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Bike - July '94

Time Bandit

Frozen for years in a vat of cryogen, the American market Honda CB400F CB-1 has travelled through time and space to, er, Dorking....

Arty speed shot Dunstall pipe and a trendy camchain rattle - the business was a 1977 CB400F2. In fact it was a Fourhundredfour: small, naughty, all-round and affordable (and Dad's, worst luck).

I'm not sure what happened next. Honda seemed to go temporarily bonkers and everyone who liked small, naughty, all-round and affordable motorcycles ended up on a Yamaha two-stroke twin. The last one to hit the mark being the RD350N YPVS. And that, so far as the UK was concerned, was that.

In 1989 Honda, emerging from enclosed discs and other strangeness, did finally re-invent the much missed CB400F, the CB-1 for short, especially for the States. It was small, naughty, all-round and affordable in the best tradition so clearly no-one there would even look at it.

It looked instead tailor made for recession-torn Britain so Honda UK imported the expensive VFR400. Last we heard crates of CB-1s were being hawked round the planet looking for a market.

Surrey dealer Moto Vecchia has found a source of old new ones, crated zero-milers which for £3495 two whole grand less than a ZXR400 or FZR400 - will pretty much do it all, in a 1989-vintage kind of way. They have old tyres, USofA spec 55-65-75mph speedos, and always-on headlights but otherwise have survived both the years and the move to British roads unscathed.

Visually the CB-1 is uncannily RD350N YPVS. The big head-light, beefy (and cheap) steel tube perimeter frame, flat-top tank and raised clip-ons lend a YPVS-look that leaves no doubt as to what Honda wanted from this bike: four-stroke banditry that's useful for the shops. Everything ironically that Suzuki failed to get from the 400 Bandit.

Centre stage is a startling eyeful of polished crankcase covers and countersunk cap heads - a compact, 16-valve dohc four and precursor to the brilliant CBR400RR tested last month. Used as a stressed member it's another 399cc revver, with a 55 x 42mm bore and stroke, 11.3:1 compression ratio and 13,500rpm redline (500rpm shorter than the RR). Moto Vecchia quotes a peak 56bhp, which is 15 per cent down on the latest racer-rep 400s, and a very credible 29lb.ft at 9500rpm, which is not only competitive with the newer bikes but has a distinctly early peak for a 400 four.

First gear is long (40mph at the redline), but the CB bustles happily from 2500rpm without clutch assistance into the meat of its midrange urge. And in contrast to, say, the much more peaky ZXR400 it gives far and away its best mid-tacho: short gearing, close ratios, a tight, precise gearshift and that relatively sensible torque curve making it a doddle to rush usefully about on. Alternatively - delinquently - dip the cable clutch at 6000 and it wheelies with more aplomb than did the YPVS. 100mph comes easily anytime.

There is an annoying snatch hiding in the driveline, and the throttle action is sloppy - exactly what you don't want on a bike with virtually no flywheel effect - and, of course being a microbike it pays for its midrange with top end fireworks. Where, at ll,000rpm, the previously tepid ZXR is now setting off towards 140mph, the CB is irritatingly buzzy and wheezing sadly to 115-ish. And the bigger and heavier the rider, the slower and peakier and more cramped and unlovely the CB-1 becomes.

With no 140mph roads on my schedule, I (5ft 6in, ten stone) was right into it from ride one. A low seat, semi-rearsets and raised clip-ons successfully recreate the YPVS's thinking-hooligan attack position: they tip you into the top-whack 115mph breeze - shoulders up, head down - also give enough leverage and all-round comfort for extended periods of normality. The motor rustles then sucks hard, barking through an elegant (non EC 80dB) four-into-one exhaust (that gives easy-peasy oil-filter access). The wide mirrors blur with revs while bars and the pegs go live without being tingly. Nice.

The handling, though a generation younger than the YPVS, lacks the suspension, stiffness and general integrity of newer ZXR/FZRs, but it is fun. A short 1375mm wheel-base and fast-geometry (25.5degrees rake, 99mm trail) make it a whole lot quicker to turn than an old stroker Yamaha. The single 310mm disc and twin-piston front caliper are adequate, nothing grounds out (though it might were the missing mainstand installed), and so long as you don't go looking for extreme action of the 1994 variety late-80s wallow and weave don't intrude on the fun, too much. In fact, in the course of riding to work for a week I only encountered handling problems at lower speeds. Seventeen-inch wheels wear hardened old Dunlop K505s whose profiles seem to work against each other. The non rising-rate cantilever rear suspension (the matching blue shock is adjustable for preload only) is mushy with most of its damping very late in the shock's stroke. And at 375lb dry the CB's 25lb too heavy for a 400 really, especially as the engine is held high and rearward. Result: below 60mph the steering wanders and understeers and sometimes, always when it's wet, goes plain weird.

No problem. I got used to it. For me, the CB-1 is a reborn Fourhundredfour and, in spirit at least, a latter day four-stroke YPVS. It goes well, handles OK, pulls wheelies, flies in the face of what we're told is good. It is sparse (pre-dating adjustable levers), gimmick-free and flawed. Moto Vecchia's Jeremy Baker says: "Look, it is a new bike with a low seat that is cheap to insure, has more useful torque than most other 400s and costs a lot less too. In short, this is the type of bike people actually want." Change the rubber and I would actually want one too.

Tim Thompson


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