Going to California is a bit like stepping into the future, especially when it comes to recreation. Whether it's jogging, piloting skateboards or working-out with Jane Fonda (or the use of more adventurous toys like crack and semi-automatic rifles), the Yanks always seem to be a year or two ahead of the game.
To that list you can add the Honda CB-1. Unlike the Americans, we Brits can't yet buy Honda's latest reinvention of the 400cc straight four. But with the EEC's beaurocratic rodents gnawing their way ever-closer to their 1992 vision of a 4(K)cc/47bhp limit for newly-qualified riders, bikes like the CB-1 are about to become very small news in Europe too.
In fact the Honda's watercooled 16-valve motor, a slightly detuned version of the unit in the race-rep CBR4(K)()RR seen only in Japan, is, at 55bhp, still eight ponies too powerful for the likely new legislation. The difference could easily be reduced, though, with a few horsepower "lost in the transmission", to leave the CB-1 as the sort of unfaired,
standard-style 4(X) that is likely to be the Universal Japanese Motorcycle in a few year's time.
Unlike the CBR and its equally fast-and-flash spec VFR4000 rival, the CB-1 is meant not as a racer but as an all-rounder. Remember the CB400/4, that neat little aircooled in-line four that Bike's July 1975 test tried "desperately hard to fault", but couldn't? The 4(K)/4 was arguably the first sporty Japanese four-stroke middleweight, and it handled and stopped as well as it looked. Fourteen years later it's back, if not in Britain.
Like the 400/4, the CB-1 relies on a steel frame, suspension adjustable only for shock pre-load, a wheelbase fractionally under 54 inches and a single front disc brake. Like its then-radical forebear, the new bike wears a four-into-one exhaust system. The CB-1 is a vastly different wok of sushi, though, with its pipe black instead of chrome, its beefy perimeter frame tubes replacing the old cradle, its Pro-Link shock superceding the old pair of chromed springs, and its fat 17-inch three-spoke wheels taking the place of the 400's narrow old spoked loops.
The CB-l's motor is also totally changed from the old bike's 37bhp single-cam unit. Honda's 1989 technology has produced a 399cc engine with a 55 x 42mm bore and stroke and an 11.3:1 compression ratio. The new engine is watercooled, positioned at a 30-degree angle from vertical and used as a stressed member of the frame. Gear-driven twin cams wallop 16 valves via under-bucket shims, a help when you're rattling against the 13,500 redline. (And if it's less handy when said camshafts have to be removed for valve adjustment, at least this is necessary only every 16,000 miles.)
The CB-1 is more user-friendly on the road than it is in the workshop. Settle into the low, narrow seat, lean forward to the raised clip-ons and you're straddling a small, compact bike, though the 4131b Honda is no lighweight. Fire it up and the solid-mounted motor feels smooth, despite its lack of a balancer shaft. Slip the clutch and the bike pulls away more strongly that you'd expect of a highly-strung 400.
It doesn't pay to be too lazy, though. Detuned by a few bhp the CB-1 mill might be - and it has more low and midrange power than Yamaha's FZR400, for example (ie some compared to none? - Ed) - but that 13,500 redline still gives the power characteristics away. After picking the bike up from Honda America's HQ somewhere in LA's huge sprawl I tooled brisky down the boulevards for a few miles, the blue bolide zipping uncomplainingly along without ever hitting more than seven grand. It carburets well, and as a city bike it's great.
But if you want to make the CB-1 go, you gotta rev it. On the freeway, the short-geared Honda's 75mph, eight-grand-in-top cruise soon got tiresome so I flicked the box down two cogs, yanked open the Keihins and thanked God my licence came from Swansea rather than Sacramento. The four-into-one barely whispered but the engine screamed, tingled through bars and pegs and revved crazily towards its 115-ish top whack.
The CB-1 engine has plenty there when you ask for it, and the same goes for its handling. The Honda was rock solid on the straights, and turning off the freeway onto the winding Pacific fringe showed its fairly downmarket suspension to be happy enough in the corners. The forks are pretty soft and have no anti-dive, so a handful of powerful single disc has the front end plunging for cover.
DG as if to say "Luxury. Tha's spoilt. When I were a lad 47 bhp were undreamt of". Or not
Hit a bump in mid-bend, too, and the CB-l's diagonally-mounted shock sometimes loses its cool to send a shimmy through the bars.
But most of the time the bike followed its line in the best Hollywood tradition -hammy, but good box-office. Maybe. Rake and trail (25 degrees and 98mm). are more conservative than the nimble FZR's figures (though the Honda's wheelbase is shorter) but the CB-1 steered easily and neutrally on its broad 17-inch Bridgestones. And there's plenty of ground clearance, despite that almost-forgotten extra, the centrestand.
As a do-anything, go-anywhere motorbike the CB-1 is likely to prove as competent as its 400/4 predecessor was all those years ago. The new Honda is quick and agile enough to be enjoyable, though marred by a typically skinny seat that loses its appeal even before the feeble 2.6-gallon tank runs dry. (The pillion gets no grab-rail but at least, unlike the original 400/4, this bike's rear footrests aren't bolted to the swing-arm . . . )
Nobody is yet admitting publicly whether the new limit will be 400cc or 47bhp, though it's likely to cover both capacity and power. We're not sure, either, whether the restriction will apply for two years or one; whether or not a further test will then be needed before moving to a bigger bike; or when all this will happen.
What we do know is that the limit's coming - and soon -and that it is likely to bring an upsurge of interest in the 400cc class. The new legislation is frightening, and motorcycling is likely to lose far more than it gains. But look on the bright side: if the worst of the new law is that some people have to ride bikes like the CB-1 for a bit, then perhaps life won't be all that terrible, after all. But I still wish they'd get off our case
Source Bike Magazine 1989