The Golden Age of Sports 400s
Stunning little sportsbikes are nothing new. For a few glorious years in the 1990s, exotic pocket-rockets ruled Britain’s roads. Get ready to want one all over again as we look back at some of the greats…
- Related: full Honda VFR400 review on MCN
As the late 1980s turned a 90 right-hander into the early 1990s, race replicas were, definitively, where British biking was at. Tourers, cruisers, naked and adventure bikes were all leftfield niches; the mainstream two-wheeled scene was overwhelmingly sportsbike-crazy.
Unlike our European counterparts, British bikers refused to compromise: if we planned on spending our hard-earned on a bike, we wanted it to be the one that went the fastest, handled the best and contained the latest technology. And that meant, by and large, buying a sportsbike, because that was where Japanese R&D budget went.
By the late 1980s, the Japanese bike development had hit a sweet spot of handling and engine performance. For the first time, tyres, brakes, suspension, steering geometry and weight distribution allowed riders to take full advantage of new, better-performing engines. But there was a price to all this stunning performance and handling – literally. The cost of new bikes was at an all-time high and not everyone could afford the asking price of a top-flight sports machine. A 1992 FireBlade cost £7390 – around £14,000 in today’s money (that’s £2000 more than a 2015 model).
But, unlike today, 22 years ago there were few cheaper alternatives. The sudden step-up in superbike performance and specification created a hole in the entry-level secondhand sportsbike market, and if you were an aspiring sportsbike rider who couldn’t quite stretch to the latest GSX-R or FZR, anything within your reach was probably an old fashioned, shonky, air-cooled nail.
Into this vacuum stepped a few enterprising used bike dealers – BAT, B&M and D&K Motorcycles, to name but three – who realised Japan was a source of cheap, lightly-used (in some cases), exotic 400cc sportsbikes. These machines, discarded in the tens of thousands, were perfect for the affordable sportsbike-starved UK public.
Japan’s motorcycle market was the opposite of the UK’s. It was stuffed to the gunwales with a multitude of mouth-watering miniature models, perfect banzai bonsai replicas of the real things. VFR400RRs were baby RC30s, CBR400RRs came in a variety of flavours like sweets, and the FZR400RRSP had so many letters after its name it couldn’t be anything other than crazily exotic.
These bikes existed because in Japan a punitive system of road licensing and harsh domestic sales regulations (which meant bikes over 750cc had to be exported before being re-imported and sold domestically) effectively placed a 400cc, 112mph ceiling on engine capacity.
But the Japanese bike market was driven by the fashion of technology, and a brand new model would be obsolete literally within months of a rival manufacturer releasing something even more advanced. The flow of new bikes fed a hungry public, feeling confident and cash-rich in a booming domestic economy. Turnover was rapid despite massive depreciation – and because there was little facility for the private sale of used goods (the Japanese aren’t big on second-hand), thousands of unwanted, low-mileage, nearly new 400s were wheeled straight back into dealers as trade-ins almost as soon as they’d been sold.
This backward pressure into showrooms created practical issues – space is in short supply in most Japan cities, and bike dealers with limited square-footage could only hold stock for a short while before it had to make way for fresh bikes.
Back in the UK, as soon as showrooms started to stock these grey imports, people started to buy them. Seemingly overnight, the 400cc CBRs, ZXRs and FZRs took over Britain’s roads and became the high-revving heartbeat of the embryonic trackdays springing up at circuits all around the country. The official UK importers brought in their own models to compete, but prices were absurd. An official Honda UK VFR400R cost more than a VFR750. Yamaha’s FZR400RR SP was a mere £100 cheaper than an EXUP. With so many cheap imports to draw from, few people bothered.
And so for a few short years, grey imports became a rite of passage into biking through which many thousands of riders passed. But by the mid-1990s another kind of import began to take over, as a currency imbalance between the UK and the rest of Europe made parallel imports viable. Suddenly, the price of new superbike models were forced downwards by an influx of cut-price European machines, at exactly the same time as many riders were graduating up in capacity from the grey import 400s. The result was a surge in large-capacity sportsbike sales.
And over in Japan, the fashion for race replicas was replaced first by naked 400s, and then by overgrown scooters – and so in the UK, sexy sporting 400s began a long, slow decline into cheap winter hackery. Today, supplies of cute, sporty 400s coming from the East have all but dried up – there are none left – and much of the stock on the roads over here are tired, high-mileage and frequently abused.
