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Memorable Motorcycles Honda CB400

Thursday, November 6, 2008
Honda CB400F1
Thanks to reliability and spunky nature, the Honda CB400F certainly qualifies as a successful Memorable Motorcycle.
I have been riding motorcycles for a long time and, fortunately, I have not lost any of my passion for bikes. I have ridden an awful lot of good bikes, a few mediocre ones and the occasional two-wheeled horror story but a few, rather special, motorcycles are truly memorable. One of these is the Honda CB400F1 which simply makes me smile with the memories of one of the nicest motorcycles ever to grace a highway.

The CB400 isn’t perfect but it is such a thoroughly good motorcycle that even its worst enemy would find it hard to say a word against it.

The CB400’s dad was the technically brilliant, but rather dull, CB350. A story about this bike - allegedly built at the behest of Sochiro Honda, who felt that a 350cc motor was the perfect size for a four-cylinder road bike - appeared recently in “Memorable Motorcycles”.

The problem was that whilst “Big Daddy” Honda loved the 350 - paying customers didn’t. This is not surprising since the 350 “4” was slower, heavier, more expensive and cost more to build than its twin-cylinder brother, the 325cc CB350 Dream.

In essence, the 350 “Four” was just too well-behaved a motorcycle. It brushed its teeth every morning, combed its immaculate hair, always wore clean jeans, which were freshly ironed, and only drank one can of beer on a Saturday evening. As your accountant it would have been fine. As a friend to party with, it was a disaster.

Honda’s answer was elegantly simple. The 350 “Four” was a fine motorcycle. It just needed some help to come out from behind the door and reveal its true potential.

Honda CB400F1
Using its CB350 as a base, Honda bored out the four-cylinder powerplant to up to 408cc.
The first job was to take the 350’s powerplant to the gym. Incredibly for such a sophisticated motor, the 350 was undersquare at 47mm x 50mm. Honda bored the new motor to take a 51mm piston which gave a marginally over square engine with a capacity of 408cc. They fitted new, bigger valves than the 350 plus a stronger clutch and a four-into-one siamesed exhaust system, which both increased torque and looked cool.

A sweet, close-ratio, six-speed gearbox meant that the motor could be kept on the boil and the delightful howl from the long, tapering silencer took us Grands Prix wannabees right back to the golden days of Honda racing with Jim Redman and Mike Hailwood.

The end result of Honda’s re-engineering was a bomb proof engine which gave a very healthy 37 hp @ 10,000 rpm - equivalent to around 100mph with a small, light rider tucked in tight on the fuel tank. This needs putting into perspective. 37 hp was slightly more power than a good 350cc Aermacchi or AJS 7R produced - and these were still competitive in Grands Prix four years earlier.

The chassis remained more or less unchanged in terms of being small and light but cosmetically the new bike was very much a sportbike. The flat ‘bars, narrow tank and seat and, most of all, an engine which positively demanded to be revved, all pointed to hard riding.

Honda encouraged the Cafe Racer image that the CB400 inculcated and this was both good and bad in terms of sales. The firm suspension and high-revving engine did not endear the bike to American riders, and the USA, even more so than now, was the critical market for Honda.

By contrast, European riders, with road-racing genes running through their bodies, loved the CB400. With the beautiful little power unit howling between 6,000 rpm and the redline at 10,000 plus, the Honda was a true racebike for the street. Hammered through rough corners, the firm suspension was in its element and best of all, it flattered the rider - regardless of his ability.

Honda CB400F1
It may not have been the fastest bike in its day, but the Honda CB400F did perform well and won over many a rider.
Only the brakes were less than ideal, but with four-stroke engine braking available, this was not a problem in the real world.

The 400 “4” was never going to beat the killer quick Kawasakis of the day, but it was an infinitely more refined and sophisticated motorcycle and one which won the hearts of all who rode it.

Today, CB400s are still recognised as outstanding motorcycles and this is a problem for would be owners. On one side of the coin the 400 is a mass produced motorcycle with no racing pedigree or exotic bloodline. It is, however, one of the nicest motorcycles ever built. The end result is that it will take a solid $5000 to own one of the best examples of these lovely little bikes - although considerably less will buy you a running, but un-restored example.

Post Script:

I got to know the CB 400 on a rather more personal level than I would have preferred. My College degree was as a teacher and I majored in English Literature. In English schools of the day, kids with a leaning towards Fine Arts never went near an engineering shop.

