The Honda VF700S Sabre Touring Bike

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Associate editor Landon Hall at speed aboard our VF700S Honda Sabre test bike.
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The Honda VF700S Sabre was designed to avoid a tariff on motorcycles with engines of 700cc and larger.
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The view over the handlebars.
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The Yamaha XV700 Virago was also made to circumvent the 700cc tariff.
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The Kawasaki Z750LTD exploited a loophole for power train sub-assemblies to circumvent the tariff.

The Honda VF700S Sabre
Years produced (U.S.):
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 76hp @ 10,500rpm
Top speed: 121mphEngine type: 699cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke V-four
Weight (dry): 224kg (494lb)MPG: 28-48
Price then: $3,398 (1985)
Price now: $750-$2,000

Available for just two short years from 1984 to 1985, the Honda VF700S Sabre was a touring bike that followed the V45 Sabre. It represents an interesting chapter in motorcycle history as one of a group of Japanese motorcycles referred to as the Tariff Busters.

In the early 1980s, Japanese motorcycles were a thorn in ailing Harley-Davidson’s side, and in 1983 H-D successfully lobbied for an International Trade Commission tariff to quell the overseas invasion of 750cc and larger motorcycles. Known as Section 202, the tariff was aimed squarely at Japan and levied a heavy penalty on bikes of 700cc capacity and over. It was expected to slow the Japanese onslaught and give H-D a leg up in the market.

When protestations against the tariff failed, Japanese manufacturers responded by introducing new bikes with engines that fell just under 700cc. Honda responded by sleeving down its moderately successful 750cc V45 Sabre to 698.9cc. It was, by any measure a taunting, in-your-face rebuff to the new tariff.

A technological tour de force when introduced in 1982, Honda launched the V45 Sabre with great fanfare. With its compact, 750cc liquid-cooled V4 engine bubbling over with features such as double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and shaft drive, the V45 Sabre was supposed to be the spiritual heir to Honda’s CB750 of 1969: it was not. While there was no questioning the V45’s technical prowess, it failed to illicit the same excitement as the original CB750, and in fact was greeted only warmly by the buying public.

In its tariff-busting transition, the Honda VF700S Sabre lost a few horses (down to a claimed 76hp versus the V45’s claimed 82hp), but internal changes boosted midrange power while a high final drive ratio kept top speed up. (Period tests showed the new Sabre only .15 seconds and .08mph slower in the quarter-mile dash compared to the V45 Sabre.)

With styling carried over from the V45 Sabre, the VF700S Sabre presented a sport bike image, something for hustling through corners and burning up the road. The menacing, blacked out finish suggested speed and grace, and the stretched out front fork gave the bike a long, hungry look.

Much like its predecessor, however, the 700 Sabre wasn’t universally admired. Testers noted the bike’s sluggish steering at slow speeds, and the rear brake was singled out for its lack of bite. “The rear drum brake, on the other hand, is just there, and little else,” one tester noted. Even so, the Sabre proved itself a capable mount, a solid all-arounder that could carry its rider in relative comfort all day.

Early V45s suffered from cylinder head woes, but by the time the 700 Sabre came along those problems had been put to rest. With an overdrive six-speed transmission, the Sabre can be hustled up to speed in short order, and the engine’s 10,500rpm redline comes up remarkably fast. Cruising at highway speeds of 70mph and above is where the Sabre shines: It’s calm and absolutely free of vibration, a testimony to the V4’s lack of primary imbalance.

While the single-shock rear suspension is soft, it telegraphs reasonably well without wallowing too badly, and unless riding at eight-tenths and above, the average rider won’t really notice the suspension’s shortcomings.

Anti-dive systems were all the rage at the time, and Honda dutifully equipped the Sabre with its patented Torque Reactive Anti-dive Control to limit fork compression in hard braking. Like most of the anti-dive systems then on the market it was only marginally effective, and was really nothing more than a gimmick.

With looks that suggested sporting pretensions it couldn’t deliver, and loaded with a level of technological sophistication the public didn’t seem to want in a sub-liter touring bike, the Sabre was pulled from Honda’s lineup after 1985. Few enthusiasts seem to even remember the model, and likely fewer still remember its tariff-busting role in the heavily contested American market of the mid-1980s. Today, that translates to an affordable classic, if you’re lucky enough to find one.

Tariff-busting alternatives to the Honda VF700S Saber motorcycle

Yamaha XV700 Virago

– 51hp, 104mph
– 699cc
– Air-cooled
– Five-speed
– Dual-disc front, drum rear
– 495lb (wet)
– 40-60mpg

Like Honda’s VF700S, Yamaha’s XV700 Virago was another tariff buster. Introduced in 1981 with a 750cc engine, the Virago’s engine was scaled down to 699.2cc to slide under the tariff restrictions.

With looks that suggest long runs down the highway, the Virago is really best suited to short jaunts in the country and works particularly well as a city cruiser. Steering is precise, and the Virago’s proletarian, air-cooled V-twin moves the bike with ease.

Tuned for torque, the Virago delivers its most useable horsepower down low, but that doesn’t mean it won’t respond to a healthy twist of the right wrist.

Aimed squarely at the emerging cruiser market that Harley-Davidson was so desperate to protect, the Virago was described by Harley fans as cute: Cycle World referred to it as the “Yuppie Cruiser.”

Even so, it performs its role well, and if you like sub-liter cruisers, there’s every reason to consider the Virago. Most owners seem to have taken good care of their Viragos, and there seem to be plenty of them out there, a fact that’s kept prices low.

Kawasaki Z750LTD

– 74hp, 122mph
– 738cc
– Air-cooled
– Five-speed
– Dual-disc front, drum rear
– 486lb (wet)
– 45-55mpg

Kawasaki’s Z750LTD represents a tariff buster of a different stripe. Although its 738cc air-cooled engine is over the tariff line, the 750LTD took advantage of an exemption for power train sub-assemblies. That meant Kawasaki was free to import its long-standing (some would say long-in-the-tooth) KZ power train and install it in bikes built at its Lincoln, Neb., plant, without tariff penalties.

Like the Virago, the LTD was aimed at the cruiser market, but it used out-dated architecture that was simply altered or masked to give it a cruiser look. A  leading-axle front fork pushed the front wheel out farther.

Given its engine’s lineage, it’s no surprise contemporary testers praised the bike for its solid power delivery. And while one tester called the seating position a “disaster,” he also cited the bike’s overall likability.

And that pretty much sums up the LTD: Likeable. It’s solid, reliable, gets good mileage and parts are easy to find. MC

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