Honda CB400 Four: Less is More

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Don Hughes' 1976 Honda CB400 Four.
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Don Hughes' 1976 Honda CB400F.
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Though the 400 Four sparked the café racer styling trend that would eventually give us today's repli-racer sportbikes, it wasn't universally appreciated at the time.
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Honda CB400 Four
Years produced:
Total production: 105,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 37hp
Top speed: 95mph
Engine type: 408cc overhead cam, air-cooled inline four
Weight (dry): 179kg (394lb)
Price then: $1,470
Price now: $1,800-$3,000
MPG: 45 (period test

More than 30 years later, the Honda CB400 Four has never looked better. A stalwart British bike fan, I’d never ridden a Japanese multi until one day in 1975. My “daily driver” was a persnickety BSA Victor, a worthy enough machine, certainly, but a real clunker. It was, after all, just an old-fashioned and only partially civilized dirt bike.

A friend offers me a ride on his new CB400F. I’m not going to like this, I tell myself. It’s a wussy rice burner. I’m still trying to kid myself that it’s nothing special when I hand it back. Just six years separate the Beezer from the F-bike, but the contrast is huge; it’s like the Space Shuttle just landed in the Stone Age.

I doubt I could have chosen a more stark comparison if I’d tried, and in spite of my own laggardness, by 1975 the rest of the world was used to four-cylinder Hondas. The Honda CB750 Four came first, of course, in 1969, and created the pattern for all Honda Fours for the next 10 years. The air-cooled in-line four cylinder wet sump engine used a chain-driven single overhead camshaft and breathed through four carburetors. The engine was constructed in unit with the primary drive, wet clutch and five-speed transmission. An electric starter was standard, as was the disc front brake.

Honda’s mini-multis
Having effectively created the four-cylinder category, Honda took its bag of tricks and downsized them. Next came the 1971 Honda CB500 Four, then the 1972 CB350 Four. This last machine exemplified Honda’s flair for miniaturization but was not a technical success. With four heavy chrome pipes, mild tuning and meager power, it was slower than the company’s same-size twin and barely capable of highway speeds. It nevertheless lasted two seasons on the back of the four-cylinder fashion.

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