If Honda was built on the premise of cheap transport for everyone, a necessity after the ravages of the second world war, they soon realized that performance was as much a draw as practicality.
Gradually, throughout the 1960s, Honda motorcycles were able to match European rivals for performance with much smaller engines, until the bombshell that was the CB750 arrived and re-wrote the book completely. Through the 1970s and 80s, Honda further explored the sporting bike theme until it dropped yet another bombshell with the CBR900RR FireBlade, adding lightness and compactness to power, and yet again they redefined sporting motorcycles. If the company went down a blind alley with the oval-pistoned NR, it also showed the depth of engineering ability the company possessed and set it on a path to racing glory it is still demonstrating today.
10 Honda CB77 Super Hawk – 1961
Honda CB77 in black, standing in a field
Only three years on from Honda’s first steps with the Super Cub and look how far the company had come. Hugely important not only in the history of Honda but in the history of motorcycling. It was innovative (steel tube frame in place of the pressed steel affair of the Super Cub, telescopic front forks, engine used as a stressed member of the frame), the 305cc parallel twin engine produced 28 horsepower, giving a top speed of 100 mph with near-perfect reliability.
It was called the first modern Japanese motorcycle, it had an electric start, ran smoothly, didn’t leak oil and the electrics worked! Elvis rode one in the movie Roustabout and Robert M Pirsig rode one on the two-month trip that would eventually become the book Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance so that must mean something…
9 Honda CB750 – 1969
Honda CB750 in red, facing right
The British motorcycle industry was famously blinkered in the 60s, ignoring the threat of the Japanese motorcycle industry. To be fair, the British thought that the Japanese would continue with small-displacement motorcycles, leaving the larger capacities to the likes of Triumph, Norton and BSA, not to mention Harley-Davidson in the U.S.
That was until Honda revealed the CB750, an inline-four cylinder engine that was smooth, powerful, reliable and leak-free. It even had electric start and a front disc brake. If the British were complacent before, then afterwards they realized they were merely out-of-date and would never again enjoy the supremacy they once held. In terms of motorcycling history since 1970, no bike is more important than the CB750.
8 Honda CBX1000 – 1978
Honda CBX1000 in white, facing right
If Honda had abandoned six-cylinder engines for racing, the company certainly hadn’t forgotten about them. In 1978, it revealed the CBX1000, with a DOHC, 24-valve cylinder head engine mounted in a conventional frame with telescopic forks and twin-shock rear. Although the transversely-mounted engine looks incredibly wide, it is actually only two inches wider than the four-cylinder engine in the CB750.
Comparing the CBX to the CB900F, renowned journalist LJK Setright said, “The CBX feels better and goes better, and the difference is greater than the difference in price, so the costlier bike is actually the better bargain. The CBX engine is as responsive as a racer, the nicest cycle motor to ever reach the street.”
7 Honda CB1100R – 1980 to 1983
Honda CB1100R in red and white, facing right
The first homologation special from Honda. Based on the CB900F, the CB1100R (‘R’ for racing) was a fully-faired road-legal model built in sufficient numbers to classify as a production model eligible for production-based racing in Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Three versions were built – B, C and D – which were sufficiently different in the fairing departments for none of the fairing parts to be interchangeable between the three versions.
The inline four-cylinder engine produced 115 horsepower, a very good figure for the day, although weight was a slightly porky 518 pounds. If it didn’t have any of the exotic materials that mark out homologation specials of today, it was still an important stepping stone on the way to the immortal Fireblade.
6 Honda CBR600F – 1987
A stock Honda CBR600f 1987 white and red parked on pavement with stone and wall as background.
Before the FireBlade upset the performance bike apple cart in the early 1990s, Honda was playing in the new liquid-cooled engine arena alongside Kawasaki and Yamaha, replacing old air-cooled models. The thinking that would make the FireBlade such a success was already germinating and the CBR600F’s emphasis was on lightness.
Power output was 85 horsepower, the frame was a lightweight steel affair, the bodywork was a fully-enclosing fairing and the whole bike weighed in at a featherweight 396 pounds. On the road, it felt as if it had been designed from the wheels up and had an integrated feel that few other sport bikes could match. Best of all, it was both easy to ride on the road and a weapon on track.
