Chain Chatter - Honda VFR400R, December 1990

A Hot Set of Wheels

This little gem of oriental engineering is fun with a capital F. Manageable power from an engine that will happily rev itself stupid from here to next week, and the excellent combination of chassis, brakes, suspension and tyres all add up to a machine with a grinnability factor of 11/10.

A young pretender, the NC30, or VFR400R is the little brother of the RC30, the machine to beat (especially by Ducatis) in the 750 F1 championship, and an uncompromising wee sportster it is. Mimicking big bro’ in almost every respect, it succeeds in translating many of the race winning qualities of the RC30 into a road package that is close to the right side of sanity, although that depends on just how much of an adrenalin addict you are.

On paper its 63 bhp might sound modest alongside the 100+ gee-gees of many bigger sportsters, but the combination of useable power and a chassis that is more than up to the job of containing it, has arguably more potential as a machine that can be used to the full on the open road. Even then, the argument would be entirely academic, because in truth this machine clearly isn’t listening if you are about to call it anything but a racer with indicators, and other than on the Isle of Man or a race track you’re not going to get ten tenths out of it for long before you meet a tractor or a cowpat. No reason for not having one of course, because even at eight tenths it will still stunt your growth and put hair on the palm of your hand.

Purring away at the heart of the machine is a four-stroke 399cc engine that at tickover sounds more polite than a vicar’s tea-party. But that tickover is 1600 rpm, and only the beginning of the story. By the time you’ve let out the clutch in first the engine is turning over at the sort of speed that would have your hot-hatch gasping its last. From 7000 rpm the power climbs in a straight line to 11,000 rpm, then rises more steeply to peak power at 12,500 rpm and flattens out all the way to the red line at 15,000 rpm. By then it’s letting out a distinctive and glorious V4 howl, and you’re doing 60 mph in first. And that in itself more or less sums up where this bike is designed to go and where it isn’t.

For town riding this machine is fundamentally useless. Pulling away in first you can either stall, slip the clutch up to 25 mph, or catapult very quickly into the bus in front. Bumbling from West London to our city office I rarely got out of second. The narrow steering lock, and weight on the wrists riding position only exacerbate the fact that it is a machine that can only come on song on a mimser free country road. In town it’s like using a Stradivarius to play Danny Boy on a cut-price Beamish night in Kilburn.

The V4 motor uses a 360 degree crank to enhance torque. It is liquid cooled and has a compression ratio of 11.3:1. It borrows its 8mm spark plugs from the oval piston Honda NR750, to allow the largest possible valve size. But much of the superb engineering remains an unseen marvel on this machine. The engine, being liquid cooled, has no attractive cooling fins. Moreover it is hidden behind masses of wire, plumbing and a fibreglass fairing. The four into one exhaust system is the only visibly attractive part of the set-up, as it plumbs its way under the shock and over to the left hand side of the machine.

The pentagonal alloy frame, with faultless welding around the head-stock, and at the bottom end of each beam, betrays the overall standard of craftsmanship in this bike and gives some indication of where the £6200 asking price is being used up. For that money you can get a much larger and a faster bike, a Suzuki GSXR1100 for example, but then the quality of workmanship is proportionately less; it all depends on what you want for your money.

Other aspects of the VFR that ooze quality are the beautifully machined foot-pegs, gear-change and brake pedals, and the beautiful alloy Pro-Arm single sided swing arm that leaves the right hand side of the elegant eight spoked wheel completely exposed.

On the road it is even more of a revelation. The balance is good and the steering accurate. Point the machine and it follows, urging you to attack the corners, to brake later, to lean harder, and it still comes up completely unflustered. On imperfect B roads the suspension would soak tip the bumps as if they weren’t there, and yet still give you a firm accurate ride. Blast it through a bumpy, sweeping bend and not once will the Bridgestone Cyrox Radials let go of the tarmac. The rear suspension is adjustable for rebound, but alteration is fiddly, and the standard setting is perfect for someone of medium weight. The front has a 13 position (best at 8/13) rebound and a spring pre-load on the superb 41mm front forks.

The front, fully floating twin discs bite with absolute confidence. They are both fierce and yet progressive. There is no high speed judder or grabbiness at low speeds, and in the wet they match the high performance of the radial tyres. The progressive nature of the power delivery and the excellent radials make the bike very manageable in the wet. Power can be fed in from the moment you start to unwind the lock and lift the bike. Despite the fact that it is a race replica it is not at all nervous or frenetic in the way it performs.

Being a small V4 the engine has a similar spread of torque and power to its big brother, and despite the fact that it can rev its socks off there is no need for the frantic cog swopping you would be doing on a two-stroke of similar performance. The power band is wide; the engine can pull hard from 8000 to 15,000 rpm, although when you’re on the move 10 to 12,000 rpm is the area to keep the tacho needle. Beyond that should be written a little “lose your licence” warning. Top gear is 10 mph per 1000 rpm so even as a motorway cruiser this machine is untroubled, but again that would be using a racehorse to pull a plough. This is a machine designed to liberate the spirit for a frenzied hour or two at the weekend or on a summer’s evening. It can be used for little else and that is what is so beautifully uncompromising about it. It hurts your wrists, puts a crick in your neck, and heavy braking over too many miles can be a fairly emasculating experience, but it sure is good for cleaning out those cobwebs between the ears that a week of drudgery has put there. CSRW