However, I had raced bikes from the first time I could afford an entry fee and had become reasonably proficient at gas welding simply because in those far off days bikes broke all the time and needed mending.

Colin Wilkinson, a long time friend of mine, was a good national class racer. He had campaigned a very fast Norton for many years but even by his tolerant standards was weary of it breaking. In August 1975 Colin purchased a brand-new CB400 road bike with the intention of riding it in the 500cc class of the Manx Grand Prix held over the incredibly tough Isle of Man TT course.

Honda CB400F1
How reliable was the Honda CB400? Our writer's friend used it as a commuter and a Isle of Man GP racer!
He arrived at my house with the bike having covered about 5 miles from new and asked that I cut and re-profile the exhaust pipes so that they tucked tight against the frame and fabricate a meagphone exhaust. The little Honda sat there with its chrome exhausts gleaming and I began to feel like the vet approaching the happy looking stallion which was about to have its life changed.

Fortunately, I got the cuts right and doubly fortunately none of the welds broke during the killer tough two weeks of the “Manx”. I would never claim to be a master craftsman but when it came to welding my work was always durable.

Colin made a few basic modifications to the Honda and raised the gearing slightly. These mods, plus Colin’s riding ability, were enough to give an 88-mph lap in the “Manx” and that was with the frame, suspension and motor completely standard.

Colin used it again in the “Manx” and then sponsored another rider who finished 8th in the Production TT. In between, the CB400 was used as a commuter bike and for recreational riding.

10,000 miles later, the Honda was sold - still running perfectly and, except for checking the valve clearances, with the motor completely untouched.

That’s why riders loved the CB400!

Thanks to Bonhams Auctions for the loan of the CB400 in this article. Bonhams may be contacted at www.bonhams.com or telephone (415) 861-7500

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Memorable Motorcycle Honda CB350
Honda was its own worst enemy when it cam to the 350 Four  as many riders were unwilling to give up their cheaper Honda CB350 Twins.
It's strange how time changes perspective. Remember how you used to hate fish for dinner? Now, cod bake is your favorite meal. How disgusting was it seeing old people, like your Mom and Dad, kiss? Today, what's better in the world than walking down the beach holding hands with the woman who has been your life-long partner?

Honda's four-cylinder 350 was a bike just like this. At the time of its launch, it missed every single target - except one which, after the years rolled by, has turned out to be its ace card.

