The CB1100R was to be no tweaked up road machine but, as far rules could be stretched, a full-blown racebike.
To anyone who likes racebikes, the CB1100R sends out mixed messages. The first thing which strikes the interested observer is the bike's size. Parked up in the paddock, the Honda is not your lithe, toned sprinter waiting to trot out and compete in the 200m - more a Football defense warming up ready for a head-crunching pitched battle.
Yet look at the same defense without his helmet and you will see both plenty of scar tissue - and a shirt stretched tight by bulging muscle. The odd lump of ear might be missing but this is no couch potato wobbling out on to the field. Note the magnesium clutch and alternator covers and listen to the tenor wail of the 1062cc engine, and it becomes readily apparent that, beneath the corrosion, scrapes and immense size there lurks a real racing motorcycle.
The CB1100R is one of a number of bikes Honda have produced over the years to circumvent homologation rules for racing. Series organisers will demand that a certain number of examples of a particular machine must be produced in order to qualify with their regulations. For example, World Superbike is run with machines based, very loosely, on production motorcycles which the ordinary customer can - in theory at least - walk into a showroom and purchase. Manufacturers ruthlessly exploit and bend the regulations right up to breaking point and so there have been some extremely interesting motorcycles sold over the years as "homologation specials." The CB1100R is one of the best since it took the rulebook right to the edge of legality and then, initially at least, fell over the regulatory cliff.
Take yourself back to 1980 when Grand Prix racing was still ruled by 500cc two-strokes. These were pure racebikes and were a million miles away from anything in mass production. Both Yamaha and Suzuki had attempts at bringing the GP world to the road rider with four-cylinder two-strokes, but the truth was that the ordinary motorcyclist on the street wanted a big, four-cylinder four-stroke.
The next bit of history is that one of the most prestigious one-off races in the world during the 1970s and '80s was the Castrol Six-Hour race held at Amaroo in Australia. In terms of an advertising event to promote Asian sales, this event ran a close second to the Suzuka Eight-Hour race and which spawned some equally exotic machinery.
Although not now as well known as the later RC30 and RC45 Hondas, the CB1100R deserves the same iconic status as the later homologation specials.
Honda was determined to win this race and so took their existing CB900F and gave it a full race make-over. The CB1100R was to be no tweaked up road machine but, as far rules could be stretched, a full-blown racebike. The first job was to lighten and stiffen the CB900F frame. This was done by increasing the quality of the tubing and by making the frame in one piece instead of having the right-hand down-tube removable to help with servicing. Even so, with a wheelbase of 1475mm (58"), and a saddle height of 805mm (31"), this is no Moto Martin or Harris race frame.
The engine received even more treatment. The CB900 lump was bored to 70mm, resulting in a whopping capacity of 1062cc. A race camshaft was put into the engine along with forged pistons, which increased the compression ratio to an eye-watering (for the day) 10:1. This high compression ratio has proved to be a consistent wrecker of the starter motor clutch rings over the years on bikes used on the road. A close-ratio transmission went into the gearbox and the drive was protected with a wider primary chain and lighter clutch.
What could be seen was, in some ways, even more sensational than what was hidden. The road bike's high bars were retained but a huge bikini fairing wrapped itself round the cockpit area. Behind the fairing was an equally mammoth six-gallon alloy fuel tank, and the world's most comfortable race seat ensured the pilot was going nowhere as he wrestled the big Honda round the racetracks. Ultra lightweight magnesium, painted with traditional gold paint to reduce corrosion, was used for the clutch and alternator covers.
The chassis was still very much late '70s with a traditional twin-shock rear end and steel swinging arm, although the fork did have air assistance in lieu of anti-dive. The reality of the situation was a racebike which weighed in at an incredible 563 lbs - over twice as heavy as its Grand Prix cousins. At the other end of the scale, the 1062cc engine produced a walloping 115 bhp at 9,000rpm - not that far behind its contemporary GP thoroughbreds.
In summary, the CB1100R was a true classic dinosaur - big, brutal and, by the standards of the day, monstrously powerful.
Racing the CB1100R
In Britain, Ron Haslam won both the 1981 and 1982 MCN Streetbike series, and the bike was just as successful wherever it was raced. Here's Frank at speed on the CB1100R at Spa.
The fact that I was able to ride the bike at all is thanks to the efforts of Peter Spowage and Clive Brooker - the driving force behind the Historic Endurance Racing Team. Because of the enthusiasm of Clive and Peter, some of the wonderful, old long-distance racebikes from the 1960s, '70s and early '80s can still be seen in action at events all over Europe. The CB1100R I was about to ride was the genuine ex-Ron Haslam bike on which Ron won the MCN Street Bike series in 1981 and 1982. At the time, this was the most important streetbike series in the world. At present, the CB1100R is owned by a secretive enthusiast who allows the Historic Endurance Racing Team to demonstrate the bike - provided his anonymity is protected.
