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The Biking Blog: Why the Honda CB1100 is the Instagram of the Bike World

Luke Wilkins

bike 300x225 The Biking Blog: Why the Honda CB1100 is the Instagram of the Bike WorldThere are more and more retro looking bikes being launched every day in what seems to be a concerted effort by manufacturers to hark back to the simpler, cooler days of biking… if you believe the marketing hype. The Moto Guzzi V7 and the Triumph Thruxton are just a couple that come to mind, and the ranks are about to be swollen by the new Honda CB1100, an incredibly detailed homage to the original “Superbike” the CB750 from 1967.

That’s right, a Japanese bike manufacturer making a bike with modern technology, to try and replicate the feel and experience of riding an older bike. This does not play well with the logic centre of my brain. Why? Well, for one reason, Honda’s engineers sat down in a meeting room and instead of thinking, how can we make the bike better, their mission was to make it feel like riding a bike from the 1960s. Anyone who has ridden a 1960s bike back to back with a modern bike, would probably agree that means worse.

Surely technology is always there to providing a never ending, ceaseless unstoppable march to the day when we are all either a) wiped out by the machines we created to serve us (Terminator/Battlestar Galactica logic), or b) End up as some sort of Triple A battery for the machines we created to serve us (Matrix logic), and not to cheerily remind us of times gone by? And yes, the whole knowledge base and logic centre of my brain is dictated by movies.

I can understand in some ways, technology’s clinical efficiency surrounds us everywhere we look and as a species, we don’t like change. With the emergence of technology designed to allow us to communicate instantly with anyone on the planet, you would think we would all be embracing each other as one big family, but in fact, it has actually meant we have retreated more into our shells, becoming akin to social hermits.

Facebook, twitter etc. all allow people to interact without ever having to meet and dating websites allow us to vet someone and know everything about them (or what they want you to believe) before we even go on a date. Nowadays we don’t even have to leave the house if we don’t want to, as we can get everything delivered at home and hot desk till out hearts our content… or something like that.

Life has become too cold, and detached, and those aren’t exactly words that make you think of fun are they? Therefore it’s natural for us to hark back to a rawer, less refined, simpler age. If you can find one person over the age of 40, who genuinely doesn’t remember things as being better back in the day… then you have found yourself a liar or someone that’s just a bit odd.

bike 2 300x225 The Biking Blog: Why the Honda CB1100 is the Instagram of the Bike WorldSomething that I have always said is missing from many modern devices is “character”. Now this itself isn’t a bad thing because when we refer to character, if you think about it, we are referring to flaws… albeit endearing ones. Take Alfa Romeo’s for example, it’s a given that they had character, but what did that actually mean? Well it meant that when they were working they were ace, but most of the time, you were sat at the side of the road with your Haynes manual out or trying to clear up a pool of oil that could only have been emitted from the Exxon Valdez.

If they had worked all of the time, they wouldn’t have had “character” but would instead have simply been “good cars”. So when we say we miss that bit of character in something, its is akin to saying ‘I wish it would break down every now and again, or do something to surprise me, as this working exactly the same all the time is boring’.

Okay, so if we have established, that to have “character” you need to have slight flaws, and Honda wanted this bike to have character, so does that mean they have given it some flaws deliberately?

Well, they have offset the valve timings so that the bike has a slightly “rougher” feel when you rev it. They have tried to replicate the handling feel of the old bike by going back to big (18”) skinny wheels. They have retooled a whole production line to allow them to produce their first air cooled multi cylinder engine (like the original CB750) for over 20 years… oh plus it has some awesome chrome mudguards, not exactly weight reducing though.

My favourite bit is the fact that they added 2 mm to the engine cooling fins, so that when you come to a rest and stop the engine, you get that awesome “Pink Pink” noise of the metal cooling down. None of these features are designed to make the bike better though, just to make it seem more like its older ancestor.

Now I wouldn’t exactly classify these as flaws, I just find it very interesting that in a world where designers are usually looking to shave milligrams of the weight of bikes to increase performance, and have sleepless nights over how efficient the engineering on a bike is, it’s a bit odd to see engineers giving priority to form over function.

It’s not all retro though and in fact this is where it all starts to make sense. The bike has Honda’s first hubless front disc brakes, adjustable suspension, and ABS and an engine producing 88bhp and 68 lb/ft of torque, and and LCD Fuel gauge. So in other words, while they want it to replicate the experience of the original, they also want you to have the comforts of modern technology… surely that cant be a bad thing?

This idea to using up to date techniques to recreate an older feel is what I call “retro engineering”. It’s something we see around us everyday, and a great example of this in modern society, is Instagram. We spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds on top of the range 20 mega pixel cameras with auto focus, light filters etc, and then use a piece of highly advanced software, to take said image, and make it look like it was taken on a rubbish Polaroid in the 1970s… why?

I am told by my friends who use it, that it makes the photo look “cool” which again got me thinking, what is meant by the word “Cool”? The word itself is over a thousand years old, it was even used (in a different form) in the poem Beowulf to describe someone that was not heated by passion or emotion. It was then in the 1940s that the term became associated with Jazz musicians, who seemed relaxed in their style, with the legendary Saxophonists Lester Young & Charlie Parker being the first to become associated with the term.

bike 3 300x225 The Biking Blog: Why the Honda CB1100 is the Instagram of the Bike WorldFrom there it was picked up by the “yoof” of the time, and became a word that, while having no single meaning, referred to an admired aesthetic of attitude, appearance, and style, defined and influenced by the spirit of the time.

