RC30 vs 851

The Du­cati 851 and Honda RC30 bat­tled it out in the early years of World Su­per­bike. So how do the road-go­ing ver­sions com­pare now?


The bikes that made WSB an in­stant hit, back-to-back on dry, sunny roads

The World Su­per­bike se­ries has a lot to an­swer for. Ho­molo­ga­tion rules for the cham­pi­onship, launched in 1988, de­manded that race bikes be based on pro­duc­tion ma­chines (up to a point) and stip­u­lated that a min­i­mum num­ber of bikes had to be made avail­able for sale. Two of the lead­ing play­ers in those early days of WSB took very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to pro­duc­ing the re­quired num­ber of cus­tomer bikes. Honda went the high­tech route with their RC30. The V4, pur­pose-built for rac­ing, was com­plex, beau­ti­fully en­gi­neered, com­pact and very fast. Du­cati’s 851 was a road bike cre­ated as a replica of their suc­cess­ful rac­ers. It was raw, rowdy, han­dled bril­liantly – and was also very fast. Who got it right? And which de­liv­ers the WSB ex­pe­ri­ence on the road?

We’re hop­ing to find out and, thanks to the largesse of Ciarán Per­rin, who runs Ex­treme Trad­ing Ltd in Nor­folk, we’ve got one of each to an­swer some ques­tions on the road. The Du­cati is a 1991 Strada model, with Showa sus­pen­sion and 17in front wheel and the Honda is also from 1991. Both look great, so let’s see.

CB’S Mike Ar­mitage has grabbed the keys to the Honda, so I’m on the big, red Duke first. And be­fore I ride I take a long, hard look at Du­cati’s su­per­bike con­tender. Its light but strong trel­lis-type frame has its V-twin en­gine sus­pended be­neath it. There’s that boughtin Showa sus­pen­sion, Ja­pa­nese switchgear and blood-red body­work which, since late 1987, has be­come some­thing of a Du­cati trade­mark, and the un­com­pro­mis­ing racein­spired lines that re­vealed fresh think­ing from Du­cati’s styling de­part­ment. It’s a great-look­ing pack­age.

But it’s the en­gine that makes the big­gest state­ment of in­tent. The 851 was a ma­jor land­mark for Du­cati as they moved out of the bevel-drive era into a brave new world fol­low­ing the Ca­giva takeover in 1985. Du­cati needed a new model – and Ca­giva bosses the Castiglioni broth­ers had the cash to make it hap­pen. Mas­simo Bordi came up with a new en­gine fit to carry on Du­cati’s proud tra­di­tions, while at the same time bring­ing the im­age of the brand into the mod­ern age.

Ini­tially re­tain­ing the crankcases of the old Pan­tah range of en­gines, Bordi grafted on an all-new top end. It re­tained the tra­di­tional 90° V-twin lay­out and desmod­romic valve ac­tu­a­tion, but for the first time on a Du­cati the 851 en­gine sported dou­ble over­head camshafts, four valves per cylin­der, liq­uid cool­ing and elec­tronic fuel in­jec­tion. In Du­cati terms it was rev­o­lu­tion­ary – and it worked. The pro­to­type 851 racer al­most lasted the dis­tance at the Bol d’or in 1986, be­fore go­ing on to take vic­tory in the pop­u­lar Bat­tle of the Twins race at Day­tona in spring 1987, with Marco Lucchinelli on board.

The die was cast and the road bike ver­sion ap­peared at the Mi­lan show later in the year. Pro­duc­tion bikes ar­rived in deal­ers’ show­rooms early in 1988 in both Strada (road) and ‘Kit’ ver­sions – the lat­ter with a host of fac­tory per­for­mance parts. On the track, Lucchinelli un­der­lined the po­ten­tial of the new bike by win­ning the very first race in the new World Su­per­bike se­ries. Du­cati were em­brac­ing the mod­ern world.

