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06 Aug 2010 | Rob Blackbourn heads off for a ride on Honda’s latest air-cooled four and seems to take a detour down memory lane

Words: Rob Blackbourn  Photos: Ellen Dewar

EASY RIDIN' RETRO

Those were the days. Or maybe they weren’t... But either way it seems we have a hard-wired tendency to look back through rose-coloured rear-vision mirrors.

“When you bought a pie in those days you knew what you were getting. A good honest meat pie…”

“Remember the way tomatoes used to taste. Like real tomatoes.”

“Back then you could always rely on good camping weather at Easter.”

The same feelgood mists of time that produced these reassuring hindsight certainties have made a lot of us receptive to the idea of the retro bike – “Bikes like the ones we used to ride. Real bikes. Bikes for real men…”

RETRO DREAMING

For proof of the demand for retro bikes we need look no further than Harley-Davidson’s very successful marketing of a product range that has arguably traded off a 1940s-50s image for as long as we can remember.

Elsewhere in the industry it’s more of a niche approach. Triumph’s Bonneville twins range pays its way alongside its high-performance triples. Ducati and Moto Guzzi bring an Italian accent to retros with their ‘classic’ offerings. And then there’s Enfield, a brand with a special claim to retro. That’s what they’ve always done. That’s what they do.

With the introduction of the CB1100, Honda has clearly decided it wants to have a piece of the current retro action. Its promotional material describes the new machine as: ‘an ode to the much loved Honda CB750 four’ – the bike that four decades ago laid the foundations for the generations of Japanese sports bikes that followed.

TWIN SHOCKS, TWIN CLOCKS

For a new bike to pay an effective and affectionate tribute to an iconic Japanese multi that rewrote the rules for motorcycle design, certain key criteria need to be satisfied: The CB1100’s basic architecture – a Naked powered by a proper air-cooled, across-the-frame four housed in a steel twin-cradle frame – goes a long way toward obtaining the ‘retro authenticity’ seal of approval. Pretenders with liquid-cooled engines wearing faux cooling fins and an almost concealed radiator can look pretty convincing but they can never be quite right.

The Honda’s big round headlight, chromed steel guards and an old-school tail-light and bracket all add to the authentic flavour. Then there’s excellent attention to period detail with the twin clocks and twin shocks. And even twin horns.

While many of the styling cues are a neat fit with the first CB750 of the late ’60s, the exhaust system’s four header-pipes curving across to the right then sweeping rearwards to the single can, honour another early Honda four – the lovely mid-’70s CB400F Supersport.

A departure from the original is the sculpted seat shape. Its designers have chosen to take the custom-seat route, perhaps for practical reasons. Its shape contributes to the low 775mm seat height.

The colour choice between red and white is limited to fuel tank colour – both versions have silver-grey side covers and chrome plate on many cycle parts. Surprisingly, perhaps, the two versions look very different. Maybe it’s just me, but I reckon a white CB-four shouts ‘police bike.’ So you would go for the red version…

Fit and finish are excellent as befits a Honda.

WHAT ABOUT THE HARDWARE?

Honda makes no great claims about the CB1100’s mechanical underpinnings. Nevertheless, the technical expertise that has gone into building a big air-cooled engine that meets today’s stringent noise and exhaust emission standards, should not be under-estimated. Significant temperature variation within air-cooled engines can make the emission-control task more challenging and generally requires greater cold clearances between some components, in turn producing more mechanical noise. The lack of the double-wall of a water-jacket can also contribute to noise emissions.

I can vouch for the fact that Honda’s backroom guys have kicked a goal noise-wise. The test bike’s engine is the quietest big air-cooled donk I’ve struck in my travels.

The five-speed transmission has ratios that are well matched to the engine’s characteristics. Clearly the gaps between ratios are greater than a six-speeder. But it’s no issue to the engine and the gearing in top is just fine requiring around 3300rpm for 100km/h.

The suspension remains true to tradition with conventional telescopics up front (with 41mmm stanchions and 107mm travel) and pre-load adjustable twin-shocks down the back. A nice little bonus, though, is pre-load adjustment on the forks.

Wheelbase and steering geometry seem to be focused on producing a stable chassis rather than a quick steerer – to me it feels a little lazier in spec than the early CBs.

Powerful four-piston Nissin calipers put the squeeze on a pair of semi-floating 296mm discs. Interestingly, although the domestic Japanese model comes with ABS, it’s not offered here. A legacy of its inclusion for the Japanese market is the rear wheel speed-sensor set-up that remains on the Australian version – in our case it serves as a high-tech speedo sender.

THE RIDE’S THE THING

It’s a deceptive machine in a number of ways, this new CB1100. Even before you climb aboard there’s a look of compactness about it that belies the substantial reality of its 1490mm wheelbase, 1140cc capacity and 248kg wet weight. And that perception continues in the saddle. It feels smaller and lighter than you expect.

