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Ten Thousand Miles on The Final Aircooled Honda

Road & Track logo Road & Track 2017-09-12 Jack Baruth
Ten Thousand Miles on the Final Aircooled Honda © Jack Baruth Ten Thousand Miles on the Final Aircooled Honda

I was a fervent reader of Road & Track for more than thirty years before becoming a slightly star-struck contributor to the publication, so like many of you I can easily name a dozen or so of my favorite Peter Egan columns and articles. Yet my favorite of his stories was actually published in Cycle near the beginning of his career, largely because it contains the following utterly charming and folksy anecdote: Mr. Egan is out for a ride on some raggedy Triumph or Vincent or whatever, and he realizes that he’s strayed too far to make it home that evening. He will have to find a motel. So he rolls along until he sees one, at which point he carefully removes his leather jacket before walking into the office. After all, no self-respecting motel operator is going to rent a room to a leather-clad biker. Why, he might be a member of the Hell’s Angels, or worse!

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The notion of the gentle, friendly Egan taking deliberate steps to avoid being confused for Sonny Barger always makes me smile in retrospect. Which is not to say that said steps were unnecessary. Well into the Eighties the public perception of a motorcyclist was often that of somebody who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. In many cases, the reality dovetailed nicely with the perception. When speaking of the men who willingly purchased AMF-era Harley-Davidsons, the word “insane” can also be justifiably added to the above list.

There are still some pretty rough dudes out there on two wheels, but over the past few decades the character of the typical motorcycle owner has changed significantly. We are a lot older, wealthier, and more conservative (in the non-political sense) than we used to be. We like short rides to expensive meals and thoroughly curated experiences. The places that used to switch off the “Vacancy” light when Peter Egan arrived to tear up the town now aggressively court the touring riders who travel in brightly-colored phalanxes of thirty-thousand-dollar V-Twins.

Need more proof? No problem. Just visit your local motorcycle dealer. Doesn’t matter if it’s Harley or Honda. The bikes that are aimed at young people, stuff like the Yamaha R1M and the astonishing new Kawasaki ZX-10RR Winter Snowflake model, have been banished to a tiny corner of the showroom floor. Occupying center stage you’ll see nothing but massive tourers, the “ADV” bikes that combine dirt bike and Gold Wing in an odd sort of six-hundred-pound ungainly matrimony, and the Next Big Thing: retro rides.

That’s right. Motorcycles are so passe with the Millennial crowd that the manufacturers have pretty much decided to just forget about them and go back to making stuff that plays on the deepest desires of fifty-year-olds. The Yamaha XSR900 is basically the FZ-09 upright sportbike made-over to look like it came out of a Portland cafe-racer shop. A similar treatment has been applied to Kawasaki’s Z900 to create the Z900RS. Pretty much the entire Triumph range now looks like the Triumph range from 1975. BMW’s got the RnineT. Ducati’s hottest model at the moment is the unassuming Scrambler, a dog-slow exercise in Starbucks-centric posing.

These are bikes that fit effortlessly into the elaborate and kinda delightful dress-up game known as the “Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride.” The DGR publishes a “style guide” that specifically excludes machines like my hyperspace-capable Kawasaki ZX-14R or Danger Girl’s swoopy Yamaha R3. It’s meant to honor the “spirit” of men like T.E. Lawrence and Marlon Brando’s cinema characters, despite the fact that their modern bad-boy, speed-demon twenty-something successors wouldn’t be caught dead riding anything besides the fabled GSX-R1000R, known on the street as the “Gixxer thou.”

In other words, the Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride is really what the kids call cosplay, meaning that you dress up and pretend to be somebody fictional. I don’t think Lawrence of Arabia would have approved. Still, it’s all for a good cause, which is why I’m riding in it. (If you’d like to support or berate me, the link is here). I also happen to have the perfect tool for the job: my 2014 Honda CB1100 Standard, which just flicked its digital odometer past the 10,000 mark.

Conceived as a love letter to Honda’s most loyal home-market customers by executives who yearned for the halcyon days of the company’s 1969 CB750 ur-Superbike, the CB1100 stands out from the retro pack in two significant respects. While the XSR900 and Z900RS simply apply Seventies cosmetics to modern water-cooled mono-shock streetbikes, the CB1100 is a clean-sheet re-engineering of the classic CB750 from the steel frame to the dual rear shocks to the all-new air-cooled engine that somehow meets global emissions and sound requirements. As a consequence, it’s also the only retrobike that actually rides like the old Universal Japanese Motorcycles. Honda’s president, Takanobu Ito, commutes on a pearl-white example and made headlines in Japan when he used the bike to examine the damage left behind by the March 11, 2011 earthquake.

