Honda’s FireBlade - an appreciation (part one)

Still beautiful after all these years
Still beautiful after all these years Picture: Dowds Clan Archive

The Blade tale part one – 1992-2004

Honda’s iconic Fireblade got its most important revamp in what seems like decades this year and ahead of the Portimao launch (check back for the full track test) at the weekend, we thought we’d get everyone in the mood with a bit of a retrospective on the old Fireblade, which is of course celebrating its 25th birthday this year.

Yep – it was way back in 1992 when the first version of Honda’s legendary machine hit the road, and it made a proper splash. Back then, John Major was PM, we’d just had the first Gulf War, Microsoft released Windows 3.1 and Nirvana’s Nevermind first topped the charts. And in the world of big-bore sportsbikes, the rulebook was literally torn up, fed to the dog, shat out, burned on a bonfire of literal hate, then the ashes were scattered to the four winds. Literally.

Perhaps strangely, with hindsight, there wasn’t anything very radical about that first 892.8cc CBR900RR. It’s not like it had carbon fibre wheels, titanium mirrors or a wee turbocharger hidden about its person. The engine wasn’t anything unusual – a straight-up inline four 16v that was far duller than something like Yamaha’s 20-valve, exhaust-power-valved FZR1000R EXUP.

Four CV carburettors, a four-into-one exhaust, CDI ignition, a mechanical speedometer, manual choke knob – none of this was unique to the Blade, and some of it was decidedly low-tech. Coming from the firm that had shown off the tech wet dream that was the NR750 at the same time, it was far less interesting on paper. Even the four-year-old RC30 racebike had much more to offer: gear-driven cams and titanium conrods.

It wasn’t even particularly powerful – around 120bhp claimed, less at the tyre from the bored-out 750 motor used in the prototype tested by the factory. Kawasaki’s ZZ-R1100 and the Yamaha EXUP were both restricted to 125bhp by inlet mods at the time, to comply with an industry agreement not to exceed this mind-blowing power output, lest we all exploded from the acceleration therein.

What it was, was light. An ‘undred and eighty-five kilos dry read like a misprint back then: the EXUP (considered svelte at the time) was 209kg, the equivalent of a well-fed five-year-old boy (or a badly-fed supermodel) heavier. The new Blade was lighter wet with 18 litres of gas than the EXUP was dry, without coolant, lube, fork oil, or battery acid… The ZZ-R1100 was in another league completely, tipping the skip-lorry weighbridge at 233kg dry and 256kg ready to go. Eek!

Again, though, it’s tricky at first to see how Honda made such a difference in weight. The ZZ-R and EXUP both had aluminium frames, and neither Kawasaki nor Yamaha were mugs. Why then, could the CBR undercut them so much on mass? Partly from some tech tricks: the forks and brakes were certainly designed to be on the skinny side, and the weird 16-inch front wheel maybe saved some grammes too. They even drilled lightening holes in the fairing panels (ha!).

But it’s the big picture which did the trick. Or should that be small picture? Honda kept the overall FireBlade design neat and compact. Obviously, the ZZ-R was more of a sport-tourer, and so it had an enormous fairing, giant pillion seat, and ostentatiously huge dashboard. Even the shiny flush-fit bungee hooks weighed about the same as a catering tin of beans each (sort of).

The EXUP was more of a sporty fellow, but it still looked like an ocean-going liner next to the racing speedboat that was the Blade. The Honda was the size of a 600 then? No actually – testers at the time reckoned it was more like a 400.

And when you looked at it, there was an awful lot of stuff to not see. For example, the space under the seat, behind the engine block on the EXUP and ZZ-R is crammed with stuff – cables, gizmos, covers, brackets everywhere. On the Blade, you can look straight through from one side to the other: there’s nothing there. And there’s not much that’s lighter than nothing…

The reason for the Blade’s light weight then was down to a new way of thinking. The genius of Tadao Baba, the CBR’s designer was to see that less would be more. Yamaha could very easily have made a bike like this (indeed, they did even better just five years later). Perhaps it just didn’t occur to them that this was what folk wanted.

