Dennis Noyes Tribute

Eighties motorbikes tests

Honda CB 900 Bol D’or

 

When Mike Hailwood on his Ducati beat Phil Read on his single overhead cam Honda at the Formula 1 World Championship on the Isle of Man, Honda decided to speed up their plans to put a new sports bike based on the Honda Formula 1 bikes on the market to substitute the then veteran CB 750.  Thus was born the CB 900 F, the “Bol d’Or” replica, a three-cylinder long distance sports bike with sixteen valves and two camshafts in the valve head, derived from the Honda prototype that dominated resistance during 1977 and 1978.  Its mission: to reclaim the title for the Honda Formula 1 and penetrate the sports sector of the market dominated by the Italian brands and Suzuki.

This bike was the big star of the 1978 Earl's Court Motor Show and the response of Honda to the quick and surprisingly stable Suzuki GS 1000, the first Japanese Superbikes to challenge the Italian hegemony in the Super Sport category. Honda was in a somewhat delicate situation in the spring of 1978. The CBX 1000 six-cylinder had not been a success as a sport bike because the Suzuki GS 1000 was almost as quick and a lot more agile and refined on curves. Honda wanted to offer a sports alternative to the Suzuki, but for commercial reasons they didn’t want to make the CBX look bad by simultaneously offering another 1000 cc 100 HP bike. The solution was to take to the series a narrow, powerful and above all, stable and lightweight (relatively light) four-cylinder bike to avoid unfavorable comparisons between the CBX and the Suzuki GS 1000. The arrival of CB 900 gave the brand a very effective weapon, both for the production races and the hardcore fans, without this casting a shadow on the CBX, which became a Gran Turismo sports bike or a “Super Sport Luxury Bike”.

Today the CBX usually occupies a dark corner in Motor Shows and Honda does not want to make a lot of noise about it.  It’s still available and has a loyal clientele of niche market buyers, but the strongest of the Japanese brands has realized that its affair with the six-cylinder engine has forced it into a dead-end alley at the technological level. They have the ironic satisfaction of knowing that you were able to make the best of a strange and exotic breed of motorcycles but it hasn’t jelled, far exceeding the agile, but fragile and poorly finished Benelli Sei and taking a couple of turns out of the regrettable 300 kilograms (661.39 lbs) Kawasaki Z 1300.

Today the high-powered Honda of prestige is the virtually untouchable CB 1100 R; the champion of Production races in all countries where championship for series bikes up to 1,100 cc. are held.  While the CB 1100 R isn’t worried about anyone challenging it, the active Honda engineers have already surprised us at the Salon in Cologne with the frankly incredible VF 750 S, a light and brand new V-4 based on the Grand Prix NR 500. Honda is now ready for the change in cylinder capacity in Formula 1 in 1984 with the limit of 750 cc.

However, while the technology war in Formula 1, resistance and production has motivated new and daring designs, the CB 900 F has become the most popular of the great displacement Honda bikes with a large and loyal clientele who prefer a 'package' of 242 kg. (533 lbs.)  with 95 HP (catalog) rather than a 1100 260/270 kg (573.2/595 lbs.) and 110 HP.

 

Against the radar

The truth is that I do not know for sure, but I believe that CB 900 F really has 95 hp. The Yamaha XS 1100, with 95 hp (catalog), and the Laverda RGS 1000 with only 86 hp (but with effective fairing) slightly outperforms the Honda at full speed, but while British motorway traffic and the presence of fast patrol cars did not allow me to make quick round trip runs, I did dare to clock a top speed of 205 km/h (127.38 mph) one way. However, the maximum speed depends on the final development, an undertaking by the manufacturer to allow a good cruising ability and to avoid that the user easily revs the motor too high on the long runs. With the Honda you can go very fast and ironically, its annoying vibration zone is between 4.100/4.400 r.p.m., which corresponds to 100/110 km/h (62.1/68.3 mph), a cruising speed almost compulsory in England where the speed limit of 100 km/h (62.1 mph) on national and secondary roads is controlled by radar and the Bobbies.