Read Memorable Motorcycles Honda 350

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hana_sky   April 11, 2011 04:21 PM
i have a 1976 honda super sport (says super sport on the tank) and i need parts for it. where can i find them? i live in northern california and want to get the thing on the road. i paid 100 bucks for it so you know it ain't much but i always liked the style and want to have some fun with it.
Aussie Paul -The 400 four  April 8, 2010 11:29 PM
I bought mine in 1977 off a mate who had owned it for a year. I was only 16 and it was my first motorised transport. I drilled some holes in the exhaust to make it louder and put a set of flat bars on it. The bars gave a great sport riding position but riding it more than 300km was murder. In oz they only came in two colours, blue or red and although mine was blue, I always covetted a red one. My parents found out about the bike and, because I had no license, made me sell it. I still remember having a tear in my eye as the new owner rode it away. I flirted with the idea of getting another over the years and then recently a mate gave me a copy of a classic bike mag. I opened it and there was a story on a restored 400. I looked on ebay that night and found a red one for sale in my home town. The planets had all lined up. It's a partly restored runner and I bought it for $1500. Looking forward to restoring it with my 16 year old son.
Kevin Hollis -New Discoveries  January 31, 2010 07:24 AM
When I was a young boy of 13 I came home from school one day to find that my father had just bought a brand new 1975 red Honda cb400Four Super Sport motorcycle,A few years later,he told me that at the time he paid $1,300.00 and some change for it.My father was in the Navy with a little rank and he took his bike with him all over the world.The stories he told me about riding it in Hawaii,the Philipines,Japan,Guam and Australia always had me on the edge of my seat dreaming of the day when I would get my turn to look over that next hill on that beautiful red motorcycle.In 1981 at age 19 my father due to health related problems who road and raced mororcycles his hole life was finished and unable to ride bikes again.He gave me his keys to his beautiful red 1975 cb400Four Super Sport motorcycle,and the dream was mine!Like my father and my grandfather before me I also have raced and road motorcycles my hole life,fact is I can't imagine life without one.Of all the bikes I've ever owned my Honda cb400Four Super Sport was the coolest bike I ever owned she never once let me down during the 5yrs I road her before I t-boned a drunk driver who pulled a left turn directly in my path.I never got to take my cb400Four Super Sport all over the world as my father did but during the brief 5yrs I owned her she was the only mode of transportation I owned and season after season we zig-zaged all over this country together.She was the fastest smoothest handling little bike I ever owned.I raced her against the old Yahama daytona rd350,the old Honda Hawk 500cc and I laid her down tight scraping the exaust at 70mph in a 25mph offramp radius many many times and we always pulled away shining.19-24 are some of the best years of my life because back then I had it going on with the coolest bike on the roads in southern california."Thanks Honda",I grew up on one of your greatest creations,I wish I had one now!!
Got a newer one! -CB400F  November 18, 2009 01:35 PM
I have a Honda CB400 Super Four, which is a V-Tec model with triple discs, and 53 HP!! It runs two valves per cylinder below 6,750, and 4 valves with VERY hot timing above this. It is super smooth and nicely torquey at town speeds, but howls up like a maniac on the cam, in fact it gets pretty damn quick. This is my first multi cylinder bike, so the weight and handling need more work than my former single bikes, but it is nippy and reasonably steady in corners. Ultimately I still think I prefer V-Twins, but for a quick fang the CB does the trick.
Stig O'Tracy -Honda CB400F  October 29, 2009 10:00 AM
Bought mine first yeat of college, 1977. It had 20K on her already, ran strong, but had these god-awful Chein-Sh@t tires. I don't know what the knuckle head was thinking putting on those. Was my first bike so I was pretty careful at first but soon found myself going too fast most of the time. Had a few drops, but just kept fixing and riding. Once I put on some Dunlop TT100s, it was time to start getting down. The first time I scraped a footpeg I felt like the prettiest girl in school asked me for a date. I just kept riding harder and harder and eventually reached the limits of the little 400, getting sideways ( but never high-sidided), scraping the exhaust header, getting airborne on few occasions, but the Honda was pretty well mannered overall. Though I will say I was fearless and had lightning fast reflexes back then. Only time she let me down was when I hit a pavement patch that had sunk and she when into viscious tank-slapper, and spit me right over the handlebars at about 55mph/90kph. The sort of thing that a modern bike would probably fly right over, but I'm sure the front end was probably getting a bit tired, and the TT100 did make the steering a bit twitchy. I eventually healed up, fixed her up, road her some more, and eventually sold her off. It was a great time, and made my college years much more fun.
amran -want to know.  October 8, 2009 10:12 PM
is the HONDA CB400TE LUXURY SPORT one CB400T category....???
do you have the picture...????
zolt -Honda 400 SS vs Rd 350  September 21, 2009 06:46 PM
I owned both these bikes in my youth, and loved both of them. The RD was,in stock form, such a rush to ride.Living in Man. Canada, where we go from -40 to +40C., I could hardly wait for riding weather. I actually rode my 350 about 50 miles(one way) to work every day, weather permitting. I can still remember pulling on to the highway and going through the gears as fast as possible while going into a couple of left and right turns. Aaahh....
My 400 on the other hand was simply beautiful. It was also fun and easy to ride. I loved to shine it up and then ride it to the weekly hot rod meet. It would turn as many heads as most rods.
Good memories.....

