It’s hard to believe that the CBR900RR FireBlade is officially a classic motorcycle and celebrates its 25th year anniversary this year.
In a world of overweight, poor handling 1100s, the lightweight FireBlade changed the motorcycling world forever and, even today, continues to be the name associated with lightweight, fine handling sports bikes.
It was actually 28 years ago, back in 1989 that FireBlade project leader Tadao Baba had a dream of building a bike with the potency of a litre sports bike, but with the proportions of a 600, with the bike hitting the market in 1992, to worldwide appreciation.
At a time when Yamaha’s class leading FZR1000R EXUP tipped the scales at 209kg, Baba-san’s lightweight concept weighed in at 185kg with instant power delivery from its 122bhp inline four-cylinder motor, while the mould breaking styling came complete with those holes which mimicked the NSR500 GP bikes of the time. The winning combination made it a must-have for any sports bike fan.
The bike went on to be a global success story for Honda that rapidly became an icon, and gave Honda the problem of how to build so many, such was the demand.
Through future generations the FireBlade developed into the Fireblade that we know and love today, with the capital B in FireBlade being dropped for a lower case B coinciding with Baba-san’s retirement in 2002.
To celebrate 25 years of the FireBlade, Honda let us loose on a few of the key models they have on a heritage fleet at Rockingham last week, and a couple of track sessions on the 2017 CBR1000RR Fireblade and CBR1000RR Fireblade SP.
I used to own an original FireBlade, just like this one which forms part of Honda’s heritage fleet, and I miss its twin headlight face grinning at me every time I open my garage and see the FireBlade shaped hole.
It’s still an absolute stunner after 25 years, and despite its big rear end and bulky, slabby nose it’s as attractive today as it ever was, especially in its launch colours of white, red and blue.
It doesn’t disappoint to ride either, even though this particular example has seen some action.
The 1992 FireBlade may be coming up to its silver anniversary, but it feels every bit as lithe as it did back then.
Compared to the 2017 FireBlade, it’s wide, and you sit in the bike, with high pegs and a long reach to the handlebars with that fairing bracket, foam surrounded analogue clocks and a pull up choke lever. But it feels so light. Modern emissions standards with bulkier exhausts and fuel injection, plus the addition of ABS mean that bikes have gradually got heavier again. The new, 2017 FireBlade makes a claimed 189bhp, some 67bhp more than this original example, but it also weighs 11kg more than its 25 year-old relation. The price of progress hey?
That sixteen inch front wheel feels skittish and lively, but it turns well, even by modern standards, and the claimed 118bhp doesn’t disappoint. The motor revs slowly by modern standards, and the suspension feels its age, but the motor responds well, it feels right and sounds right too. The mechanical noise of the engine sounds like no bike before or after it.
The whole experience is analogue and you feel connected in an age where electronics are making modern bikes feel remote and disconnected.
They say you should never meet your heroes. Wrong. The FireBlade should be in every motorcyclists’ dream garage just like it was in mine, once.
The 1996 bike got lighter, dropping weight to 183kg and putting power up to 126bhp.
With those Foxeye headlights came the most iconic FireBlade paint scheme of all – the Urban Tiger.
For 1996 the SC33 designated bike gained a larger exhaust and a bigger bore, pushing capacity to 918cc, and a revised chassis with higher handlebars.
It feels angrier somehow, this 1996 bike. Maybe it’s just the aftermarket can which cracks and pops on the over run, but it feels like it picks up revs noticeable faster than the 1992 original, and despite being a bit fatter to look at, it’s lighter and feels accurate in turns.
The suspension doesn’t have that ebb and flow suppleness of modern bikes, and the brakes are frankly terrifyingly bad on this particular one as I found out when I got dropped by the lead group and journalist Roland Brown, and then attempted to catch them back by going fast in to a roundabout and leaving the braking a bit late! The brakes are frankly appalling compared to what we’re used to now, but it goes well, with a bit of encouragement it will wheelie, and for some it’s the best-looking FireBlade ever made.
For 1998, coinciding with the launch of the mighty Yamaha R1, the FireBlade got yet more major changes with 80 per cent new internals reducing internal friction and weight reduced from 183kg to 179kg, making it the lightest FireBlade yet.
Power was pushed from 126bhp to 130bhp and it got bigger 310mm front brakes (up from 296mm) with new four-pot calipers, a revised front fork with 10mm wider yokes, sharper steering head angle, and greater stability thanks to new rear linkage.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to ride this version, although I’ve ridden it tons over the years and the most noticeable changes are that it feels punchier and more stable than the previous generations.
For 2000 the FireBlade got a complete new, squarer look and an all new 929cc motor.
In terms of styling, in the line-up at Rockingham it looks like a next generation and it was.
This bike was the first Blade to use fuel-injection and the motor took on a big power hike to 152bhp.
