The breadth of Honda’s sportbike history is an amazingly diverse collection of engine configurations. From Twins to Sixes and Inlines to Vs, Honda has shoehorned just about every kind of motor into a motorcycle chassis. Some models are complex and expensive, while others are simple and affordable, but this list is devoted to the ones most worthy of our attention and praise.
For this list we’ve limited selections to street-legal sportbikes sold in the United States (with one exception). Sorry, no NSR250Rs or VFR400Rs here, as that kind of small-displacement exotica never makes these shores (at least not with a factory warranty intact).
Based loosely on criteria such as impact on the market, racing performance, sales figures, historical significance, etc., we’ve compiled Honda’s sportbikes of greatest import. Let’s take a look.
10. CB72 Hawk/CB77 Super Hawk
Launched in 1961, the CB72 Hawk (247cc) and its bigger brother the CB77 Super Hawk (305cc) are largely remembered here in the States as Honda’s first sportbikes. Both engines were an air-cooled, inclined vertical-Twins with a redline of 9,200 rpm (the 305 model reportedly producing 28 horsepower at 9,000 rpm). With horizontally split cases (compared to the vertically split cases of British and American models) the Hawk and Super Hawk were virtually oil-tight. The bikes featured electric start, an overhead chain-driven camshaft, wet-sump lubrication, a 12-volt alternator and a double-leading shoe drum front brake.
A report in a 1964 issue of Cycle World described Honda and the Super Hawk thusly: “Never before, in the entire history of motorcycling, has one company done so much in so little time. There are, naturally, excellent reasons for this progress: from top to bottom, the Honda line of motorcycles features good performance, good handling, good quality, and a high degree of technical refinements. The fastest and most refined of all Hondas is the CB77, and it is a remarkable machine in many respects.”
If you’re a motorcycle engine aficionado then you must have a soft spot for the CBX. There’s nary an angle from which to view the CBX without its engine being the focal point. The CBX wasn’t Honda’s first inline-Six, but it was the largest-displacement, street-legal inline-Six Honda ever produced. It was the motorcycle meant to put Honda back on the performance map after having grown somewhat stagnant following the launch of its revolutionary CB750 Four. Available to American consumers in 1979, the 1,047cc DOHC, 24-valve inline-Six was fed by six individual Keihin carburetors. Claimed horsepower was 103 at 9,000 rpm, and its top speed was a reported 140 mph.
“The CBX is a mountain road flyer beyond anyone’s wildest dreams,” said the February 1978 issue of Cycle magazine. Sadly, the CBX wasn’t a great sales success and it only lasted in the new bike lineup for four years. For its first two years the CBX strutted around in unfaired, superbike nakedness, then morphed into a sport-tourer for its final two years of existence in ’81 and ’82.
Tired of the seemingly unfair advantages in World Superbike competition where V-Twins enjoyed a 1000cc displacement compared to Fours that were limited to 750cc, Honda produced a direct competitor to Ducati in the form of the RC51. Colin Edwards aboard the factory race version VTR1000SP, twice won the WSBK championship (2000, 2002), while Nicky Hayden claimed the AMA Superbike Championship also in 2002 aboard the V-Twin racer.
Other race versions of the bike won the LeMans 24 Hour and Suzuka 8 Hour endurance races. The 999cc liquid-cooled 90° V-Twin powering the street-legal RC51 was force fed air from a ram air duct running directly through the steering head. Honda claimed the stock version produced 126 hp @ 9,000 rpm. Despite being sold for seven years (2000 to 2006), the RC51 is a rarity and, like the NT650 Hawk, enjoys a cult status among sportbike riders.
7. NT650 Hawk GT
One of the greatest sleepers of all time, the Hawk GT was often overlooked by consumers desiring something with a sportier appeal such as a CBR600F. Even with a twin-spar aluminum frame and only the second Honda to wear the single-sided “Pro-Arm,” (the first being the RC30), and a wet weight of 414 pounds, the Hawk failed to attract many buyers. It wasn’t until Honda dropped the price and models, new and used, started circulating among riders and racers that it reached its potential as a cult classic. Brought stateside from 1988 to 1991, the 647cc, liquid-cooled Twin wasn’t the fastest engine out there, but it, essentially, was the Ducati Monster of its time.
