Author: Frank Melling Posted: 07 Sep 2013
One of the questions I am most frequently asked by younger riders with an interest in classics is something along the lines of, “What should be my first, old bike?”
In some ways, it’s easier to say what the neophyte classic bike owner shouldn’t be buying rather than recommending a particular marque or model. For example, unless you are of a very determined, and dedicated, frame of mind a thoroughbred pre-Second World War British single will break your heart – as well as your bank balance. How would you feel about manually adjusting the ignition timing, fuel mixture and then finding, by feel, the piston position before you attempted to kick started your new possession?
The second question would be how long would your marriage last when you told your wife to cancel the next ten years’ vacations because you had just spent £40,000 on a Matchless G.50?
For me, the transition into the classic world has got to be a gentle one. Start with a bike which will, in a classic way, be not too far away from the motorcycles you already know and like. Your new old bike should make you want to ride more classic motorcycles – not put you off for life.
One of the best, the very best, of accessible classics is the Honda CB750. The single overhead cam engine is utterly bullet proof and starts on the button, first time every time, despite having a token kick-start.
With something in the region of 67hp, there is plenty of power and the five-speed gearbox will feel familiar, having a modern – down-for-down – left-hand gearshift pattern rather than having to master the much more refined right-hand gear change of a British bike, whilst remembering to change up for down!
Finally, there are zillions of Honda 750s still about from the 553,000 which were reportedly made.
So you’re ready to go classic and there isn’t a cloud on the horizon? Well, not quite. The early 750 Hondas have now become seriously stupid in terms of price with a good sprinkling of £15,000 machines being offered – albeit these are in mint condition.
Spending this sort of money is simply silly if you discover, as do a lot of young riders, that classic bikes don’t go, stop or handle nearly as well as modern machines and therefore, viewed objectively, are inferior.
But there is a solution to the conundrum – and a rather attractive one too. The first CB750s were launched in 1969 and were, with slight tweaking to the cylinder head bolts, right on the money straight from the first sale. However, by 1975, the gloss was starting to wear off the bike and so Honda looked to freshen things up with a “sports” version of the bike – although you need to have a very generous view of the word “sport” as applied to the F1. This motorcycle is not a classic version of a Fireblade or R1!
The heart of the bike remains one of the finest motorcycle engines ever built – Honda’s iconic single overhead cam, five speed, four cylinder engine. Given a very regular supply of clean oil, these motors are good for vast mileages and are as fuss free as it is possible to get with a classic.
They make a decent amount of power too. Soichiro Honda’s original target power for his “four” was 67hp – allegedly to be one more hp than the best Harley of the day. I think that Mr. Honda was being very cautious if he thought that he was competing with any Harley, except the factory flat trackers, in terms of power.
Although the F1 was billed as a supersports version of the CB750 in practical terms the engines are identical. There is a very wide spread of power from something in the region of 5,000 rpm to 9,000 rpm and within this rev range the bike performs in a thoroughly modern manner.
Almost as important is that the engine is docile right from tickover and so will be an easy transition for someone who has never ridden a classic before.
The clutch is light and simple to use and the gear selection is positive and reliable. However, the clunking and clanging which accompanies many gear changes will be something of a shock to classic virgins. Don’t worry – it’s what 750 Hondas do.
The engine is also a gentle and kind introduction to the delights of home maintenance. Tappet adjustment is a bit fiddly – and a kind wife with small hands is a useful addition to your workshop at this point – but can be done at home and with the addition of a modern electronic ignition system, the problems of wayward timing are fixed forever. Carb balancing is well within the scope of even a newcomer to bike maintenance and chain adjustment is simple. In every respect, the F1 is as user friendly a classic as it is possible to find.
On the highway, the F1 is thoroughly modern. It will cruise at an utterly relaxed 70mph all day. The saddle is wide and comfortable and the riding position excellent for a long ride. I would have no hesitation about taking an F1 to Misano, and back, without a moment’s hesitation.
For British riders, the great weakness of the F1 – scarily so – were the stainless steel disc brakes. These were fine for American test riders in sun drenched California but buttock clenching marginal in wet, cold Britain. However, modern disc pads have simply transformed the brakes and now they are superb – by classic standards of course.
The handling is fine too. However, it is more than essential to fit a pair of good quality, modern rear shocks to every F1. The original units were dire – and haven’t got better with time.
The front forks are fine but watch out for tired forks springs and exhausted oil - particularly if the bike is a standard, original machine.
With the suspension sorted, and a pair of modern tyres, the F1 really can be ridden briskly.
Although I have sung the modern feel of the F1 it still remains very much a classic. The large, easy to read analogue speedometer and rev counter are straight from the early Honda days and the styling is unmistakably mid-70s.
Yes, the styling. This is very much a love-it-or-hate-it matter of taste. It is worth remembering that the first Honda CB750 was designed in 1967 and took its styling cues from what was in fashion at the time. The bike was typically Honda – not ugly or offensive but safe, reliable and mainstream.
Seven years later, Honda’s four cylinder range was beginning to look dated so Soichiro’s careful, conservative planners took a deep breath and let the CB400 loose on the world.
The bike was an instant success, particularly in Europe, where its sports bike looks had customers queuing to buy.
The thought was that if the CB400 was a styling success then a 750, with hints of cafe racer about it, would be just as popular.
So, in came the single collector exhaust and long, angular tank and out went the iconic four pipes and rounded lines of the original CB750.
Rather than having a runaway sales success, Honda managed to generate confusion amongst buyers. In America, the original CB750 stayed on sale alongside the new F1 and this just added to the obfuscation.
Was the F1 a better, or worse, version of the CB750? In fact, it was neither. There were some minor tweaks to the chassis and engine but, in a blind tasting, both bikes look, ride and even sound very similar.
The key question is whether you want a traditional CB750, four pipes and all, or if you are bold enough to take a chance on the cafe racer style.
The answer is overwhelmingly clear: classic fans want a “real” CB750 and are dismissive of the F1 – and selling prices reflect this fact. This is good news for the newcomer to classic motorcycling because an F1 is very affordable, just as desirable as a standard CB750 and a real looker in its own right.
In fact, I like the bike so much that, if I had the time, I would have one in my workshop as my primary classic transport.
Regarding buying one, the advice is to proceed very, very carefully and slowly. There are plenty of F1s about and there’s no need to rush into buying one. Spend a couple of months sifting through the ads and you will find a nice, unabused, standard bike at a good price. F1s are now at a price level where they will never depreciate so you could have a lot of fun for virtually no expense – and there are not many bikes about which this can be said.