Game-changers don’t come more fun and frolicsome than the first three generations of Honda CBR900RR FireBlade. But what made them so special?
The story of the FireBlade birth has been well charted and its place in the lexicon of modern classic motorcycles is assured, but it’s not the technical advances of the Blade that were really important (there weren’t many, if any) but rather the attitude that Honda instilled into the bike that made ii a real benchmark.
Think of the 1991 Honda range if you will… the Benly-esque CD250U, the NTV600M Revere, the Transalp: all solid bikes, but not really very inspiring. Even the big H’s large sportbike wasn’t blisteringly hot (CBR1000FM), while the V4s were the astonishingly capable VFR750 and the amazing but expensive RC30 and it is into this mix that the CBR900RR landed like a fireball.
For a company that some thought specialised in the mundane, the CBR900RR was a game-changer.
It wasn’t that it was impeccably put together (it was) it was that here was a Honda equipped with character in spades. It not only beat the opposition it blew them into the weeds — best of all it had a cool name ‘FireBlade.’ This came about as a direct translation in English for the Japanese word ‘lightning’. It was cool in the way that ‘Thunderace’ never, ever was or could be.
The bike itself was made with unremarkable technology put together with a new buzzword in sportbike design ‘mass centralisation’ and that was the clever bit.
Under the super-cool black and gun-metal bodywork of the launch bike (so achingly malevolent…) was a light and compact motor, equipped with 16 valves, DOHC and only slightly bigger than the CBR600F motor and only six kilos heavier. However, this pumped out 110-120bhp at 10,500rpm depending on what dyno you used, rather than the 80-or-so that the 600 did. It was canted forward, like engines in sportbikes had been since the FZ750 (see last month’s Mould Breaker) and had carbs and its overall architecture wasn’t anything to write home about.
The chassis was similarly unremarkable, beam ally frame, strong braced swingarm and light, right-way-up forks, but here’s where it got clever. The Blade design team — led by Tadao Baba — realised that to make a sportbike truly sporty, it had to be light. Hence, the best bit on a bike was one you didn’t need — it could be dispensed with. For Baba the then fashionable upside-down or ‘inverted’ forks could be dispensed with, as they were too heavy. Wheels and tyres were heavy too, and if you could take an inch off the diameter, you could save more rolling mass and the effects on the handling of the bike would be remarkable. Hence the Blade came with higher-profile 16-inch tyres, with the same rolling diameter of a 17-incher.
Mass centralisation was the thing: the big heavy stuff was kept central and the things at the extremities were made as light as possible. That was the trick.
And what a trick: compared to the likes of the GSX-R1100, which was heavy, ponderous, cumbersome and in some forms dangerous, the FireBlade was like a race bike — even compared to the benchmark EXUP. This shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise as Baba-san himself was an ex-racer and the bike was developed by a talented team of testers including the young talents of road-race ace Phillip McCallen.
The launch at Phillip Island in February 1992 was accurately summed up by the late, legendary Australian Motor Cycle News editor Ken Wootton who said: “This bike has captured the imagination of the motorcycling public. The FireBlade pushes the 1990s thrust of ‘bigger is better.’ After all, whenever did you have a motorcycle so eagerly awaited and yet it pumps out less power than the opposition?”
That’s what marked out the FireBlade as special. It wasn’t about having more cc than the others, or more valves, or higher this or bigger that, it was simply about thinking about the package as a whole and the result coming from the sum of the parts that actually made it onto the bike.
As time went on, the FireBlade’s edge was blunted a little. Honda was guilty of making it more comfortable and more accessible to the masses and it became one of the biggest-selling UK bikes of the 1990s. Capacity went up from 893cc to 918.5cc from 1996, suspension was improved, aesthetics went all ‘Foxeye’ from 1994, which was the trend of the time but by 1998 it was perhaps a little too friendly and comfy to warrant the name. For that year the bike did have less weight, but more trail, similar wheelbase and a longer frame, making the thing more stable. Not really what the original was all about, was it?
And that’s why the original FireBlade is a real mould breaker, it changed the way sportbikes were designed and made and set a trend that would continue with sports machines to this day.