72-years ago, Soichiro Honda founded the Honda Motor Co., Ltd and within 11 years became the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer. Since then the company has produced 400million units with a range of machines spreading from scooter to superbike. Along the way, Honda has created iconic and influential automotive milestones with some being responsible for moving motorcycling to the next level. Yet some, well, haven’t. We take a look at seven that worked, and three that didn’t:
In 1958 Honda produced a motorcycle that was designed ‘to provide the joy of playing a useful part in people’s lives’ – the Super Cub C100. 62-years later and over 100 million of them have rolled off the production line in their various guises since, the Super Cub clearly keeps on providing that joy the world over.
The model began life with a 49cc OHV air-cooled four-stroke engine and went on to make mass transportation available across the world. Bodywork and weather deflectors both hid the engine and protected the rider from splashes and road debris. Even the chain was enclosed to reduce maintenance and prevent lubricant from being flung on to the rider.
Unlike popular European scooters introduced some ten years earlier, the Super Cub’s engine wasn’t integrated with the rear axle. This allowed it to be placed more centrally for better balance, improved cooling and allowing for larger wheels to increase stability and handling on Japan’s rough, post-war roads. A clutchless, three-speed gearshift eliminated the standard combination of levers and pedals needed to change gear that intimidated many non-motorcyclists - it was simply a case of twist and go. The see-saw style gear shifting lever meant those riding in shoes didn’t need to hook their toes underneath to change gear and unnecessarily scuff their footwear.
The Super Cub is reckoned by many observers to have had as dramatic an influence on transportation in the 20th century as the Model T. And in terms of numbers, the Super Cub is unequalled, and it’s still going strong, available in Europe as a 125cc version.
Its early US advertising campaign, which generated the classic slogan ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’, remains a staple of marketing textbooks to this day because of the way it opened up the concept of motorcycling to an entirely new audience who would otherwise never have considered two wheels as a means of transport.
Read our review of the 2018 C125 Super Cub here.
in 1966, seven years after Hondas first foray into Grand Prix motorcycle racing and the marques’ famous first trip to the Isle of Man TT, Honda quit the sport. Having claimed victory in all five of that season’s categories (50, 125, 250, 350 and 500cc), Honda focused on transferring the experience and technical knowledge gained from racing into high-performance road bikes.
While Norton and Triumph were producing 650cc bikes, the US market was also stating ‘bigger is better’ so Soichiro Honda had his R&D department work on a 750cc, SOHC, air-cooled, inline four producing almost 70bhp. The team also incorporated a disc brake and an electric starter – both a first on a mass-produced motorcycle. The four-cylinder engine, along with its beautifully sculpted four-muffler exhaust system, emphasised the new machine’s direct link to Honda’s racing exploits and the CB750 Four, the world’s first superbike, was born in 1969.
Honda had managed to combine volume production with new levels of performance and the CB750 became an instant best-seller, aided by its electric start, easy maintenance, low vibration, comfortable ergonomics and smooth ride. Of course, when Honda announced that the price of this new superbike would be around 50% less than anything comparable on the market, the CB750 became even more desirable. The initial annual production forecast of 1500 units quickly became a monthly figure, and even that was soon doubled.
The CB750’s Grand Prix pedigree was highlighted at the 1970 challenging Daytona 200 event in Florida when a racing version, the CR750, was ridden to victory by American rider, Dick Mann (no relation to our own Michael Mann).
Read our review of the Honda CB750 F1 here
In 1975 GL1000 threw the door to the world wide open putting any part of it within reach of a single motorcycle by offering a luxury, transcontinental touring motorcycle able to devour America’s (in particular) endless, spectacular highways in style and palatial comfort.
Honda’s engineers revised the original GL1000’s brief of being a flagship sporting successor to the CB750 to instead meet an emerging trend of US riders putting high miles on their large capacity motorcycles. Those with a GL1000 could power on further and faster with a one-litre, super-smooth, shaft-driven flat-four engine, which was liquid-cooled - a first for a Japanese four-stroke motorcycle engine.
Although the first Gold Wing was offered without any bodywork or luggage options it sold reasonably well. But in 1980 Honda introduced a fully-faired, 1100cc version combining panniers, a top-box, and even an optional sound system. Despite being 40 years ago, the new bodywork transformed the GL into a form that’s recognisable as a Gold Wing today.
Honda’s ongoing quest for more power and smoothness, with less intrusive noise, led to a capacity increase to 1500cc in 1988, and that silky flat-four became the iconic flat-six - a layout that had originally been considered as an option in the GL1000’s early design stages.