No, the CB 900 F did not impress me with its horsepower in comparison to the Yamaha XS 1100 S and the Laverda RGS 1000. Perhaps in the saddle we see that it actually reaches the figure announced by Honda, but I am sure that we will also see that both the Yamaha and the Laverda rage at lower speeds, while the Honda (despite its 69 mm. (2.7 inch) long stroke in relation to its 64.5 mm (2.5 inch) diameter gives it power at higher speeds.

This does not mean, however, there is no useful power from a few revolutions per minute. In the short gears, the CB 900 responds cleanly from 2,000 r.p.m., while in fourth and fifth gear you can progressively open up the gas from a little more than 3,000 r.p.m. If you really want to accelerate quickly and get to a cruising speed of 110 km/h (68.3 mph), you have to skip gears. Between 6,500 and 9,000 r.p.m. the motor is in its most efficient area, and with sports riding the best thing is not to let the needle drop below 7,000 r.p.m., shifting into the long gears over 9,500 r.p.m in the red line. Although I confess to having seen the needle on 10,000 r.p.m. on some occasions, at this speed the linear piston is going at (on average) 23 meters (75.4 feet) per second!, and our friend David Dixon, from Yoshimura, who prepared a Formula 1 Honda CB 900, which went as quickly as the officials three years ago, warns that with series rods it is extremely dangerous to rev the CB 900 too high.

It’s not necessary, however, because with 9500 r.p.m. and more than 90 hp in your hands, the acceleration is savage.

Plus to curb the hp it has three powerful and efficient double-piston discs, but perhaps it’s just me, but I felt that they came up a little short in comparison to the Brembo set. 

 

Beware of English tests!

To say that a three-cylinder 900 cc with 95 hp and a top speed of more than 200 km/h (124.2 mph) is not particularly fast could surprise some of you, but the reality of the 80’s forces us to revise our criteria.  Today a Laverda RGS with a top speed of 213 km/h. (132.3 mph) almost fools us, because with the price and the paint (and with those happy low figures courtesy of the factory and the importers) we have the right to expect more than 225 km/h (139.8 mph), in other words, be careful with English tests!

I know the test riders for the principle English magazines and I know their methods, too.  They haven’t lied about the Laverda RGS or about the Honda CBX 550, but evidently the British importers are pulling the wool over their eyes with super prepared bikes.  Someone lets the English press use; a Laverda RGS that stopped the photo detector with a maximum speed of 240 km/h (149.1) and also someone has prepared a Honda CBX 550 that in the hands of test riders from both Motor Cycle Weekly and Motor Cycle News reached a maximum speed of 129 mph, almost 208 km/h.

A short time ago I spoke with my California friend John Ulrich, director of Cycle World (sales of 500.000 issues per month and to avoid problems with importers they buy (!!!) test bikes when they need them.  John, being a nice man, told me that the Kawasaki GPZ 550 clocked a speed of 207 km/h. (128.6 mph).  When they took it apart they found a Formula 2 Stage III Moriwaki camshaft and cylinders prepared by the son-in-law of Pops Yoshimura. 

In 1977 John tested a Honda CBX “prototype” prepared for the press and commented during its trial that is was a “chopped” bike.   Result: Honda USA used its influence to make him lose his position as a tester for Cycle. John, however, has returned and continues to tell things as they are in “the land of the free” where ironically there is more control over the freedom of expression of test riders than there is at  Motociclismo,  where there is total freedom between the magazine and the readers… as it should be.

The CBX 550 that I tested was not completely broken in, but I would say that its maximum speed is around 190 km/h. (118 mph), an excellent figure for a 550 cc. with 65 hp.

Well; the Honda CB 900 F reaches 205 km/h. (127.3 mph) and maybe a little more... something that we will verify when we try the bike in Spain.  Now having talked about the maximum speed and power, figures that receive more importance than they should in the advertising of brands, we are going to look at more important things …

 

Stability

Some of the dealers are “a little” upset with me.  They say that I tried the XS 1100 as if it were a GP bike and that “a little wobbling” at high speed isn’t “that important.”

