John Nutting on the best all-round bike of the 1990s…
fter the turn of the millennium, Honda’s VFR750F V4 had gained an enviable reputation as the one of the best sports tourers on the market. In 16 years of development it had been so honed and refined that Honda felt confident to even start incorporating more sporty features from its racers in the 782cc version in 1998. So, having ridden the first versions in 1986, I was well primed when Honda revealed that it would be replacing the VFR800FI version with a new model for 2002 featuring special valve gear that would widen what was already one of the broadest power curves in the industry. So it came as a huge disappointment during an event hosted by Honda at Box Hill to find that the VFR800VTEC actually felt peakier, with a sharp jump in the power half way to the red line. What Honda’s engineers had done was to incorporate a design in which all four valves in each combustion chamber opened fully above about 6500rpm. Below this, just one inlet and one exhaust valve was used, as a means, it was said, to improve bottom end torque. But that’s not what it felt like at all. Die-hard fans of the VFR750F mumbled in disapproval, pointing to the version made between 1994 and 1997 as the pinnacle of the marque’s development. But the R to V version had been one that I’d missed, so when a mate recently bought a very tidily-prepared model I had to blag a ride and find out what the fuss was about. Now VFR fans, and certainly those who read CMM, might suggest that this is turf that has been turned over often enough. But as it transpires, there are some bikes that can’t be praised too much.
“By the time this model debuted, the VFR was well-established as one of the best sportstourers, but Honda wanted to sharpen the looks still further!”
So, at risk of repeating what the editor last discussed just over two years ago, here goes. In 1996, when Gerry Glidewell’s VFR750F-T was sold, it was the fourth iteration of the V4. The first VFR750F, the G model, had been launched 10 years earlier (see the side story about this elsewhere), and was tweaked two years later in 1988 for the J and K models with wheels to accept better 17in tyres and the fairing design was cleaned up. In 1990, this was replaced with a completely new model, the L, the only common feature being the basic structure of the liquid-cooled 90º V4 engine and its oversquare bore and stroke dimensions of 70 x 48.6mm, giving 748cc. The cylinder heads adopted racing-style bucket-and-shim opening for the 16 valves, which in turn had a narrower angle, enabling the heads to be smaller so the engine could be relocated closer to the front wheel. The most notable feature was the adoption of a single-sided rear swingarm, a design that had been used on the competition-orientated VFR750R (factory designated RC30), mated to the aluminiumalloy beam frame. Stripped of the bodywork – using styling that was typical of Honda in the late Eighties and featuring twin flush-fitting headlamps, a low screen and a clean line from the bottom of the fairing to the rear faired-in turn signals – the chassis looked mean and sporty. What appeared to be anachronistic was that the otherwise functionally competent aluminium beams were welded to castings surrounding the single stock linkage were styled to match the bodywork. If the mods to the engine had improved the power delivery, it was only marginal. All the VFR750F series are claimed to have a peak power of about 105bhp at 10,500rpm with maximum torque arriving at 9000rpm, which being close together suggests a lot of top-end, but the consensus is that there is more than enough response all the way through the rev range. One downside with the F-L version was that it gained weight. While the original 1986 model tipped the scales at 199kg, four years of development had added 17kg or nearly 40lb, if Honda’s figures are correct. This was addressed with another all-new and shorter chassis for the (R to V) models that were first listed for 1994. Two years earlier Honda had launched its lightweight CBR900RR sports bike, so that category had been well catered for, and now Ducati had shocked the bike world with its beautifully-styled 916 V-twin. By then, the
