Honda is the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer, with over 400 million bikes made in over 70 years.
Over those seven decades, the Japanese manufacturer has made some of most exotic sportsbikes to ever go on sale, with models like the NR750 and RC213V-S MotoGP replica, but also some of the most humble machines too.
Like sports stars, a motorcycle can only really be considered the best of its generation. There’s no point comparing a Honda Fireblade with a Honda Gold Wing or a C90 Cub, as they are all very different machines aimed at different customers, but all have made an impact in their own special way and changed the landscape of the motorcycle industry in some way or another.
To pay homage to this most iconic of manufacturers, we’ve selected 10 of Honda’s most legendary classic motorbikes. To keep things fair, we’ve stuck to volume production bikes – not the many hugely successful race bikes or low volume specials built by HRC (Honda Racing Corporation, the racing division) – which is why you won’t find the legendary RC30 and RC45 here. Instead these are all bikes you could buy in a showroom. We’re sure you’ll disagree with a few, so why not let us know on our social media channels.
The bike that changed it all, perhaps?
The Sixties were a swinging time for the youthful Honda Motor Company. Having started out, like all other Japanese manufacturers, making small capacity machines the brand really started to push the boundaries through racing in the 1960s. Company founder Soichiro Honda fulfilled a dream by entering a team of five bikes in the 1959 Isle of Man TT and, just two years later, the legendary Mike Hailwood had won Grands Prix in the 125cc and 250cc classes.
A series of high revving (22,000rpm) multi-cylinder 125 and 250cc Grand Prix bikes were works of art and able to win titles over the seemingly more efficient two-strokes from Yamaha in 1966 and 1967, but a change of rules in 1968 capped the number of cylinders and gears that could be used. That meant that Honda’s racers were no longer eligible to compete and Honda’s distain for two-strokes meant that no replacements would be built. It would be over a decade before Honda would return to Grand Prix racing, but they did have something special up their sleeves for road riders.
Launched in 1969, the CB750 has been credited as the world’s first superbike.
At a time where high performance bikes were British and had two cylinders (such as the Norton Commando and Triumph Bonneville) the CB750 carried on Honda’s penchant for multi-cylinder designs and was an inline four. Not only was the 68bhp Honda faster than the Brit bikes of the time (including the three-cylinder Triumph Trident/BSA Rocket 3), it was smoother and better engineered too – with none of the oil leaks and electrical problems for which the British twins were infamous.
The CB750 also set a blueprint for the UJM (Universal Japanese Machine). Inline fours like the Kawasaki Z1 and Suzuki GS750 were the standard in the 1970s, while Honda’s own CB750 evolved and had a near 20 year production span – gaining a new twin cam engine for the CB750K of 1979.
Like almost all long running models, the Honda Gold Wing has evolved over the years – but despite changing almost beyond recognition since its inception in 1974, the ‘Wing has always been Honda’s mile-munching flagship model.
The first Gold Wings, the GL1000, had 1000cc flat four engines with low maintenance shaft drive and a big comfy seat, but it was the second generation models of 1980 that really established the Gold Wing as the king of tourers.
Now built in the USA, it’s primary market, the GL1100 had a fully loaded version alongside the naked roadster. Called the GL1100 Interstate, it featured a massive touring fairing, air suspension, panniers and a huge top box that doubled up as a passenger back rest. With optional extras that include an onboard stereo, the Gold Wing was unlike anything before it, with the Aspencade version offering even more luggage space and a rider to passenger intercom.
By 1987 the fourth generation Gold Wing had arrived, complete with a 1500cc flat six engine, and the model had a huge cult following, with gatherings known as ‘Wing Dings’ taking place around the world. Today the Gold Wing is on its sixth generation, now with an 1800cc six-cylinder engine, and its popularity among high mileage touring riders remains as strong as ever.
From one extreme to the other, the Honda Super Cub is as modest as motorcycling comes and one of the most significant motor vehicles of all time.
