long wondered just what goes
on in a design meeting at Honda. They’re such a conservative
company in so many ways, and yet every now and again there
is some sort of corporate spasm that provokes the development
of something just a little special. Sometimes, of course,
it’s also a little bit over the top, like the engineering
masterpiece that was the NR750, a fantastic bike but so expensive
that nobody bought one. Or a technically advanced solution
to a problem that no longer exists, like the inboard discs
on almost all sporty Hondas in the mid eighties. Then again,
of course, sometimes it’s the Fireblade – a stroke
of genius that turned conventional sportsbike thinking on
its head overnight. And, of course, the Blackbird. You can
picture it now. Lots of suited Japanese gentlemen earnestly
discussing The Way Forward. Someone says “Hey Boss!
Why don’t we make the fastest bike anyone has ever seen?”
And there’s this long, long silence. They all stare
and look at the floor and shuffle their feet uncomfortably.
Then the boss grins and all of a sudden they’re all
nodding and smiling and clapping the guy on the back.
a year later they unveil this missile. And call it the Blackbird.
Appropriate, really, as the Blackbird most of us think of
was a Mach 3 spy plane operated by the US Air Force. It’s
held the record for the quickest transatlantic flight for
the last thirty years – when it arrived in Britain for
the Farnborough airshow it overshot its approach and ended
up having to turn round. Over Paris…
to the bike. When it was launched, the Blackbird raised
a few eyebrows. Not just because of the frankly silly top
speed. But because it appeared to be something that nobody
had ever really made before. An extremely fast but almost
completely sensible bike. A decent fairing, comfortable seat
and terribly grown up linked brakes. Handling on the sporting
side. But a centre stand, a grab rail and enormous headlights
made for a far more rounded package than we expected. The
first incarnation of the Blackbird, or CBR1100XX Super Blackbird
to use its full, snappy title, was blessed with carburettors
and, truth be told, was quick but nowhere near as quick as
the hype. The next year saw no more than a colour change,
but Honda being Honda, and market forces being what they are,
the year after saw some more significant changes in an attempt
to beat the Hyabusa and ZX-12. Actually, it’s probably
fairer to say that Honda realised they were never going to
beat the other two on sheer speed and power so they went for
usability instead. Fuel injection, better brakes and suspension
enhancements were meant to make the Blackbird into an urbane
super cruiser. And they worked, too.
Approach the Blackbird and, like it’s Lockheed namesake,
the first thing that strikes you is the size. It’s really
quite a large motorbike, a rarity as bikes become ever smaller,
and it’s heavy too. The matt black paintwork with pale
gold wheels and titanium detailing echoes the aeroplane even
further. A stealth motorbike, even a pseudo stealth one, is
unusual and in honesty I don’t think many shapes could
carry it off. This, however, can, managing to look classy
and somehow sinister at the same time. Chalk one up for the
Honda creative people as well then.
we don’t buy motorbikes to look at them, do we.
Hauling the Blackbird off the centrestand is one of those
things that actually seems far harder than it is, but it’s
approached with trepidation the first time anyway. No problem,
balanced on the sidestand and swing a leg over the surprisingly
low seat. In a typical Honda way, everything fall exactly
where you would expect and hope it to be. the instruments
are clear though slightly dated in layout, the bars are just
the right height and reach and the mirrors give a pleasing
view of the scenery behind me with barely an elbow in sight.
So on board and comfortable it’s time to get moving.
Start the engine. Check that the tacho is
actually registering and that the oil light has gone out.
There is a little noise, its true, but no vibration whatsoever.
This really is like a jet. There is an immense feeling of
potency from the 1100cc engine but it is so incredibly smooth.
I am impressed. Pull in the pleasantly light clutch, engage
first and pull away. At any revs at all. There is a huge amount
of low down torque and the transition from stationary to urban
speed limit is almost instant. While we’re talking about
outright performance, it’s probably worth mentioning
that the Super Blackbird, even in this stealth colour scheme,
is not radar invisible. We know because we tested it, fortunately
without the benefit of a ticket afterwards – the wonders
of a controlled environment.
