Honda Used long-term test: Honda Super Blackbird

Used long-term test: Honda Super Blackbird

Tony Middlehurst sorts the rubber and head bearings on his CBR1100XX Gentleman's Express

REGULAR READERS (of the only other story I’ve done so far on Visordown...) will recall that a 2001 Honda Blackbird has entered my life. I am now a happy bunny. The ruby-red beast looks amazing for its age and, so far at least, seems mechanically faultless. 

However, like any secondhand vehicle, it isn’t new (ah), so it’s only reasonable to expect the odd flaw here and there. I did notice a few handling quirks on the inaugural 300-odd mile back from the previous owner’s place near Durham. The five-year-old Bridgestone tyres might have been OK five years ago, but they’re not now. The steering felt very peculiar, and the brakes basically didn't work. Small things, I know, but given that the main weakness of any bike I buy is pretty much always going to be the bod sat behind the bars, it seemed like a good idea to address anything that was vaguely addressable, if only to minimise potential further strain on our already hard-pressed health service. 

Amateur motorcycle tyre fitting with editor Alan

Workshop time beckoned. I gave my old mate Steve Bateman a shout. Older readers may remember that name from the 1980s, when bike mags were falling over themselves to sponsor endurance racing teams. The mag I worked for, SuperBike, threw some money into Russell Benney’s Phase One team, for whom Steve had a few outings when he wasn’t winning various British racing championships. 

Brilliantly, all Phase One’s major successes came after we stopped sponsoring them, but that’s another story. Steve now has a smashing little setup in Ringwood which looks for all the world like a retail outlet for desirable and/or rare superbikes – except that none of them are for sale. An unusual enterprise, but it keeps him off the streets. 

Anyway, in best greyhair fashion Steve has been quietly honing his spannering talents to a level where, on your return from the toilet, the bike is up on the ramp, the back wheel is already out and he’s well into the tut-tutting phase. 

The previous owner was rightly proud of his Honda, and had oiled everything. There’s a chain oiler on the bike too, the control knob under the seat set to 8 out of a possible 10. By a process of osmosis, this oiling thing had included the brake discs and pads. Not ideal. Steve had noticed from the pics I’d sent him that the discs looked a bit thin, and even I had noticed that they were badly pitted, so I picked up a nice pair of scrapper discs for £130 off eBay, along with a new set of EBC brake pads. New! Oh, the reckless expense of it all. Organic, though, so when they’re worn out you can simply eat what’s left. 

All the brake pistons were seized to a greater or lesser extent, and all the pads were glazed. The back disc was actually fine, apart from being covered in grease. Steve cleaned up all the calipers and pistons and Scotchbrited the rear pads. Now we’ve got that lovely reassuring zizz of fresh brakes, rather than the heart-sinking silence of before. 

Somebody had apparently ‘fixed’ the notchy steering mentioned in the 2016 MOT by torquing the head bearings up to the ‘one more twist and they’ll blow’ setting. Steve took the entirely dry top head races out (the one area where the bike needed lubrication but didn’t have any), shoved some fresh grease in, and did it all up to a less vein-bursting standard. With the front wheel in the air, the bars were now travelling freely from lock to lock, rather than in four or five distinct lumps of movement. 

The icing on the Blackbird cake, however, was the tyre swap. The lovely folk at Avon in Melksham very kindly sent over a pair of Spirit STs to try out, and the superbly-named John Tyers (07889 231056 – had popped in to flash us his best Hollywood smile and stick ‘em on for us. 

Having cut most of my motorcycling teeth (sometimes literally) on a slippery diet of largely rock-hard rubber I had no real idea of the advances that have been made since I last bought a set of new tyres. 

OMG I think is the appropriate term. Al had tried out these sport-touring tyres last year and come back suitably impressed. I can see why. For a touring tyre, these tri-compound (durable centre, softer edge) Spirits have lots of silica in them, which is a good thing for grip. They also have a racing-wet-style ‘3D Sipe’ tread pattern designed to minimise warmup time and do away with the tread-block squirm that was an unwelcome but ever-present part of my two-wheeled life in less enlightened days. 

It was cold and a bit greasy on the way home from Steve’s place, but the initial caution that should always apply when new tyres have been fitted soon gave way to a stupid sort of confidence. Some of that would have been a product of the fettled head bearings: the nasty wandering-off and sudden notching into the next segment of steering had been removed. 

But it was the new feeling of front-to-rear connectedness that really hit me, and that was down to the tyres. Tip it into a bend now and both ends feel totally on the same page in terms of the tyres both hitting the same lean angle at the same time. The bike feels like a single piece of kit now, rather than a couple of loosely-connected front and rear sections that had had a bitter family feud. The ‘before and after’ difference is a bit like the difference between an Iceland value chipolata and a Waitrose freerange Gloucestershire Old Spot sausage. 

The subject of tread on a modern motorcycle front tyre intrigues me. Visually, I always find it hard to tell the difference between a new one and a knackered one. They both seem to have the same amount of tread, ie not much. The Spirits are pretty typical, I guess: the front starts off with 3.5mm at its deepest point. You do get more tread on the back – 7.5mm. The Bird came out of the factory with 164bhp, so the Avons won't be able to lean on their shovels, whatever that means. I’ll be monitoring wear and reporting back. 

Now that the basics are in place, the next thing is to set the bike up for me. The silver-painted centre stand gives the Bird a weird dangly look that shouldn't really be seen outside a monkey enclosure. Centre stands are not stylish items that need to be highlighted in any way, so I expect I’ll be rattle-canning that back to factory-black obscurity at some point. 

More importantly, the Helibar risers are at the wrong angle, causing a fair bit of wristy discomfort, especially on the clutch side. The replacement double-bubble screen – a very popular mod, not just on Blackbirds – looks good, but simply doesn’t work at higher speeds. The airstream wobbles my head around like a Churchill dog on a car’s parcel shelf. Look out for a fearless exposure of the double-bubble swindle in the next exciting episode. Or not, if I find that the original screen is even worse.