In the first of our two-part series, originally published in 2011, RiDE takes a look at how close the VFR came to being stillborn
n its various guises it’s been called the most perfect motorcycle ever made; the ideal balance between sportiness and comfort, practicality and fun; and a marvel of engineering that was years ahead of its time when it was launched in 1986.
Honda’s VFR750 has long since achieved iconic status here in the UK as well as around the world but the story nearly turned out very differently. If it hadn’t been for the determination of one man to race a bike, any bike, at the 1986 Transatlantic Match Races, you wouldn’t be reading this silver anniversary celebration today.
The then-annual race series pitted a team of American racers against a squad of Brits, with the winning side being that which scored most points over eight races on Easter weekend.
British rider Ron Haslam was contracted to race an Elf Honda in 500cc grands prix that year but, thanks to some behind-the-scenes political wrangling, found himself without a bike for the annual match race series. In what was a huge marketing gamble, Honda UK decided to let Haslam try his luck on their latest machine – the VFR750. According to Haslam, the gamble appeared to backfire straight away. “They supplied me with a tuned version of the VFR but in the first free practice the thing blew up so I was without a bike. I went straight to a local dealers, Granby Motors in Ilkeston, and just picked a VFR straight from the showroom floor, complete with sidestand, indicators, the lot. I took it to Donington and removed as much of the roadgoing equipment as I could, then fitted some tyres from a 250cc race bike because that’s all that would fit. Then I went out and raced.”
Haslam and the plain dark blue VFR, still retaining its pillion seat, were lined up against a grid of full-on racing Superbikes piloted by the likes of future world champions Kevin Schwantz and Fred Merkel. The potential for embarrassment was huge but the gods were on Haslam’s side: it rained and suddenly the playing field, if not quite levelled, at least wasn’t as precipitous as it had been.
“The VFR felt very slow – it wasn’t even meant to be a sportsbike – but when it rained during the first race it was perfect. I had just enough power that I could use it all and the ground clearance wasn’t as big a problem in the wet because we couldn’t lean over so far anyway.”
Haslam took full advantage of the wet conditions and stunned the paddock, and the wider motorcycling world, by putting the VFR on the podium. “I don’t think I would have gone so well in the dry because the Superbike riders would have been able to put all their power down. The second race was dry and I got away quite well in fourth of fifth place but I slowly dropped back down the field purely because I didn’t have the horsepower and I couldn’t make up for that with my riding because I had everything on the floor as it was, so I simply couldn’t corner any quicker.
“While it may have felt slow compared to a full-on Superbike, as a road bike that VFR was incredible. Even in the dry you could ride it so hard and on its limits, and it still felt really nice. It steered really well and was dead smooth under power. And I could get a good run out of the corners because I could use all the power while the other guys couldn’t. The handling, the grip, and the overall balance of the VFR, for a road bike, was just incredible. It was a great package.”
Without that podium, the VFR might well have survived for a few years as a modestly selling motorcycle before being replaced by something more sporty and track-focused like Suzuki’s GSX-R750, which had been released in 1985 and still set the benchmark for all the competition to aim at. But Haslam’s inspired ride worked miracles and before the week was out Honda UK’s entire allocation of VFRs had been sold. “Everyone knew it wasn’t a hoax or anything,” Haslam says. “It was a totally standard road bike. And that’s how it happened.”
The legend had begun.
Even Honda make mistakes: the VF750
“We did things we shouldn’t have done. We will use this humble reflection as a springboard.” Mr Goto, director of R&D for larger capacity bikes at Honda in 1986, was speaking at the launch of the VFR750 at an unfinished Jerez circuit in southern Spain, but he was referring to the doomed VF750. The bike had proved to be a huge embarrassment for Honda because of a series of mechanical failures including self-destructing top ends. The motorcycling press slated the bike and so many owners suffered camshaft problems that Honda were inundated with warranty claims and the whole V4 concept that had begun in the early ’80s with a series of bikes, from 400cc to 1000cc, came within an ace of being abandoned altogether.
So much damage had been caused to the credibility of the very notion of a Honda V4 motorcycle that, at one meeting of Honda importers at the Cologne show, only the UK and one other country voted in favour of the continuation of the project. That was enough to encourage Honda Japan to keep the fires burning and, in 1986, the firm’s perseverance was rewarded and the world was introduced to one of the most brilliant motorcycles ever created.
