Honda VFR History: Part II - Special Feature

CW Archives: No, Honda’s original V-Four machines weren’t exactly sportbikes. But the V45 Interceptor that followed was.

Honda VFR History: Part II - Special Feature


Honda was in a state of almost manic engineering experimentation circa 1983. Maybe it was the lingering buzz it and all the Japanese manufacturers were suffering following the gluttonous success of the 1970s: Honda introduced a 52-degree 500cc V-Twin and a 750cc 45-degree one (in the first of the Shadows); a pair of new Nighthawk four-cylinders in 550 and 650cc sizes, the new V65 Magna with bone-crusher 1100cc V-Four, the CX650 Turbo, CB1100F, several other bikes including the new XL600R—and the one we'd all been waiting for: the VF750F V45 Interceptor. Okay, sportbike guys had been waiting for it. Most of the reader feedback in the following months in CW, though, dealt with readers incensed (or incensed at other readers for being incensed) that the new V-Twins were blatant H-D ripoffs. The more things change...

But even if you had been paying attention and were expecting that V-Four to find its way into something race-inspired, you were still blown away by what was at the time, really, the first Japanese repli-racer wearing its frame brazenly on the outside—like your first exotic dancer having just slipped from the outer layer, in an era when Private Browsing involved driving downtown to the Burlesque House. Whaaaa?!

The first Interceptor wasn’t just a matter of slotting the Sabre/Magna engine into a sporty frame. For one thing, the cylinders were rotated rearward in order to shorten the wheelbase; the Interceptor’s front bank was set at 30 degrees from horizontal instead of 23.5, allowing the front wheel to tuck in tighter to the engine. For another, adapting chain final drive instead of shaft meant revising the V-Four to spin in the same direction as the bike’s wheels. A five-speed gearbox replaced the Magna’s six-speed with overdrive top—and it’s a good thing that 90-degree V-Four ran so smoothly, because it was then turning 4700 rpm at 60 mph. It’s also solid-mounted like with the FWS1000 racer it resembles. Decades before the slipper clutch became fashionable, the bike had a two-piece clutch basket with a sprag arrangement so half the plates would disengage under engine braking. So trick we didn’t yet know it.

Changes to the airbox added 6 horsepower over the Magna, thereby boosted to 86 hp at 10,000 rpm, thanks also to ducts bringing cool air from above and ahead of the cylinders—forerunner to today's ubiquitous "ram-air" deals. Coolest of all, the tricky new "perimeter frame" looks aluminum but is in fact steel, with a removable section to allow the engine to be extracted. Split radiators are eminently racy and make room for the 16-inch front wheel inside a wheelbase of 59.8 inches. An exotic sand-cast swingarm mounted an air-adjustable shock, while a 39mm Showa fork bristled with TRAC anti-dive and an array of air-pressure adjustment fittings and knobs. Strangely enough, a huge, 5.8-gallon fuel tank, half full, helped the bike weigh 532 pounds (on probably the same scale we still use at CW HQ).

Honda V45 Inceptor revealed.

Honda V45 Inceptor revealed.

Stiff competition that year from the Kawasaki GPz750 and Suzuki GS750E turned out to not be stiff enough: The steamy VF ran 11.67 in the quarter-mile at 115.23 mph, topped out at 132, got 44 mpg and MSRP’d at $3498. (All those performance numbers, interestingly, have the Honda right in the running with the five standard bikes we compared for our May, ’11 issue: Aprilia Shiver, BMW F800R, Ducati Monster 796, Triumph Speed Triple R and Yamaha FZ8.)

From "The New Superbikes", CW, May '83:

The biggest, the heaviest, the most powerful, the quickest, the fastest. The Honda has a combination of strengths which the rider can put to his advantage, along with an agility that makes it the most forgiving of the three and yes, we all like to pretend looks don’t matter but they do and the Honda dazzles the eye. The Interceptor wins.

At the time, it really did dazzle. Creases and all, the poster of the new Interceptor that was tucked into my issue of Cycle looked great hanging on the wall of the palatial ex-Hitler Youth barracks I inhabited while stationed in West Germany when I was in the U.S. Army. The Interceptor was so high-tech with its perimeter frame, quick-fill-looking petcock arrangement and two banks of cylinders... I think it reassured me there was no way the East was going to defeat the West in the Cold War if our side could build stuff like this. Cold what? Why did no one inform me of this when I enlisted?