That first ‘Blade sold like the proverbial hot cake, with heroin on top and ketamine inside. Your average Brit biker couldn’t get enough of it, and FireBlades were as ubiquitous then as BMW R1200GSs are nowadays. That simple, economical design, with no fancy titanium engine innards, carbon bodywork or exotic chassis parts, meant Honda could sell it for a reasonable sum, and still make a decent profit. The big H made out like gangsters, and the growth of the price-busting parallel import firms in the mid-1990s meant more folk than ever could afford one.

Kawasaki hit back with its ZX-9R, the bastard offspring of a ZXR750 and a ZZ-R1100, and Suzuki’s GSX-R1100 dinosaur kept plugging away too. Yamaha revamped its EXUP as the Thunderace, and came close to pipping the Blade to litre bike honours – but Honda did just enough in terms of updates to keep its flighty sportster on top.

Detail mods every two years trimmed off more mass, and a 1mm overbore in 1996 took capacity up to 918.53cc (ish). But the big H went into 1996 with a bike that, while still easily the best in class, was starting to look a little bit complacent. And when Yamaha showed off its own rulebook-ripping superbike in 1997, Honda was sent reeling. The R1 did the exact same trick which Honda had pulled five years previously, only more so. Yamaha started off on the front foot, with a full 999cc litre engine from the off, and they cut even more weight from the design.

With a claimed 150bhp driving 177kg, it topped the Blade’s power to weight ratio by some way. But it was the cunning chassis design which made the bigger difference. An integrated design plan meant the engine was kept short front-to-back, so the swingarm could be longer, improving stability on the gas. And the front forks had extra ‘negative’ wheel travel. So when you started to wheelie, the forks extended more than usual, keeping the tyre on the deck for a little longer, again to boost stability.

Honda was sent away to think again by the R1. And the 1999 ‘Blade was the last of the old-school versions we’d see. For 2000, it was all change – with a bigger capacity, fuel injection, and an all-new chassis layout. The motor was now a 929cc (well, 928.98ish), and came with the ‘pivotless’ frame design that Honda played with for a while at the turn of the century. Also seen on the Firestorm V-twin and VFR800, the frame spars stopped at the engine mounts, and the swingarm hung off the back of the crankcases. Up front, we finally got USD forks, eight years after the EXUP, and the front rim went to a conventional 120/70 17. It was all pretty good – the new bike was super-light, power was strong, and the new chassis did well on the road – although racers weren’t so fond of the frame.

But gadzooks and blimey – the 929 just about matched the R1, only for a new kid to come along and steal both their dinner money. Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 K1 LITERALLY rewrote the rule book, ripped it up, fed it to its parrot, shot the parrot in the face, ate the parrot, shat it out, then the new dog ate that, so it got shot and flung on the bonfire before the ashes got spread LITERALLY to the four winds. Poor Honda (poor parrot).

They had one last shot though, before switching to an all-new 1000cc platform. And in many ways, it was the finest CBR900RR made. The motor got a last-gasp bump up to 954cc, and the weight loss regime went into overdrive. As the last Blade before Euro III regs, it got away without a huge catalyst in the pipe and the like, and managed to tip the scales at just 168kg dry: a corking figure. The claimed power approached 155bhp, and in the right hands, it could match anything on the road.

The times were changing though. WSB and BSB switched to litre fours, and the old motor was at the end of its life. 2004 saw a brand new CBR1000RR Fireblade, which dropped the capital ‘B’, gained a load of weight, but opened up a new chapter in the bike’s development. Of which more tomorrow, in part two of our FireBlade retrospective…

It's the 1994 foxeye
It's the 1994 foxeye Picture: Dowds Clan Archive
Fast forward to 2004
Fast forward to 2004 Picture: Dowds Clan Archive
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