6. VF750F Interceptor
The V45 Interceptor is arguably the first modern sportbike. Liquid-cooled DOHC engine, wrap-around frame (steel, not aluminum), frame-mounted fairing and headlight, triple-disc brakes, seat cowl; there’s not much missing between the original Interceptor and its modern sportbike counterparts. What it inarguably represents is Honda’s precedent of using the V-Four engine architecture in various sportbike guises, including the RC30/RC45 racing-homologation specials and every VFR model since the Interceptor’s launch in 1983. While certainly portly with its 551-pound wet weight, the 748cc, 45-degree V4 claimed 86 hp at 10,000 rpm and was clocked at 132 mph.
What the Suzuki GSX-R750 was to lightweight sportbike performance in the mid-’80s, the CBR900RR was to lightweight sportbike performance in the early-’90s. Prior to the 900RR, the premier performance bike was of 750cc displacement where OEMs fought an ever-escalating battle for showroom sales figures and National and World Superbike racing glory.
Prior to the 900’s arrival, literbikes were ponderously large and overweight horsepower missiles such as Yamaha’s FZR1000 and Honda’s own CBR1000F. The 900 combined the lightweight handling performance of a 600/750 with the horsepower of almost literbike displacement. With a claimed dry weight of 407 pounds, the 900 was fractionally heavier than the company’s own revolutionary CBR600F2 a year earlier. Today’s CBR1000RR is a remarkable machine, but it owes everything it is to Honda’s very first double-R sportbike, the CBR900RR.
4. CBR600F Hurricane
Honda’s 600cc sportbike, from the original CBR600F Hurricane to today’s CBR600RR has acquired more AMA SuperSport wins and championships than any other model. As a matter of fact, in its first year of racing in the AMA’s newly minted SuperSport class, the Hurricane won every race that year. In all its forms; F, F2, F3, F4, F4i and RR, it has brought more people into the world of motorcycling than any other sportbike. Unlike the Interceptor before it, the 1987 Hurricane was Honda’s first fully faired sportbike. The Hurricane was also Honda’s first sportbike with a liquid-cooled, DOHC, inline four-cylinder engine arrangement. The engine produced a claimed 83 hp at 11,000 rpm and weighed a claimed 397 pounds dry. By 1989 Honda decided to drop the Hurricane name and go with just the alphanumeric designation. It was never as catchy as “Ninja” anyway.
When the World Superbike Championship was launched in 1988, Honda was ready with a homologated, street-legal racer; the VFR750R, better known here as the RC30. This race bike with mirrors retailed for the princely sum of $15k when production 750s such as Gixxers and Ninjas cost approximately half as much. But the RC30 was no common sportbike. Hand built rather than assembled on a production line, the 748cc, 16-valve, DOHC, 90-degree V-Four featured items such as gear-driven cams and titanium connecting rods. It was also Honda’s first street-legal sportbike to have an aluminum twin-spar frame and a single-sided “Pro-Arm.” Well-preserved models are as valuable now as they were 24 years ago (for sale in America in 1990), while unridden examples are almost priceless.
The NR series features the only engines in existence constructed with oval pistons. Originally designed in the late ’70s as a four-stroke competitor to the 500cc two-stroke engines dominating Grand Prix motorcycle racing, the oval-piston V-Four engine is decidedly unique. With eight valves per cylinder and eight connecting rods, it’s nearly a V-8, but it was never able to match the lightweight two-strokers in GP competition and was replaced by the two-stroke NS500 in the early ’80s.
The NR750 was the culmination of this racing experience and technology presented in limited (300 examples) street-legal form to those who could afford a $60,000 motorcycle in 1992. Comparatively, Ducati’s Desmosedici sold for $72,000 in 2008. Like Chief Editor, Kevin Duke, says in his Exploring Lightweight Materials article, “There is literally nothing else like it and probably never will be again.”
1. CB750 Four
It may not appear a sportbike by today’s standards, but Honda’s 1969 CB750 Four literally created the superbike market. For $1,500 the CB750 Four was the first motorcycle from a major OEM to feature an oil-tight SOHC, inline-Four engine with four 28mm Keihin carburetors, a front disc brake and an electric starter. The prototype’s unveiling at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1968 was an unrealized death knell for big-bike competitors such as BSA, Norton and Triumph.
Like Honda’s RC-designated racing models, the CB750 produced its horsepower high in the rev range with a claimed 67 hp at 8,000 rpm, 44 ft-lb of torque at 7,000 rpm and a 125-mph top speed. There was such a clamor for the machine that Honda’s initial forecast of 1,500 units per year became a sales figure that eventually jumped to 3,000 units per month. Unlike the superbike moniker, the CB750 Four didn’t coin the “game changer” phrase, but it comes closest in the world of motorcycling. So, if you’re looking to find the godfather of the modern superbike/sportbike, look no further than the 1969 CB750 Four.