Racing backed up CW's impressions: In the first season for downsized, 750cc superbikes, Freddie Spencer won the '83 Daytona Superbike race, and then left for Europe to become 500cc World Champion. Meanwhile, Mike Baldwin won four Nationals on his VF and was looking for the big trophy—right up until a crash at Pocono (in the Formula 1 race) broke his wrist, before another big get-off at Willow Springs put an end to his season and to his factory Interceptor, which was last seen doing 130-mph flaming cartwheels down Willow's back straight. Fred Merkel and Sam MacDonald also stacked up factory Hondas that fateful day, leaving a kid named Wayne Rainey on a heavily overmatched and outspent Kawasaki GPz750 tuned by Rob Muzzy to snatch the '83 Superbike championship.

Mike Baldwin was so close to being ’83 Superbike champ.

Mike Baldwin was so close to being ’83 Superbike champ he could taste it... (Photo by Tom Riles)

After ’83, a broke Kawasaki pulled the roadrace plug for ’84, leaving the VF750F to win all but one superbike national to take the championship under Fred Merkel. In fact, after Kawasaki left, Honda really was the only factory team, and Merkel took the championship again in ’84 and ’85.

Was Honda content with its new box-blower-upper Interceptor? Hell no. One year later, here came all-new VF-Fs in 500 and 1000cc displacements.

Stroking the 748cc engine 5mm to 53.6mm, and boring it from 70 to 77mm produced a 998cc V-Four that ran a 10.90-second, 123.96-mph quarter-mile and topped out at 138, in a package that weighed but 20 pounds more than the 750. The 1000 used the same engine cases and bore centers as the 750, but with pressed-in wet liners instead of cast-in ones. Longer rods, bigger main bearings and bigger (36mm) carbs fed the bigger valves and pistons, and a bigger secondary radiator hidden behind the headlight helped keep it cool. And in an effort to assuage fears about the camshaft failures some Magnas and Sabres suffered, Honda’s engineers increased oil flow to cams with hardened faces.

Honda 1000 Interceptor

Though it looked virtually identical on paper, the 1000 just didn't have the handling chops of the smaller VF: 25 years ago, conventional engineering wisdom had it that a low center of gravity was good for handling, and so the VF1000F's engine was lowered about an inch in its frame compared to the 750. Only later did we figure out the benefits of "mass centralization," and that lower is not always better. Also, maybe the competition was just tougher in the Open class. In CW's July '84 test, the VF1000F was damned with faint praise before being just plain damned:

The Kawasaki Ninja is a livelier, more specialized pure-sport bike. The Yamaha 1100 has more peak power, feels smaller and possesses a wonderful smoothness, almost a gentle nature, that the Honda does not. And the 1150 Suzuki? Well, it’s just a brute, pure and simple... The 1000 actually does a commendable job of following the 750’s performance of 1983. It’s just that some other manufacturers seem to have done at least as well. If not better.

Fine, Honda seemed to say, throwing the VF500F into our cage a month later, try this one on for size, then. And size was what the 500 was all about. Honda claimed it made just 68 hp (at 11,500 rpm!), but this VF weighed a whopping 100 pounds less than the 750—432 lb. with a half-tank of fuel. The critics loved it. CW compared it to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and then went on to explain who Mikhail Baryshnikov is (an internationally renowned and immensely talented ballet dancer).

Cycle World_’s staff is as diversified a group of motorcycle enthusiasts as you’re likely to find, and to a man they picked the Interceptor as_ the_ middleweight bike to have when it comes time to blast down a winding country two-lane. The GPz550 might be a better choice for all-around transportation because of its more-spread-out seating position and rubber engine mounts. But for straightening out the kinks in a twisty piece of road, the 500 Interceptor is the best bike in its class. Or, for that matter, maybe even in_ any_ class._

Honda 500 Interceptor

In 1985, Honda de-stroked the 750 engine 3.2mm to create the VF700F and sidestep the tariff on bikes over 700cc. A one-tooth-smaller countershaft sprocket and camshafts with less duration saw to it we didn’t miss the extra 50cc much at all. Especially since it was priced at $3598—$800 less than the 750.