It’s such a rider-friendly motorcycle. It’s an everyman (and everywoman) kind of bike.

Most riders will get both feet on the ground. Smaller riders will be confident and comfortable on it. And all will be surprised at how relatively light and agile it feels in low-speed manoeuvres.

It sits you up in a comfortable slight crouch behind quite wide bars that sport an effective pair of traditional round, upright mirrors. It’s a recipe for safe and easy traffic work and comfortable touring at highway speeds.

The engine is a nice thing – it’s your obedient servant. It produces a contented idle that morphs into working mode with silky smoothness and a linear response to throttle inputs. It’s never intimidating. And as I said before it’s exceptionally quiet for an air cooled donk.

The light clutch action and well-engineered transmission complement the engine’s character, producing acceleration that is smooth off the mark and then right through the gears. There’s no sign of harshness at any stage from zero to fast cruising speeds. It’s a sophisticated engine/drivetrain package that adds a quality feel to the riding experience.

In terms of raw grunt the CB’s engine is a bit light-on at low revs for a big (1140cc) four. But having said that, it builds speed purposefully and smoothly until it wakes up some decent muscle in its mid-range. You could say that what it lacks in low down grunt it makes up for with turbine-like smoothness throughout the rev range.

Front brake performance is excellent. The rear works well enough but is lacking in feel.

In discussing the chassis and suspension set-up and the steering geometry I’ve pointed out that the CB1100 is inherently a stable bike rather than a quick steerer. That’s not to say that it’s lacking in agility though. The bars are wide enough to give you plenty of authority over the bike when you tip it into a bend or ask it to change its line. It’s quite responsive and, again, very rider-friendly through the twisties.

Any fears that the old-school twin-shock rear-suspension might compromise the 1100’s handling proved groundless. During a run around the foothills I was quite impressed by the bike’s overall competence. Some reasonably spirited cornering saw it holding a line well and dealing with the usual lumps and bumps in the bends without drama. Spring rates and damping characteristics, front and rear, seem well matched to the bike’s needs.

I rode back to town thinking that the CB1100’s close to being the best handling twin-shock equipped bike I’ve tried in recent years. Obviously you would find the limits of the suspension’s performance if you tried to stay with a bunch of sportsbikes through the hills but that’s not what this bike’s about, is it?

Fuel consumption was just under 6lt/100km, a reasonable enough result in itself – but when it’s applied to a tank that only holds 14.6 litres, it points to a limited touring range. While I’m talking touring,

towards the end of that ride I came to suspect that the normally comfortable seat might lose some of its charm before a long day on the road was over.

THE WASH UP

During MT’s time with the CB1100 its classy retro-styling prompted quite a number of complimentary comments from folk at service stations and in car parks. And I agree with the sentiments. It’s a very handsome machine. Very retro cool. Additionally, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to say that it rides as well as it looks.

Honda started with a great concept for the CB1100 and the quality with which they brought the idea to fruition is excellent.

While it’s no bitumen burner, it’s a bike that will provide pleasure and satisfaction for riders of all skill levels.



THUMBS UP

- A real old smoothy

- Oozes riding pleasure

- Lotsa retro touches



THUMBS DOWN

- Limited fuel capacity

- ABS would have been nice

 

SPECIFICATIONS:

Honda CB1100

ENGINE
Type:
Air-cooled, four-valve, DOHC, in-line four-cylinder
Capacity: 1140cc
Bore x stroke: 73.5 x 67.2mm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Fuel system: Fuel injection

TRANSMISSION
Type:
Five-speed, constant-mesh
Final drive: Chain

CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame type:
Tubular steel cradle
Front suspension: 41mm telescopic fork – preload adjustable
Rear suspension: Showa twin-shocks – preload adjustable
Front brakes: Twin 296mm discs with four-piston Nissin calipers
Rear brakes: Single 256mm disc with single piston caliper

DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Kerb weight:
248kg
Seat height: 775mm
Fuel capacity: 14.6lt

OTHER STUFF
Price:
$14,990 (or $15,990 check####)
Colours: Red or white
Bike supplied by: Honda Australia
Warranty: 24 months, unlimited kilometres

SECOND THOUGHTS

As a fan of big Nakeds, Honda’s CB1100F left me a tad confused. It’s a nice bike; don’t get me wrong – a very nice bike. The big CB oozes quality, and is like a Swiss watch the way it goes about things.

Think Yamaha XJR1300, but even smoother. I kid you not. But should Nakeds be ‘nice’?

The CB felt smaller than an air-cooled 1100cc retro has a right to, and I liked its nimbleness and all-round user-friendliness.