I was handed it by Roland Brown after a ride on the roads in Northamptonshire where Honda’s 25 years of FireBlade event was based, who said: “It feels like a perfectly decent motorcycle.”
And he’s right. It feels very smooth, very usable and a whole generation om from the early bikes. It’s much more refined. The suspension works, the brakes work, and it’s agile. The 2000 may be the ugly duckling Fireblade, the unloved one, but it’s still a good motorcycle in its own right that could be used every day now.
Unfortunately, what many aficionados think of as the best of the Baba-san era bikes wasn’t available at Rockingham, but we have to agree with FireBlade fans.
The 2002 bike is the pure essence of Baba’s vision, with a bigger 954cc motor and coming in at an incredible 168kg, and was the last FireBlade that was developed by the legendary project leader.
But technical changes to the motor, an uprated chassis, new sleeker styling and LED rear lights made the FireBlade the fastest and best balanced bike of the early models. It doesn’t fetch silly money either, with used bikes fetching around £3000+, but it is destined to be one that signed off an era of FireBlades built from the vision of one man.
The 2004 Fireblade was the first non Baba bike and had the capital B in Blade dropped in his honour.
Compared to the bikes before it, the 2004 put on weight, coming in on the scales at 179kg, but also taking a big jump in power from its now 1000cc motor to 169bhp. The bike’s development was handed over to the same team that developed Valentino Rossi’s RCV MotoGP race bike, leading him to two titles.
It looks long and low when lined-up next to the other iconic models, with an underseat exhaust, that Honda racing white, red and blue paint, and pointy nose, plus an all new aluminium frame.
It feels oh so fast after riding the 2000-model bike and is proper rapid, piling on revs in a big, grunty fashion. It’s slower to turn, but the suspension is plusher, it’s more stable and the experience a whole lot more rapid and it feels every bit a modern motorcycle to ride as you stare into the big central tacho needle revving rapidly, and watch the speedo rapidly climb above the national speed limit.
Further evolutions for 2006 and 2007 see the redline raised from 11,650rpm to 12,200rpm with updates suspension, bigger 320mm brake discs and mild styling tweaks.
We didn’t know it back then, but the 2008 generation Fireblade was to stay with us in its basic form, minus a few tweaks along the way for some ten years.
Big changes for 2008 came with a new 175bhp and 999cc motor featuring titanium valves, lightweight pistons, reduced stroke and a bigger bore. It also got a lighter, more compact frame, new brakes, and lighter wheels, plus a slipper clutch – a first for a Honda production bike since the RC45. There’s also a side exit exhaust and curvy new styling.
Again, the Blade is a big leap from the 2004/2006 bike with sublime handling, quick steering and a motor that feels so grunty after the previous bikes. It took a big step-up in weight too, but carries it so well that the 20kg aren’t noticed.
Further tweaks came in 2010 with a revised fairing celebrating 20 years of the Fireblade. An SP version with a single seat and Ohlins suspension was released in 2014.
It took nearly ten years but the new Fireblade is a big change in Honda’s line-up.
Putting out some 189bhp at 12,500rpm the motor is 2kg lighter with some 90 per cent new engine internals and Honda’s own version of torque control fitted for the first time to a mass-produced Honda superbike. Only the RC213V-S has a similar system in Honda’s line-up and that costs £188,000. There are riding modes too.
Three new Fireblade versions are now offered – the standard bike, the single-seat SP with Ohlins suspension, and a limited-edition run of 500 only SP2 models, developed for race teams.
After the various generations of Fireblade (and FireBlades), the 2017 bike looks every bit a Fireblade and is sharper than ever.
We rode the SP and the standard bike. It feels narrow, and tall and aggressive. The standard bike has lots of top-end power making it feel rapid on track. We had to ride behind a Honda Ron Haslam Race School instructor so couldn’t pull the pin, but the 2017 is accurate, easy to ride fast and every bit worthy of its name. The standard bike’s Bridgestone S21 tyres are meant for the road so don’t give bags of feel on the track.
For the record, the 2017 bike has a 65-per cent better power-to-weight ratio than the 1992 original and in a race it would be night and day on today’s track.
Another session on the SP with stickier RS10 tyres and semi-active electronic Ohlins suspension allows you to really feel what the new Fireblade is capable of. The chassis allows you to take ridiculous advantage of what Honda has designed. The tight and twisty Rockingham race track is designed for a 600cc motorcycle really, but the tight corners and that glorious up and down quickshifter, taller rear ride height, those massive Brembos and the quick steering make Rockingham a breeze.
It’s the width of the Fireblade that gets you. After riding the old bikes it feels narrow, tall, and slim. It feels light too, and the power it delivers may be peaky compared to some of the other 1000s but it gets off a corner fast and once in its stride it revs, and just keeps on revving.