What can you say about the Cub? We’ll there have been various iterations and capacities of the iconic scooter over the year, but here in the UK we’re probably most familiar with the C90.
With a simple four-stroke engine and three-speed semi-automatic transmission, the Cub was designed to provide easy-to-ride transport for the masses.
Has it succeeded? Well, with 100 million sold since 1958 it’s the biggest selling powered two wheeler of all time.
For years Honda famously snubbed two-strokes, preferring to create elaborate high-revving multi-cylinder four-strokes despite the undisputable fact that pound for pound a simple two-stroke will make more power.
But by the 1980s the company knew that to win in racing they needed to embrace the technology and, being Honda, when they did join the party they did it their own way.
The NS500 racer replaced the disastrous NR500 four-stroke, which was no match for the two-strokes despite having oval pistons and 32 valves. Unlike the four-cylinder competition, the NS had just three-cylinders, making it lighter and more agile, and it was an immediate success. Freddie Spencer finished third in its debut year, 1982, and won the title the year after. Honda offered up the sweet NS400 road bike replica and Honda became the dominant force in racing, with the NSR250 and NSR500 racers.
And road riders got the sweetest race replica you could imagine. The NSR250R road bike was a work of art and quenched the Japanese market’s thirst for miniature sports bikes. Licence regulations meant that most riders couldn’t ride the same flagship models we rode in Europe, so the manufacturers build a range of super exotic 250s and 400s.
None was more exotic than Honda’s NSR250R, which looked like it had just rolled off the Grand Prix grid. The 90° V-twin was just like the GP bikes and the last ones, the MC28, also featured single sided swingarms and a smart card ignition system.
It was super trick for its time and even though they weren’t officially imported here, many made it into the country as grey imports.
Just as the NS range of racing two-strokes was a case of Honda following the concepts of their rivals, but doing it better, the VTR1000 was another case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’. Once again, by ‘joining’ Honda were once again able to beat the competition.
Since the start of World Superbike racing in 1988, Honda had been wedded to the V4 concept that traced its roots back to the iconic RVF Formula One racers of the early 1980s and which has served them well with the limited edition RC30 production racer, which had taken American Fred Merkel to the first two superbike world titles.
The 1990s saw HRC enter a factory team and a new bike, the RC45, but despite the mercurial John Kocinski winning the 1997 title the rules were stacked against the Japanese manufacturers and their 750cc fours. Rules gave twins a 250cc advantage and Ducati were the undoubted kings of this very important class. For the 2000 season, Honda built its own V-twin, the VTR1000 SP-1, and Colin Edwards won the title first time out. Two years later Edwards won the title again on this, the SP-2, as he won the last nine races in a row in one of the greatest racing comebacks of all time.
The SP-2, known as the RC51 in the US, was developed by HRC and designed specifically to race, even though it was a standard production model built in Honda’s main factory. It was an update on the SP-1, with a number of small revisions aimed at making it stronger on the racetrack. It sold for four years but was retired from world superbikes after that one victorious season as Honda went on to focus its attentions on the new four-stroke MotoGP series.
Without a doubt the FireBlade is the most iconic Honda of the last 30 years.
Introduced in 1992, the ‘Blade was the vision of project leader Tadao Baba, who wanted a sportsbike with the power of a litre bike but the compact dimensions and weight of a 600. The result was an 893cc inline four making a claimed 122bhp in a package weighing just 185kg.
Where other sports bikes were heavy 1000cc bruisers, or 750s built to racing regulations, the CBR900RR wrote its own rule book. Baba-san’s obsession with weight saving saw meant Honda didn’t follow fashion, as witnessed by the 16” front wheel and conventional telescopic forks – both lighter than the more typical 17 incher and upside down fork combo.
