A Very Fine Ride – the VFR750 with Phil Hall
Phil Hall talks about a bike close to his heart, the VFR750
This week’s article is a very personal one but I hope you can see past this fact and find something interesting in it for your reading pleasure and your further education. You see I want to talk about my bike and it as an example of the model that has both an interesting history as well as a still relevant present.
So, about that history. The Honda VFR750 was introduced in 1986. It was very much a “face-saving” exercise on Honda’s part as the previous VF750 models, both “Sport” and “Touring,” had suffered from a well-publicised camshaft problem that cost Honda more than just a lot of bad publicity.
It transpired that the lobes on the camshafts wore very rapidly leading to major top-end issues and expense to the owner. This was originally suspected to have been caused by inadequate lubrication of the top end of the engine and all sorts of “fixes” were devised by owners and the after-market industry which helped marginally but actually hindered finding a solution as they masked the true nature of the problem.
Inadequate lubrication was certainly an issue but the underlying cause of the problem was that the cam lobes were not being hardened correctly in the manufacturing process which led to their rapid wear and subsequent reliability issues.
It was a major bloody nose for Honda whose machinery had always been seen as the epitome of reliability and build quality and it took many years before the stigma of their first production V4 went away. The VFR was a front-on assault on the bad publicity that had resulted from the VF models and Honda went all-out to make sure that they had dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.
The motor was similar in concept but was “beefed up” in the areas that mattered. It took quite a while before the company re-established the trust of the market but the VFR certainly showed that, when Honda made a mistake, they went all-out to correct it.
VFR anoraks (like me), talk about their VFR’s in terms of generations so the breakdown of the VFR history goes sort of like this. The Gen 1 VFR was produced from 1986-1987. It was a little more conventional than later Gens but was based around the V4 DOHC engine that powered the successive models into the Naughties.
As a Japanese motor it was built around the established technology that Honda had pioneered during the halcyon days of its Grand Prix racing success. The obvious exception was the V4 configuration and the drive for the overhand cams being achieved by gears that were located between the cylinders.
The gear driven overhead cam layout continued until it was superseded (for several reasons) by the chain-driven cam drive in the 2002 model 800cc bike. The gear-drive feature is what gives the VFR their distinctive “whining” noise when the engine is running and this is, for most purists, the sound that surpasses all others in motorcycle engines.
The Gen1 bike also featured a 16inch front wheel, a feature that had been in evidence for a number of years in the Honda line-up. What was found to be successful on the racetrack, however, was found to be less than ideal in the real world of potholed roads and less than perfect road surfaces. Anyone who has ridden a bike with a 16inch front wheel will attest to their unsuitability, under Australian conditions especially.
The Gen 2 (1988-1989) model featured a “normal” 17inch front wheel, beefed up front forks and a raft of other improvements.
Gen 3 was produced from 1990-1993 and was a major engineering upgrade (unfortunately also a weight upgrade). The now famous single sided swingarm, pioneered by Honda in conjunction with the French fuel company, ELF, made its first appearance. Honda seemed determined to throw all their engineering skills at the VFR as if to challenge the other manufacturers to follow suit if they dared.
The Gen 4 was the last of the 750cc models and also the last model before the introduction of electronic “aids” began to intrude. Produced from 1994-1997 the bike was a considerable upgrade being slimmer, lighter and designed around styling cues lifted from the uber-expensive NR750 and also auto racing.
The Gen 5 VFR became an 800cc engine (well, almost). It had fuel injection, a linked braking system, pioneered on the CB1000 and refined for use here, and more electronic features such as a more complex and informative digital dashboard. It ran from 1997-2002, a long model run by Honda standards.
The Gen 6 was a complete styling makeover with a sharp, angular look replacing the smooth lines of the Gen 5 and a major revamp of the engine, deletion of the gear-driven cams in favour of a chain and a two-stage valve system. The motor ran as a two-valve mill until the revs passed 6500 and then the remaining four-valves were brought into play. The transition to four-valves brought with it a deep change in engine note as the airbox resonance deepened when the extra valves came into play and the VFR began to breathe more deeply.
The idea behind running as only a two-valve per cylinder engine at lower rpm was to increase low-speed torque and response, while then providing a free flowing top end when it switched to full four-valve per cylinder operation as the revs rose. The transition between the two was a little disconcerting sometimes but was steadily improved during the life of the model.
Honda then went bigger in 2010 with a new big brother arriving in 2010, the Gen 7, the VFR1200 which many VFR purists refuse to accept as being in any way part of the VFR family for reasons which we will not explore here.
The following year also saw Honda introduce a soft dual-sport variant of the VFR line-up, the VFR800X Crossrunner.
Then in 2012 a dual-sport version of the VFR1200F was also added.
The legendary VFR800F was then completely updated for 2014 with a sharp, contemporary looks, a brand new telescopic fork, Pro-arm swingarm, wheels and bodywork. Plus, adjustable seat height, standard-fit Traction Control System, ABS, heated grips and Honda’s unique self-cancelling indicators. It also shed 7kg compared to the previous model, with the engine re-tuned for greater low and mid-range torque.
For 2017 a DC charger socket was added and the engine was updated to EURO4 compliance.