The truth, however, is that the Yamaha XS 1100 S is unstable in comparison with the other contemporary multi-valve bikes. To say that a bike with 95 hp capable of reaching 210 km/h.(130.4 mph) is a quiet touring bike (despite an “S” which means “Sport” and advertising that qualifies it as "a sports bike for winding roads") would make as much sense as a fighter aircraft salesman telling us that the fact that his plane is not able to defend itself in combat with a Harrier, a Phantom or a Mirage isn’t important. I didn’t design the Yamaha XS 1100 S, I didn’t do the official advertising about it in Japan, I didn’t put a luxury item price tag on it, and I had nothing to do with the decision to import it into Spain. I am not surprised that some dealers are angry, but... don’t be with me, please! I tried it and reported things as they are.  If I had said that the XS 1100 S was stable with some little problems, I would have been forced to praise the Honda CB 900 F to high heaven, because it is infinitely more stable.

The truth is that the Honda CB 900 F also moves a little. It is not rigid like an Italian sport bike, but it doesn’t have any major defects in sports driving either, while going in a straight line, at speeds over 140 km/h (87 mph), it has a sporadic tendency of bobbing slightly. Playing with the suspensions I managed to partly take care of this trend, even though at 190 km/h. (118 mph) the bobbing returned again and continued up to the maximum speed of about 205 km/h. (127.3 mph)  However it was not a violent pitch like the Laverda 1200 TS, nor alarming like the Yamaha XS 1100 S. It was rather like that of the Suzuki Katana GSX 1100, a bike that suffers from problems of stability in a straight line at high speed... especially if you don’t change the rear tire every 2,000 km. (1,242 miles)  So, are they pulling our legs with these Super Sport bikes...? or is it that you are not afraid to buy five of them!?  Rear tires a year, I mean and two front ones?

On fast curves the CB900 performs very well in general and the trick is to do it quickly is to hit the gas as you enter the curve.  If you enter a fast curve on the highway and cut the gas the bike will wobble, and if you have to let up on the gas halfway through the curve, you will notice a lack of rigidity, but no more or less than with a Suzuki GS 1.000.  With the footrest folded back and with flat handlebars, the Honda has a semi-sporting posture that is good as well for touring, but the bike can be as aggressive as you are.  Plus maybe the CB 900 that arrives in Spain is better than this one.  The CB 900 F2 that I tried in Grimsby didn’t have an anti-dive front fork or new shocks either, but Honda had just introduced these modifications, and they had barely hit the English streets.

In general the Honda CB 900 is sufficiently stable to handle the most savage mountain sports riding.  The motor is narrow with the alternator mounted behind the cylinder block, and the decision to use an “old” long distance configuration was in order to have a super narrow bike that could lean deeply with having to mount the engine excessively high on the frame.   I was able to lean as far over with the touring bikes as with the racing bikes to maintain maximum tire/asphalt contact.  With the Yamaha XJ 650 I never scraped the footrest on the highway because it was folded up…

Although on the circuit with this Yamaha it is easy and unavoidable to drag the bottom.  With the Honda CB 900 F I only scraped the footrest once, but only when the rear tire lost it grip and skidded a little.

In general I would say that of all the Japanese superbikes that I have tried up to now, only the CB 1100 R inspired more confidence and let me drive more aggressively.  The Suzuki Katana is almost on the same level as the CB 1100 R in regards to the motor…but why compare a 900 with a 1100 cc bike?

 

Honda against the Italians

The Laverda RGS, a theoretical disadvantage of 9 hp, is somewhat quicker than the 900 F, this is a question of aerodynamics (the Honda CB 900 F-2 only has 195 hp because its fairing is designed exclusively to protect the rider and not to increase the maximum speed).   There is an abyss between the Honda CB 900 F and the Laverda RGS.  The Laverda performs on the track like a true speed machine (despite a weight of 266 kg.), while the Honda moves enough on normal quick road curves to show us that on the track it would have some annoying wobbling.  I have several friends, however, that are racing with the Honda CB 900 F and…some of them win races.  It a question of working with the suspension and getting used to the bike.

The Ducati 900 SS, with an important advantage in weight, is even more stable than the Laverda RGS and goes into slow corners somewhat easier. The great SS isn’t slow either and its narrowness lets it reach maximum speeds that are very similar to those of the Laverda and the Honda, but its weakness is its acceleration. There are important differences of philosophy and concept between a Honda CB 900 and a Ducati 900 SS. The Ducati is a gem, a Thoroughbred that is more pleasant to take to the limit and with a significant advantage on the circuit, but its V-Twin engine is fragile if you push it very much, while the Honda happily rises to the challenge.