As bikes like the Yamaha R1 and Suzuki GSX-R1000 came on the scene, later bikes gained capacity, weight and power. In 2004 Honda replaced the FireBlade with an all-new bike. It became a full litre bike, in line with the competition, and got a new name, the CBR1000RR Fireblade. It was the base for Honda’s efforts in superbike racing, winning the 2007 world title with Brit James Toseland. These days it’s a more generic 1000cc sportsbike than those 1990s originals and, after a few years as the poor relation in the class, the latest generation model is a 190bhp missile that’s right up there as the cream of the crop.
The VFR750F is another machine that created a new genre of motorcycle.
If the CB750 of 1969 created the UJM, 1986 saw Honda smash the mould and create the first genuine sports tourer.
The Eighties were a time of great development in the motorcycle world, as fairings became more commonplace and new models became more segmented. The VFR750F was sportier than pretty much any mainstream motorcycle of the 1970s, yet practical and comfortable thanks to its full fairing and generous riding position. The gear driven V4 engine was a peach, a real Honda trademark of the era, and bullet proof, thanks in no small part to Honda’s desire to rid its successor, the VF750F’s, reputation for wearing out its camshafts.
And they sold well – very well – right into the late Nineties, when it was replaced by the VFR800F. The 800 was a success too, and even gained Honda’s VTEC valve system, and remains in the range today – although the rise in popularity of adventure bikes has seen sports tourers like the VFR reduced to the lower reaches of the sales charts these days. Back in the day though, they were huge.
The decline in the VFR’s fortunes is down, in part at least, to the success of Honda’s reborn Africa Twin (CRF1000L) but our place in the hall of fame goes to the first model to wear the famous nameplate.
Back in the 1980s, the Paris-Dakar rally was a huge deal, with the big factories entering works prototypes designed especially for the rally raids.
These racers often led to road focussed replicas, like the BMW GS and Yamaha Tenere range. Between 1986 and 1989, Honda won the famous event with its NXR750V and NXR800V racers, and in 1988 the first road bike was launched.
Called the XRV650 and known as the Africa Twin, this dual purpose machine was an adventure bike more than a decade before the term was officially coined. Capacity was soon increased to 750cc and they were a huge success in mainland Europe, even if sportsbike obsessed Britain never really understood them.
After 12 years out of production, the latest Africa Twin was born in 2016 with a 1000cc parallel twin engine. Thankfully us Brits fully get the concept now, and the latest model is one of Honda’s best sellers.
Another bike of its time, the Super Blackbird was the fastest motorbike in the world when it was launched in 1996, with a top speed of 180mph.
These hyper sportsbikes were hugely popular at the time. The Honda took over the mantle from Kawasaki’s ZZR1100 and was later challenged by the Suzuki Hayabusa.
Despite the big numbers (it made 164bhp and weighed 224kg) the Honda was a real pussycat to ride. Tastes changed somewhat in the early 2000s, as trends went towards lighter and more agile 1000cc superbikes, while lawmakers capped top speeds to 186mph.
They retain a huge following today by riders who appreciate the endless power and generous proportions, and who don’t mind replacing chains and rear tyres with great frequency.
For all the high-end, high power motorcycles Honda have made over the years, it is often the smaller models that show the company at its best.
The Honda Monkey bike (officially known as the Z50A and latterly the Z50J) was (and remains) a cult classic and represents freedom for many people.
First introduced in Japan in the early Sixties as a kids’ bike, the Z50 series landed in America and Europe during the Summer of Love, in 1967. These bikes were aimed at campers. The small wheels and collapsible handlebars made them easy to transport, and the ‘Monkey’ moniker came from the way that the tiny dimensions made the rider look when they sat on it. The Z50 remained in production until 2017 and were often highly collectable and modified by their owners.
Such was the popularity of the model, Honda introduced a rebooted Monkey for 2019. Based on that other cult classic the MSX125 ‘Grom’ the latest Monkey is bigger than the originals but remains popular with commuters looking for a fun retro city ride.
Photos: Wikipedia/Manufacturer Supplied