Dou­ble-r roots

Motorcyclist - - Contents -

Two gen­er­a­tions of ed­i­tors dis­cuss the evo­lu­tion of Honda’s flag­ship sport­bike.

ZACK COURTS: How does it feel to see your old friend, the CBR900RR, af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury? Just like you re­mem­ber?

MITCH BOEHM: Well, a lot has changed, but it sure brings back some in­ter­est­ing mem­o­ries.

ZC: That first 900RR was bit of a thun­der­bolt in the in­dus­try, right? Wasn’t it the first bike that claimed “the size of a 600 with the power of a 1000”?

MB: Ex­actly. Ob­vi­ously Suzuki had done this years ear­lier with its GSX-RS but had got­ten away from the orig­i­nal premise. Honda messed around with V-4s for sev­eral years in the ’80s, but when it came time to fi­nally build an RR ma­chine, one that could sell in larger num­bers, it went the in­line-four route.

ZC: You worked at Honda for a few years, yes? MB: Yep, from ’89 to ’92. ZC: Do you re­mem­ber the first time you saw the 900RR?

MB: I do, and it was a 750 at the time. This was late ’89, and I was in Ja­pan test­ing CBR600F2 pro­to­types at Honda’s Tochigi prov­ing grounds. I re­mem­ber be­ing out on the F2 and oc­ca­sion­ally see­ing a swoopy black pro­to­type run­ning around. In a meet­ing the next day I learned it was a “new-gen­er­a­tion 750”—but no de­tails. A month or two later I’m in a prod­uct plan­ning meet­ing here in Cal­i­for­nia, and one of the Ja­pan staff writes “CBR900RR dis­cus­sion” on the big dry-erase board. That’s when I found out it had mor­phed into an open-classer. It made some sense, too, as there was plenty of 900cc his­tory in the US with the Z-1, CB900F, and 900 Ninja, though 900s had sorta been for­got­ten. Any­way, that’s when I heard the de­sign brief—open-class power in a 600-sized pack­age.

ZC: That had to be an ex­cit­ing time, when man­u­fac­tur­ers were com­ing up with sport­bike mod­els out of the blue…

MB: Prob­a­bly not quite like the ’70s and ’80s, when rev­o­lu­tion­ary stuff would ap­pear out of nowhere on oc­ca­sion, but, yeah, tech­nol­ogy was chang­ing, and chances were be­ing taken. It was def­i­nitely ex­cit­ing. Prob­a­bly a bit dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment than the new CBR1000RR comes into to­day, yes?

ZC: Ab­so­lutely. It all feels so much more es­tab­lished now. Ev­ery brand has its lit­tle cor­ner of the mar­ket that it wants to own, plus there are rac­ing ho­molo­ga­tions to ad­here to and so on. Not to men­tion the ex­pec­ta­tion, right? I mean, the CBR1000 got up­dated ev­ery cou­ple of years for a while, but aside from a few lit­tle tweaks (plus that SP ver­sion) it was the same bike for, what, the past six or eight years? Granted, some of those were slow years for the global econ­omy, but it didn’t slow Euro brands down. The big news in 2012 was a Big Pis­ton Fork and

that was about it. Then there’s the fact that Honda dropped the RC213V-S some­where in the mid­dle there—a freakin’ Mo­togp replica with 200 horse­power and trac­tion con­trol and a color dash, and all of the other things that a mod­ern su­per­bike should have. But it was 200 grand… So if you’re a CBR fan, you were get­ting se­ri­ously im­pa­tient for a new bike. And even though the 2017 bike isn’t an ul­tra-ex­otic V-4 or any­thing, I think it’s in­ter­est­ing that Honda re­ally reached for its roots and aimed for the ad­van­tages of less weight and more power, just like it did way back when with the 900RR.

MB: Ahh, yes, Mr. Baba’s “to­tal con­trol” the­ory…

ZC: Right! “To­tal con­trol.” That was all over the brochures for this new bike too. Was that some­thing Baba-san made up him­self, or what?

MB: It was his thing, for sure. I re­mem­ber him in­sist­ing the bike have an in­tu­itive feel, of­fer lots of feed­back…

ZC: Sounds like you met him when you were work­ing for Honda?

