Hot and Sandy

Travel writing, pictures and stuff for people I know. Quite a lot of cycling talk, and some semi-controlled ranting. Hiking, outdoor and two-wheeled stuff, perhaps a little computing when it's worth talking about. Meandering thoughts.

Tuesday, May 12

Honda NC-27 CB-1: The Best of the Grey 400s

The little CB-1 was a whim really; a way of saving my NT650V and VFR750 from the worst that winter could throw at them.  It was destined never to leave the confines of the big smoke, to live out its life razzing from home to work, with the odd exotic trip to the cinema or the supermarket thrown in for kicks.

I’d heard about the little Japanese-market bike a few years earlier, from dealings in the courier trade.  Along with odd machines like the Bandit 400, Bros 400 and VFR400, CB-1s were beginning to arrive on British shores, filling a gap in the market missed by official importers.  I bet they were kicking themselves, especially in the capital, where the needs of despatch riders were being satisfied by crate-loads of these little bikes.

The task was to find reliable bikes that were economical, cheap to drop (couriers suffer many low-speed drops), and physically compact; all the better for fitting through gaps.  The tricky part was that these machines also had to be nippy, handle rapid street-riding well, and had to be able to cover Starship Enterprise mileages without complaint.  Shops sprang up, some only dealing with uncrating and flogging the bikes, others operating rental fleets and undertaking cheap and cheerful servicing.  Still other businesses emerged to supply spares and Japanese accessories.

The trade was based on three happy coincidences.  First were the then-draconian Japanese licensing laws, which meant that to ride a bike of up to 400cc was easy, yet getting the large-capacity license was very challenging and expensive.  Even if you got the license, insuring a larger-capacity bike was also out of the financial reach of most residents.  Another issue was the MOT – as soon as a bike was four years old, it had to be stripped to the chassis, and every component checked before the bike was reassembled.  In many cases, it was cheaper to just get rid of the bike altogether!

The third happy coincidence has a little to do with the Honda corporate history, specifically the so-called “chocolate cam disaster” suffered by the company with the VF750.  A slight design fault caused certain engine components to fail prematurely, which in turn led to the very quality-conscious home-market collapsing for Honda.  In response, they ensured a huge leap in quality and design.  In some models (such as the CBR400, the donor bike for the CB-1 engine) gear-driven cams were used- an extremely expensive solution to the problem, albeit a mechanically reliable and elegant one.  Throughout the range, exhausts and fastenings were 100% stainless steel, plastic was high quality, and only the best electrical connectors and switches were used.  Without winning the Japanese public over, Honda could have gone under.

Because of this, the so-called “grey imports” were well suited to a demanding secondary market.  Despite having stood for at least a couple of years, the machines were often as they were when they were sold / part exchanged in the Land of the Rising Sun.  This often included unusual aftermarket lights, crash bars and exotic tuning parts, such as Moriwaki exhausts.  Most of the bikes needed air in the tyres and a clean of the carburettors, and they were ready to go, the timeless styling of the Japanese market sitting well on UK streets.

My CB-1 was one of these immigrants, welcomed in 2002 with open arms, already 12 years old.  Fortunately it was not put to work “on circuit”, delivering items in the Capital.  Instead, it was purchased as a starter bike for someone who never really quite started.  This meant that five years later, when I was the lucky buyer, the bike had only covered a couple of hundred kilometres since its boat trip.


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