Honda’s 1983 Interceptor 750 was the first true sportbike. I expect to hear objections, but here’s why I insist. This was the first new design to incorporate the harsh lessons of U.S. Superbike racing. Those lessons were that both engine and chassis must in the future be designed to win Superbike races without the complete re-engineering needed in 1976–’82.
The great sit-up Superbikes of that time—Kawasaki Z1, Suzuki GS, and Honda CB900F—showed that something better than their obsolete chassis and suspension, combined with bulky air-cooled two-valve-per-cylinder engines, would be required in the 750cc Superbike formula arriving in 1983.
The Interceptor’s tremendous market success was a shock to Honda management. The bike was planned as a homologation special, a low-volume but high-tech bike produced only to make race-winning features legal for the new formula. At the time, it was “known” that the market cared only for what you might call the prime numbers: quarter-mile drag strip elapsed time and top speed. Handling was a big nothing in motorcycle sales—everyone knew that.
Surprise! The first 1,200 Interceptors were sucked out of dealerships so fast, it made our ears pop. Word of mouth told us all that here was something extraordinary—a motorcycle that did just what you asked, right now, without wobbling or weaving.
Honda team rider Mike Baldwin, after practicing on the new bikes before Daytona 1983, said: “You know how everybody waits to make the upshift right where the infield hits the banking off turn five? On this bike you don’t have to do that—you can stay on the throttle right across that hit. The suspension just gobbles it up.”
The irony of racing is that Interceptors put over a minute on the field at Daytona and won the first six U.S. Superbike races that season. Then the tough, experienced Kawasaki team of Rob Muzzy and rider Eddie Lawson chewed their way back to another championship through the remaining events. It was no trend: Honda V-4s took the next five straight AMA Superbike titles.
What was different? Interceptor abandoned the 1960s streetbike tech, which was all there was through the 1970s, and put new GP racing knowledge in its place. Instead of the flexy backbone-and-cradle tube frames of the past (pinched narrow on top to fit under the gas tank), Interceptor got a big, stiff twin-loop box frame of square steel tubing.
As American Honda race-team fabricator Todd Schuster put it (as he stepped into one of the bare frames and pulled it up like a pair of pants), “There’s only one chassis in the history of racing heavier than this one: the 1954 Hudson Hornet.” In my 1983 notes, I see this sentence: “A much stronger chassis than Honda has ever made.”
How did Honda know what to do? While Interceptor was being designed, Freddie Spencer was winning his first GP races on the very similar frame of the NS3 500cc two-stroke triple.
The Interceptor’s engine was a liquid-cooled V-4 (an engine architecture inspired by Honda’s ambitious but unsuccessful V-4 oval-piston NR500) with double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. In place of a streetbike’s chain cam drive was a proper racing gear drive that never let valves go out of time (as does happen with chain stretch).
In detail after detail, it was made clear to me that this was a racing machine adapted for production. By bringing racing design features to the bikes intended to sell themselves by winning Superbike—and later, Supersport—races, features that began with the Interceptor would greatly elevate the sophistication of all production motorcycles.
Really, for the first time, this project aimed at creating outstanding chassis qualities, driven by an engine with serious high-rpm power. These bikes were raceable as designed. Unlike the previous generation of Superbikes, they would not need 30 pounds of extra steel welded into their frames to make them go straight in top gear.
Never again would I walk into the Daytona garage area at 8 a.m. on the second day of practice to see three wrecked engines stacked outside one top Superbike team’s garage, and five outside another. Hot-rodded streetbikes sound romantic, but keeping them running was a three-shift operation.
Interceptor’s “father” was the 1,000cc V-4 FWS that came within a few shredded tires of winning the 1982 Daytona 200. Its descendants were a veritable family saga: Interceptors of other displacements, the long line of VFRs, the RC30 and RC45 Superbike racers, and, yes, the V-5 RC211V MotoGP bike and its V-4 descendants ridden today by Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa.
The Interceptor looks bulky to us today, but that’s because Honda’s goal on this project was a huge chassis section modulus to give it real leverage over the forces it would transmit.
Those lucky enough to roll out of dealers with those first 1,200 bikes knew they were riding something new and unusual. The sportbike was changed forever.