MB: Oh, yeah, sev­eral times, both here and in Ja­pan. Ac­tu­ally, I’d first met Baba-san years ear­lier, dur­ing my sec­ond year at Mo­tor­cy­clist. It was late ’86, and I was in Ja­pan for the in­tro­duc­tion of Honda’s then-new CBR600 and CBR1000 Hur­ri­canes. It was wet dur­ing our first rides, so Honda put Mr. Baba, their chief tester, out front to show us around the cir­cuit. It was re­ally slick, and as he’s lead­ing us into a mid-speed left-han­der he loses the front end of the pre­pro­duc­tion CBR1000 and slowly slides off the tar­mac and into the grass. We’d been told to be very care­ful and to please not crash the ma­chines, and here’s Honda’s chief tester crash­ing di­rectly in front of our group and forc­ing us to scat­ter! He gets up and starts bow­ing. It was hi­lar­i­ous, and we had fun mess­ing with him at night over sushi and beers for the rest of the trip. He took it pretty well!

ZC: What a char­ac­ter. That sounds way out of line for a Ja­panese en­gi­neer.

MB: Baba-san is an in­ter­est­ing guy. He wasn’t a col­lege-ed­u­cated en­gi­neer as the vast ma­jor­ity of Honda R&D guys were. Just high school and plenty of rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence too. Ul­tra smart and gen­er­ated big-time re­spect within the com­pany. He wanted the 900 to “feel” right, to do ex­actly what the rider wanted, be a pre­ci­sion tool.

ZC: The new CBR has that same ethos, be­lieve it or not. Peo­ple think all of th­ese bikes are track weapons with lights, but Honda was clear that street use was a ma­jor facet of the de­sign. You guys must have looked at other bikes in the mar­ket too, yeah?

MB: Yes, we had com­pet­i­tive mod­els we used for test­ing, but even be­fore I rode it, it was a pretty rad­i­cal de­par­ture. I re­mem­ber be­ing sur­prised at the bike’s 16-inch front wheel, as 17s had be­come de rigueur by that time, and the con­ven­tional fork, cho­sen be­cause it was lighter than an in­verted de­sign. Ev­ery­thing was scru­ti­nized for weight, es­pe­cially the far­ther you got from the cen­ter of mass. The en­gine was ba­si­cally a stroked 750, with a 70mm bore, the same as most 750s. The weight goal was to ba­si­cally be the same as the Cbr600—about 450 pounds wet—and I be­lieve the 900RR came in 6 or 7 pounds heav­ier, quite an achieve­ment con­sid­er­ing the ma­jor­ity of open-classers were at least 100 pounds heav­ier. It also had se­vere ge­om­e­try, with less trail than any­thing out there. I was re­ally ex­cited to ride the thing.

ZC: And? How did it work when you first rode it?

MB: It was im­pres­sive. We did a lot of test­ing here in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, at Wil­low Springs, and also on Angeles Crest High­way, very fast, very harsh en­vi­ron­ments. We knew some of the mag­a­zines would test there, and we knew that if the bike worked well there, we’d get op­ti­mal cov­er­age. We did quite a bit of sus­pen­sion work and even­tu­ally got it to where we liked it. For me, it ended up be­ing a lit­tle bit frus­trat­ing be­cause it wasn’t quite as fast at the track as I fig­ured it would be, given the weight and power. The front end just never felt as planted as it should have in faster cor­ners, which ended up be­ing caused by the min­i­mal trail and 16-inch front wheel—things that were fixed later with the CBR929RR.

Funny story. We—amer­i­can Honda—ac­tu­ally turned down the “Fire­blade” name, pre­fer­ring in­stead to stick with the al­phanu­meric. Which is ironic given that Amer­i­can Honda had quite

the his­tory of bikes names—in­ter­cep­tor, Hur­ri­cane, Magna, et cetera. When we heard the pro­posed Fire­blade name in a meet­ing, our team sorta laughed. We were like, “Is that a Star Wars thing?” It re­ally did sound funky to us, so we passed. But it ended up be­com­ing leg­endary, so I guess we swung and missed big time on that one.

ZC: “Fire­blade” is def­i­nitely kind of an icon now, even in the States.

MB: I know, right? [laughs] So…to­tal Con­trol. You said the cur­rent bike is more street-based than peo­ple might think. Why’s that?

ZC: Mostly elec­tron­ics, re­ally.

MB: Ahhh… Not some­thing we dealt with back in my day. Are the CBR’S rider aids just more con­ser­va­tive?

