Honda VF1000R

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

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