Baba’s Baby - Feature

1993 CBR900RR: The original RR and the story of a story that was, then wasn’t, then was.

Photography by Dave Bush

Tadao Baba

Tadao Baba

To quote the famous line uttered by actor Strother Martin in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is…failure to communicate.”

So it seemed in September of 1991 as I sat in my Tokyo hotel room, frustrated and confused, pleading my case by phone to people half a world away in Los Angeles. I had flown to Japan to get the inside scoop on the CBR900RR, an exciting new model Honda was scheduled to release the following spring. On paper, that motorcycle looked poised to change everyone's perception of Open-class sportbikes. It was exceptionally light and small, according to early rumors, but with big-bike power. And I was there for Cycle World to get a world exclusive on a motorcycle that, as history has since proven, really did turn out to be revolutionary.

But that story almost didn’t happen. Arrangements for my visit had been made weeks earlier by American Honda, but when I arrived, factory representatives insisted they had no knowledge of such an agreement. As far as they were concerned, access to the 900 and any of its design team—whether for me or any other member of the press—was impossible. No way, no how.

A full day of brass-knuckle negotiation then waged between Honda executives in the U.S. and others in Japan as I languished in my hotel room, watching strange and indecipherable TV programming while waiting for the phone to ring. When it finally did, it brought good news/not-so-good news. I was given the green light to visit Honda R&D and speak with the man primarily responsible for the 900, Tadao Baba, the bike’s LPL (Large Project Leader), but with two iron-clad restrictions: 1) I could see a pre-production CBR900RR but not ride it or even sit on it; and 2) all interviews with Mr. Baba would be conducted in the presence of one of the factory’s press-relations officers (whose name, I’m sorry to say, escapes me some 20 years later).

When I arrived at the R&D facility, it soon became apparent that I would not be getting any “inside” information from Mr. Baba. He was friendly and spoke reasonably good English, but his replies to my questions were either vague or obvious; and every time I would ask another, he would nervously look at his chaperone before responding with a self-evident answer. I sensed that he wanted to tell me much more about what he occasionally called “his baby,” but for some inexplicable reason, he had been forbidden to do so. My interview was going nowhere at warp speed.

That all changed during dinner at a trendy Japanese restaurant. After enjoying more than a few rounds of sake and karaoke, Baba’s P.R. watchdog started paying less attention to our conversation and more to one of the geishas serving our table. And that allowed the real Tadao Baba to emerge. He not only provided specific answers to all of my questions, he freely and enthusiastically ventured far off the reservation, regaling me with details of engineering challenges and subsequent solutions I otherwise would never have even suspected. And as he proudly described the performance and handling that had resulted from his team’s tireless efforts, he was as animated and excited as a 10-year-old opening Christmas presents.

By the end of the evening, I knew why. Traditionally, LPLs at Japanese motorcycle companies had purely engineering backgrounds and little riding experience. But by Japanese standards, Baba had traveled a rare career path for someone in his position: For years, he had been Honda R&D’s chief test rider. He was a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast with thousands of hours of saddle time that gave him a distinct advantage as a designer. As I wrote about him in my December, 1991, story of the 900RR, “He has that special feel, that intimate appreciation for the subtleties of motorcycle dynamics, that only an accomplished rider can fully understand.”

As we learned five months later, Baba’s passion and experience had brought an extraordinary motorcycle into the world. In our Open-class sportbike comparison published in the May, 1992, issue, the 900RR handily whipped Suzuki’s highly regarded GSX-R1100 and Yamaha’s razor-sharp FZR1000.

The most impressive aspect of that victory was not that the 900 had won the comparison but how it had won. Instead of relying primarily on brute horsepower, as had been the convention with previous literbikes, the 900 prevailed with agility, finesse and a superior power-to-weight ratio. In size and weight, the 900RR was the equal of the best 600s of the time; and although its 893cc engine was also just a teensy bit bigger externally than the smallest 600 motors, it packed almost 50 percent more displacement. That unprecedented combination of middleweight-class lightness and near-liter-class cubic power allowed the Honda to blow the competition into the weeds.

As it turned out, that first CBR900RR was more than just the progenitor of the CBR-RR series that continues to this day. Not only did it change forever the way that people thought about such machines, it changed the way those bikes were designed. The CBR900RR may have started out as Tadao Baba’s baby, but it grew up to be the prototype of the modern sportbike.

Honda CBR900RR action shot

Tadao Baba's 1993 Honda CBR900RR

CBR929RR and Tadao Baba profile shot

Tadao Baba strikes a pose with the CBR929RR

Front profile view of Honda CBR900RR

Honda CBR900RR front profile

Side profile view of Honda CBR900RR

Honda CBR900RR side profile