My second favorite activity after racing motorcycles – well, okay, my third – is cooking. I love being in the kitchen almost every evening and I can honestly claim a degree of competency in the art. It’s a good hobby to have because I rarely produce anything which is actually inedible and sometimes I do much better than merely acceptable.
Equally, a tiny shift from the ideal can spoil what would have otherwise been a dish really worth eating. Let me explain. Last week, I was chasing my tail trying to finish my latest book against a very tight deadline. This meant that my mind was not absolutely 100% committed to the dinner I was planning. I had some excellent free-range chicken from our local farm in the fridge and there was fresh celery, virgin olive oil and Thai fish stock there too. But no ginger – and I didn’t have the time, or inclination, to drive five miles to the supermarket. The result? A perfectly palatable meal but missing the fire of the ginger, which would have made it memorable.
The CB1100RS is a bit like my chicken dish. All the high-quality ingredients are there but the magic touch in the cooking is just, barely but critically, missing.
The idea for the CB1100 came from Honda designer Mitsuyoshi Kohama. This is what was on his mind:
“Instant acceleration has its appeal in a motorcycle, as does modern styling that conveys the swiftness of the bike. But there’s a lot more to the path of motorcycle evolution. I found myself thinking along these lines for the first time when I returned to Japan, after several years in Europe. It was also at this time that I grabbed a pencil and quickly started sketching.”
“I wanted to create a beautiful motorcycle with artisan-level handiwork that was also approachable and easy to ride,’ he continues. “Based on my sketch, this bike that defies logic and just demands to be ridden became a reality.”
“I insisted on an air-cooled engine because I like the metallic sound the engine makes as it cools. Just looking at the cooling fins inspires me,” he says. “There is something about an air-cooled engine; a feeling you simply can’t get from the liquid-cooled engine in a high-performance bike. To me, as a bike rider and a bike fan, a future without air-cooled engines just didn’t seem right. And I was certain I wasn’t the only one who felt this way!”
Kohama had support within Honda’s R&D center too. CB1100 Project Leader Hirofumi Fukunaga said: “Many people in the R&D Center wanted to make an air-cooled CB. We felt that there weren’t many bikes around that middle-aged guys like us would want to ride.”
“The bike would have to have presence and atmosphere, be simple, and feel secure,” continued Mr. Fukunaga. “The CB is a bike that is rider-centric.”
“The origin of Honda’s large bikes is the CB750 Four, and many riders expect CBs to have an air-cooled four-cylinder engine and would remember its ‘feel’ or ‘taste.’ We wanted to bring the attractiveness of the air-cooled, four-cylinder engine to the modern world,” he tells.
The story of the work the R&D team put into the bike is a fascinating one because they were trying to invent a new category of motorcycle for Honda. The new CB would not be a cruiser, tourer or sports bike and it wouldn’t really be a Retro either. Rather, it would be a modernized Retro, maybe a Metro then? This is perhaps the root of the bike’s difficulties.
There is no argument that a lot of effort has been put into the CB1100 range which the design team says was more complex to manufacture than a modern Supersports bike.
Here’s Fukunaga again: “The entire development process was back-breaking! First, we had to get everyone on the same page for the emotional aspects, such as what ‘good styling’ or ‘great handling’ was. It’s beyond specifications or performance so we had to have a common vision on aspects that couldn’t be numerated.”
“Clay models, for instance, are usually placed with other models on the design floor but, with this model, we had a dedicated room for it and had the members assemble for periodic meetings. We don’t normally do that. We also had each member evaluate or comment on aspects of the bike that weren’t within their field.”
“Most of the development team was young, from a generation that didn’t know air-cooled engines, he explains. “We went to the Collection Hall in Motegi so they could ride an air-cooled bike, so they could develop their own images. I think it was from then that we were able to narrow down the ’emotional’ parameters, such as the dull sensation of the engine at low revs being refreshing, or only thickening the lower end of the exhaust note. That gave birth to the modern CB personality, and the attractiveness of the new air-cooled, four-cylinder engine.”
