Iconic bikes… NC30? Surely that’s a typo? We mean RC30, right? Not the 400cc baby replica that was grey imported by the container load in the 1990s!
No, you read that right. We’ve already awarded the RC30 iconic bike status, but the Honda VFR400R (aka NC30) is a bona fide classic motorcycle in its own right. And we’re going to tell you why…
There’s no formula for what makes an iconic bike, but the NC30 has many of the ingredients that typically make up a classic motorcycle, namely rarity, high price when new, racing heritage, desirability in its heyday and the intangible impression it has made on a generation of motorcyclists.
The VFR400 was already a longstanding model when the NC30 was introduced in 1989. It’s a product of the Japanese manufacturers’ policy of producing miniature motorcycles in the 1980s, mainly as a response to domestic licencing regulations which made it very difficult and costly for riders to get a licence to ride big capacity bikes. The result was a range of small capacity machines meant only for the Japanese market, with engine sizes of 250cc and 400cc to match the licence rules of the day. But these were not the basic kind of commuter bikes we’d come to associate with sub 400cc bikes, rather scaled down replicas of the flagship models of the day which, at the time, were mainly race replicas.
The first generation VFR400R was codenamed the NC21. Introduced in 1986, it had tones of the VFR750F of the time. This was replaced by the updated NC24 1988, complete with its single sided swingarm. The final model, the NC35, ran from 1994 to 1996, but it’s the NC30 that really captured the imagination.
Built in limited numbers by HRC, Honda’s racing arm, the VFR750R (RC30) was not just Honda’s flagship model, but a proper racer for the road. Fred Merkel won the first world superbike title on one, and it was a success in every production based race championship it entered.
The NC30 wasn’t hand built by HRC, but it was still a work of art and you’d have to look awfully hard to tell it from its more illustrious 750 from 50 metres away. Sure it was smaller, and there were some detail changes (most notably the headlights were smaller on the 400) but it looked like a beautiful scale copy of the RC30. The soundtrack was just as glorious too. Honda’s 750cc VFR engine, with its gear driven cams, was renowned for its distinctive howl. The smaller bike runs the same 360° crankshaft design and sounds just as good, if not better than the bigger bike, as it dances towards the 14,500rpm red line.
The 400 had its racing heritage too. Honda UK officially imported the NC30 in the early ‘90s, although it was understandably a slow seller thanks to its price. At over £6600 (around £12,500 today) it was more expensive than Honda’s own CBR600F and VFR750F, both of which made much more sense to most road riders.
Not that it was aimed at road riders. Supersport 400 and Formula Three were racing classes in the early ‘90s, with races at the Isle of Man TT and in national championship racing, and the bike (along with Yamaha’s equally expensive FZR400RR) sold in small numbers to race teams. The class allowed 400s (including the less expensive Kawasaki ZXR400, which was also officially imported) and 250cc two-strokes like the Kawasaki KR-1S and Suzuki RGV250 to race together. The two-strokes tended to be more competitive on the short circuits, but on the roads the 400s held the edge.
In racing terms, the Yamaha was the most competitive of the 400s but it was the Honda that captured the public’s hearts – especially back home in Japan. That domestic success was ironically the reason why the NC30 became an icon in the UK. Japanese laws meant that bikes had to undergo a rigorous and expensive inspection at three years old, a bit like our MoT but much more strict. Because of this it became more cost effective for Japanese riders, especially those who had modified their bikes, to buy new ones rather than go through the testing process.
The result was the emergence of ‘grey’ importers, who bought up these unwanted 400s and shipped them to the UK in great numbers. Some weird and wonderful bikes made it over to Europe, but none was more popular than the NC30.
Japanese spec NC30s were slightly different to the UK ones. Different indicators, mirrors, graphics and kph speedos being the main giveaways, and the grey bikes also had a top speed limited to 112mph, but it was still a sensational little bike.
For many riders of this generation, the NC30 was their first motorcycle – or at least their first ‘big’ bike. That word big was something of a misnomer though, as these 400s were designed for youthful Japanese pilots. They proved tiny and cramped for most Brits, but for supple teens and twentysomethings it didn’t really matter. The 400s made around 60bhp, sounded glorious, looked amazing and were faster than the two-strokes their parents grew up riding (an unrestricted NC30 had a claimed top speed of over 130mph).
That alone is enough to mean that the Honda VFR400R holds a special place in the hearts of British bikers. They’re not as common as they once were, and good ones are very hard to get hold of as middle-aged riders look to revisit the bikes of their youth.
The NC30 has been a mainstay of club racing for decades now, so many bikes have been converted into racers or track day hacks. As popular starter bikes, many road bikes may be on their somethingteenth owner and it’s fair to say that not all will have lavished care on them during their stewardship.
In true Honda style, the NC30 is very reliable and the motor is as close to bulletproof as you can get. But even 30 years of abuse can be too much for some and the V4 is a fairly difficult engine to work on, due to its complexity and tight packaging, which means that even changing the sparkplugs can be a nightmare of a job. Another bugbear is that the standard rear wheel is an 18” item, which limits the number of tyre options available. Many have been retro fitted with a 17” rear from the later NC35 (which was essentially an updated NC30, with more modern styling and upside down forks, sold only in Japan) and that opens up some stickier rubber choices. Another popular modification is to change the original (and often brittle) bodywork for more modern panels from companies like Tyga, although originality is normally preferred by collectors and classic bike enthusiasts.
As a result, really good ones command a premium – especially the more desirable UK spec bikes. A quick look at the internet auction sites sees prices for such bikes approaching five figures, and although that’s the exception rather than the norm. Really nice examples are likely to go for around £4-5,000.
The Honda NC30 will never be as desirable or collectable as the legendary RC30, but its role in getting so many Brits on to bikes in the 1990s can never be diminished. It is, as we said, a true icon.