The 851 thun­dered for­ward in var­i­ous forms in­clud­ing hot­ter SP ver­sions which, like the WSB bike, were 888cc. In 1993 the 888 range took over, how­ever the es­sen­tial char­ac­ter of this ma­jor de­vel­op­ment mile­stone for Du­cati re­mained through­out. It seemed the con­cept was right back then, so how does it shape up 30 years later?

First im­pres­sions are all good. The first stab of the starter button has the bike rum­bling away mood­ily with


the dry clutch jin­gling mer­rily. It cer­tainly sounds the part – and it gets bet­ter as we head out of town to­wards the Nor­folk Broads. The gear­box is im­pres­sively pos­i­tive and the dry clutch works fault­lessly as I weave through week­day traf­fic. But it’s when we get out onto the open road that Mas­simo Bordi’s cre­ation re­ally shows its class.

The en­gine is sim­ply su­perb. There’s a claimed 104bhp on tap from the desmo­quat­tro mill, but that only tells part of the story. It’s the mam­moth torque avail­able that lifts the 851 far out of the or­di­nary. From just 3000rpm, there’s more grunt than a Glouces­ter Old Spot. It makes the Du­cati the per­fect tool for car-hop­ping past lines of traf­fic. And when I get to the front, the revs build quickly and the 851 re­ally flies.

Han­dling is typ­i­cal Du­cati – slightly old school, but none the worse for that. Pick a line, tip it in and the 851 will re­spond with near-flaw­less sta­bil­ity. It’s per­haps not quite so nim­ble as the more com­pact Honda, but it does of­fer a slightly more spa­cious feel for the taller rider than the RC30, as fel­low tester Mike con­firms: “There isn’t a great deal of dis­tance be­tween the seat and foot­pegs, but the higher race-in­spired perch and longer reach re­quired to the slightly higher clip-ons make the Du­cati more com­fort­able, and also eas­ier to con­trol.”

And, like me, Mike falls in love with the 851’s V-twin when he tries it. “What a glo­ri­ous en­gine,” he says. “Ease away, open the throt­tle and it re­sponds, bound­ing through well-spaced ra­tios on a torque-rich, booming, touchy-feely drive. It hasn’t got the ‘spe­cial’ air of the RC30, but it makes much more sense on the road.”

I find the Brembo brakes ex­cel­lent, the switchgear ac­cept­able and the over­all fin­ish and build qual­ity a step up from what we’d come to ex­pect in the late ’70s/early ’80s. The 851 rep­re­sent a huge leap for­ward for Du­cati – but, so far at least, it hasn’t be­come an un­af­ford­able luxury. Maybe now’s the time to pick one up...

In the bot­tom drawer of my tool cab­i­net at home – where I keep all the stuff I never re­ally use, but is too good to sling – there’s a gen­uine fac­tory chain-ad­just­ing tool for an RC30. It’s a legacy of my days work­ing at Mocheck in the late ’80s and early ’90s and it’s the near­est I’m ever go­ing to get to own­ing an RC30 un­less my num­bers come up one week­end. But, rest as­sured, if they ever do, one of these HRC beau­ties is al­ready inked in on my lot­tery­win bucket list. So I’ve got to try hard to be ob­jec­tive.

Hot on the heels of the VF750 road bike that al­most drowned Honda in war­ranty claims fol­low­ing prob­lems with cams and their chain drive, the VFR750F had to be good. And the new V4 was. But the race ho­molo­ga­tion VFR750R RC30 took things even fur­ther. As well as gear-driven camshafts (like the 750F), the RC fea­tured ti­ta­nium con­rods, a 360° crank, sin­gle-sided swingarm, QD rear wheel and close-ra­tio gear­box. UK full-power mod­els made a claimed 118bhp at 11,000rpm. It was a gen­uine racer with road kit bolted on and proved good enough to win the fledg­ling World Su­per­bike ti­tle for the first two sea­sons of its ex­is­tence. It was that good. Thirty years on, does re­al­ity live up to the leg­end?