So there you have it, a potted history of the VFRs. Where does mine fit in? Well, I own a Gen 4. In fact, since buying my first one in 2002, I have owned five of them in total. I’ve also owned a Gen 5.
Arriving at VFR ownership from a mid-sized bike that was 12 years older than the red 1994 model I bought was a major revelation. The jump in power, smoothness, handling, the six speed gearbox, just the overall sophistication of it took some getting used to. However, I very quickly became a VFR fan and have remained so ever since.
What is it that I like about my bike and why, if the opportunity presented itself to buy another bike, would I look for another VFR750? Simply put, the bike does everything that I need. It is the Swiss Army bike, it does everything you want it to do and it does it well.
It is equally at home putting down to the shops to get a loaf of bread or knocking out a 700km day out on the highway. It is more than competent in the twisties, getting the job done with a great deal more ease and a great deal less fuss than many of its more “sporty” contemporaries and it does all of these with a high degree of rider involvement and satisfaction.
The riding position is almost ideal, the footpeg placement being a perfect compromise between cruiser and sports bike and the handlebar placement canting the rider just the ideal angle forwards while still allowing for comfort and more than adequate visibility.
The seat is properly shaped (though mine is now in need of re-padding), and it can also be a very adequate pillion perch with comfortable seat-to-footpeg ratio and without the passenger not having to risk having their head ripped off if they peep up above the rider’s head.
Despite having “only” 748cc, the bike is more than adequate in real world usage, the huge torque range of the V4 engine more than making up for the lack of capacity when overtaking, for example.
100km/h hour on the highway translates to 5000rpm with standard gearing, right in the middle of the power band that lasts right through to 11500RPM. If extra is needed a quick downshift, aided by the hydraulic clutch, will send the revs flying and the bike responding instantly. I have never been in the situation where I have felt that I was hurting for power, perhaps enough is enough.
There is no electronics to intrude, everything is analogue and simple. Like the old ad used to say, “Isn’t it wonderful when something just works?”
Handling is smooth, predictable and more than enough for an owner who wants a great sports/touring bike. Many 750 owners who do track days on their bikes regularly report that the bike is more than capable of embarrassing sports bikes with far greater sporting pretensions.
Having said that, the suspension is pretty basic. Front forks are conventional with just pre-load adjustment being available. Rear suspension offers both pre-load and damping adjustment but, to be honest, I’ve fiddled with mine interminably and found that it makes very little difference.
The shock is known to be a short-lived affair but even rebuilding it does not seem to have a long-lasting benefit. Many 4th Gen owners have gone after-market with Wilbers being a popular choice. If the budget doesn’t run to that, a Honda 929 rear unit fits right in and offers better performance, adjustability and longevity.
There’s not a great deal that can be done to improve a 4th Gen. Opportunities to decrease weight are mostly confined to ditching the standard muffler and replacing it with something lighter and “fruitier”. I was lucky to be given a Rod Tingate Racing carbon-fibre muffler which my local exhaust man has adapted to my 750 as a high mount muffler. It looks good and sounds great and helps make changing the rear wheel even easier.
Speaking of maintenance, there’s really not much to it. Change the oil and filter regularly and lube the chain, that’s about it. As far as adjusting the chain, it couldn’t be easier. The single sided swingarm keeps the wheel aligned anyway and all that is required is one 17mm spanner and the “C” wrench that is supplied in the tool kit. It should take less than a minute to adjust the chain and be on your way. And the fact that the bike has a centre stand as standard makes it even easier.
The bike’s spec specifies a 170 rear tyre but these are getting a little harder to get but, no worries, a 180 does the job almost as well. As a long-term owner I can tell the difference, and there is no doubt that the bike’s handling is sharper with the 170. My bike is pretty much stock standard apart from the muffler, and Ventura rack and, apart from servicing I have done no mechanical modifications at all.
The 21L fuel tank will do you for around 350kms at highway speed before you have to start looking for a gas station so it’s a great touring mount and it runs best on PULP (better performance and consumption).
A word of caution here. Nearly all of the VFR range (as well as numerous other Honda models of the ’90s) suffers from an appallingly dodgy regulator/rectifier which, if not replaced with a “beefier” one, is going to bring you grief at some stage.
It is no surprise that the 4th Gen model won the best bike of the year for three years straight from one of the American bike magazines. It really is that good, even now, 20 years on. It is fast enough, smooth, predictable, forgiving, comfortable, capable in almost any situation and puts a smile on your dial every time you ride it.
My present 4th Gen is a red one (by far the most popular colour when the bike was new) has 138,000kms on the clock and looks like doubling that without major issues. Yes, the fairing bits are hellishly expansive if you happen to have an “off” but it’s a price I am prepared to pay for the joy it brings me.
And speaking of price, I bought my present VFR three years ago for $1600. It had just over 100,000k’s on the clock and had been sitting outside under a bike cover for three years. A quick clean of the tank and the carbies, new fluids, registration and it’s run like a Swiss watch ever since. And I don’t spare it, either.
Yes, there are 400 better bikes out there but there are none that will fulfil my needs better than my 22-year old 4th Gen VFR. Oh, and it came with a VFR 94 number plate!
The VFR is, indeed, a Very Fine Ride.