However, I prefer a bit more attitude, a bit more ‘mojo’ in my Naked bikes. I guess that’s why I own a Kwaka ZRX1200R with a Moriwaki pipe and a set of flatslide CR39s.

I doubt bunging a pipe on the CB1100F would turn Mr Nice into Mr Angry. And that probably also explains why Julie Andrews isn’t covered in tatts…

Ken Wootton

One thing that hits you smack between the eyes when you scramble aboard the CB11 is just how easy it is to ride. Ultra-smooth and flexible powerplant, gentle and light handling, predictable brakes – there’s nothing not to like.

It’s so good you could accuse it of being too sorted, but I reckon the gentle manners mean you can forget about the bike and just concentrate on the fun of riding.

Sadly, it’s a bit small for my six-three (189cm) frame. I encouraged Ms M senior and Ms A junior to have a sit and they immediately wanted to adopt it. That may have been an expensive mistake.

And the looks? It got a “cool” from Ms A and the boyfriend – high praise. As a former owner of the old air-cooled CB750 series I like it too.

Guy Allen

LOOK BACK IN HONOUR

In choosing to identify its early CB750 models as the inspiration for the new CB1100, Honda has linked it with noble ancestry indeed. Noble and potent ancestry…

The magnitude of the impact that Honda had on motorcycling with its release of the CB750 in 1969 is hard to comprehend these days. It was the beginning of the end of an era – the era that had seen buyers in many markets, including ours, automatically turning to 650cc or 750cc British twins and finally 750cc triples if they wanted a big bike, a serious bike.

Sure, the excellent quality and performance of the range of smaller capacity motorcycles from Japan had won wide public acceptance. And Honda’s ‘You meet the nicest people…’ campaign had been very positive for the image of motorcycling in general.

But no-one had seriously entertained the idea that Japanese brands would soon be the natural choice for buyers of large capacity bikes. And they certainly wouldn’t have thought for a moment that the British bike industry would be effectively wiped out within a few short years by the potency of the competition from Japan.

The Honda CB750 was the trailblazer, the agent of change, the catalyst for all this upheaval that ultimately turned motorcycling on its head.

Significantly Honda’s decision to power its big road bike with an across-the-frame four-cylinder four-stroke engine represented baby steps towards modern superbike design, with BMW of Germany being the most recent to comply with Japanese high-performance orthodoxy in the design of its S 1000 RR.

That’s not to say that the early CB750 was a superbike. But with it Honda was headed in the superbike direction – a direction that many would soon follow.

The CB750 of 1969 was no slouch though. And it was no retiring violet. Its bulky four-into-four exhaust system was an in-your-face statement about what lay at its heart – a modern four-cylinder engine.

The claimed 67 horsepower from its overhead-cam engine convincingly out-powered its pushrod-engined British competition; the 750cc Triumph Tridents and BSA Rocket IIIs topped out at about 58hp and Norton Commandos made about 56hp. Significantly the 650cc T120 Triumph Bonneville, considered quite a potent machine at the time, had to get by with a relatively feeble 46hp output.

So straight out of the box the new arrival from Japan was more than competitive in raw performance and produced a top speed of around 200km/h.

There was still some work to be done to make the chassis handle as well as the Brits. But that was happening.

More than its performance the CB750’s reliability and quality stood it head and shoulders above the competition. Like its small-capacity Japanese predecessors it was a set and forget bike. Unlike its competitors it didn’t leak oil. It started every time. And you didn’t need to pack tools and spares when you went for a Sunday ride.

Early racetrack successes in the 1969 Bol d’Or endurance race and the 1970 Daytona 200 only added to the credentials that would guarantee it ongoing success in the market.

Although by 1972 the 900cc, 82 horsepower, Kawasaki Z1 had raised the performance bar beyond the CB750’s reach, it had been the Honda that had opened the door to ongoing dominance of the large-capacity motorcycle market by Japanese fours, guaranteeing its place in history.


THE ANCESTRAL LINE

Tracking the Honda air-cooled 750 fours down through the years

1969-79: The single-cam, two-valve CB750 with 50kW (67hp) that caused all the fuss when it arrived on the scene four decades back, continued with a range of changes and variations until the last version, called the K8, was discontinued in 1979.

1980-83: The release of a new twin-cam CB750 in 1979 marked the first significant change to the air-cooled four’s specifications. The higher-spec engine with twin cams and four-valves per cylinder produced a more robust 57kW (77hp).

1984-87: It was still an air-cooled 750 but it picked up a new moniker in 1984. It became the CBX750F. The oversquare engine produced a hearty 68kW (91hp), there was a six-speed gearbox and it said goodbye to twin-shocks with its Pro-Link rear.

1992-99: The CB designation was back in 92 with the arrival of the CB750F2. It was a cruisier motorcycle with a detuned version of the CBX engine producing 54kW (73hp). This was the last Honda to use the proud CB750 model name.