ronnie -what a bike  August 14, 2009 08:08 AM
i purchased my 400/4 after laying in a garage for 10 years .The wee engine actualy fired up on 2 cylnders with the old petrol in the carbs although it ran like an old heap.THe bike was stripped,powder coated and almost all the visual parts renewed ,exhaust seat etc.The engine only got a service and a carb service ,the wee bike now looks fantastic and runs lovely.. with only a bad tickover problem although ive been told its probably the k&n filters causing it ??? any tips ?? all in all a bike ahead of its time
BP101 -CB450  February 5, 2009 10:44 AM
I am just learning to drive motorcycle, on a 1984 "Nighthawk" CB450, which has much in common with the CB 400. I think it is an ideal bike to begin on, particularly for a good-sized person (I'm 6 feet, 190 lbs) who wants a comfortably high seat and a little more oomph than a 250 cc can give you. I know that I will want to move up at some point, but I can't see ever letting this beauty go. To use the words of the article, it is just a thoroughly good bike: handling, performance, reliability...not a lot of anything, but it is all so nicely balanced. Something I would be happy to let my kids learn on.
LoudGreg -CB400T  January 13, 2009 11:15 AM
Thanks for this article. I am a new rider (just got my license in Dec 2008) & this is my first bike ever. It's a CB400T 1978 in fantastic condition (12,000 miles) that I got through a good friend. I know nothing about bikes but my instinks were to not let this one go, so it's been mine for about 4 months. Didn't get to ride it in season yet but looking forward to learning & enjoying this nice ride. Your article confirms to me that I made the right decision.
wood -cb400four  December 16, 2008 10:04 AM
i have 400 four good condition.dialy rlooks near showroom wanted to sale at 3,000 us$ 66-8-1-936 9626
sean a. -cb400f  December 11, 2008 07:07 PM
my 1st street bike ever,the 4/4 that i had,had custom paint,k&n's,an oil cooler and lotsa tlc on the tuning,it was very fast for a 400,i traded it for a kawi 750 twin,and never forgave myself,your article brought a tear to my eye remembering this bike. thank you.
William Ryan -75 Honda CB400F  November 25, 2008 01:35 PM
My first motorcycle. I bought a new red in 1975 for about $1500. I owned and loved riding the bike for 18 years and it was a great bike. I lived in Mill Valley rode it frequently for fun into San Francisco and up and down the coast highway. The ride was a little tiring on long trips because of the forward riding style and lack of a fairing. For short trips, it was great. I'm 5'8" and then weighed about 160 lbs and it was a perfect fit. The bike was light, easy to handle and looked great. I have many wonderful memories of riding that bike. Unfortunately I moved into San Francisco and a**holes there would occasionally push it over when it was parked. It was stolen and I recovered it but it was trashed a bit and I eventualy sold it when I moved to a different location. Thanks for bringing up the memories.
Missing It -CB400F  November 10, 2008 09:38 AM
I spent my summer earnings on one ($1500 out the door, I think), then rode it to Chicago and back from California and to school for a couple years. My dad liked it so much he sold his CL350 to buy one. Sure wish I still had the red rider. Great bike, little maintenance and a lot of fun.
Randy Singer -Got One!  November 9, 2008 03:55 PM
I've owned my Honda CB400F forever. It was never a superbike, but it was always fun to ride, especially in the mountains. Interestingly, this bike was very popular in California, but somewhat of a poor seller in many other states. I recall that when the bike was discontinued that there were a lot of them sitting on showroom floors across the nation. My local Honda dealer in Oakland bought up a lot of them from other dealers in other states. He sold them all in no time. Mine is no longer in running condition. It has sat too long without being ridden. (Having children left me with no time for riding for a while.) I'd be willing to give it up to someone interested in lovingly restoring it. I can be contacted at: randy6067@comcast.net
Greg -Memories  November 8, 2008 09:55 AM
Mentioning that the CB400 was not up to the Kawasakis of the day is correct. I had a 1976 Kawasaki KH400 triple, and a neighbor who lived in my area had a CB400 super sport. One day we tangled. We were ascending a rather steep hill. The road was wide and visibility was great. Just as the Honda was running out of breath, my Kawasaki came up on the pipe. I pulled out and walked by him quite easily. Loved my bike, loved his too.
Ian S -CB400F  November 7, 2008 09:27 AM
Frank's words brought it all flooding back. 1979, training in the RAF in the West Country and a CB400F2 that I still think of as one of the best bikes I ever owned. Sure, the brakes were useless and the camchain tensioner a bit dodgy but it was the feel of the thing. The engine felt tight and much more powerful than it really was and it was a perfect bike for a young man and a countryside full of twisties. I eventually moved on to a Suzuki X7 as I was at heart a 2 stroke guy. I still miss the 4/4 though and would love to have one in my garage next to my FZ1.
hipsabad -CB400F  November 6, 2008 10:21 PM
I don't really consider 10,000 miles to be very much of a test. I did love my 400Four that I rode in 1976 - in freezing cold, rain, snow and heat. I had an oil pressure sensor go south but that was all. I was in love with the handling of this compact package. I could almost keep up to my friend's Triumph 650 in a drag race, however, when another friend went racing one summer with a ported RD350 I realized what real power was.