Initially, the CB1100 was launched as a Japan-only model in 2010 and it was very well received. With demand for the bike from the rest of the world, the CB1100 was upgraded to a six-speed gearbox and then this year, the RS which is the “sports” version of the CB range, has been introduced. The design team have done a wonderful job with the 2017 engine, making it fully Euro 4 compliant whilst at the same time retaining the air-cooling. In order to protect the aesthetic integrity of the power plant, the visible areas of the engine’s fins are the same, fine, 2mm thickness of the original 1960s CB750 but are an extra 1mm thicker at the base to permit the complex shape of the new combustion chamber so necessary to get the bike through emissions’ regulations.
The 16-valve cylinder head and fuel injection helped tremendously but not as much as the fact that the large capacity, 1140cc engine did not need to be making 200-horsepower per liter but only 89-horsepower at a mere 7500 rpm. This amount of power, if tuned in the way most likely to be needed by the target customer, would allow the motor to be lightly stressed – despite being air-cooled.
Although the engine looks wholly air cooled, a very clever piece of engineering around the hot spots of the spark plugs means that this potential trouble spot still remains adequately cooled with oil assistance.
Incredibly, Honda engineers say that the sweet spot on the motor is at just 3000 rpm where there is all the power a rider would normally want but at ultra relaxed rpm. Peak torque, a substantial 67.1 lb-ft comes at the, almost diesel engine, rpm of 5500 with peak power only another 2500 rpm afterwards. A four-cylinder screamer this engine most definitely isn’t!
However, these numbers are deceptive. Ride the bike between 4000 rpm and 6000 rpm and it feels much perkier than the figures suggest.
A small fortune was spent on trying to make the motor anthropomorphic by giving the engine a real growl. At least that was the big idea. Marginally different valve timing is used on cylinders 1 and 2 compared with numbers 3 and 4 so that the engine is rougher and more “classic.” It would be lovely to say that all the hard work the Honda engineers had put into achieving this very ephemeral feeling was effective in the real world but the hard fact of the matter is that the CB1100 engine feels ultra smooth, refined and – I realize that this is heresy – completely modern.
This almost sterilized sophistication is in contrast with the Triumph Thruxton R, and its 270-degree firing order, which achieves that cleverest of all tricks – a modern, nearly vibration free motor but with a strong sense that there is the heart of a classic twin beating beneath your legs.
The same applies to the exhaust note. On standard exhausts, not the dreadful Vance and Hines aftermarket accessories, the Triumph has a lovely growl. By contrast, the CB1100 issues not much more than a sophisticated, sibilant rustle. I am dead set against noisy road bikes but the Honda takes being a good neighbor to new heights of social responsibility.
The exhaust is a clear signpost to how things are going to go with the rest of the bike.
Speeds are now becoming increasingly irrelevant in Britain. The latest change in the law means that someone earning the average wage of $36,000 will now pay a fine over $1000 for anything above 100 mph in a 70 mph limit. This is why we took the RS to a strip of old airfield which we use in England and, taking care to avoid the potholes, the bike whizzed effortlessly up to an indicated 110 mph. On a public road this would be ample to get your license suspended and an immense hike in your insurance premium for the next five years.
The problem is that the motor is too good. How can anything be too good? Actually, it’s quite easy. For example, you could – in absolute 100% truth – teach someone who had never sat on a motorcycle to ride on the RS, it is so ludicrously simple to use. How’s this for docile? It is possible to pull away from a standing start in third gear!
Nothing scary ever happens and it is possible to ride the RS entirely in sixth gear at anything much above 35 mph. This is fine if all the rider wants to do is sit silently and effortlessly as the world drifts by.
The problem for Honda is that riders don’t want this experience from a super sport Retro bike. I have to work hard to get our Ducati Classic 1000 just in the sweet spot between 4500 rpm and 6500 rpm – that harmonious magic zone where everything works wonderfully well. To do this takes effort and, yes, skill on my part and so I feel that I have achieved something at the end of a ride.
Everything is so utterly, completely and totally perfect on the CB that my skill was neither rewarded – nor even wanted. Anyone with a month’s riding experience could ride the RS 90% as well as I do, and I somewhat resent this.
There is also a strong feeling that Honda have engineered all the danger out of this bike. The clutch can be operated by a five year old, it’s so light and it’s a slipper design too so you can’t make a mistake by banging down through the gears and locking the rear wheel. In fact, I would defy anyone to ever make a bad gearshift on the RS – it’s quite literally impossible.
