high level of tech with a V4? was it a match for the in-line 1,000s? We find out
MY LAST RIDE ON a Honda VF1000R was back in 1984 when the big V4 was brand-new, but as soon as I reach a clear main road and wind open the throttle, the memories come flooding back. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye I’m on the VF’s press launch near Johannesburg, riding down endlessly empty roads in the South African sunlight astride the world’s most technically advanced and glamorous superbike.
All these years later, the VF1000R still seems fast and classy, with a smooth and sophisticated feel so typical of a Honda V4. With clear tarmac ahead, the elderly bike surges forward on a torrent of torque that feels hugely impassive now, let alone all those years ago. When I reach a roundabout, the VF1000R carves through with remarkable composure — ironically seeming to handle rather better than I recall the then new Honda did around South Africa’s Kyalami Grand Prix circuit.
In short, the VF1000R seems fantastic, which, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates that motorcycle performance is very much a
relative concept; that a bike is judged not only against rival machines, but also against a rider’s expectations of it. Because when Honda released the VF1000R in 1984, it was up against Kawasaki’s new GPZ900R and Yamaha’s FJ1100, both of which were less expensive, mass-produced fours. Expectations of the VF were very high indeed.
And, unfortunately for Honda, the bike didn’t quite live up to them. The high-tech V4 simply didn’t provide the all-conquering performance that was demanded of such an exotic and expensive machine which had been created specifically to dominate production racing in the same way that Honda’s CB1100R had done three years earlier. The VF1000R was fast, all right; but it didn’t blow away its opposition in the way that its straight-four predecessor had done.
The VF1000R was still a magnificent motorbike, even so. With its full fairing and racy red, white, and blue paintwork, it looked every bit the street-legal competition machine, a year before Suzuki’s GSX-R750 arrived to start the race-replica craze. The VF’s specification was highend in almost every detail, starting with a hotted-up version of the 998-cc V4 engine from the VF1000F, the half-faired litre bike that Honda also introduced in 1984.
That year Honda’s commitment to the V4 engine format, far from being dimmed by the embarrassing mechanical problems of the previous year’s VF750F, was emphasized by the introduction of no fewer than three new models. The trio brought the total to six V4s, ranging in capacity from 400 to 1,000 cc. Alongside the VF1000F was the smaller VF500F2, itself a very classy machine, and at the top of the range was the VF1000R.
The R-model’s powerplant had the same cylinder dimensions and 16-valve specification as the basic 1000F unit, but differed in many ways, most notably in its use of gear rather than chain drive to the twin overhead camshafts. Increased 10.7:1 compression ratio and other internal changes helped lift the claimed peak output from the F-bike’s 116 PS to an impressive claimed 122 PS at 10,000 rpm, making the VF1000R the most powerful street bike that Honda had ever produced.
Its chassis specification was every bit as advanced. The frame was made from square-section steel, like that of the VF1000F, but cycle parts were considerably more exotic. The R-bike’s stout 41-mm front forks incorporated air assistance plus three-way adjustable rebound damping, and had a hinged axle clamp at the bottom of each leg to allow rapid wheel removal during long-distance races. The rear shock, which acted on the aluminium swingarm via Honda’s Pro-Link risingrate linkage, was also easily adjustable for rebound damping as well as preload.
Braking was provided by a pair of big 275-mm front discs, aided by Honda’s Grand Prix-developed TRAC anti-dive system. At the rear was a 215-mm disc that was ventilated with slots to aid cooling. Wheels were Honda’s Comstar design, with the then fashionable 16-inch diameter front. And the most significant innovation came at the rear, where the 17-inch wheel wore a Bridgestone that was “the first ever radial rear tyre to be fitted to a production motorcycle”, as Honda’s VF brochure proudly proclaimed.
Honda had thrown a huge amount of technology and development effort into the VF1000R, but, unfortunately, what they hadn’t managed
to do was keep its weight down. Despite another innovation, the use of carbon-fibre to reinforce the plastic of the full fairing, the bike weighed no less than 238 kg, which was five kilos more than the VF1000F. It also had a long 1,505-mm wheelbase and a less-than-steep 28-degree rake angle that also did little to aid the big bike’s manoeuvrability.
I can still vividly remember following a rapid VF1000R-riding journalist (Bike India MotoGP Editor Mat Oxley) around Kyalami at the launch and being pleasantly surprised by the less sporty and powerful VF1000F’s ability to keep up. But I also recall then switching to ride the exotic R-model myself — and discovering that the fully faired machine’s extra top-end horsepower was of little advantage and its narrow clip-on bars made the heavy VF1000R harder work and possibly no quicker than the F-model with its higher, wider bars.