Some say the term “Cool” was hijacked by the advertising industry in the 1950s, when they realised they could get us to throw away perfectly good items we had recently bought for no reason other than they were just no longer cool… and of course we would then have to buy what the ad agencies were telling us was now the “cool” alternative. Okay – but at least now to be accepted as cool – I just need to follow what the TV and magazines tell me right?

Nope as the problem is, by pure definition, whats “cool” is constantly changing, and nothing can stay cool for ever. Just check this out, I mean the Fonz from US TV show Happy Days used to be the epitome of cool right? Surely if there was ever a “constant” in this every changing dynamic, it would be him?

Even the legendary Lothario motorbike mechanic, how easy it is to fall from the greasy perch of “coolness”, as we discovered when in an effort to arrest the shows dramatic decline in popularity, the writers were desperate to cash on his status amongst kids and bring in viewers, they made him jump a shark… on water skis in Daniel Craig-esque Speedos while still wearing his leather jacket.

Wrong!

Ironically the term “jumping the shark” has now come to be associated with the situation when a TV show has stopped being cool, or relevant, and has become desperate. Even more ironic, is that while this was laughed off at the time as being a tragic attempt by the writers to make the Fonz cool again which failed,looking back at it – it kind of has a Kitsch coolness to it. See how confusing this is?

Cool is usually the domain of the young, when we can tell what is cool or not as easily as it was slipping into skinny fit jeans back then. Then something happens, and for some unknown reason, we don’t know what cool is.  I think Grandpa Simpson summed it up best when he said “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you…”

Ominous words, and true. When I was younger, if any of my brothers ever questioned the fact that my dad was still wearing clothes out of the Sixties , he simply replied “If I keep wearing the same clothes, at some point, they will come back into fashion again,” while we laughed at him at first, yet lo and behold, peddle pushers, flairs, short shorts (see The Fonz above) all made it back into the Zeitgeist, whilst he was still alive, but I don’t think he was truly being that practical, but more trying to teach us the futility of trying to keep up with “cool”… either that or he was just really tight with money.

As you can see then, ‘cool’ is relative, as in it depends from whose perspective it is observed from. We often may feel ‘cool’ doing something only to have others think we are actually the ‘saddest’ person on the planet. Anyone who has ever had to sit through their dad dancing at a wedding will attest to this.

No, this bike is aimed at those who grew up with a poster of the original CB on their walls, and if your one of those people who idolised the 1967 bike I bet you’ll be more turned on by the green background to the dials (nod to the CB750 & 900) than you will by its quarter mile pace.

The funny thing is, the original bike wasn’t actually that ‘cool’ at the time, it was in fact a real technological marvel, and compared to the rougher, oil spilling British twins around at the time, it was a bit of a geek. It had the first inline 4 cylinder engine fitted to a mass produced bike, it was the first bike to have front disc brakes, could reach 120mph, and was the first major bike to be practically bullet proof. It was an awesome machine, and sold in the hundreds of thousands over the years…but if anything, it lacked character compared to its less illustrious rivals.

Then again, supposedly being a geek is “cool” at the moment thanks to Steve Jobs and the reversal of the portrayal of intelligent people in the world of media (check out the new “Q” in the Bond movie Skyfall to see what I mean).

So in trying to make it cool – have Honda missed a trick? Or will this bike stir passion in the loins of many a biker raring to experience that classic bike feel without any of the hang ups? Is it the perfect piece of “retro engineering, a “cool” bike with loads of “character” but with all the benefits of modern technology? Or have they “jumped the shark?”

You can see what I think on Bike World this Thursday at 9pm, on Motors TV (Sky 413, Virgin 545)

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  • Luke Wilkins

    Nice – I spoke to Honda designers at launch, they were pretty insistent that the prototype was developed in 1967, 1968 it was unveiled at Tokyo Bike show and went into mass production in 1969 – so apologies if i didnt make that clear amigo :-)

  • Guest

    Apologies! I’ll make sure someone does next time!

  • Guest

    And why not bother – you not like? Thank you for your feedback and comment though…sorry you don’t like :-)

  • whoodoo

    However, beware. Proofreaders often attempt the overhaul of one’s style along with the grammar and yours, as is, is a good fit of form and content – even with the few drops of oil, rattles and vibrations.

    Great piece, Having lived through the era you describe with fond memories of the imported Norton Atlas and T120 Bonneville, I’m content with them remaining memories. Also, having cut my teeth on Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders” in high school, and experienced the devolution of society into trend creation, and its merchandizing, of everything from “pop culture” to politicians, I really appreciate your take on same. Thanks.

  • Luke Wilkins

    Wow! Thank you so much – made my day! So nice to here from someone who doesnt view the world through other peoples eyes :-) And yeah – my grammer is a bit rubbish simply because, as you can see, its how my brain spews forth words :-) Honestly – thank you for your kind words mate. Nice to know someone out there gets where I am coming from! Cheers – hopefully you will like the rest of my blogs :-)

  • Ranger76

    No problem…I probably came across too harsh…I love it when folks are talking about biking….Drive On!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Tysoe/711623798 Matt Tysoe

    Give me two pistons any day! Jap fours have no character! The only cool thing about the older Jap bikes is the film Mad Max!


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