One of the events on the team's tour is the "Bikers' Classic" festival held at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. Although heavily spiced up with bells and whistles, thanks to ex-world champions and mouth-watering GP bikes, the event is essentially a giant three-day track bash for classic race bikes. Legally, it is not racing - but it would take an expert eye to split the difference.
As I lined up with a host of late classic racebikes it soon became clear that the CBR was going to be the centre of attention. With ex-works rider Ron Haslam's name emblazoned on the fairing, I faced a stream of autograph hunters and, except for being taller, fatter, having a lot less hair and about 1% of "Rocket Ron's" riding ability, I might well have got away with the deception: With the odds stacked against me I didn't even try.
Out on the track, it becomes clear that the CB is carrying its age well - despite being unrestored. The 115 horses allowed us to run with the faster Triumph Triples, and once the glazing had been scrubbed off the pads, the Honda's discs were well up to hauling down the 600-plus pounds of heavy metal which constituted the Honda fully fuelled.
Down the straights on braking, the CB1100R runs with the hot classics without too much trouble. The problems begin on the corners. This needs explaining. A decent BSA/Triumph triple pushes out well over 90 bhp and weighs around 340 lbs. That means that the Honda is carrying almost the weight of a pillion passenger and a full set of touring luggage extra compared to a pure classic race machine.
The big bruiser did its job by winning the Castrol Six-Hour race at its first attempt in 1980 with future World Champion Wayne Gardner in the saddle.
Running modern race Avons, the Triples go round corners like 125 GP bikes and also get their power on extremely early. By contrast, the Honda carries Metzeler road tyres and it is Peter's policy to run these at very low pressures. Apparently, Honda Britain ran 39 psi in the front tyres in contrast to the 27 psi which Peter puts in the Metzelers. The result is that although the Honda is wonderfully planted on long corners, it is reluctant to change direction. This where the classic racebikes do their disappearing act.
Still, none of this matters much compared with the delight of riding such a thoroughbred machine. The gearshift is in the perfect position, being on the right with up for down. Until anyone has ridden a machine with this configuration, it will never be apparent what a con trick the Japanese worked on us with a left-hand change running the wrong way. The change is sweet, light and bulletproof and the motor not at all cammy. Simply wind on the big Four and it goes faster and faster - with 135 mph popping up on the speedo a couple of times a lap.
At 5' 11", I am too tall for a road racer, so I love the vast amount of space in the cockpit and behind the fairing. The handling is impeccable, the brakes excellent. This is a bike I really could fancy taking home with me. It is both charismatic and, taken in context, flawless. Carrying a set of sticky Avons or Bridgestones, many modern Superbikes would be given a seriously good run for their money by the 20-year-old Honda.
As I return the bike - thankfully still in one piece, since it is priceless - I am left in awe at the size and quality of the marriage tackle inside the leathers of Haslam, Dunlop and Gardner. It is one thing being tucked in behind the fairing pretending to be racing, but these stars of the muscle bike era must have been seriously well equipped in the testicular department to race a bike as big, heavy and powerful as the CB1100R in anger. My heartfelt admiration and salutations to you all.
CBR1100 Fact File:
Although not now as well known as the later RC30 and RC45 Hondas, the CB1100R deserves the same iconic status as the later homologation specials. In fact, maybe it should be at the very top of the tree simply because it is the last of the line of big, heavy, pugilist racebikes. It also earns its status because it was a runaway success.
Instead of a charismatic racebike the new CB1300 is dull, porcine and built down to a price.
The big bruiser did its job by winning the Castrol Six-Hour race at its first attempt in 1980 with future World Champion Wayne Gardner in the saddle. The following year, the bike was banned for not having a dual seat: Banning winners was a common feature of the Castrol six-hour races. But, in 1982, Honda came back with Gardner again. Wayne's bike was the CB1100RC which had a removable hump to reveal pillion-carrying capacity. The bike is still on show in Australia having never been run since its victory.
In Britain, Ron Haslam won both the 1981 and 1982 MCN Streetbike series, and the bike was just as successful wherever it was raced. Now, it enjoys tremendous support from the enthusiastic CB1100R club who are even re-manufacturing difficult-to-source parts such as exhaust systems. Helpful technical advice is available from Bob Monschau who assisted with the research for this article.
The CB1100R has always been expensive. Bob paid $8500 in 1981 for his bike - almost the price of a mid-priced car in Britain at the time. He had been saving up for two years to emigrate to Australia and when this fell through at the last moment, Bob immediately went out and purchased a brand new bike by way of a palliative: sensible chap. His mint condition CB1100R is now worth a lot of money but can't be bought at any price. Rough ones can be found for as little $4,000 and really nice examples cost over $10,000
You can currently buy what Honda bill as a tribute to the CB1100R in the CBR1300: only it's not. Instead of a charismatic racebike the CBR1300 is dull, porcine and built down to a price. It is also makes less power, is slower and almost the same weight as the CB1100R. In all, not much progress in 24 years.
For more information about the Historic Endurance Racing Team contact: Peter Spowage at firstname.lastname@example.org