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.