I’ve owned a couple of 1975 CB550s, as has Peter Egan–I believe he has one for sale, inquire to the magazine if you’re interested–and I can tell you chapter and verse about their virtues and faults. The CB1100 has most of the former and virtually none of the latter. It starts every time without hassle in weather from sub-freezing to downright tropical. It offers heroic torque and stumble-free throttle calibration. In my experience, it is easily capable of beating the higher-powered variants of the Tesla Model S in a standing-start race to triple digits. (What can I say? I have some odd neighbors.) Last year, it was shoved off its kickstand by a drug-addled raving maniac outside my office. A local Good Samaritan stood it upright and it started right up. Total damage to the bike: about two hundred bucks.

Ridden without consequence for law, safety, or sanity, it still returns 43 miles per gallon. The OEM Bridgestones lasted to the 9700-mile mark, which for a motorcycle is plain amazing. I’m still on the chain that came with the bike. As of yet there’s been nothing that even remotely suggests a mechanical problem of any type. The oil that comes out of the sump after 3,000 miles looks pretty bad but that’s part and parcel of riding an aircooled motorcycle–as with my Porsche 993, when we say “aircooled” we really mean “oil-cooled."

© Honda

To my immense annoyance, the plain-black-wrapper CB is vastly more popular with the fairer sex than any of my luridly-liveried Superbikes have ever been. When I ride to work on my ZX-14R, or when I rode my VFR800 Anniversary edition, the oh-so-chic ladies of my quasi-hip downtown office looked at me like I’d crawled out from under a rock. When I arrive on the big round-headlamp Honda, it’s like I’ve become David Lee Roth in the “Panama” video. They smile and nod their heads and wink. My wife suspects nothing when I take a sportbike across the state for the whole day but if I’m ten minutes late from a lunch meeting on the CB1100 I have to endure a time-and-expenses audit that would make an IRS auditor blush.

It’s not perfect, of course. By modern sportbike standards it’s not fast. Heck, it’s not even as fast as the 1983 CB1100 which was the last air-cooled Honda literbike prior to 2010. That’s like buying a new Mustang 5.0 and finding out that it can’t keep up with the quad-headlight Fox-body you had when you were a teenager. The useful capacity of the fuel tank is slightly under three gallons, which means that you’d better start looking for a gas station at the 100-mile mark. The first year of production came with a five-speed transmission that wasn’t compatible with today’s freeway speeds.

The real problem with the bike, however, and the reason that Honda discontinued the CB1100 at the end of 2014 after just two years in our market, was that it wasn’t retro enough. Or rather that it was the wrong kind of retro. With its Comstar wheels and squared-off tank, my 2014 CB1100 Standard looks like a Honda Nighthawk 750 from the Eighties, not like the sainted 1969 CB750 with its wire wheels, metalflake fuel tank, and spindly chrome trim. That’s fine for me, because when I was sixteen years old in 1988 I’d have shed blood for a Nighthawk. But even at the advanced age of forty-five I’m a bit too young to be taken seriously by the manufacturers.

For 2017, therefore, we have a new version of the CB1100. It’s been restyled to look more like those early-Seventies versions of the aircooled CB. It has more fuel capacity and more chrome and the proper wheels and all the appropriate retro trimmings. It’s also much more expensive. Only time will tell if it is retro enough to satisfy the buyers.

In the meantime, solid examples of the 2013 and 2014 model can be had for well under six thousand bucks. That kind of money can’t get you a decent Japanese-brand used compact with 75,000 miles on the clock but it will get you this finely-crafted jewel of a traditional aircooled Japanese standard. The only problem is that there aren’t very many of them for sale. Once you’ve owned a bike like this it can be hard to let go. That’s true for the originals, which is why there’s still a CB550 in my garage. And it’s true for this true-to-form modern successor. I have plans to ride it across the country at some point, no particular place to go, just enjoying the ride the way that Peter Egan and his contemporaries once did. The only difference is that I’ll leave my black horsehide “Captain America” jacket on when I walk into the motel office. The past is another country; they do things differently there.

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