All of which are perfect conditions for a bike to attain classic status – from ubiquity, to disposability, into irrelevance; then, suddenly, two decades later, everyone who owned one gets nostalgic and wants one again and... surprise surprise! There are hardly any left. This means finding clean, low-mileage sports 400 among the rubbish is getting harder and, consequently, good bikes are going up in value.
So anyone hitting their 50s who wants to indulge in a spot of nostalgia would be well advised to start looking for the 5000-mile RVF400 or FZR400RR SP right now.
Honda CBR400RR Price £1500-£3000
Honda’s CBR was possibly the most popular grey import 400, available in many different guises down the years, from the early jelly-mould shape CBRs right up to the ‘Baby Blade’ replica of 1992. It was never officially imported into the UK. In 1986 the CBR400R Aero was released, looking much like the faired-in CBR600 and 1000 of the time. In 1988 it became the CBR400RR NC23 Tri-Arm, with gear-driven cams and an ally frame, then in 1990 it became the NC29 Gull-Arm: a completely different bike which, in 1994, was dolled-up to look like the Blade.
Through all these changes, the CBR400 continued to feel and behave almost exactly like its CBR600 brother. Compared to its rev-hungry, flighty, rivals, the CBR was a relatively sensible option (if there was such a thing).
Yamaha FZR400RR & RR SP Price £1000-£3000
The official UK FZR400RRs were imported from 1992 to 1995, with a couple coming over in 1990 as race homologation bikes. The price was off-putting – the 400 was only £100 less than a FZR1000RU EXUP. With a massively chunky, imposing Deltabox frame, USD forks, deliciously deep red and white paint scheme with white wheels and massive brake discs, and the small matter of a screaming abdab of a 60bhp motor, the FZR was even more like a wind-up wristwatch than the other 400s, revving to a hectic 14,000rpm and using every single one of them. The smallest of the 400s to ride, the FZR needed to be revved hard to make use of a seriously flat torque curve – which could be a frustrating experience if you weren’t in the mood. But on a hot day at Cadwell (where the FZRs saw use as race school bikes) on a pair of Michelin Hi-Sports, nothing could touch one.
Honda VFR400R-L/M (NC30) Price £2000-£6000
The VFR400 NC30 was a mini RC30. It evolved via the Japanese home market-only 1982 NC13, 1986 NC21 and 1988 NC24, none of which were officially imported into the UK. The NC13 was a VF400, the NC21 had an ally box-section frame, gear-driven cams, TRAC antidive, twin-pot calipers and cast wheels, and the NC24 added a single-sided swingarm, high-level can, better brakes and a stronger motor.
Finally, in 1989, the NC30 arrived with bigger wheels, more power, better suspension, brakes and frame. And it was a belter; an exquisitely crafted miniature of the glorious RC30, even down to jaw-dropping build quality and engine technology.
The VFR400 was compact, and although it suffered, like many grey imports, from soft suspension tailored for the more svelte Japanese rider, ride quality was astonishing. Performance was good, too: 56bhp and 140mph was faster than the first VF750F, but it was also deceptive. The NC30 is no screaming missile; it’s more of a cerebral kind of speed.
The NC30 was replaced by the RC45-styled RVF400 NC35 in 1994 – more power, sleeker styling and USD forks. It’s also a fantastic bike.
Kawasaki ZXR400H and L Price £2200-£ 2800
Built between 1988 and 1999, the ZXR400 had the longest lifespan of all the 400s, and was officially imported in the UK (because, although expensive, it had the least terrifying price tag). As a result it was seen as the least exotic.
The two incarnations of the ZXR mirrored the early generations of the ZXR750: the H model with slabby styling and hoover tubes in the late 1980s, then the sleeker L model, still with the tank-top ‘induction’ tubes but with a much modified chassis and engine. The L-model ZXR400 never became a full replica of the L-model 750, sticking with the hoover tubes for its life while the bigger bike dispensed with the gimmick in 1993.
The ZXR delivered a big-bike experience rather than the dainty, waif-like feel of the VFR, FZR and CBR400s. It felt chunkier and gustier – although it still needed to be revved to get going. But once it was, top speed was getting on for 140mph. And, with many being official UK models, they didn’t need derestricting from their 112mph Japanese speed limit.