Plus the Honda despite a few wobbles and bounces is a motorcycle that is easy to drive quickly.  Its behavior is not impeccable but its reactions are predictable and manageable, and while Laverda forces us to spend a million pesetas (6,010 Euros) and the Ducati 900 is a very uncomfortable bike for touring, it seems that the 900 Honda F seems is going to enter Spain with a price of 780,000 pesetas (4,688 Euros) as well as being a bike with two facets, sports and touring.

The Guzzi Le Mans III is also a logical rival.  Its weak point is its acceleration, but with a maximum speed of 208 km/h (129.2 mph) and with excellent stability and a very low center of gravity, the Italian two-cylinder with Cardan drive can defend itself admirably against the Honda in all areas save elegance and take-off.

The Price Factor

We still don’t have official confirmation that the price of the Honda 900 is going to be 780,000 pesetas (4,688 Euros), hopefully it will be less!  However, supposing that our source has confirmed everything, we can compare the Honda with its most dangerous rivals in the following manner.

These are the “official” prices in London, but the truth is that you can currently buy a Yamaha XS 1.100 S for 400,000 pesetas (2,404 Euros) in almost all the dealers in London, while in today’s paper (we took off a while back and are currently flying through the skies of France) the lowest price of the Fall Sales is for the CB 900F.  It is 430,000 pesetas (2,585 Euros).

Mr. Sakata, of Honda Spain, told me that it is peseta/yen problems that force the some of the high prices, but the truth is that the Japanese find themselves in a situation that is very favorable to them.  There is in Spain a “sick of the Italians” market (more because of the deplorable post sales service, according to the surveys in the case of Guzzi, than for the quality of the bikes.  We have dreamed of the Japanese bikes for so many years that their excessive prices hardly frighten us.

How is it, however, that Pedro Lezcano can offer us the Le Mans at 757,250 pesetas. (4,550 Euros) and Angel  Montserrat the Laverda RGS at a million?  It’s obvious that the law of supply and demand is forcing the importers of Guzzi and Laverda to adjust their prices as much as possible, while Ducati is betting everything on its good sporting name to justify higher prices (proportionally to trading in other European markets), so much so that Honda has decided to ignore the Italians and take the war directly to Yamaha.

If Yamaha had entered the market with lower prices, would Honda have done so as well?  It’s a vicious cycle, but at 780,000 pesetas (4,687 Euros) the Honda CB 900 will be expensive in relation to its price abroad…and competitive in Spain.

Plus, according to what I could see on a long program from the BBC, Spain will probably not enter the Common Market in the immediate future because the European Community is not willing to let a country that has such an exaggerated policy of protectionism, and none of the popular political parties in Spain want to risk jobs by lowering tariffs.

In other words, friends, the magic fairy gave us just one wish, and we asked for Japanese bikes thinking that this would be enough for the fairy to know to send us them at European prices.  It’s a little like the one-eyed man who asked God to make both eyes the same…and ended up blind in both eyes.

The situation isn’t that tragic either, but Spain is suffering the effects of the world recession intensely than other European countries, and in such a difficult moment it really surprises me that the Japanese brands don’t adjust their prices as much as possible.  The thing is, while there are limited quotas, it seems that the Japanese are not satisfied if they don’t have the same profit margins as the Italians…they want to make more money, and they know that the law of supply and demand favors them. 

Impressions after 1,000 km (621.3 miles)             

In London traffic the C 900 F had the feel of a smaller bike.  It is agile, manageable and despite its 240 kg. (529.1 lbs.) well-balanced and easy to handle.  The two horns are penetrating and efficient for waking up an absent-minded driver, and if there is an opening, the acceleration is ferocious.

The Dunlop Gold Seal tires (18 cm back and 19 cm front) (7 inches back and 7.4 inches front) are made in Japan and inspire psychological confidence with the name Dunlop, but even outside the city these tires prove themselves to be trustworthy, at least they warn you before losing their grip and going past the painted lines without scaring you. 

The fork without anti-dive is good, but obviously it doesn’t prevent vibrations.  With any luck, this will be the version imported into Spain.

