This road test of the 1981 Honda CBX appeared in Cycle World magazine's July 1981 issue. (Thanks to Tom Whaley for providing the original article). Click on the pictures to view full-size versions (requires a Javascript-capable browser).


Grand Prix Glamour and Touring Chic

The capital letters GT have been applied and misapplied to such a variety of vehicles over the years their meaning is nearly forgotten. From the Italian Gran Turismo, the title was originally bestowed on a small, select group of automobiles capable of delivering a competent driver over the twisting Alpine roads and wide-open autoroutes of Europe in civilized high speed comfort. Neither spartan, wind-in-the-face sports cars nor big wafting luxury wagons, cars of the Grand Touring class borrowed from the best of both worlds.

Motorcycling, in its slightly more rugged fashion, has also produced a few vehicles that could be classified as GT machines. The BMW R100RT and the Moto Guzzi 1000SP are two current examples that come to mind. Depending on your point of view, bikes in this class are either touring machines for people who like speed or sport bikes for those who travel. In any case, the group has a new member. The Honda CBX.

The letters GT appear nowhere in connection with the new CBX, that designation having been used a few years ago by various Ducatis and the sporty Suzuki two-strokes, but perhaps they should. This revamped version of Honda's 24-valve Six may just be the most faithful thing on two wheels to the original GT concept. Now with sport fairing, color coordinated luggage and monoshock rear suspension, the CBX has been lifted firmly from the crowded ranks of the muscle and sport bike competition and set back down in the land of the wind-tunnel-tested tourist.

Before the details, a little history:

The prototype CBX test bike was released back in 1978 to combined murmurs of amazement and cries of protest. People who were already razzing the big Fours as being too tall, wide and heavy now rolled their eyes and clutched at their hearts in feigned or real fits of disbelief. "A 600 lb. 1047cc Six?" they said. "Who needs it?"

The answer of course, was that no one needed it. Not the CBX nor any other motorcycle with more than 15 bhp. The truth is, we could all get along just fine on castiron 250cc two-strokes with mudflaps, made behind the Iron Curtain. No one needed the CBX except people who like big fast, glamorous machines full of exotic tricks and lovely noises, powered by engines lifted off the blueprints of famous, successful racing bikes.

And the first CBX certainly was fast. It ran through the quarter mile in a tiresmoking 11.46 sec. at 117.95 mph and topped out at 134 in the half-mile dash, all of which made it the fastest bike around. There were problems, however. The prototype had been released, tested, photographed and lusted after but Honda was slow in getting the bike off the production lines. By the time the first production CBXs hit the showroom floors it was 1979. Late 1979.

By that time some other big bikes had arrived to play the numbers game. The production CBX was even quicker than the prototype, running an 11.36 sec. and 118.11 mph quarter mile. But its late introduction and relatively low exposure had a good part of its potential market going over to the Yamaha XS11, Suzuki GS1000 and Kawasaki KZ1000 Mk. II, all of which provided excellent - if slightly less spectacular - performance with simpler four-cylinder engines.

In 1980 Honda changed the CBX in two ways. They improved the chassis and dropped the horsepower. The frame got an improved swing arm with, ball and roller bearings, better rear shocks, air assisted front forks, improved steering geometry . . . in short, the handling it deserved. The engine was another story. Feeling the hot breath of Ms. Claybrook and her fellow low performance enthusiasts down its 103 bhp neck, Honda decided to detune the engine just a tad. More conservative cams and a revised ignition curve did the trick.

In the meantime the Suzuki GS1100 arrived with excellent handling, a four-cylinder engine, 105 claimed bhp, 11.39 sec. at 118.42 mph, 47 mpg and "only" 556 lb. of rolling mass. Suddenly the only reasons for owning a CBX - not to be discounted - were brand loyalty, aesthetic preference, and the mechanical glamour of The Six.

Which brings us to 1981, home of the Kawasaki GPz1100 and an even quicker new Suzuki GS1100. And the 1981 Honda CBX.

Why the change in character, the switch to touring garb this year? Several reasons. First, Honda has brought its CB900F, formerly available only in Europe, to the U.S. The 900F is the core of Honda's Superbike racing effort this year and the model most likely to succeed with the road race and twisty road crowd. No sense having the company competing against itself for sales. Second, Honda lost interest in continuing the horsepower battle with the big Six.

And third, the marketing people at Honda noticed an unexpected phenomenon last year. They found that a large number of 750F buyers had outfitted these sport machines with small fairings, low bars, and soft luggage and taken them touring. It was apparent that not everyone who went touring cared for the plush bulk or the conservative image of cruisers like the Gold Wing. Interest was growing in the fleet, unburdened approach to travel. So with that market growing, why not take the smooth, sophisticated flagship CBX and offer the fast touring set a sporting alternative? Why not indeed, they said, and did just that.

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