The handling is just as good. Unlike its wire wheeled sibling, the EX, the RS comes with 17-inch cast alloy wheels and sticky, Bridgestone Battlax Sport Touring T30 tires, a set-up which points clearly towards sporting riding. The rake and trail of the RS, 26-degrees and 3.89-inches, and its wheelbase of 58.4-inches, as opposed to 27-degrees/4.4 inches and 58.7 for the EX model (which is currently the only CB1100 available in the US – Ed.), means quicker steering and more responsive handling than the EX. Note the word “quicker” – not “quick”! Even ridden hard, the RS is still hyper well-mannered and utterly non-threatening.
Don’t be put off by the RS’ apparent weight – a far from anorexic 554-pounds. In practice, the mass is so well centralized that the weight doesn’t feel half of the actual number. Although the RS has an apparently old-fashioned – maybe even antique – steel frame and twin shock suspension it handles and steers ludicrously well and I would happily run the bike in the Intermediate Group at any track day. Only the ground clearance, or lack of it, would cause problems.
The RS is stopped with a pair of whopping 310mm front discs with Tokico, four-piston calipers, radially mounted pads – and they really do work. There is, quite rightly and properly, ABS fitted to the braking system but it doesn’t interfere with trail braking all the way up to the apex of bends. These anchors really brought the smile to my face.
The front fork is a conventional 43mm from Showa and is called, somewhat confusingly, Dual Bending Valve. There is no press information about how this fork actually works so I asked suspension deity Ron Williams, of Maxton Suspension, for some advice. In essence, there are two damping systems in the fork. The first deals with harsh compression and rebound damping, and the second with very subtle movements necessary for intimate control when the front end is lightly loaded. It’s relatively easy to get either area of damping right individually – but extremely hard to get them both functioning perfectly together. The Showa fork does just this to give a completely linear feel. The fork simply laughs off the terrible surfaces of English back roads and yet provides a vast amount of feedback when trail braking very hard into smooth corners. I just loved it.
The rear, twin shocks are just as good and the RS handles as well as any Retro sports bike on the market – and better than most monoshocks too.
So, the RS handles and brakes as well as the industry standard Thruxton R. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it has had its man bits cut off in terms of being a proper sports bike. The fuel tank is a work of art, flowing gracefully back to a super narrow saddle but the handlebars are far too wide, too high and need to kick back. On a sports bike, the ergonomics should help the rider adopt a more aggressive riding position not interfere with this stance.
And there’s the saddle. Oh dear, the saddle. Here’s the problem. The average weight of an adult Japanese man is 149-pounds and the average weight of an American male is 195-pounds. I’m in the middle, weighing in at 180-pounds. The wafer thin, delightfully elegant RS saddle is no doubt fine for svelte Japanese bottoms but stick a European, or worse still, an American bum on it and there’s a very short wait until the pain kicks in.
I’m sure that all the boys, and the girl, on the development team in Japan loved the saddle but add the weight of something in the region of an additional five gallons of gas on it and there are problems.
Finally, Honda are convinced that they have got the RS absolutely right and so pitch it against the BMW R nineT Café Racer and the Thruxton R in terms of price point and this, to say the least, is very ambitious.
So, what is the final conclusion? Let’s look at the positives first because a lot of these virtues are grounded in empirical fact. The RS offers a sublimely efficient, ultra-sophisticated power plant that is effortless to use. This engine is housed in a truly excellent chassis, with class leading brakes. The fit and finish is exemplary too.
Now to the ephemeral and incalculable. The RS is a bit like your favorite cousin. You like her, you respect her and would even take her out to dinner but, unless you have a very strange mind-set, this would be all.
For me, I don’t want a bike which is my cousin but something much more. I want to look at my bike and ache to ride it. I want to know that to get the best from it will take effort, commitment and skill. I want to have to go across to my garage the last thing at night and touch my motorcycle, just for the joy of knowing what pleasure we are going to have the next time we ride together – and the RS wouldn’t give me any of these feelings.
What Honda need to do is to put their bikini faired concept bike into production, give the RS engine another 15-horsepower and make the exhaust sound like a slightly muted version of Dick Mann’s Daytona winning CB750. Then, I’d want to own one.
Thanks to the enthusiastic Paul Ledsham, Manager of Smiths Honda in Chester, (www.smithshonda.co.uk) for the loan of his RS and his help with this article.[/su_box]