With the CB 900 F-2 you have the same power, but less top speed. It is a more comfortable motorcycle on the road thanks to the fairing, and the difference in weight is only 10 kilograms (22 pounds).

 

The CB 750 F and the F-2:

I should have tried the 750 first, because after getting off the 900, the 750 seemed bland and had no oomph. The truth is that the Honda 750, with 79 HP at 9000 r.p.m., is a very fast bike (190 km/h) (118 mph) and has the same stability, the same braking and weight as the versions of larger displacement. (The distance between axels of the CB 900 is 1,515 m (59.6 inches), while in the CB 750 it is 1,520 (59.8 inches).

However, the maximum torque of 6.53 mkg. reached over 8000 r.p.m., while the 900 produced 8 at 7500 r.p.m.. You have to downshift more often with the 750.

It’s a transverse in line-4 engine, 62 mm (2.4 inches) diameter and 62 mm (2.4 inches) stroke, and while the 900 mounted 32 mm (1.2 inches) carburetors, the 750 breathes through a set of four 30 mm. (1.1 inch) depression Kehein carburetors.

The F-2 with fairing has problems reaching 185 km/h (114.9 mph), but the people who choose a Honda 750 probably will be quieter and more of a touring rider than those who buy the 900.

The fact that a three-cylinder 750 cc, with 79 hp, 16 valves and dual overhead cams does not impress today gives you an idea of the technological level of the Japanese brands. A few years ago the Honda CB 750 would have surprised us by its performance, stability, and line. Today, it is a good bike and nothing more. We have become accustomed quickly to good quality.

The Honda 750 bikes are emerging as dangerous rivals for the Italian touring bikes and the CB 750 F. If they don’t happen to charge more than 660,000 pesetas (3,966 Euros), (information from our trusted source), it would be an alternative to the ’83 Yamaha XJ 650..., but only if Yamaha raises its price. The Yamaha at less than 600,000 pesetas (3,606 Euros) would be a very difficult rival, because it’s as fast or faster, has a Cardan shaft and a more modern look.

Even better if the CB 900 for use in Spain had the simple Honda system that uses floating clamps and movement to close the main hydraulic hole to force the fork oil to pass through a shaft of four holes. The rider can chose between four hole diameters and vary the operation of anti-dive to taste, I tried this system with the CX 500 E and I liked it.  However, this hydro-pneumatic  fork (with controllable air pressure in the upper part and the right leg) is more than acceptable, and the current trend of employing the anti-dive system is probably a commercial argument rather than a significant improvement.   “The position seems to me ideal, a compromise between touring and sports that avoids making you commit one way or the other.” The footrest folded back and low handlebars let you choose between a Superbike or a BMW-RS posture.

The shift doesn’t have any specific defect and is a little slack in the lever.  It doesn’t have the precision of the Ducati or Laverda (500) shifting, but I didn’t have even one stall in 1,000 km. (621.3 miles)

I did a few kilometers at night, and the 55/60 halogen headlight is excellent, while the new switches are easy to handle and attractive. The Starter has two-position and is located on the left handlebar, while the fuses are mounted under a plastic cover on the top of the steering column, but you have to use a Philips screwdriver to remove the cover. The fuel consumption surprised me because this four valves per cylinder sports engine does not pass 5.6 liters per 100 at a constant speed of 100 km/h  (62.1 mph). Heavy highway traffic made it impossible to carry out tests at constant speed of 120 km/h (74.5 mph), but the total consumption of the Newbury-Grimsby trip was just 6.6 liters/100. This is a low consumption rate because I was hitting the gas whenever I had an open lane, but because I had to pass through villages and a lot of traffic, I could not give it as much gas as I wanted to.  We’ll see how the rate is in Spain.

Esthetically the bike is attractive and very, very Honda, and the thing is that Honda is a Japanese brand with a very defined personality.  I’m not speaking only of the line, although Honda's Euro-Design remains in force and continues to please, but... Madrid is already in sight and we are landing... in the distance I think I see Miraflores de la Sierra in the foothills of the Guadarrama... I will finish this review...

Although Honda’s Euro-design remains in force and continues to please, I am not speaking only about the bike, but also of the line of engines, of the form of the cylinder heads, of the wheels. Honda is unmistakable. Their motors have a line that reminds me a little of the Gilera and MV of the sixties, which Honda would not deny since they went through hard apprenticeship in the world championships when the other Japanese brands were still very green.