VFR750F’S position in the bike world was wellestablished as one of the best sports tourers, but even so Honda wanted to sharpen its looks and performance. So the whole bike was reassessed, and weight trimmed from key components such as the main frame, the rear swingarm, and even the drive chain. The rear wheel’s width was reduced from 5.5in to 5in, saving a few more grams, and even the O-ring drive chain was slimmed, so that the total weight reduction was a useful 18kg, cutting the dry weight to 209kg. Styling was more subdued, the only novelty being the NACA intake ducts on either side of the fairing, rather like those on the exotic 32-valve oval-pistoned NR750 of the same year. I was pondering this while riding Gerry’s VFR750F-T south towards Rye on the East Sussex coast. The roads are sinuous and challenging with only occasional opportunities for quick squirts to the legal limit as cars are despatched with a flick of the right wrist. Below, the engine hums along effortlessly, the note from the aftermarket exhaust lost in the wind. I’d expected more grunt from below 3000 in top, or 40mph, because the smaller 34mm semi-flat slide carbs don’t respond immediately, but there was still enough for a relaxed ride. Beyond Rye and out in the Romney Marshes, the roads are a delight, with fast straights and open constant-radius 90º bends. Drop a couple of gears in the crisp six-speed box, and with 6000 on the rev-meter the VFR takes off more responsively with that distinctive high rev warble than only a V4 offers. Let it really sing and there’s power enough to quickly take you very easily into highly illegal territory. That’s because while the VFR doesn’t encourage aggressive riding as such, it’s just so disarming. One second you can be cruising along, the suspension skipping over the road surface, with barely a vibe to ruffle your concentration, and the next you can find yourself enticed into a series of quick bends that start to test the chassis. That’s where the cartridge forks and the Pro-arm rear shock are at their best in the middle of their travel and the VFR starts to come alive. Some say the VFR750F-R model offered a slightly higher peak power of 107bhp, which matches the estimated top speed of 150mph. Where it’s legal, cruising speeds of up to 120mph are said to be
possible because the aerodynamics ensure that the wind skims over the rider smoothly. At lower licks I found that the screen generated turbulence around my helmet that was a little bit too noisy for comfort. This was only relieved by tucking awkwardly inside the fairing, or sitting much higher. Perhaps a bubble screen would help. Braking is a subjective issue, because it depends on your riding style. Those late brakers looking for pin sharp response going into bends will be unimpressed by the dual-piston floating calipers (which are less state-of-the-art than my 1988 Jap-import 650 Bros), and it’s said a set of stainless-steel braided hoses will provide some improvement. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the way I ride, but I found the VFR’S stoppers just fine. The changes to the VFR750F-R model’s geometry – with a steering head angle of 26º – make it very much traditional in feel. It’s not sharp but neutral, requiring barely a touch at the bars to guide the bike through corners. But as I started to push more aggressively as we approached our lunch stop at the Pilot Inn near Dungeness, the steering felt more leaden in corners. Indeed the effort was a chore, and a look at the front Dunlop provided a clue. The tread was heavily worn on the shoulders. Modifying my attack in corners on the return journey, by keeping the power on to the apex so the front end was lightened, helped but it was enough to fray my nerves. A word with local ace Graham Marchant, who also runs a VFR750F of the same year, offered a solution. “Try a pair of Michelin Pilot 3 tyres,” he said. It did the trick and a later ride on Gerry’s bike showed just how great the VFR can be. Singing through fast sweepers I imagined I was Joey Dunlop on his works RVF in the Isle of Man. For a bike that’s from two-decades ago, the VFR750F is remarkably competent, refined and with an unparalleled build quality, so long as you maintain the exhaust system. Indeed, you have to wonder why there’s a need to buy the latest VFR800FI version with a five-figure price tag. Or any of the 800 models, least of all the unnecessarily complicated VTEC, come to that. For comfortable high-speed cruising a 1996 VFR750F hits the spot precisely. Why go elsewhere? Source: John Perkins, The VFR750 homepage Other contacts: www.davidsilverspares.co.uk www.autoevolution.com/moto/honda/vfr www.vfr.bikersoracle.com
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Take a dash of Honda NR750, a dollop of Ferrari Testarossa and a big chunk of RC30. This is the result.