Enter the VFR
The VF750 project may have been an expensive and embarrassing failure but it taught Honda valuable lessons and provided a basis for the VFR750. The new bike had a completely revised engine and featured gear-driven cams – the first time these had appeared on a production motorcycle.
Further lessons learnt from the hugely successful RS750 race bike (which dominated British and world TTF1 racing in the hands of riders like Wayne Gardner and Joey Dunlop) meant the new VFR was producing 105bhp instead of the paltry 83bhp made by the VF750. The new machine also featured a twin-spar aluminium frame which had only made its way onto a production bike the year before on Suzuki’s GSX-R750.
It was 20kg lighter than the VF750, had a 15mm shorter wheelbase, a 16-inch front wheel, and a six-speed gearbox replaced the VF’s five-speed box. On paper it looked like the VFR750 could challenge the best sportsbikes on the market, not least the GSX-R750. The problem was, it didn’t look too convincing in the flesh.
Looks can be deceiving
When a select group of journalists were shown Honda’s new great white hope during the Bol d’Or race meeting, they were decidedly unimpressed. It was indeed plain white – no race rep bodywork here – and the white plastic fairing almost covered the only racey feature of the bike, its aluminium frame. Anyone expecting a race rep rival to the all-conquering GSX-R750 was sorely disappointed.
But Honda had done their homework. Race reps tended to sell to a niche market and Honda were thinking bigger than that. They wanted to sell the VFR to the biking masses and felt that the best way to achieve big sales was to build a bike that was both sporty and practical – as capable of touring and commuting as it was on a race track while being comfortable, functional and reliable.
The launch reports from Jerez were unanimously favourable, but it was only when the bike became widely available for comparison tests in the UK that its true all-round capabilities were finally realised. The VFR could not only hold its own against the sportier GSX-R and Yamaha FZ750, it could do it in far more comfort too.
The cost of perfection
One of the most enduring rumours surrounding the VFR750 is that it was so technically advanced and expensive to make that, in the early years at least, the bike was a loss leader to Honda.
Although the rumour has never been confirmed, it’s believed that Honda were so determined to regain consumer faith in their V4 vision after the debacle of the VF750 that they were prepared to sell the VFR at a loss.
Those other VFRs: the RC30 and RC45
Although it’s better known to the world by its code name, the RC30’s official model name is the VFR750R and it did for Honda’s racing activities what the VFR750 did for road bikes.
In the years following its release in 1988, the RC30 utterly dominated four-stroke racing the world over, taking the first two World Superbike Championships in 1988 and 1989 with Fred Merkel, the now defunct TT Formula 1 World Championship in the same years with Carl Fogarty, and the World Endurance Championship in 1989 and 1990.
In 1994, the RC30 was replaced by the RC45, another homologation bike for four-stroke racing. Although it went on to win the WSB championship with John Kocinski in 1997, the RC45 never enjoyed the same amount of success as its predecessor because of handling problems often attributed to the position of the engine in the chassis – something Honda could not alter due WSB rules. But the bike did score many victories in pure road racing with the likes of Joey Dunlop taking TT wins on the bike. It was discontinued in 1999 and replaced by the VTR1000 SP-1 V-twin.
The original 90˚ V4 is launched at Jerez. A complete redesign of the failed VF750, it features gear-driven cams, a twin spar aluminium frame, and makes 105bhp. 20kg lighter than the VF.
Minor detail changes to the ignition and different paint.
Larger valves for improved midrange, adjustable screen, new fairing with built-in indicators and new instruments including clock and fuel gauge. A 17-inch front wheel replaces the original 16-inch model.
Minor detail changes and new colours.
First major redesign features sleeker styling, a stronger race-derived twin spar frame, and single-sided swingarm.
New graphics and a colour-matched seat.
Now has a colour-coordinated screen and new colour options.
Adjustment for rebound on fork tops and red, green or silver belly pans.
Major redesign based on the styling of Honda’s oval-pistoned NR750. New bodywork, bigger fuel tank, new exhaust, and major suspension mods.
Colour changes only.
Colour changes only.
Colour changes only. Model discontinued in 1997.
Replaces the VFR750 after an 11-year run. Features a 781cc 16v dohc 90˚ V4 fuel-injected engine, full race fairing, single-sided swingarm and a lightweight rigid pivotless frame.
New colours only.
Minor frame mods, refined fuel injection system and revised clutch.
No changes. Discontinued in November.
Restyled model featuring Honda's V-Tec valve system replaces the VFR800Fi.
ABS option becomes available.
All-new bike launched at the Tokyo Motor Show.
Words Stuart Barker