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

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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.

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