The Gold Wing now head-to-toe aerodynamic bodywork and a throne-like pillion seat integrated with the rear section. With added accessories and extra engine mass, the increase in weight led to a reverse gear being added, operated via the starter motor to aid manoeuvrability while parking.
Today’s technology-laden 1800cc Gold Wing (the first motorcycle to feature Apple CarPlay) can thanks the ethos of its luxurious, globe-busting GL1000 ancestor from 45 years ago.
Read our review of the 2018 Goldwing here
The mid-1980s saw motorcycle manufacturers beginning to tap into a growing market for sports bikes that reflected the action that fans were witnessing on track. In 1985, a certain Honda-mounted ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer won both the 250cc and 500cc world championships - a never-since-repeated feat. So, when the firm announced its sporty CBR600F at the end of the following year, the sales prospects looked good.
Along came a 598cc 16-valve DOHC inline four mounted in a steel frame suspended by 37mm front forks and an adjustable rear shock, with 276mm front disks and three-spoke 17-inch wheels. Here was a fully-faired supersport machine weighing over 10kg less than its closest rival yet producing around 10bhp more, not to mention a top speed 150mph.
On track, the CBR600 went on to dominate middleweight club, national and world championships for the next 25 years yet what was even more remarkable about Honda’s new best-seller, however, was the fact that, after you’d raced it in a club outing on Sunday, it was docile enough to ride to work the following morning. It offered an almost perfect blend of power, weight, comfort and practicality and quickly developed a reputation for bulletproof reliability.
While the 600cc sports sector has diminished in recent years, the original CBR600’s direct lineage continues in the current Honda line-up in the form of the CBR650R - still featuring a 16-valve DOHC inline four-cylinder engine, and still just as competent on a high street, a motorway or track.
Read our review of the 2019 Honda CBR650R here
The first FireBlade debuted in 1992 and was a true game changer. Developed by Honda designer Tadao Baba and his team, the revolutionary concept was to beat Honda’s own RVF750 on track by being the lightest and most compact bike in its class so to maximise both speed in a straight line while excelling in the corners. Developed initially as a 750, displacement of the in-line four was increased to 893cc while retaining 600-class proportions of a 1405mm wheelbase and 185kg dry weight. The result? EXUP and GSX-R11-annihilating acceleration and handling. Today, first generation ‘Blades are appreciating classics.
The FireBlade weighed almost 40kg less than its nearest 1000cc competitor, barely more than a 600cc sports bike. With a power output to challenge the litre-sized sports behemoths of the period, the FireBlade’s outright speed was never in question. As a result, it single-handedly re-wrote the large capacity motorcycle performance rule book.
As manufacturing techniques became more refined, the FireBlade’s original 893cc gradually increased over seven generations to a full litre capacity in 2004, shedding the capital letter ‘B’ in the name along the way – it was ‘retired’ as a mark of respect for Baba-san after ‘his’ last ’Blade was produced. The very latest Fireblade, unveiled for 2020, is producing peak power of 214.56bhp and weighing only 201kg - a power-to-weight ratio almost 80% higher than the 1992 original.
The VFR name was first introduced by Honda on its 1986 VFR750F, whose V4 engine was the source of Honda’s all-conquering VFR750R, or RC30, homologated production racer. The VFR quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most refined motorcycles ever built.
Several incarnations later, its 2010 successor, the VFR1200F, maintained that reputation with its build quality and an all-new, smooth and powerful V4 engine. But, maybe more importantly, it also featured perhaps its greatest technological contribution to the future of motorcycle riding - Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission, or DCT. Yes, the DCT gearbox has been around for a decade already.
DCT is different to other ‘automatic’ transmissions that have been tried on bikes over the years including scooter-style continuously variable transmissions (CVT). From the engine’s crank through the final drive to the rear wheel, DCT works like a conventional gearbox, via a series of shafts and gears. Two separate clutch packs work on the even and odd-numbered gears, with the relevant next gear always ‘pre-engaged’ so that gear changes happen in a barely-perceptible split second, with no loss of drive.
So, two clutches, but no clutch lever. What the rider finds instead is a choice between ‘paddle-shift’-style triggers to change gears, or twist-and-go, automatic selection of gears, with shift timings dictated by ‘maps’ which constantly read parameters including speed, engine rpm and throttle opening angle. In either case, the rider is freed up to concentrate more on their riding line, braking points, cornering and acceleration.
