If Carlsberg Made Sports Tourers
Honda’s Super Blackbird – a bike so fast, so cool, so damn good, that its name is still spoken with respect, admiration and hushed tones even though production ended in 2007. First emerging in 1996, and instantly crowned ‘world’s fastest bike’, the official name came from the headline-making SR71 Blackbird, Lockheed’s stealthy spy plane. Honda’s two wheeled offering arrived in shimmering black paint, and although it might not actually have been able to hit Mach 3, back in 1996 it felt like it just might.
But the ‘Bird was not all about speed; ride all day comfortable, it could tour and with a 0-60 time close to 3 seconds, could even pose on the drag strip. It looked good, was built to last and brought a mad, mad grin to the face of anyone who rode it. More than that though, the bike inspired affection, brooked adrenaline fueled addiction, and, as witnessed by the still lively owners scene today, run-deep loyalty. Somehow the CBR1100XX was much more than just another fast bike. Anyone who has ever thrown a leg over one will know.
So how did Honda do it? Well no-one knows if there ever was a link between the Japanese firm and a certain brewer of Scandinavian lager …but it’s tempting to think there might have been a can or two hanging around the Honda design team canteen around 1995. How else could they have come up with something as extraordinary, as one off and so darn nearly perfect as the Blackbird proved to be?
There have been moments in engineering like it before – RJ Mitchell’s Spitfire, or Ford’s GT40 for instance. Things that are more than just the sum of their parts; machines that do more than you ask, or could ever have thought to ask; technology with soul, benchmarks of quality, something that moves the whole game on.
The technical specification is certainly impressive; the engine is a liquid cooled DOHC inline 1137cc four, angled forward to lower the C of G in a dual spar, box section alloy frame, fuelled initial by 4 carbs and later by fuel injection. The engine is a real beauty, churning out an intoxicating 164bhp. With a weight of 223kg, the quarter miles comes up in quickly – just 10.3 seconds, and the bike runs on, lunging for the horizon like a missile to a max velocity of 176mph. With 88 ft. / lbs. torque the mill is flexible and easy low down, but with an increasing urgency as the revs climb towards the red line. This designed in power surge makes for an involving and exciting ride. Balancer shafts ensure that the power delivery is as silky smooth as an ice cold Guinness, so smooth in fact that the engine bolts straight to the frame – rubber mounting unnecessary.
Tank capacity is good at about 24 litres, though the bike’s thirst for unleaded means that tank range is limited to 180 miles or so, depending on how much you explore the upper reaches of the dials. Wind resistance is cut by use of a cleverly tapering nose (low and main beams stacked on top of each other to reduce the frontal cross section); the bike cuts cleanly through the air and is stable at speed and in moderate crosswinds.
So what’s it like to own a Blackbird?
So what’s it like to own a Blackbird? Well I’ve had one for a couple of years now and it’s been a joy. Nothing and I mean nothing has gone wrong with it, and services are an easy DIY effort, even though the bike is now approaching 30,000 miles. Bikes with 100,000 clocked are well known. It always starts first time and just seems to get smoother and faster the older it gets. It responds instantly to inputs, and seems to fit like a glove. Once bought running costs are cheap, though parts and spares are easily available from main dealers and through specialists like David Silver Spares.
I like fiddling and farkling, so it was no hardship to deal with the Bird’s few known faults. The diagnostic plug under the seat was removed before it could corrode and cause mayhem, the rectifier was replaced and rear shock was upgraded. I also fitted Gilles vario bars (in lieu of cheaper risers) and mirror extenders. Many of the best upgrades are available from JAWS, the well-known UK Blackbird Specialist. Good advice can be had on CBRXX.com, a brilliant owners’ website.
But is the Blackbird still relevant, still competitive against today’s technology crammed exotica? The venerable Honda has no selectable engine modes, no traction control, and although the brakes are linked, the firm never quite got round to fitting ABS. Today there are bikes that (supposedly) fill a similar niche, produce more power and handle and brake better. But are they better overall? Astonishingly, despite the efforts of a dozen or more factories over five years, the answer, as Carlsberg might say, has to be ‘Probably not’.
For one thing, a late, second-hand Blackbird with low mileage represents astonishing value for money. Despite hanging onto their value, lower end bikes can be had for a most reasonable £2,000, while a late, mint, low mileage example will set you back between five and seven grand. That is an awful lot of grin for your buck.
Recently here at Big Bike Mad, we tested two of the fastest bikes around, a brand new unregistered 2011 model ZZR1400 and a Hyabusa of the same year. Not Panigale’s or S100RR’s, but then we were looking for comparables for the ‘bird – something sporty, large capacity, and comfy enough to tour on. It was a fine, if windy day and we figured we’d have a play on some familiar riding territory in North Wiltshire.
The Kawasaki (like many of its forebears) is all about the engine. Or, more accurately, about going and stopping. Fueling is crisp; acceleration is rapid and gear changes silky smooth. Progress is effortless, sending the rider surging down the road on riding a tide of power. It is wonderfully, deliciously insane. Speed was matched by awesome brakes – it slows as fast as it goes; powerful radials hauling the bike down from licence losing speeds as if you had just chucked the Titanic’s anchor out. It’s all so easy that, perhaps unfortunately it makes you feel immortal.
Blackbird – the story keeps on going..
But here’s the rub; the difficult to explain and even harder to define part. The Blackbird was still right up there in terms of overall experience. Even in the areas it’s good at; engine, transmission and brakes; the ZZR is still not that much better than the ‘Bird. This is true even in terms of its ultimate claim to fame; speed and acceleration. If pushed, the Kawasaki is certainly faster, especially at the upper end of the dial. Question is; how much time are most riders likely to spend there? At more real world speeds (40-100 mph, say) the two bikes are pretty much comparable. On the road, the outcome of any competitive meeting (ahem) would be down to the rider.
But the truth is the difference between the two bikes is more than any number of carefully collected facts. The Kawasaki has a raw, totally bonkers edge. The Bird is fast, but in an elegant and almost gentlemanly way. If the Kawa is the Bullet Train, the Blackbird is the Orient Express. I’ll be hanging on to my ticket to ride for a while longer….oh and, yes, they do serve Carlsberg in the bar- Cheers!
Honda Blackbird Video – Click pic below to go to our Video Channel
Honda CBR 1100XX Super Blackbird: Vital Statistics
BBM Overall Rating
1137cc, in line 4. DOHC.
0-60 mph in approx. 3.6 seconds
Average about 35-40mpg
4000 miles / annual (big one at 16,000 miles)
£2000 – £7,000 approx (prices may be rising).