Cer­tainly this 1991 model has an air of qual­ity about it. And it’s a gen­uinely in­no­va­tive ma­chine. Af­ter a decade of shriek­ing across-the-frame fours, the sound of the RC30 is sim­ply unique. That men­ac­ing drone as the en­gine starts to come on cam at about 7000rpm is as ad­dic­tive as it is un­usual. Back in 1988 it was the sound of sci­ence fic­tion – al­most alien. It be­came the sound­track for a gen­er­a­tion of TT fans. As Mike says:


“Ev­ery time the tacho nee­dle passes 7000rpm you feel like Joey Dun­lop flat-stick across the Moun­tain.”

It’s just as good on snaking B-roads. Af­ter the Du­cati, it feels more civilised. There’s more room be­tween the footrests and seat, so the rid­ing po­si­tion doesn’t feel so ex­treme – even though the bike feels as small as a 250. It’s a stocky-look­ing ma­chine, but fits me per­fectly and steers with min­i­mal in­put. Han­dling has that lovely, neu­tral Honda feel­ing that lets you get on and go fast right away. The sus­pen­sion is sup­ple and the ride sur­pris­ingly re­lax­ing. No won­der it made such a great TT bike.

To my eyes, the RC30 looks stunning. That sin­glesided swingarm and the way ev­ery­thing is squeezed into the min­i­mum of space makes it an era-defin­ing bike to me. The en­gine is a huge part of the equa­tion – there’s pre­cious lit­tle hap­pen­ing be­low 7000rpm, but af­ter that it’s a seam­less rush of power all the way to its peak at 11,000rpm. Top end is prob­a­bly around 150mph, but the bike is just so good at main­tain­ing fast av­er­ages. The en­gine never feels stressed and the gear­box is sub­lime with a short, crisp move­ment, so it’s easy to keep in the fat of the power. First gear is might­ily tall, so I’m grate­ful for the smooth, ef­fi­cient clutch as we ease through a small town – but that’s not what the RC30 is all about.

De­spite hav­ing a spot of bother fold­ing his long limbs around the Honda, Mike largely agrees. “The gear­box is a de­light – slick, ac­cu­rate and with switch-like min­i­mal lever travel, it’s bet­ter than many mod­ern bikes,” he ob­serves. And, of the Honda’s racer-like han­dling, he’s equally ef­fu­sive: “It’s stubby, tight and piv­ots be­neath you. You don’t bank the Honda into a curve, it rolls in.”

Nei­ther of us are in any doubt about the engi­neer­ing class of the Honda. The fit and fin­ish of ev­ery com­po­nent is su­perb – Honda re­ally were hit­ting their straps for build qual­ity in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it shows. An in­stant clas­sic in 1988? I think so.

It’s clear both Honda and Du­cati got it right with their road-go­ing su­per­bikes. These are ex­cep­tional ma­chines. If I had to choose, I’d still go for the RC30 – but if I had to pay, it’d be the Du­cati ev­ery time. Much as I love the RC30, is it re­ally £24,000 bet­ter than its ri­val? Mike agrees. “Ear­lier Du­catis fetch eye-wa­ter­ing prices, and the later 916 is go­ing the same way. That makes seven­odd grand for a gleam­ing 851 seem pretty rea­son­able. Next to the Honda it’s the bar­gain of the year.”


ABOVE: Typ­i­cally neu­tral Honda han­dling makes for im­me­di­ate jumpon-and-go-fast fun

BE­LOW: Both bikes are great fun to bar­rel down fast coun­try roads

ABOVE: Thun­der­ing 851 has old-school Du­cati han­dling – tip it in and it’s su­per-sta­ble

BE­LOW: Side by side, the Honda’s pe­tite dimensions com­pared to the more spa­cious Du­cati are clear to see

Two op­po­sites that are very at­trac­tive: Mr Chalk, Du­cati’s bru­tal 851 and Mr Cheese, Honda’s so­phis­ti­cated RC30

ABOVE: The 851 hasn’t achieved the ask­ing prices of other clas­sic Du­catis – not yet, any­way BE­LOW: Honda’s sup­ple ride hints at the great TT bike it was, and evokes Joey Dun­lop fan­tasies

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