And Honda was still not quite done with 1985. In Europe, a bunch of second-generation FWS1000s, designated RS850 (and later RS920), had been built to contest endurance races and the TT F1 World Championship, one round of which was the Isle of Man TT. In '83, Joey Dunlop rode an aluminum-framed RS to a new lap record of 19 minutes, 33.6 seconds at a speed of 115.7 mph, handing Honda's V-Four its first world championship at the venue that had been Mr. Honda's first big international race, implanting Dunlop even more firmly in Island lore in the process, and making V-Four Victory the coolest video of all time in an era when onboard cameras were like carrying a stuffed badger atop your gas tank.

Video window may take a few moments to load...

Whether the '84 VF1000R was inspired by Dunlop and the mighty RS or not, it certainly looked it, and after a year abroad the highly coveted R was imported to the U.S., where it was promptly reviled as being a heavy pig. Well, maybe not reviled, but heavily criticized. At around 600 pounds with its 6.2-gallon fuel tank half full, the R was about 50 pounds heavier than the F—heavier even than the CBX. And though you can argue that the VF750F was the first modern superbike, it still hadn't prepared us for real-live clip-on handlebars, rearset footpegs and gasp, no centerstand. What the first VF-R did have, though, was the first street-going VF engine with gear-driven cams, along with more aggressive cam timing, a higher redline and higher compression. Honda said the R was good for 116 hp at 10,000 rpm, and our test unit went an honest 150 mph. That still wasn't enough to satisfy the critics. But time has a way of making absolute performance numbers moot, and we have a sneaking suspicion that if any first-generation Honda V-Fours ever become collectible (and they will), this rare, expensive ($5698) and beautiful bird might be the VF to have.

1985 Honda VF1000R

1985 VF1000R: Instead of twin endurance style headlights, the U.S. version got a big rectangular job, also a bias-ply rear tire instead of the Euro-bike’s radical new Bridgestone radial, both tires mounted on tricky ComStar wheels.

The VF1000R’s gear-driven cams would become an engineering signature for VFRs to come.

Carried forward from the FWS race bikes and others that preceded it, the VF1000R’s gear-driven cams would become an engineering signature for VFRs to come: Precise valve timing, no chains or tensioners to go south in the heat of battle, and aural catnip for the gearhead.

In its test of the big VFR, Cycle magazine (July, '85) attempted to apply positive spin by conjecturing that Honda had maybe missed the boat by not slotting the big VF-R into the sport-touring niche sparsely occupied at the time by the BMW K100RS: "... specialization has left a gaping hole in the marketplace where sport-touring machines once stood; the VF1000R could have been Honda's reply to the RS—and a damn good one.

Maybe somebody was listening. Only a quarter of a century later, Honda would respond with the VFR1200F. But not before a few more exciting VFRs came and went.

Next time: Part III: Rs for the taking, RC this and that, etc... Honda flexes more engineering muscle with some very trick V-Fours

012 Carried forward from the FWS race bikes and others that preceded it, the VF1000R?s gear-driven cams would become an engineering signature for VFRs to come.

011 Honda 500 Interceptor

010 Honda 1000 Interceptor

009 Honda V45 Interceptor

008 Mike Baldwin was so close to being ?83 Superbike champ he could taste it? (Photo by Tom Riles)

007 Daytona, 1983: Tuner Mike Velasco prepares to launch Freddie Spencer to superstardom. (Photo from the Cycle archives)

006 What the?! Spy shot of Mike Baldwin testing Honda?s new Superbike at Laguna Seca, late ?82ish? (Photo from the Cycle World archives)

005 Honda V45 Inceptor revealed.

004 Honda VFR History: Part II

003 Factory Interceptor racers had gear-driven cams, titanium connecting rods and valves, magnesium carburetors, dry clutch? (Cycle magazine archives)

002 Factory Interceptor racers were said to make around 120 hp, and weighed about 70 pounds less than the stock machine. (Cycle magazine archives)

001 1985 VF1000R: Instead of twin endurance style headlights, the U.S. version got a big rectangular job.