Tuesday, August 3, 2010

From The Cycle Guide Archives: The Day Honda Dethroned Ducati

Thirty years ago everybody knew motorcycles with four-cylinder engines didn’t handle as well as European twins. Then Cycle Guide showed everybody they were wrong.

Thirty-five years ago Japanese bikes powered by inline four-cylinder engines handled like wobbly weenies through fast corners. They weren’t quite so bad through slow corners simply because you were going slow, although those big bikes helped usher in the phrase low-speed wobble.

“They said there was absolutely no way in hell that a motorcycle could really handle with an inline four-cylinder engine sitting upright across its midsection.” –Cycle Guide, October 1979

But within five years—1980 to be precise—at least one Japanese manufacturer came up with a workable formula for handling. Honda’s 1980 CB750F Super Sport, a second-year model, checked in with some interesting suspension features that, for the time, were practically unheard of on a mass-produced motorcycle. The CB750F’s FVQ adjustable shock absorbers, coupled with a few crafty chassis modifications to minimize the wet-noodle theatrics common among the four-banger crowd, transformed Honda’s three-quarter-liter bike into a roadster with snappy handling. I knew this practically before anyone else, because I was among the first American journalists to ride the critter.

“…the 1980 Honda CB750F—powered by one of those dreaded four-cylinder engines—is proof that they were wrong.”

I was Cycle Guide’s associate editor during the summer of 1979 when we took delivery of our test bike, and after each staffer had a chance to sample the Super Sport’s road manners we huddled for an editorial meeting. Whispers about cutting-edge handling and “it feels like a racer” filled the room when, finally, editorial director Steven Thompson called the meeting to order.

He and editor Paul Dean had huddled together earlier, I’m sure, because what Steve proposed was going to consume a lot of our small magazine’s resources, time and manpower. The folks at American Honda had touted the Super Sport’s handling as tops in its class, and Steve and Paul wanted to take Honda to task. We were going to spend a day at Willow Springs Raceway—our unofficial suspension dyno back in those days—testing the new Honda. But Steve and Paul wanted to take the test a step further.

They proposed comparing the Honda to the best-handling road bike at the time, the Ducati 900 Desmo Super Sport. But where to get a Ducati that we could test? Fortunately I was still competing in Southern California club road races and I knew of a bike we could borrow. Earl Smith, an AFM club officer, had a sparkling new Desmo SS we could use, and he was gracious enough to help out.

“…the Ducati was broken in and ready for peg-to-peg combat with the Honda at Willow Springs Raceway.”

As the magazine’s associate editor, I was in charge of testing the street bikes, so I was the point man. Staffers would take turns riding the Honda and the Duck, but the final verdict rested on my shoulders. How fast could I lap Willow’s nine turns on either bike? And which bike would I feel most confident on while racing the stopwatch?

“Our mission, of course, was to compare the two bikes only in terms of handling.”

Looking at the 1980 Honda CB750F Super Sport today, the bike seems crude, even archaic in its design. Many riders today might even pass it off as a naked bike, or as something suitable more for daily commuting than blasting around a racetrack. But for its time the Honda was on the cutting edge. Its shock absorbers’ adjustable rebound and compression damping offered more variables for me to consider during our track test. Back then, suspension adjustments were typically confined to spring preload only—determine which setting best suited your weight, then challenge the track.

I think riders back then—I know this pertains to me—had an uncanny knack for adapting to the bike or riding conditions simply because we had to. We couldn’t fine-tune the suspension to make the bike handle “just so,” so we played the hand we were dealt. The Honda’s FVQ shocks were the equivalent of having a wild card in my hand. By the end of the day that Honda and I had become real close friends, and I was lapping Willow nearly a second quicker on it than I could on the Duck.

“It’s no surprise, then, that Honda refined the 1980 rendition of the 750F to give it even better handling than the ’79.”

By day’s end I had made my choice—the Honda was the better handling bike. Steve, Paul and the rest of the staff stood by my decision, so we went with that for the road test that Paul penned for the October 1979 issue. My reputation—heck, the magazine’s reputation—was on the line because I knew our decision was going to ruffle more than a few Ducati owners’ feathers.

“Worse yet, the Desmo would wobble ferociously at Willow when accelerating hard out of Turn Two’s increasing radius, and also while sweeping through fat-and-bumpy Turn Eight.”

A couple of weeks later we sent the issue to the printer, so there was no turning back. The October issue would hit the stands in early September. In the meantime we still had our Honda test bike, so I used it to ride north to Laguna Seca for the AMA National race that summer.