5 Honda RC30 – 1987 to 1990
Honda RC30 in red, white and blue, facing right
Never let it be said that Honda didn’t go racing lightly. The VFR750R, otherwise known as the RC30, was yet another homologation special built for the sole purpose of competing in the World Superbike championship (and of course, other National Superbike championships around the world, which ran to the same formula).
The V4 engine produced 118 horsepower in road-legal trim, and used super lightweight and exotic titanium extensively inside the engine, regardless of cost. For example, the connecting rods each weighed 1.8 oz. less than their steel equivalents but cost eight times as much! Everything was based around racing, including the quick-release front wheel and brake pads, single-sided swing arm, fully adjustable Showa suspension, single seat, hand-built stainless steel exhaust system, and fiberglass bodywork. The RC30 won the inaugural World Superbike Championship with Fred Merkel in 1988 aboard, and won again the next year.
4 Honda NR – 1992
Honda NR in red, facing right
Absent from motorcycle Grand Prix racing for the whole of the 1970s, arguing that the then-dominant two-stroke engine technology wasn’t in line with its road-going motorcycles which exclusively used four-stroke technology, Honda were determined to return to racing on its own terms in the late 1970s. At that time, regulations restricted 500cc engines to a maximum of four combustion chambers. Honda’s philosophy had always been more power through more cylinders, so the engineers came up with a way of making a V8 with only four combustion chambers.
They did this by making an engine with four large oval cylinders, each containing two spark plugs, four exhaust and four inlet valves. Within the letter of the law, there were still only four combustion chambers. Each piston had four connecting rods and there was a total of 32 valves. And it was only 500cc, don’t forget. It was utterly unsuccessful as a GP race bike, but 300 examples of a road version, called simply the NR, were built and it was the most expensive production motorcycle at the time, costing more than $50,000 in the early 1990s.
3 Honda CBR900RR FireBlade – 1992
Honda CBR900RR Fireblade facing right
By the 1990s, 1000cc+ was the default displacement for sport bikes. The only problem was that they were heavy, which had knock-on effects to the performance and handling. Honda took a long, hard look and came up with the CBR900RR FireBlade. At a stroke, it re-wrote the sport bike rules. Even if the engine displacement was ‘only’ 893cc, it was significantly lighter than its rivals and the twin-spar aluminium frame offered new levels of stiffness, allowing the suspension to do its job much more effectively. Both these attributes enabled the FireBlade to run rings around the opposition, and it wasn’t long before rivals were copying the design lead set by Honda. Once again, Honda set the template for sports bikes that exists to this day.
2 Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird – 1996
Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird in black, facing right
Speed for speed’s sake! By the mid-1990s, Kawasaki held the title of fastest production motorcycle with the Ninja ZX11. Honda was determined to wrest the title from Kawasaki’s grasp and win the publicity war. The name given to the new bike was a reference to the Lockheed SR-71 jet, the fastest plane in the world. When tested by Sport Rider magazine, the Super Blackbird achieved a top speed of 178.5mph, beating the Kawasaki by about 3 mph.
The arrival of the Super Blackbird to challenge Kawasaki prompted Suzuki to enter the competition and produce the Hayabusa, which took the top speed title with a speed of 194mph. The name Hayabusa translates to Peregrine Falcon, a species of raptor that preys on blackbirds! This boom in speed frightened the manufacturers, who feared that European legislators would outlaw such performance bikes, so they entered into a gentlemen’s agreement to limit top speed to 186 mph (300km/h).
1 Honda RC213V-S – 2015
Honda RC213V-S in red, white and blue, facing left
The RC213V-S is essentially a MotoGP bike with lights and is the closest thing to riding a MotoGP bike as most of us will ever get, if you ever get your hands on one, that is. Released in 2015, it is quite simply the ultimate sport bike, being fantastically light (374 pounds) and built with ridiculously top-spec components. In road trim, the 90° V4 engine pushes out 159 hp, but there is an optional Sports Kit that will push the power up to 215 hp.
This Sports Kit comprises a revised ECU, a front ram duct, a revised exhaust, different spark plugs, a quickshifter, a data logger, a cooler thermostat and even a bespoke bike cover. If you have to ask how much one might cost now, then you can’t afford it. But it does show that, behind the corporate facade, Honda still has a passion for creating the ultimate motorcycle.