And I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the VF1000R on a racetrack. Honda’s Australian rising star, Wayne Gardner, just failed to win his country’s prestigious Castrol Six-hour production race astride the R, and displeased his bosses when in his disappointment at being beaten he described the big, heavy V4 as a “marshmallow”. The Honda did win some races in Australia and in South Africa, the other key production-racing battleground, but never came close to matching the CB1100R’s almost boring racetrack dominance.
The VF1000R still made a majestic road bike for the fortunate few who could afford one, though, and my ride on this 1985-model Canadian-market machine showed that the big V4 still makes a fine roadster even today. This unrestored VF was in good if not immaculate condition and standard apart from replacement silencers and smaller indicators. Its reliable electrics and light-action hydraulic clutch helped disguise the passing years, despite tell-tale details such as the simple piece of rubber at the end of the side-stand (designed to flip it up if the rider forgot), instead of a modern ignition cut-out.
The liquid-cooled V4 engine seemed in excellent condition; firing up instantly on the button, revving quietly with a hint of cam-gear whine, and performing with all the smooth, long-legged ease that had so impressed me all those years ago. It pulled effortlessly even with less than 3,000 rpm showing on the tachometer in the neat cockpit, which also included round dials for speed and engine temperature, plus a string of warning lights. The five-speed gearbox shifted sweetly, too, which certainly couldn’t be said of all Honda boxes in that period.
And the VF certainly wasn’t short of performance at higher revs. Given the slightest opportunity, the big V4 just kept pulling seamlessly harder and harder, stretching its legs towards the 11,000-rpm red-line through the gears as it purred towards a top speed of 250 km/h. And one nice thing about this old-school machine was that despite being very much a super-sports bike, it still provided plenty of wind protection. The combination of quite a tall screen, protective fairing, and a reasonably sporty riding position provided by the adjustable clip-on handlebars meant that I could have sat happily and comfortably at an indicated 175 km/h or more until the big 18.5-litre fuel tank ran dry.
Time had even been rather kind to the Honda’s handling, which is not what usually happens because most old bikes’ chassis age considerably more than their engines. The VF did feel rather heavy
and cumbersome at first, despite its low seat, and seemed generally lower at the back than is normal for a modern sports bike. But its steering wasn’t as heavy as I’d expected, perhaps partly because the last time I’d ridden an R-bike had been when trying to lap quickly at Kyalami.
I was initially wary of getting too carried away on this ageing machine, but, eventually, encouraged by the fact that it was wearing relatively modern Metzeler tyres, I started pushing it harder into turns. And before long I was surprising myself by slowing hard with the help of the still reliably powerful front brake, then hauling the Honda down into slow bends and carving round with my knee on the ground in Gardner-replica fashion.
The VF did a very good job of coping with this old-style aggression, the bike’s ample ground clearance and inherent stability helping it to live up to its racy look. It shook its head briefly a couple of times when I hit bumps in faster turns, but even that could possibly have been improved given a little more air in the rear shock. The slight lack of damping was much more forgivable now than when the bike was new. Twisting the rebound damping adjuster on the top of the right fork didn’t seem to make any difference, but as the front end was pretty good anyway, despite a generous 150 mm of travel, that wasn’t a problem.
Its adjustable suspension, radial rear tyre and liquid-cooled V4 engine’s gear camshaft drive certainly helped make the VF1000R the world’s most high-tech superbike back in the mid-1980s. However, those features could not help it to a significant performance advantage over all its rivals, especially the fearsomely fast GPZ900R. Given that the Honda cost over 50 per cent more than the Kawasaki (£5,250, that is, Rs 4.9 lakh to the GPZ’s £3,199, that is, Rs 3 lakh in the UK), it’s no surprise that the VF made relatively little impact while the Ninja sold in a huge number for years to come.
It could be argued that the exotic Honda simply arrived a year too late. If it had been launched in 1983, it would have cleaned up in production racing and probably quickly sold out in showrooms worldwide. As it was, the VF actually arrived two years late in the US, where it belatedly went on sale in 1985. Some examples remained in showrooms for several years after that before being sold at a substantial discount.
Some people would argue that Honda deserved to have their corporate fingers burnt by the VF, having failed to buy success with a high-priced, limited-edition flagship in the way the firm had done with the CB1100R. Others would point out that the VF1000R was a wonderfully sophisticated machine that incorporated several genuine technical innovations, to the eventual benefit of many more riders. One thing’s for sure: all these years later, Honda’s high-tech V4 has aged well enough to remain a hugely capable and enjoyable superbike.
The 122-PS engine made it the most powerful Honda street bike of its time
Well laid out console provided enough information
Choice of colours made it look like a street-legal competition bike 275-mm twin discs aid stopping power Gear-driven twin overhead camshafts