If I may sidebar for a moment, back in those days I was a hellion with more than my share of traffic citations. To this day Paul Dean enjoys telling war stories about how I wallpapered my office with tickets, but we won’t get into that right now. Instead, you should know that I had a “donation” to make to the Policeman’s Ball in Salinas, the town a few miles east of Laguna Seca, so I visited the justice of the peace the Monday after the race to settle up and then headed south for home in Orange County.

“Whatever the reasons, the Honda maneuvers effortlessly, whether wailing into a 100-mph racetrack turn or swinging into the Safeway parking lot.”

I was in a hurry, so I took Highway 101 rather than the legendary Highway 1 that parallels the coast, but shortly after King City road construction forced a traffic detour over some inland two-lane roads that led to the town of Paso Robles. Fortune struck along the way—I encountered two riders on Ducatis. One was on a 750GT and the other, by chance, was riding a 900 Desmo Super Sport.

As happens under these conditions, the three of us cranked up the speed until the Desmo rider and I left the GT guy in the dust. I led the Desmo and we had one heck of a tussle. We were cooking the goose pretty good and in one turn I really thought I was going to buy the farm.

The Honda was going wide through a left-hander and I reached the point where the tires wanted to come loose from the pavement. It’s that moment of truth when you recite what I call a milli-prayer because you’ve broken all the laws of physics and the only thing standing between you and crunch time is your Creator. I cringed as the rear wheel tried to bend itself around to the front of the bike. But I kept it on two wheels, I kept it on the road, and I kept it ahead of the Desmo Duck, which was all that really mattered at the time. This was a trial by fire, and it would be final proof  that I had made the right decision a couple of weeks ago at Willow Springs when I proclaimed the Honda to be the better-handling motorcycle.

“The Honda is marvelously responsive and always eager to peel off into a fast bend…”

The town of Paso Robles slowed us down, and the three of us rolled into the A&W Root Beer stand parking lot for lunch and an interesting benchracing session. The Cycle Guide logo was plastered onto the back of my Bates riding jacket, so the two Ducati riders put two and two together. I told them who I was, and then shared with them the outcome of our Honda vs. Ducati track test. The Desmo rider scratched his head and said, “Well, you proved it again today, didn’t you?” And that’s how I unofficially determined that the Honda CB750F was the best-handling production motorcycle for 1980 model year. –Dain Gingerelli

“There’s a new King of the Handling Hill. And it has four cylinders, all in a row.”


  1. I started reading Cycle Guide in 82 or so and missed that article.
    I did have at the time of the article, a 1977 CB750F and as much as I thought that it was the coolest thing on wheels - I got my ass handed to me a couple of times by ducs.
    In those days though, bikes were improving by leaps and bounds. Stuff just got old and slow real fast.

  2. I miss the 70s when motorcycle evolution was apparent just about every month as something new was unleashed on the riding public. Two strokes, four strokes; singles, twins, triples, fours, sixes; water cooling; on road, enduros, motoX....

    Cycle, Cycle Guide, Cycle World, Motorcyclist, Cycle News East/West...

    Exciting time to be a newbie!

  3. A few months ago, I was going through my old stash of motorcycle magazines squirreled away in the garage and actually found a pristine copy of this particular CG issue. I am getting back into motorcycling after fifteen years and am re-acclimatizing myself to the sport. Speaking of handling, back in the 70's, Japanese motorcycles were always given an undeserved bum rap. You may not believe it but my 1972 Kawasaki H2 actually handled very well. I was never left behind in the canyons nor was I ever scared doing it. I am looking forward to putting it through its paces once again.

  4. Does anyone have or know where I can get a copy of this issue? Or at least a photo of one of the pictures? My dad has a 1980 750f that he bought new. I thought it would be nice to frame the picture of one of the shots from this article (one with the honda in the foreground and ducati in the background) for fathers day. Thanks.

  5. I was a proud owner of a 1980 Honda 750 F, probably the only reason I'm still alive. Greatest bike ever !

  6. I have my Honda CB750F and it still runs well, but I think it could do with an extra gear.

  7. I just bought a 1980 750f this evening. Used to have a 1979 750k. Talk about different worlds where bikes are concerned!

  8. Have my 1980 750F with 9000 original miles. Showroom condition. Bought it 3 years ago from the original owner. Still turns heads.Awesome acceleration buts needs another gear for the highway.