ZC: Sort of, yeah, they just don’t lean to­ward per­for­mance the way you’d ex­pect from a su­per­bike. It’s got trac­tion con­trol, ob­vi­ously, ad­justable eight ways. And it’s got ABS—AS an op­tion

any­way. But if you look at some other sys­tems on the mar­ket and how the pa­ram­e­ters are set up, the CBR’S trac­tion con­trol goes way be­yond sav­ing slides and ac­tu­ally lim­its power get­ting to the pave­ment at all. If you turn the TC all the way up, you can hold the throt­tle wide open in the mid­dle of a turn and the bike lit­er­ally won’t ac­cel­er­ate. Most bikes of this cal­iber now have in­ter­tial mea­sure­ment units—so this CBR knows how far it’s lean­ing over and it just doesn’t de­liver power to the rear wheel for the sake of keep­ing the rider safe. A racer is al­ways go­ing to want to ac­cel­er­ate based on how much trac­tion is avail­able, safety be damned, but I guess Honda fig­ures this is a more com­pre­hen­sive way to cover all of the bases. The only down­side is when you get to a race­track and turn the TC down—then I wanted a set­ting be­tween 1 and 2, but the spec­trum is so wide that I don’t have that op­tion. Then again, Honda knows that the bikes will mostly be rid­den on the street, so maybe that’s the right card to play.

Al­ways a strug­gle to keep ev­ery­one happy, I guess. I as­sume it was the same way with the 900?

MB: It gen­er­ated a lot of en­thu­si­asm. Sud­denly, ev­ery­one was re­minded of the whole “make it light and ev­ery­thing will fol­low” con­cept. Write-ups were phe­nom­e­nally pos­i­tive, and con­sumer re­ac­tion was equally en­thu­si­as­tic.

How about the new CBR? How does it stack up to the com­pe­ti­tion?

ZC: It’s light—that’s the big­gest thing it’s got go­ing for it—and it feels re­ally small. This non-abs bike is around 430 pounds with a full tank, which is 15 or 20 pounds lighter than the old one and well be­low av­er­age for the class—and it makes es­sen­tially the same 150 horse­power as ever. Plus a TFT dash and all of the elec­tron­ics. But it’s a tough class to be a part of, hon­estly. I re­ally don’t envy com­pa­nies tak­ing a stab at be­ing the best. All of the bikes, whether it’s Ja­pan or Europe, are bet­ter around a race­track than 99 per­cent of rid­ers any­way. What irks me about the CBR1000 is that it has all of the tech­nol­ogy in place—with an IMU talk­ing to the ECU, and elec­tronic sus­pen­sion as an op­tion—but it doesn’t use that stuff to the best of its abil­ity. It has all of the hard­ware on it to know ev­ery twitch and move­ment of the bike, but the ABS is too con­ser­va­tive and the wheelie con­trol is sec­ond-rate even com­pared to a Kawasaki or Du­cati sport-tour­ing rig. All of that said, you’ll only be dis­ap­pointed in that stuff if you ride it fast around a track. On the street, it checks all the boxes—it’s com­pact, it looks bitchin’, and it’s su­per easy to ride, just like any Honda. It’s not ul­tra com­fort­able, but it’s bet­ter than most bikes in this class. There’s no doubt that it’s a huge step for­ward and brings it level with the state of the art. I guess what sur­prises me is how mun­dane the CBR1000 feels con­sid­er­ing the kind of clout that Honda Rac­ing Cor­po­ra­tion has at its dis­posal. It feels like this CBR will just be a notch on the time line, in­stead of hav­ing a legacy. Heck, the 900RR has that “leg­end” sta­tus, and it never re­ally won any races, right?

MB: Well, it won a few AMA For­mula Xtreme ti­tles and some en­durance cham­pi­onships too, but it did have a hard time find­ing a home in rac­ing, at least un­til the AMA went back to 1,000cc four-cylin­der Su­per­bikes.

ZC: Good point—for­got about that.

MB: You’ve rid­den all the lat­est and great­est… Where is the street su­per­bike class headed? And what will the next-gen CBR1000 be like?

ZC: [Shakes head] Geez, man, that’s a big ques­tion… MB: Okay, take a guess.

ZC: Like I said be­fore, com­pa­nies can aim for th­ese lit­tle notches in the mar­ket­place—be­ing the light­est or the most pow­er­ful or the most tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced—but Honda ac­tu­ally has the strength in engi­neer­ing and re­sources to cre­ate the un­known. To re­ally knock our socks off. If there was a su­per­bike that peo­ple could buy for less than $20,000 that re­ally had a Honda stamp on it, Mo­togp RCV or oth­er­wise, I think peo­ple would go crazy for it.

MB: Maybe in 25 years you’ll be talk­ing to the next guy about that bike!

ZC: Hey, if I’m still get­ting work then, I’ll take it.

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