The bike America wanted, and got ... eventually
Phil Larsen's 1986 Honda VF1000R.
Years produced: 1985-1986 (U.S.)
Claimed power: 117hp @ 10,000rpm (92hp @ 10,000rpm as tested by Cycle)
Top speed: 149mph (period test)
Engine type: 998cc DOHC, liquid-cooled 90-degree V4
Weight: 277kg (610lb) w/ full tank
Price then: $5,698
Price now: $2,500-$5,000
MPG: 35-42 (period tests)
“Every year the hue and cry of frustrated American sporting riders rises anew, with fresh moaning and weeping and gnashing of teeth,” wrote Cycle Guide in July of 1985. “And always the piteous wail remains the same: ‘give us the good stuff.’”
What Cycle Guide was referring to was Honda’s 1984 decision to sell its full-on, race-based, liter-class sportbike, the Honda VF1000R, in Europe only, while bringing the more touring-oriented Honda VF1000F to the North American market. They might have added, “… but be careful what you ask for,” because in 1985 the Honda VF1000R finally appeared in U.S. Honda sales brochures — though perhaps not because of the clamoring of American consumers.
The Honda V4
It’s generally acknowledged that Honda’s range of liquid-cooled, 4-valve, overhead cam V4s was rushed to market in response to an aggressive strategy by Yamaha to usurp Big Red’s title as number one in U.S. cycle sales.
The first Honda V4 was the 1982 V45 Sabre for the U.S. market and VF750S sportbike in Europe. The “45” in V45 was for cubic inches. Both had (for the time) radically oversquare engines of 70mm x 43mm, 6-speed transmissions and shaft drive. They were initially acclaimed as a technological tour de force: the short stroke cranks, 4-valve heads and narrow included valve angles were all state-of-the-art, and buyers anticipated high-revving, high-power performance.
The V4 seemed to be Honda’s new golden boy. Between 1982 and 1984, Honda released a bewildering array of V4s in custom, street-standard and sportbike style in capacities of 400cc, 700cc, 750cc, 1,000cc and 1,100cc. Some had shaft drives, some chain; some came with 6-speed transmissions, some five. The 400s became 500s for the 1984 model year (in both V30 Magna custom and 500 Interceptor sport versions), while the 750cc V45 Magnas and street-standard Sabres became 700cc in the same year (to avoid new import tariffs on bikes over 700cc). Also in 1984, the 1,100cc V65 Sabre joined the V65 Magna, and the VF1000F Interceptor joined the VF750F in the sports range.
All of the V4 bikes, though, shared the same basic layout: a crankcase cast with the cylinders; cast iron cylinder liners; chain-driven double overhead camshafts; four valves per cylinder; and valves actuated by adjustable rockers rather than direct-acting shim-and-bucket. The chassis was equally revolutionary, using Honda’s Pro-Link rising-rate rear end and TRAC (Torque Reactive Anti-Dive Control) anti-dive front fork.
At the time, U.S. testers universally praised the 400/500 Interceptors and their “almost classic balance of power and weight” (Cycle). They also raved about the straight-line thrust of the V65s, and heaped accolades on the VF1000F. “We call it a Superstar,” said Cycle, while Cycle World enthused “… an engine that sounds and feels like nothing else.”
The Honda VF1000R
The Honda V4 line’s flagship model, at least in its pedigree, was the Honda VF1000R. Derived from Honda’s AMA Formula 1-winning FWS1000 race bike, the R used the FWS’s gear-driven camshaft arrangement.
The VF1000R arrived at U.S. dealers for the 1985 sales season with just a few listed changes from the European model. The Euro-bike’s twin headlights were replaced with a single unit; the seat cowl design was revised; and there were mandated changes to switchgear and instruments. The R was easily differentiated from the F model by its full fairing, replacing the F’s handlebar-only item.
The main differences from the F model were inside the engine: compression ratio was up from 10:1 to 10.7:1; more radical cams with longer exhaust duration; and a train of nine gears to drive the camshafts, replacing the central chain drive used on the other V4s. Effectively, the Honda VF1000R was a homologation special, built, initially at least, to qualify the bike for production racing.
Though Honda had used gear-drive cam operation in race engines, this was the first of Honda’s road bikes to be so equipped. Gear drive typically offers more precise and less variable cam timing at the expense of noise, weight and cost. Honda overcame the noise issue in the VF1000R by incorporating a second set of teeth on several of the gears. These were flexibly mounted on the gear center and slightly offset, with the intention of eliminating gear lash, the main noise source.
