspects of them, will take some degree of effort. They’re both capable, but if you don’t deliver your inputs definitively, and with confidence, they will wander and take over. Luckily they both respond quickly, it’s more a case of getting your head around the thought of cranking such a mass of metal over. You wont notice it in town, but on out of town B roads the initial feeling is that things are fairly vague, which, when your piloting such mass, isn’t a good thing.

Stick with it though, as once mastered, it’s a great feeling feeding them into corners. Picture it like dancing with a fat girl; once you get into the groove you’ll have a jolly good time. Try and fight too hard though and you’ll be bucked through the nearest wall. You can also be cheeky with the throttle on the way out of faster corners, safe in the knowledge there is little chance of overcoming the grip.

The Yamaha does feel slightly looser than the Honda. While I’m definitely no GP racer, I would put it down to it having an old style steel cradle frame, it’s not a bad feeling, far from it. You can actually feel like your riding the bike somewhere near the point where it starts to refuse, whether you are is questionable. We both preferred the way the Honda handled over the XJR, it is dynamically the better package, but the Yamaha’s trump card of having stacks of appeal and making you smile is worth more than the slight edge the Honda has. The appeal that retro bikes have is strange. The CB1300 has a similar riding feel to the CBF1000, both very good, but one is considered by many to be one of the blandest modes of big power biking available, the other just has a nice paint job.

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overall opinion

As aesthetically pleasing as the CB and the XJR are, the mechanical appeal plays a huge part in why I like them. You can jump on either and feel you are riding them properly, rather than scratching the surface, as most of us would on a sportsbike.

The best of these bikes is dependent on which side of the fence you sit on. On one side you have the type of rider that doesn’t mind sacrificing the odd bad habit a bike displays, as long as it looks good. On the other side are the perfectionists, those that believe nothing but the best will do. The best bike of these two to ride is the Honda. It stops better, regardless of the ABS, turns easier and is marginally quicker. But, the Yamaha just looks so good. Both were smooth as glass around town, so if the majority of your riding is in a built up area it would literally come down to which one you like the look of more.

If you think it’s the Honda you need to wash your eyes out.



Imported from 2001 to 2005 and disappeared thanks to Euro 3. It rides easily as well as the Honda and the Yamaha, though some might say it is a little rougher round the edges - legions of fans would disagree. You can pick up clean, low mileage examples for between £3,000 and £5,000. Bargain.


The Suzuki GSX1400 died a death in 2006, thanks to strangling Euro emissions regulations. A quick Google will return plenty of clubs and websites, all of which offer stacks of advice and tips on ownership. In terms of riding, the big Suzuki was always viewed as the podgy one of the group. Definitely not lacking power or presence, the GSX seems to be the one that most owners prefer to modify, meaning that finding clean unmolested examples isn’t always an easy task. Expect to pay between £3,500 and £5,000 for a good one.


Price: £7,090
Engine: 1251cc air-cooled in-line four DOHC
Power: 98bhp @ 8,000rpm
Torque: 79ft.lb @6,000rpm
Frame: Steel double cradle
Front suspension: Telescopic forks, adjustable
Rear suspension: Ohlins, adjustable twin shocks
Front brake: Four-piston calipers, 298mm discs
Rear brake: Single 267mm disc
Wheelbase: 1,500mm
Seat height: 795mm
Weight: 245kg

Visordown rating: 3/5

Price: £7,363
Engine: 1284cc liquid-cooled in-line four DOHC
Power: 114bhp @ 7,500rpm
Torque: 86ft.lb @5,500rpm
Frame: Tubular steel
Front suspension: Telescopic forks, adjustable
Rear suspension: Showa, adjustable twin shocks
Front brake: Four-piston calipers, 310mm discs ABS
Rear brake: Single 256m disc ABS
Wheelbase: 1,515mm
Seat height: 790mm
Weight: 236kg

Visordown rating: 3/5