Honda’s local wing has consolidated its Fireblade range to only offer the highest-spec CBR1000RR-R SP, marking the end of the every man’s sportsbike as we know it. With Honda’s hero headed upmarket, we take a look at the outgoing model alongside the original Fireblade that started it all.
Next time you stroll up to a Fireblade – or if you’re lucky throw a leg over – spare a thought for the ‘father’ of the series, Tadao Baba. The project leader on the first ‘Blade, and many subsequent models, comes across as the sort of nutter we’d all like to spend a bit of time with.
We’re talking of a gent with no formal training beyond high school, but who joined Honda when it had been going just 10 years and worked his way up through the ranks.
A bloke who started off machining engine cases for CB72s, he managed to turn the sports bike world upside down through sheer bloody-mindedness. The first Fireblade really was that important in its day.
Why? Because it was the size and weight of a 600 (okay, four kilos heavier than Honda’s own CBR600) with the straight-line urge of a litre-class machine.
Over the years, the ’Blade grew its engine in small increments and became more powerful and was comprehensively swamped by the opposition.
It would be a bit of a stretch to say it lost its way, but certainly it was up against much stiffer competition and, at times, was no longer at the head of the pack. Move to the 25th anniversary model of 2017, however, launched some 25 years later, and you can’t help thinking Baba San, now 76 years of age, would approve.
While the power jumped significantly over its immediate predecessor – around 10 horses – the real news was that somebody shrank the bike… again. It’s physically tiny, dropped a massive 14kg, which in turn meant a huge top-to-toe re-engineering effort, and was about 10kg lighter than the original. Clever.
Add to that the Fireblade was finally been dragged into the 21st century, with a full suite of electronics for throttle, engine performance, traction, braking and even an optional two-way power-shifter.
For a company that pioneered so many things over the years, it seemed ironic that it took so long for the premium sports range to get with the digital times.
That said, you’d hardly call any of the series a dud – far from it.
The truth is they’ve remained pretty faithful to Baba’s original war cry of “total control”. It might sound like a corny catchphrase, but there is some thinking behind it.
In a 2012 interview for Honda, he explained its genesis: “At the time, riders had a pretty hard time handling the full-cowl sport bikes that were selling well in the market. Both the 750cc-class racer replicas and the 1000cc-class flagships had been evolving year after year into more powerful bikes, but their bodies had also become proportionately heavier.
“Of course, there was enjoyment to be found in mastering such bikes, but the number of people who could do so was not very large.
“It was a given that it had to be better than our competitors’ 750cc bikes, but if it could also beat Honda’s own RVF750, then we’d have an entirely new type of sport bike that anyone could enjoy riding.
“And so we began development of our new super sport bike, which leveraged the lightweight and compact inline four-cylinder engine that we’d been working on for a long time under the radar.
“Since there was no English phrase that perfectly matched the Japanese, we discussed options at length and eventually selected ‘total control’ as the translation.”
And the result? Look at the raw stats of a first-model Fireblade and you could be forgiven for thinking they’re respectable but hardly earth-shattering. Things were different 25 years ago.
I went on a couple of magazine rides soon after launch and there was no question this was a seriously fast piece of equipment that was unbelievably little and light.
You have to remember one of its benchmarks, Yamaha’s very capable second-gen FZR1000, was more powerful but a whopping 25-plus kilos heavier.
Where the Honda may not have had the sheer grunt of its litre-class competitors, it more than made up for it with sharp responses under brakes, light steering and a quick-fire corner exit.
Of course there was a bit of debate surrounding it, too. For a start, those drilled lower fairing panels and headlight cowl – did they actually do anything? Grand prix racers had tried something similar on circuits with severe crosswinds and some reckoned it helped, plus there was a very minimal weight saving.
The big debate however surrounded the choice of 16-inch front rim. It was a size that had its day in grand prix racing, and was hugely controversial in the road market during the mid-to-late 1980s, to the point where most manufacturers dropped it like the proverbial hot potato.
I never really felt it was an issue on this model, though these days the tyre choices for 16-inch wheels are very limited.
Though Baba says he never intended the Fireblade for racing, it inevitably found its way onto circuits around the world, where it was eligible for some production and superstock events. (World superbike rules at the time limited multis to 750cc.) It enjoyed good success, and Honda USA even went as far as running a one-make series for it in 1993.
And now? Like a lot of late eighties and early nineties sports bikes, it’s surprisingly capable. It might be getting on a bit, but we’re still talking a top speed in excess of 250km/h and mind-boggling acceleration.
Sure, the handling, ride and braking is basic and just not up there with current standards, but you can belt along at a respectable rate and enjoy the experience.
In fact, you’re pretty damn chuffed with the original until you get on the newer chap. Oh well. There’s no question it’s a whole different basket of ferrets. Bloody hell it’s quick. The acceleration in one technological 25-year leap went from mind-boggling to ear-bleeding. Its power delivery is quicker, smoother and just plain liquid.
To me, that’s not the biggest difference. Really, it’s the chassis.
It talks to you, giving a far better translation of what’s going on underneath the tyres, while soaking up the odd rough section more easily. And yes, the brakes are more powerful, with better feel, plus you have the assorted electronic safety nets coming into play. It’s a motorcycle that makes it a whole lot easier and safer to press on.
While the whole total control thing is an interesting concept, I was struck more by one common trait between the two: they are just so damn easy to ride quickly. Honda on its game has a real ability to make a motorcycle user-friendly and, to me, they both qualify.
When talking about the development of his first ‘baby’ back in the early nineties, Baba had this to say: “It took a while to convince people we were taking the right approach. But when we invited riders associated with our affiliates in Europe to Japan to try out our motorcycle, it was very clear that they were enjoying themselves.”
Enjoying themselves? Yep, that works. So in a quarter of a century, not much has changed after all…
Buying an original
Your biggest issue is finding a good example, as they’re thin on the ground. As with a lot of sports bikes of the era, no-one really thought they might one day be regarded as collectible or, heaven forbid, a classic! They’re now heading that way, while a lot of the remaining sports bikes of the era just prior (up to the end of 1990) are being hoovered up to build period racers.
Bikes like the one you see here, complete with the original exhaust, are rare. Really your biggest challenge with these is finding one with complete cosmetics. The engines are robust and parts are available.
There were two colour schemes in the first year: the popular blue/red/white and this, the black/grey. Only about 40 at most of the latter are thought to have been brought in.
This one was bought with 60,000km on the clock and every indication it had been garaged and maintained over its life. Because of that, it feels remarkably fresh.
If in doubt, spend the extra and get something that’s complete, as it will nearly always be cheaper than restoring a sad example.