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Memorable Motorcycle: Honda CB750 F1

Thursday, August 16, 2012
Melling would have no qualms about riding the Honda CB750 F1 the length and breadth of America.
Melling has no qualms about riding the dependable Honda CB750 F1 "the length and breadth of America."
One of the questions I am most frequently asked by younger riders with an interest in classics is something along the lines of, “What should be my first, old bike?”

In some ways, it’s easier to say what the neophyte classic bike owner shouldn’t be buying rather than recommending a particular marque or model. For example, unless you are of a very determined, and dedicated, frame of mind a thoroughbred pre-Second World War British Single will break your heart – as well as your bank balance. How would you feel about manually adjusting the ignition timing, fuel mixture and then finding, by feel, the piston position before you attempted to kick start your new possession?

The second question would be how long would your marriage last when you told your wife to cancel the next ten years’ vacations because you had just spent $60,000 on a Matchless G.50?

For me, the transition into the classic world has got to be a gentle one. Start with a bike which will, in a classic way, be not too far away from the motorcycles you already know and like. Your new old bike should make you want to ride more classic motorcycles – not put you off for life.

One of the best, the very best, of accessible classics is the Honda CB750. The single overhead cam engine is utterly bulletproof and starts on the button, first time every time, despite having a token kick-start.

With something in the region of 67 hp, there is plenty of power and the five-speed gearbox will feel familiar, having a modern – down-for-down – left-hand gearshift pattern rather than having to master the much more refined right-hand gear change of a British bike, while remembering to change up for down!

Finally, there are zillions of Honda 750s still about from the 553,000 which were reportedly made.

Swap out a few parts and the CB750 F1 has a distinctly modern feel.
Swap out a few parts and the CB750 F1 has a relatively modern feel, something lacking in most restored relics.
So you’re ready to go classic and there isn’t a cloud on the horizon? Well, not quite. The early 750 Hondas have now become seriously stupid in terms of price with a good sprinkling of $25,000 machines being offered – albeit these are in mint condition.

Spending this sort of money is simply silly if you discover, as do a lot of young riders, that classic bikes don’t go, stop or handle nearly as well as modern machines and therefore, viewed objectively, are inferior.

But there is a solution to the conundrum – and a rather attractive one too. The first CB750s were launched in 1969 and were, with slight tweaking to the cylinder head bolts, right on the money straight from the first sale. However, by 1975, the gloss was starting to wear off the bike and so Honda looked to freshen things up with a “sports” version of the bike – although you need to have a very generous view of the word “sport” as applied to the F1. This motorcycle is not a classic version of a CBR1000RR or R1!

The heart of the bike remains one of the finest motorcycle engines ever built – Honda’s iconic single overhead cam, five speed, four-cylinder engine. Given a very regular supply of clean oil, these motors are good for vast mileages and are as fuss free as it is possible to get with a classic.

They make a decent amount of power too. Soichiro Honda’s original target power for his “Four” was 67 horsepower – allegedly to be one more hp than the best Harley of the day. I think that Mr. Honda was being very cautious if he thought that he was competing with any Harley, except the factory flat trackers, in terms of power.

Although the F1 was billed as a super sports version of the CB750 in practical terms the engines are identical. There is a very wide spread of power from something in the region of 5000 rpm to 9000 rpm and within this rev range the bike performs in a thoroughly modern manner.

The CB750 F1 will cruise the highway comfortably at 70 mph and offers a comfortable riding position.
Honda CB750 F1's took on more of a "cafe racer" style, leaving behind the rounded lines and four pipes of the original CB750.
Almost as important is that the engine is docile right from tickover and so will be an easy transition for someone who has never ridden a classic before.

The clutch is light and simple to use and the gear selection is positive and reliable. However, the clunking and clanging which accompanies many gear changes will be something of a shock to classic virgins. Don’t worry – it’s what 750 Hondas do.

The engine is also a gentle and kind introduction to the delights of home maintenance. Tappet adjustment is a bit fiddly – and a kind wife with small hands is a useful addition to your workshop at this point – but can be done at home and with the addition of a modern electronic ignition system, the problems of wayward timing are fixed forever. Carb balancing is well within the scope of even a newcomer to bike maintenance and chain adjustment is simple. In every respect, the F1 is as user friendly a classic as it is possible to find.

On the highway, the F1 is thoroughly modern. It will cruise at an utterly relaxed 70 mph all day. The saddle is wide and comfortable and the riding position excellent for a long ride. I would have no hesitation about taking an F1 the length and breadth of America.

For British riders, the great weakness of the F1 – scarily so – were the stainless steel disc brakes. These were fine for American test riders in sun-drenched California but buttock clenching marginal in wet, cold Britain. However, modern disc pads have simply transformed the brakes and now they are superb – by classic standards of course.

