25 Years of the honda Fireblade
‘So what better way to celebrate a quarter of a century of Fireblades than to line up some key models with a bunch of riders, arrange a lucky dip for the keys, and hit the road, with frequent stops to change bikes followed by a blast round the Rockingham
Following the evolution of one of the most illustrious names in supersport motorcycling
IF the FIRst FireBlade feels as quick, light and exciting as this now, no wonder it was a sensation back in 1992! I’ve just pulled up in a lay-by after a short blast on an original, red-white-andblue CBR900RR, and already I’m blown away all over again by the bike that set the pattern for modern sports bikes on its arrival a quarter of a century ago.
We’re in a group of seven riders, on a variety of Fireblades from the first to the most recent, carving a spirited route along some mostly well-surfaced main roads, and stopping every so often to swap bikes. The year-2000 model that I’d ridden first was enjoyably punchy and quick; a later, 2014 bike, notably smoother as well as thrillingly fast and responsive.
But it was that first ’Blade with its pair of round headlights and the rash of small, aerodynamic (according to Honda at the time) holes, either side on its fairing, that I was most keen to ride. And despite being slightly below par in a couple of ways it had exceeded expectations, shooting forward in a thrilling fashion and feeling brilliantly quick and light.
Those sensations were the ones that most riders experienced astride the CBR900RR back in 1992, when designer Tadao Baba’s original, 893-cc FireBlade arrived to revolutionise the superbike scene with its focus on compact size, light weight and agility instead of pure power. The ’Blade was an immediate hit, and its successors have been a mainstay of Honda’s range ever since, through several major updates and numerous minor ones.
In recent years the Fireblade’s progress has stalled but, finally, in this, its 25th anniversary year, Honda have introduced a long-awaited major update. So what better way to celebrate a quarter of a century of Fireblades than to line up some key models with a bunch of riders, arrange a lucky dip for the keys, and hit the road, with frequent stops to change bikes followed by a blast round the Rockingham track on the latest version?
The order I rode the Fireblades was random and slightly confusing, but,
thankfully, the main models have made such an impression and are visually sufficiently different that dating them rarely required a check of the datetagged key fobs. Tracing the development path makes more sense, so I’ll stick to chronological order here.
Which surely means the best comes first, because of all the family it’s the first CBR900RR, from back when FireBlade had a capital “B”, that would make most pundits’ short-lists of all-time greatest superbikes. You possibly have to have been a motorcyclist in 1992, when Suzuki’s GSX-R1100 and Yamaha’s FZR1000R had been getting more powerful but arguably no quicker or more fun to ride, to appreciate how refreshing it was when that first RR arrived to confirm that Baba-san’s “total control” approach was the way forward.
I hadn’t ridden a standard ’92 bike since it was new, and was keen to do so, though not all our group agreed. Riding an elderly example of any legendary model inevitably involves a risk of disappointment. One younger journo, who grew up with FireBlade posters on his bedroom wall, refused to ride it, insisting that he’d elevated the Honda to such an exalted place in his mind that the reality could never match his imagination.
I soon understood his point because, although this very original ’Blade was in good nick, it had a couple of failings: a clutch that occasionally slipped slightly under maximum acceleration, and a front brake that felt distinctly wooden, lacking the bite that I’m sure I’m not imagining the four-piston front calipers providing all those years ago. New pads and plates would almost certainly have sorted both issues easily enough.
And despite those handicaps the overall impression was overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps, my most pleasant surprise was how light and sporty the ’Blade still felt, from the moment I threw a leg over the fairly broad seat. From there it did look dated, or just different: the foam-mounted, centrally placed tacho, tubular steel fairing brackets and even the choke lever (remember them?) seemed almost more 1980s than ’90s.
But the screen was low, the throttle response sweet, and the Honda immediately reminded me just why so many riders fell in love with it in the first place. That 122-PS engine might not quite have matched the stomp of the bigger rival fours, but it pulled crisply through the mid-range, vibrating slightly through the tank but always feeling eager, at least until that clutch intruded up near the 11,000-rpm red-line.
And most of all, the FireBlade felt as light and agile as a short, compact bike weighing just 185 kg dry should.
When new, the Honda was lighter than Kawasaki’s ZZ-R600, never mind rival superbikes, and was also revolutionary in its use of a 16-inch front wheel. It could feel distinctly lively at times but I didn’t get carried away and had no stability issues on this ageing example, whose 25-year-old suspension was reassuringly firm and well-controlled.
Back in the day, one of the few criticisms of that début ’Blade was a slightly clunky gearbox, but that wasn’t a problem on my ride. Honda revised the box for the first update, two years later, and also tweaked the styling with slanted headlights that earned the update the “Foxeye” nickname. By this time FireBlade fever was raging, with the orange-based “Urban Tiger” paint scheme proving especially popular as sales rocketed in markets worldwide.
My next bike was the model from 1996, two years later, when the FireBlade’s first more major update included a capacity increase to 918 cc, boosting torque and increasing peak power output to 126 PS. I can’t claim to have noticed that, or the one kilo weight reduction. But the Foxeye bike was a real pleasure to ride, not least because its clutch was working perfectly.
If the first FireBlade feels as quick, light and exciting as this now, no wonder it was a sensation back in 1992!
Any Fireblade history should mention the 1998 model, although there wasn’t an example to ride at Rockingham. Not because it was one of the outstanding bikes in the family. On the contrary, that ’98 bike was arguably the one example of Baba-san taking a wrong turning, when he tried to civilise the FireBlade with a more stable chassis (mainly via increased trail) and more protective bodywork, just when Yamaha launched the contrastingly racy YZF-R1.
Honda got back on track with a complete redesign in 2000, and the yellow-white-and-blue model is one of my favourite Fireblades. This is the freshly fuel-injected ’Blade whose larger, 929 cc capacity lifted max output to 150 PS, and whose revamped chassis introduced upside-down forks, a 17-inch front wheel and a “pivotless” frame that helped reduce dry weight to just 170 kg.
On the launch at Estoril in Portugal in early 2000 the Honda was superbly fast and agile, albeit only after plenty of tweaking of suspension that was initially far too soft. There was none of that problem 17 years later, when for road riding the FireBlade felt ideal just as it came — and ripped forward in thrilling fashion thanks to what is still a serious amount of horsepower. It was easy to see why this model was a hit for Honda, and would have been more so if Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 hadn’t arrived a year later.
Honda’s response to that rival was to tweak the ’Blade yet again for 2002, punching out capacity to 954 cc, improving the 2000 bike’s throttle response (which had seemed fine to me all these years later) and shedding yet another two kg of weight. We didn’t have an example of this model so my memory of it remains riding it back at a damp Estoril on the launch, and meeting Baba, whose last model this was.