Honda is the 'number one' brand in the world mark, and despite its propaganda about technological innovations, it continues to be the most traditional and the most conservative of the Oriental brands. Their new V-4 bikes are so classical in concept and so efficient on the road and on the track that the Italian engineers are for the first time really worried about their up to now untouchable place in the sector of the super-sports bike.

Even the Honda Turbo, “revolutionary” for some, but always classical and traditional to me, starts from the base of a V-Twin with pushrod and rocker arm distribution..

Honda is not abandoning the straight four-cylinder configuration ... they, themselves, copied the veteran Italian Grand Prix bikes and managed to get out more power from its three-cylinder 500 cc that MV Augusta. No, Honda has already begun to explore the sports possibilities of the V-4, but they know that the great advantage of the transverse three-cylinder is in its simplicity, its low manufacturing cost, its excellent cooling system without resorting to the water, and its pleasing esthetics.

Plus, most importantly Honda has been manufacturing three-cylinder Superbikes since 1969, and its reputation for robustness not is based on myths or advertising, but in millions... yes, millions of happy customers who have made to spread the word.

My first and until now only Honda was that great classic of the seventies, the beautiful CB 400 Super Sport, a three-cylinder with character, good stability and superb ruggedness that took my wife and me to 13 countries in one summer… 18,000 km (11,185 miles) without even one little problem.  I bought that wonderful Honda (secondhand and with 34,000 km (21,125.6 miles) on it) in the very shop of Freddie Frith in Grimsby in 1976, and that “Hondita,” just like the six Hondas that I have just tested in England this week always inspired confidence in me.   

Of all of Honda’s superbikes the CB 900 is the most popular.  For me, I prefer the version that we tried here the F-2 with fairing, and more than the two 750 cc bikes, but this is because I prefer sports bikes and while the F-2 is slower due to its fairing, the 750 cc “only” has 79 hp and its power/weight balance is brilliant. 

If our prices are correct, Honda is going to offer four very competitive options and all anchored on the same reliable and well-known “Bol d’Or” base.

The CB 750 F at 660,000 pesetas (3,966 Euros) and with 79 hp is an attractive alternative in comparison with the CB 900 F at 780,000 pesetas (4,687 Euros) and 95 hp.  The difference of 120,000 pesetas (721 Euros) can be seen reflected in the slower acceleration and lower maximum speed, however 190 km/h (118 mph) is nothing to sneeze at.

In another issue we will get into a more detailed analysis of the motor of the CB 900 and the CB 750,  but it’s enough to say that this motor has the most prestigious laurels of all the Japanese series motors.

Five years have already passed since the debut of the CB 900 F whose mission was that of beating the Italian sports bikes and the then untouchables Suzuki GS 1000 on the tracks and in the stores.  Now it is a retired veteran of the Formula 1 wars. This year it defended itself by nobly winning some of endurance trials, but without being able to keep Kawasaki from triumphing, although however it did end up winning in Formula TT-1 in the hands of Joey Dunlop against the dreaded Yoshimura.

Its great achievement is unique among the current Super sports bikes, and although it has already been overtaken by the VF 750 S, there is no other sport bike with as much prestige, except its eternal rival, the Ducati 900 SS With its mission already accomplished, the legendary Bol d'Or Replica still keeps on going as a racing Super Sport.

While there are today much more powerful motorcycles that defend the colors of Honda in the war of prestige among the Superbikes, the CB 900 F leads me to wonder if for 99 per cent of motorcyclists it makes sense to choose larger and more powerful motorcycles since with the CB 900 F you can do almost everything. At the controls, the Bol d'Or rather has the feel of a 750, but with a 'kick' of a 1000 cc.

Maybe it doesn’t impress as much as a 1100, but when you want to go quickly through a series of linked curves, the Honda CB 900 F is a delight. I do not know yet how it will perform on the Guadarrama mountain roads or the Jarama when we have an “Official” Honda Spain bike test, but of all the three-cylinder superbikes that I've tried it is the more agile, the most playful, and the most confidence-inspiring when it is leaning over deeply and wide open.

The Bol d'Or Replica is going to win a lot of friends in Spain.