The handling is fine too. However, it is more than essential to fit a pair of good quality, modern rear shocks to every F1. The original units were dire – and haven’t got better with time. The front forks are fine but watch out for tired forks springs and exhausted oil - particularly if the bike is a standard, original machine.

With the suspension sorted, and a pair of modern tyres, the F1 really can be ridden briskly.

Although I have sung the modern feel of the F1 it still remains very much a classic. The large, easy to read analogue speedometer and rev counter are straight from the early Honda days and the styling is unmistakably mid-70s.

Serious classic fans often want a real 750  helping to make the F1s relatively affordable.
Serious classic fans often want a "real" 750, helping to make the F1's relatively affordable.
Yes, the styling. This is very much a love-it-or-hate-it matter of taste. It is worth remembering that the first Honda CB750 was designed in 1967 and took its styling cues from what was in fashion at the time. The bike was typically Honda – not ugly or offensive but safe, reliable and mainstream.

Seven years later, Honda’s four-cylinder range was beginning to look dated so Soichiro’s careful, conservative planners took a deep breath and let the CB400 loose on the world. The bike was an instant success, particularly in Europe, where its sports bike looks had customers queuing to buy.

The thought was that if the CB400 was a styling success then a 750, with hints of café racer about it, would be just as popular. So, in came the single collector exhaust and long, angular tank and out went the iconic four pipes and rounded lines of the original CB750.

Rather than having a runaway sales success, Honda managed to generate confusion amongst buyers. In America, the original CB750 stayed on sale alongside the new F1 and this just added to the obfuscation.

Was the F1 a better, or worse, version of the CB750? In fact, it was neither. There were some minor tweaks to the chassis and engine but, in a blind tasting, both bikes look, ride and even sound very similar.

The key question is whether you want a traditional CB750, four pipes and all, or if you are bold enough to take a chance on the café racer style.

The answer is overwhelmingly clear: classic fans want a “real” CB750 and are dismissive of the F1 – and selling prices reflect this fact. This is good news for the newcomer to classic motorcycling because an F1 is very affordable, just as desirable as a standard CB750 and a real looker in its own right.

In fact, I like the bike so much that, if I had the time, I would have one in my workshop as my primary classic transport.

Regarding buying one, the advice is to proceed very, very carefully and slowly. There are plenty of F1s about and there’s no need to rush into buying one. Spend a couple of months sifting through the ads and you will find a nice, unabused, standard bike at a good price. F1s are now at a price level where they will never depreciate so you could have a lot of fun for virtually no expense – and there are not many bikes about which this can be said.

Thanks to Mark and Steve at www.motodemon.co

Our test bike is currently for sale, fully restored, at $6000
Honda CB750 F1 Photo Gallery
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1pfr2go   August 17, 2012 05:32 PM
Let me iterate before I get bombarded with comments about the use of apostrophe. Every Honda I ever owned, of which there were many, displayed this characteristic. The Kawie had you reviewing your life, as you knew it, on it's way to 115-120+ It wasn't a tank-slapper head wobble, but a weave that increased as you increased the throttle. I offer this to new, and old riders. If you get caught in a tank-slapper, stab the front brake. IMHO
1pfr2go   August 17, 2012 01:58 PM
I agree with everything you say about the CB750 F1. I had a '72 CB500, '76 CB750, and two '83 CB1100F's. All were very dependable, easy to maintain, and fun to ride. One trait that I noticed on all the bikes was that as the "flat spot" would develop on the rear tire, "head shake" would increase on trailing throttle. I always attributed this characteristic as just being the chosen rake/trail/wheelbase of Honda's and after crawling off a '72 H1 Kawasaki, head shake at trailing throttle was much more "comfortable" than beginning at 90-95 mph! My Kawie would get "flat scary" as the speedometer climbed into the triple digits, but there again, it was something that we just learned to live with at the time.
Melling   August 17, 2012 02:03 AM
Thomboz raises an interesting point. Yes, the F1 engine was marginally more fragile than the earlier 750s – but that was when we were young and rode the things into the ground. Now, classic racing apart, these old bikes tend to be treated with a respect they were never shown originally. In the context of a friendly, practical, useable classic the F1 is about as good as it gets. I would have no hesitation in leaving our Oregon HQ, expecting to be in Daytona Beach ten days later – and sooner than that if I felt lucky with speeding tickets.
thomboz   August 16, 2012 02:46 PM
Not sure I agree about the reliability. As I recall (I am old and my memory may be suspect), the competition from the other three was rendering the Honda's performance a bit slow. So Honda put in bigger valves, different cam, more RPM and lower gearing as a stop gap till its DOHC 750 arrived. This helped it in the 1/4 mile an top speed, but the bigger valves also had narrower stems and tended to bend at high RPM.