Phil Larsen’s Honda VF1000R
In partnership with his brother, Phil Larsen owned a Honda VF1000R many years ago. Then — like many of us in middle life — he found himself with the passion and resources to re-acquire one. Phil is the third owner of this Internet find; the first owner kept the bike for almost 20 years. Twin headlights identify it as a 1986 model.
“I’ve always kept my eye open to find one, because they’re not real plentiful,” says Phil. “The price got quite high then it seemed to come down again. I was looking for a nice clean low mileage one. A lot of them got abused or heavily modified over the years.”
Much was said in the original reviews about the VF1000R’s uncompromising ergonomics, and Phil agrees: “The bars are slightly adjustable, but there’s no height adjustment, so you’re pretty much stuck with the position. I think if you were the right shape it might fit.”
Evidently it fits well enough for his purposes, as Phil plans some long distance rides. “I think that’s what the bike’s good at. It’s too big and too long for around town. It’s more like an autobahn bike, and I think that’s really more the market it was developed for,” he says. “It’s quite a nice high speed, open road bike. But it’s definitely not a touring bike. It’s a sport bike. It’s rigid, hard.”
What Phil likes most about the bike are its looks — and the engine: “It’s really torquey. It’s deceiving, especially on the highway, how fast you’re going and you don’t realize it,” he says, adding, “It’s not the reason I bought it, but it gets a lot of attention. Whenever I ride it and stop somewhere, it draws more attention than any of my other bikes.”
But was the “European” Honda VF1000R what American consumers wanted? If they were expecting a lithe, lightweight and significantly more powerful version of the VF1000F, they would be disappointed. First, the revised cam timing resulted in more low- and mid-range torque than the F, but while the R delivered its maximum power of 92 rear-wheel horsepower at 9,500rpm on Cycle’s dyno, on that same dyno the F continued to build to 95.5 horsepower at 11,000rpm. Worse yet, the R chimed in with a curb weight of 610 pounds, a full 34 pounds up on the F.
Test riders observed that the R felt at least as heavy as it was, and also noted the impact of the bike’s relatively high center of gravity in both its resistance to changing direction and a tendency to pitch under heavy acceleration and braking. By comparison, the R’s main competitors, the Yamaha FJ1100 and Kawasaki GPz900R, at 570 and 560 pounds respectively — and both developing more power — were considerably more nimble, recording faster track times, higher top speeds and quicker standing quarters.
The ergonomics weren’t liked much by testers, either. The race-derived riding position required a long stretch over the tank and the high footpegs cramped riders’ legs. Where the R came into its own was on fast sweepers and highway riding, where at around 100mph the rider’s weight was balanced by the wind force. The general consensus, though, was that perhaps Honda was right in 1984 to leave the R model in Europe.
In the end, it really didn’t matter: The VF1000R was gone after 1986, and by 1987, the sole surviving V4 Honda sportbike was the VFR750 Interceptor — with gear-driven cams.
Chain of events
Within months of the introduction of the Honda VF750 in 1982, customers started complaining about excessive engine noise from rattly cam chains. On opening engines, technicians also noted excessive camshaft wear. A number of minor engine changes ensued, mostly aimed at improving oil flow to the cam boxes. There were also service bulletins changing oil specifications while entreating technicians to be especially vigilant about setting valve clearances. This may have helped some with the cam wear problem, but didn’t resolve cam chain tensioner issues. The fragile tensioners could disintegrate in just a few thousand miles, causing further damage to the top end.
Only the cam-chain models were affected. Gear-drive engines weren’t susceptible to the cam chain/tensioner problems.
Eventually, Honda discovered the real cause of the problem: the camshaft supports (or towers, as they’re often called) were allowing the camshaft to move, compromising the mechanical integrity of the valve train. For the chain-driven models, the camshaft towers were simply milled out to accept the camshaft and fitted with off-the-shelf caps. In the gear-drive models, the towers/caps were assembled and then line bored. A special factory tool to correctly locate the camshaft during valve adjustment made a big difference, but by this time Honda had a new range of in-line fours waiting in the wings, and the V4s were dropped — except for the gear-driven VFR750.
The irony, of course, is that the VFR750 Interceptor went on to be one of the most durable, reliable and sweet running motorcycles ever, and the almost identical VFR800i is still in production 22 years later (now with chain-driven cams, too). It was the basis for the iconic RC30 (VFR750R) production racer and the RC45 (RVF750R) World Superbike contender. MC