On the move and it’s time for a cliché.
The weight simply disappears. And it’s true –
the weight really does stop being an issue as soon as the
Blackbird is moving. What seems unwieldy and threatening at
a standstill becomes stable and reassuring at town speeds
and even more stable and reassuring at Autobahn speeds. And
when it comes to Autobahn speeds, the big Honda has it right.
I sat at well over 130mph for just about a full tank of fuel.
Just because I could. The Blackbird didn’t even break
a sweat. And I was perfectly relaxed – exactly the way
you want to be when you’re going somewhere in a hurry
and don’t want to be completely strung out when you
the major routes and onto roads which are rather less
boring and the Blackbird is still a worthy companion. Handling
is a little slow, but then again we are talking about a big,
heavy bikes here, not a nimble little supersports machine.
The Blackbird turns in remarkably well, in fact, and is utterly
predictable in the process.
Stability is beyond reproach and, as we have
found several times this year, this particular bike doesn’t
mind whether you want to hang off or not. In this case I chose
not to, and experienced no ill effects at all.
In fact, the Blackbird would make a potent
track weapon in the right hands and at the right track. The
power delivery is creamily smooth and, though there is a huge
amount of grunt on tap, never seems to threaten the rear tyre.
I’m totally certain that a bit of ham fisted effort
would result in a spectacular highside, but self preservation
and mechanical sympathy meant that I still only have that
as a belief and can’t back it up with the resulting
x-rays. No, somewhere like Silverstone or Thruxton and a brave
Blackbird pilot would be tough indeed to catch and pass. Brave
because on a high speed circuit like that they’d really
Now all this performance is only as good,
at the end of the day, as the brakes. And, though I’m
not the greatest fan of linked brakes, as ever these are very
good. You have to give Honda some credit for the way that
they take an idea and stick with it, even in the face of some
criticism, and refine it and polish it until it actually becomes
close to the benefit that it was always supposed to be. I
still prefer normal braking systems, but the Blackbird’s
stoppers proved well up to the task in hand, scrubbing off
enormous amounts of energy without complaint or problems.
Blackbird doesn’t look as though the fairing
will be especially effective. It’s streamlined, sure,
but it’s hardly a tall screen. So the actual effectiveness
was a pleasant surprise. I stayed warm, dry and largely unaffected
by the hurricane speed gale I was generating for myself. Staying
warm was certainly helped by the huge amount of heat produced
by the turbine plant masquerading as an engine. I’d
sure want to keep moving in high summer.
Despite the available performance and the
liberal use I made of it, the Blackbird still took me a comfortable
180 miles before needing to refuel, and the chain showed little
sign of stretch, unlike a competitor we rode a while ago which
ate the chain in a few thousand miles. Tyres were new when
we picked the ‘Bird up and, though still good, had clearly
been worked fairly hard by the end of the test. Brake pads
had an immense amount of meat still on them, and it will be
no surprise to hear that neither oil nor water levels moved
at all during the test.
CBR1100XX Super Blackbird is a sophisticated, refined,
comfortable way of covering large distances at very, very
high speeds indeed. Having ridden all the current competition
I make no bones about saying, categorically, that though the
others may be a little faster (or even quite a lot faster)
there is no doubt in my mind which one I would rather cover
a long distance on. Several hundred miles left me comfortable,
relaxed and absolutely free of the aches and grumbles often
associated with long distance, high speed touring. On top
of that there is room to strap bags. There are also plenty
of handy points to which you can attach bungees. And passengers,
as well as being accommodated very comfortably, make not one
iota of difference to the performance and have a barely noticeable
impact on handling and braking. All of which, I guess makes
this oldest of the über-tourers, the best as well as
well as the cheapest currently on the market.
Nice one, Honda.