Honda's CBX has managed to escape oblivion, the final resting place for almost all Japanese machines. Why? By Bruce Finlayson
Honda's CBX has enduring appeal, a remarkable occurrence for a 10-year-old standard production Japanese motorcycle. There's a CBX club (the International CBX Owners Association); ads for the bikes appear in Hemmings' Motor News, the collector's bible, and well-preserved examples typically park together at major motorcycle events. The CBX has managed to escape oblivion, the final resting place for almost all Japanese motorcycle models. But why?
First, the CBX is a superb street bike. Its operation is crisp and precise, and all controls are linear and predictable. Its ergonomics make the bike a natural fit for American-size riders. The 1000cc six-cylinder has power everywhere, its CV carbs make that delivery seamless, and the engine is vibrationless. Its magic works independent of speed. The bike need not run WFO to be enjoyed -- just squiring that big beautiful engine down the road at sane speeds is satisfying. The 1979 CBX was a rolling billboard for Honda. It signalled a renewed commitment to motorcycling from a company that had been busy establishing itself as a major car builder. The 400 and 500cc fours, introduced earlier in the 1970s, were wonderful bikes, but other motorcycle manufacturers had gained a lot of ground on Honda through the decade. By 1978 Honda needed a knockout bike that would make motorcyclists gasp. Though the CBX project involved the parallel development of a four, Honda chose the six-cylinder machine for sheer impact.
In the final analysis, critics called the CBX a magnificent miss. The six got plenty of attention, but landed smack in the middle of a Superbike war where the 600-pound juggernaut was outmaneuvered almost from the outbreak of hostilities.
Superbike certification was composed of several tests: quarter-mile elapsed time and trap speeds, dyno-tested horsepower, and racetrack behavior. The CBX passed two of these tests, and with a vengeance (nothing else was as powerful or as fast). But the six's high-speed handling on the racetrack was marginal, and the bike could not be made substantially better by adding aftermarket performance equipment. Improvements only revealed underlying weaknesses. More power and better suspension underscored the CBX's embedded flaws -- weight, width, and a frame that was, politely, merely adequate.
Furthermore, "appearance" customizing worked no better on the CBX than "performance" modifications. Despite its bulk, the out-of-crate CBX was a tour de force of motorcycle styling. The rendering of each element was carefully controlled to ornament and exalt the six-cylinder centerpiece. Unlike the Suzuki GS1000 and the Kawasaki Z1R, whose basic and blocky styling encouraged owners to select aftermarket wheels, seats and bars, the Honda's refined lines and surfaces could only be marred by afterthought items.
Before long, the CBX fell out of favor with the Superbike crowd. After its novelty wore off, being a six didn't help the big Honda. Motorcycling authorities of the time agreed that six cylinders weren't an engineering necessity, and they had only to turn to other Superbikes, and Honda's later 900F and 1100F fours, for hard proof.
Honda decided to offer the CBX in black for its second model year (1980), but the CBX couldn't be Superbike "bad" enough, even in black. The bike was totally refocused for 1981-82, its two final years of production. With integral fairing and saddlebags, monoshock rear suspension and blue-accented pearlescent paint, the CBX became a sport-touring machine. The plastic bodywork softened the sharply mechanical presence of the first bikes. Black-painted cylinders and a partial fairing shrouded the obscured engine, in contrast to the styling of the 1979-80 models, which celebrated the six.
By 1983, the CBX departed. It was no more successful as a sport-touring motorcycle than it had been as a Superbike. New CBX Hondas of most model years remained stockpiled in Honda warehouses, available at steep discounts during the glut-times of the early 1980s. By 1985 the CBX stockpile was gone.
Currently, the six is enjoying a small renaissance, and in monetary terms the Honda has earned a victory over its old rivals. For the current price of one CBX, someone could buy two 1979 GS1000s today. Fanciers now understand that the CBX is unique in a couple of important respects -- it's the fastest and most beautiful of the few sixes built, and there may never be another air-cooled transverse six-cylinder motorcycle.
These aficionados are probably right, but the motorcycle's real significance is larger than its cylinder count. The CBX is a Honda masterpiece. There are two keys to this reading of the CBX. First, the original CBX's styling falls totally within the classic motorcycle idiom. At the same time it's daringly and successfully original. Second, the CBX didn't have to be a six on technical grounds, but Honda self-consciously chose engineering extravagance. That six tapped straight into Honda's corporate persona. Of itself, the CBX was a brilliant, breathtaking machine that only Honda could or would have built. Its majesty reflected Honda's conception of itself.
Honda had campaigned six-cylinder GP bikes in 1966 and 1967, winning the 250 and 350 world championships with them in both years. With these achievements, Honda's racing six brought to a close a glorious era in which Honda became the master of four-stroke technology. But the six's triumph marked the Japanese company's acceptance as a full partner in the occidental, western club that owned motorcycling around the world. This club's most revered member, Mike Hailwood, rode the six to wins in all ten of the 250 GPs in 1966. If Honda's race bikes did a lot for Mike the Bike, his association with Honda did as much or more for the proud company.
The six-cylinder motorcycle powerplant became a kind of allegory for Honda, a representation of its hard-earned, world-class status. When Honda reached for the six for its all-important CBX project, the company made an emotional decision more than an engineering one. The bike did need to be a six, for only then could it be a monument to all that Honda had become.
"The virtue of the CBX,...is the fact that the crankshaft has no counterweight. Instead, a counterweight is fitted to the alternator shaft - hence the size of the alternator. I hope I have got this correct,...but it is this feature of the motor that gives the CBX its' incredible responsiveness, both in acceleration and deceleration. It's just a shame that Honda didn't apply this to its 4-pot motors."