1981 Honda CB900F

Old school cool

| November/December 2010

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    Almost old when it was new, the Honda CB900F is still a blast and still fast.
    Photo by Doug Mitchel
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    Remote reservoir-type shocks were unique to the CB900F.
    Photo by Doug Mitchel
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    Photo by Doug Mitchel
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    Photo by Doug Mitchel
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    Tail fairings and bold graphics were pretty much requisite on early ‘80s sport bikes ...
    Photo by Doug Mitchel
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    ... as was a black engine treatment. The 900F’s 902cc four started as a 749cc in 1979.
    Photo by Doug Mitchel
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    Honda claimed 89hp @ 9,000rpm; Cycle Guide measured 66.8hp @ 8,500rpm in 1981.
    Photo by Doug Mitchel
  • honda cb900f 8
    Almost 30 years on and the CB900F is now an old school classic, its excellent proportions masking a sizable heft of some 575lb with fuel and oil.
    Photo by Doug Mitchel

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Honda CB900F
Years produced: 1981-1982
Claimed power: 89hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 129mph (period test)
Engine type: 902cc air-cooled, DOHC inline four
Weight (wet): 575lb (260kg)
Price then: $3,495
Price now: $1,500-$3,000
MPG: 40-50mpg

John Davy lives surrounded by motorcycles. During the day, he works as a motorcycle wholesaler, buying used bikes and selling them to dealerships. On evenings and weekends, he indulges his passion for collecting classics, especially classic Japanese motorcycles. One of John’s latest finds is this 1981 Honda CB900F.

“I got lucky,” John admits. “There are only a few nice CB900F’s around, and most are the silver and blue ones, not the black and orange. This one was all original, with 1,400 miles on it. It had been sitting in a garage for 10 or 15 years.”

Like Kawasaki triples and Yamaha SR500 singles, the Honda CB900F is something of a cult bike. Imported into the United States for only two years, it got pulled from the U.S. market not because it wasn’t a good bike, but thanks to political problems not of its own making. The power and good handling of this inline four, one of the first Japanese-built bikes whose handling matched its horsepower, has kept interest in the 900F high.

The Big Four

The modern Japanese motorcycle industry had its roots in the turbulent years after World War II, when dozens of small factories vied to provide the home market with cheap transportation. By the late 1970s, the four remaining Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki, had a lock on the world’s lightweight and middleweight motorcycle market, and a healthy percentage of the heavyweight market. The four companies, jousting for market share, saw America as critical to their success. Courting American motorcyclists was serious business.

Honda, slightly ahead of the rest of the pack, looked back over its shoulder and saw Yamaha gaining. Determined to keep their number one position, Honda executives reviewed their model lineup and detected a hole. Suzuki was manufacturing the powerful and good-handling GS series of inline fours. Honda decided it needed a motorcycle to go head-to-head with the Suzuki GS models.

The CB900F was derived from the double overhead cam 750cc 4-cylinder engine of the late Seventies, which, in turn, had its roots in Honda’s RCB endurance racers. It was introduced in Europe in the late Seventies, where it was known as the Bol D’Or, after a famous endurance race. At the time, Honda was campaigning its CBX transverse 6-cylinder as the ultimate performance machine for North America. However, many American riders panned the CBX for being too big and too heavy, and it didn’t do well at the track.

Magazine reports of the CB900F appeared in American magazines in 1979, whetting the appetite of American canyon carvers. Riders began to bug dealers, demanding that Honda sell this bike in the U.S. And dealers began to bug Honda, wanting to know why they couldn’t offer this sporty bike to their customers. Eventually, Honda started to recognize there was a market for a bike that would handle well, not just put up great quarter mile times. With Suzuki’s GS series already gaining and Yamaha audible in the background with its multis, Honda couldn’t afford to ignore a growing market niche.

The 900 arrives

The 900F showed up in the U.S. for the 1981 model year; at the same time the CBX was revamped into a grand tourer. The double-overhead cam engine was sparked by electronic ignition. Four 32mm Keihin constant-velocity carburetors fed the fuel mixture to each of the four air-cooled cylinders, and an oil cooler kept internal operating temperatures down.

Power was fed through a 5-speed transmission. The powertrain was rubber mounted to a heavy-duty chassis, which featured extra gusseting to cope with the CB900’s claimed 89hp. The frame was a combination of welded and bolted construction, with the cradle tubes separate from the rest of the frame. This made for easier engine removal for any serious servicing, as you could simply remove the lower frame tubes and drop the engine out of the frame.

Honda’s experience with the CB900F in Europe led to improvements in chassis rigidity, enlarging the frame downtubes and increasing fork tube diameter from 35mm to 39mm, and widening the engine mounts for the 1981 model year. Plus, the 900F’s forks now featured low-friction “Syntallic” bushings and air assist with a balance tube. The previous year’s dual rear shocks, panned by sporting European motorcyclists, were updated and were now adjustable for spring preload and both rebound and compression damping. A comfortable, dual-density foam seat topped off the package.

Riding the 900F

In a 1981 shootout between the Suzuki GS1100EX, the Kawasaki GPz1100 and the Honda CB900F, Cycle Guide called the assembled big-bore beauties “Hyperbikes,” its writer apparently concluding the term “Superbike” had become somewhat dated when applied to these bikes.