Since its introduction on the 2010 VFR1200F, 100,000 DCT-equipped models have been sold to date and the technology has been rolled out to other Honda models and now features on no fewer than eight models in the 2020 line up. Thankfully, the system has been developed and refined over the ten years to make it much less clunky, and is likely to find its way on to more bikes in the future.
Read our VFR1200F used bike guide here
Honda has always had the capacity to surprise us. So when they announced the X-ADV, a 750cc adventure-styled scooter/motorcycle hybrid on stilts, the only question left to ask was ‘Why does it not have seven wheels?’
When the X-ADV came along it took convention and turned it on its head: performance and handling to cope with varying demands with all-round ride-ability and technology to match. In 2017, Honda’s R&D design team in Rome presented the result of their inspiration to create an entirely new machine that answered all these requirements in a new form - the X-ADV. It’s a two-wheeled SUV, a unique mix of adventure motorcycle and scooter practicality.
The technology is led by Honda’s DCT (dual clutch transmission) offering four riding modes, including the G-switch taken from the CRF1000L Africa Twin. The G-switch is essentially designed exclusively for off-road riding and reduces clutch slip to improve the feeling between throttle and rear wheel, allowing the rider to slide the rear a little more on looser surfaces.
The X-ADV’s specification extends its practicality from the loose stuff - where a 17-inch front wheel and a 15-inch rear on long-travel suspension are challenged to manage all terrains - back to the tarmac with a powerful, torquey yet economical 745cc parallel-twin engine for impressive performance over a 180-mile range.
Honda took a chance on the X-ADV’s basic genre-mixing premise (and conceptual styling) and has created an entirely new breed of motorcycle, bringing genuine crossover philosophy from four wheels to two. It’s worked, too, with Honda having sold close to 30,000 units of the X-ADV, which seamlessly blends not only the twin concepts of motorcycle and scooter, but the two extremes of urban riding and off-road adventure.
Read our Honda X-ADV review here
Soichiro Honda once said that success represents one per cent of your work, which results only from the 99 per cent that is called failure. No surprise, therefore, that for every Honda that has changed the course of motorcycling history, others have not left an instant mark…
Sometimes a bike is launched that is quite simply so far from the norm that it becomes a collector’s item due to its complete insanity. In 2005, Honda unveiled a concept bike at the Tokyo Motor Show designed to fuse a cruiser style with what was then described as ‘swift sportsbike performance’, all in a practical ‘twist-and-go’, scooter-style package. Then, in 2008 Honda unveiled the production bike of their future collector’s item – the rather odd DN-01.
Doomed to fail from the day it was launched, this bike born out of a designer’s imagination that probably should have stayed firmly on the sketchbook, even Honda weren’t quite sure what the hell the DN-01 was meant to be. Described as ‘a new breed of motorcycle’, it was claimed to combine the elements of swift sportsbike performance with relaxed cruiser comfort and the ease of a twist-and-go scooter.
Powered by the 60bhp liquid-cooled V-twin motor shared with the NT650V Deauville, the DN-01’s limited power, vast weight and long wheelbase meant it struggled to match sportsbike levels of performance.
Read our thoughts on the DN-01 here
Described as the ‘station wagon’ of motorcycles, the intention of the Honda’s 1989 Pacific Coast tourer was to make motorcycles more appealing to non-motorcyclists, much like the Super Cub did 30 years beforehand. As such, the liquid-cooled 800cc V-twin engine delivered smooth power delivery with a shaft drive and rubber mounts that minimised vibration to keep things quiet. The bodywork extended the entire length of the machine, covering nearly everything that would tell you this was a motorcycle.
One of the key design features of the PC800 was the car-like boot, taking over the rear of the bike and lifting the entire pillion seat to access it and while the model hardly flew out of dealerships across Europe, the idea of built-in storage re-emerged in 2012 with the NC700.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say and while Vultus translates from Latin translates into English from Latin as ‘face’ or ‘appearance’ then it’s a good job you don’t have to look at the 2014 Integra-engined NM4 Vultus when riding it. All-black, long and low, with a super-wide front face, and sharp lines with chiselled angles a-plenty, the ‘anime’-inspired Vultus was designed never to go unnoticed. The rider sits enveloped in a cockpit-like surrounding, with feet planted forward, a multi-coloured digital instrument panel always in view, and a flip-up pillion seat that doubles as a back rest.
At near-enough £10k, it was unsurprisingly never a massive sales generator.
Read our review of the Honda Vultus here
Do you agree? Are there any models that should have made either list in your opinion?