Although praised for its excellent performance and comfort, contemporary testers found the 900F to be a cold-blooded monster that needed a lengthy warm-up period. John, who rides the bikes in his collection (as not all collectors do) agrees with this assessment. “It takes at least three minutes before it will idle, and five before it is really warm. And yes, I like the bench seat — it’s very comfortable.”

In an era where some vibration was expected, the 900F was noted for being almost vibration free — at least for the rider. Yet magazines of the time stated that around town, the CB900F’s long wheelbase, lack of pull below 2,000rpm and late clutch engagement made it a little clunky. John disagrees: “It’s perfect around town. It turns well in tight spots. It’s heavy, but it’s smooth.”

Contemporary testers found the 900F happiest out on a mountain road. “Slamming the CB900F through turns reveals what it does best. Its suspension reacts so well to bumps and ripples that the bike rarely bobbles off line through a bend,” Cycle Guide’s editors said. It’s an assessment John shares. The engine’s even power delivery and strong midrange, mated with light handling and strong brakes, make all day canyon carving a joy. “It’s very user friendly and smooth,” John says, “but the brakes are a little spongy, as are all brakes of the era.”

In the Cycle Guide shootout, testers praised the Honda’s suspension and brakes, but pointed out that its transmission was prone to missing shifts, a problem John says he’s never experienced. “It’s smooth through the gears and a good shifter.”

Interestingly, although the 900F was then the basis for Honda’s factory Superbike effort, the Cycle Guide testers felt that the Honda was overworked at maximum cornering speeds.

Tariffs begin

The 900F quickly gained as devoted a following in America as it had in Europe, but just as quickly ran into trouble. In their battle for market supremacy, both Honda and Yamaha poured motorcycles into the United States. When the U.S. economy went sour in the early Eighties, unwanted inventory had to be dumped at fire sale prices.

Adding to Honda’s troubles were a new  set of tariffs. In November of 1982, Harley-Davidson petitioned the International Trade Commission, claiming the competition between Honda and Yamaha was leading both companies to sell bikes for under cost. In 1981, the 900F sold for $3,500, about $8,000 in today’s money. Whether or not the low prices were due to economical manufacturing methods or dumping is still an open question, but Harley’s view prevailed. On April 1, 1983, President Reagan signed a law imposing a 45-percent tariff on all Japanese bikes over 700cc. The CB 900F grew and became the CB1100F for 1983, and then disappeared.

John’s passion

While Honda and Yamaha were fighting over the American market, a kid was hiding a minibike from his mother. “I bought it for $30, but I couldn’t bring it home,” John says. He was competing in bicycle motocross (BMX), but realized that the same things he liked about bicycles could be gained from motorcycles — only more so. His first real motorcycle was a blue Honda 900C. “My favorite bike during the Eighties was a 1988 Suzuki GSXR-750 ‘slingshot’ — I still have that one.

“I’ve been collecting bikes for years,” John adds. “I’m always on the lookout for something nicer than what I have. I look for originality and condition. Unless a bike is really rare, I don’t want to do a total restoration.”

This CB900F fit all of John’s criteria. A cult bike in original condition, it only had a few small scratches on it and the carburetors were gummed up, but those were items John was willing to fix.

But despite the fact that the bike has been stored in a garage, years of inactivity had taken a toll. Although its paint was in beautiful shape, the tank needed an inside cleaning. The rubber seals had deteriorated, the carburetors needed rebuilding, the brake system needed to be flushed, and all the fork seals had to be replaced, as did the brake caliper seals.

Good looking and great to ride, it’s a bike John’s happy to have in his collection. “All the F models are desirable,” John says. “It’s the rarity and looks. They’re old school, but they’re cool.” MC

Racing the Honda CB900F

“If you want an example of technology improving racebikes, the Superbike class is the place to look. You need to remember that the ‘82 CB900F was a basic streetbike that we made into a racebike. It wasn’t very stable in stock form when it made 80 horsepower, so imagine riding it with 130!” — Freddie Spencer, Superbike magazine, 2000

Honda’s efforts in American Superbike racing started in 1980, with American Honda bringing over a 1,011cc version of its then Europe-only 900F for the series. Honda had avoided American road racing for most of the 1970s, but the challenge from Yamaha at the end of the decade meant that all stops needed to be pulled out. At the time, Honda didn’t have anything ready for the Superbike class but met the challenge with the 900F, using endurance racing parts and some imaginative seat-of-the-pants engineering.

Freddie Spencer started his National career racing Kawasakis, but switched to Honda and the CB900F in 1980, while still in his late teens. He was second in the point standings that year. The CB900F took Spencer and his teammate, Mike Baldwin, to a lot of podium finishes, but both were never really happy with the bike and welcomed its replacement, the V4 Interceptor. In the 2000 retrospective Spencer stated, “When I rode the 900, it was always a fight between traction and stability. Everything was a compromise.”

12/4/2010 5:08:17 PM

I'm the original owner of an '81 900F. I still own it & ride it on the street. I also raced it at the club level in the '80's. The bike is heavily modified, the engine being built by Denny Zickrick. Denny, for those not aware of it, was the HRC mechanic building engines for Mike Baldwin, Steve Wise, and Spencer when the 900F was campaigned in AMA Superbike by Honda. Spencer's comments in the article have to be taken with a large amount of salt. At the time HRC used a 16" front on the bikes to try to get them to flick in. Pull up photos of those bikes & you'll see wiiiide bars on them that (barely) allowed the rider to get the leverage to keep that 16" combo from tucking in & rolling. My bike, with the stock 19" front is a model of stability. 900F

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