The Daily Sport
An appreciation of one of Honda’s greatest hits – the CBR600F.
Why am I writing about my 16-year-old motorcycle? Because it’s brilliant and I want to celebrate that brilliance.
I bought this, my CBR600F, in 2017.
At the time I owned a Ducati 749, but that was ready to be moved on. It was never that easy to live with; certainly not the kind of bike you could just nip out to the shops on. I’d enjoyed my interlude with Italian glamour but I wanted something more everyday practical with a broader operating scope.
Unable to afford a new bike instead I initially went looking for a budget hack. Where I ended up was discovering what is probably one of the finest motorcycles I’ve ever owned.
This particular CBR dated from 2004, a late model with the fuel-injection engine. Incredibly it had just one previous owner from new and had covered a mere 5500 miles. Moreover, it appeared that it had been garaged for all those years, and still looked and felt showroom fresh. I paid just £3500.
I’d researched the used bike market and, applying the principle that if you’re going to buy an old bike then there’s a lot to be said for choosing a Honda, I eventually narrowed my choice down to a CBR600F. This had been the UK’s best selling motorcycle for a long period throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, there seemed to be plenty about on the used market, and it had an impeccable reputation for build quality and reliability. I’ve heard it said that, for those of a certain age (and I am of that certain age), everyone either had a CBR or knew someone who did. Well, I didn’t. Until now.
I still recall the day I collected it and rode the 80-odd miles back home. It very quickly became apparent that this bike possessed virtues that far exceeded my expectations. Handling was light and almost telepathically responsive, riding position was relaxed and roomy (it could even provide comfortable accommodation for a pillion), and every touchpoint communicated a tangible sense of quality and refinement.
That 14000 rpm redline makes you wonder what this has in store...
And the engine, oh my goodness, that engine. With its redline perched at an improbable 14,000 rpm I initially didn’t know what to expect. What I discovered was a small but exquisite miracle of mechanical engineering. Composed and tractable at moderate speeds, with a delightful precision of throttle response in city traffic, once the tacho needle climbs above 6000rpm it begins to pull with more determination, and beyond 8000rpm there’s a startling, howling rush of peak power. This bike is more than capable of going stupid-fast when called upon. Staying up in the power band and feeding in gears it’ll rapidly post three-figure speeds on its digital dash.
It can feel a little buzzy at steady motorway cruising speeds – although it will comfortably maintain them all day – but it can’t quite provide the relaxed and lazy mile-munching of a larger capacity sports tourer. Instead it’s more fun to stick with the A and B-roads and revel in the joys of its flexible motor and slick, precise gearbox.
My Ducati never let you forget that you were sitting astride a machine, interacting with a fierce, single-minded and occasionally recalcitrant machine at that; it needed bossing, coaxing. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was involving, rewarding, it added ‘character’. But the contrast with riding the CBR couldn’t be more striking. Once in motion the Honda seems to disappear from beneath you, becomes an extension of you, responding to inputs with a fluid immediacy, as though it knew what you were thinking even before you needed to ask. You almost feel as though it’s looking after you, that it wouldn’t allow anything bad to happen or interfere with your undiluted focus upon riding. And consequently you can hustle it around at an indecent pace with a quietly assured confidence. It’s a remarkable quality to have engineered into a motorcycle.
Indeed, there’s a sense with the CBR that it’s the expression and embodiment of a particular design philosophy. Arguably that’s true of any motorcycle manufacturer, but it’s easy to imagine that there really is a palpable connection with that Honda mythology – the long and illustrious pursuit of excellence that you can feel in its mechanical DNA.
Sheep: "Hey, nice bike". Roaming around the Brecon Beacons.
The way things were
The CBR dates from a different era, the 90s and early 2000s. A time not so long ago when middleweight sports bikes dominated new sales; hard to imagine now in the hugely diversified current market of adventure bikes and hipster retro.
In fact the CBR has its origins way back in 1987, evolving through many significant updates and refinements across the model’s history.
The very first CBR from 1987 with its period jelly-mould styling. (image: MCN)
In the early 2000s the model line diverged with the introduction of the Sport variant, a response to increasingly strong supersport competition from Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. Introducing a split seat and tail unit, the Sport was still fundamentally the same bike as the F under the new bodywork. In turn, the Sport morphed into the CBR600RR which was an altogether different beast (a beautiful jewel of a track-focused motorcycle that even now is revered as the high water mark of the 600cc race-rep era). The RR had a new chassis, brakes, suspension and uprated engine that all took it in a very different – and far more focused – direction, away from the road-biased practicality of the 600F.
By common agreement the late, fuel-injection versions of the CBR600F, from 2001-on (designated F4i), were the apotheosis of the model’s development; refined into the perfect multi-tool of a middleweight road bike.
The last of the original 600F model line were sold through 2006/7 and after that it was quietly retired. What eventually finished it off was that we simply stopped buying them. By that time customer preference had shifted to single-minded track weapons like the ZX6R, R6, GSXR600, and indeed Honda’s own CBR600RR.
Honda then revived the CBR600F in 2011 – or rather they resurrected the model designation. But that version failed to convince the purists, who were quick to point out that this new model was really just a repurposed 600 Hornet with some additional bodywork. It wasn’t deemed a worthy successor to the true CBR heritage, and certainly in terms of purity of design philosophy that seemed a fair criticism.
Things have looked up more recently with the release of the new 650F and now the 650R; both seem to be winning praise from the motorcycle press. So perhaps these new models are set to become the true successors of the fine tradition of the CBR name. I’ve yet to have an opportunity to ride one, although I’ll confess to having been entirely seduced in the showroom by the junior Fireblade styling; no question that it’s a very pretty bike.
The 2020 Honda CBR650R (image: Honda)
The styling of my old-school CBR may be looking a little dated next to this, but from many angles it remains a handsome thing, and can draw comment and praise from the casual passer-by.
Dyno test – real world power
Incidentally, my bike has been tested on a dyno and was delivering 93 bhp at the rear wheel. Honda’s own specifications state 108 bhp for the F4i engine but, like all manufacturer output figures, that’s measured from the crank – not real-world power. There’s always a degree of power loss through the drivetrain with any bike, so that dyno result is pretty much what you’d expect.
I’ve seen a dyno test of the new CBR650R that shows it only achieving around 80 bhp at the rear wheel. No doubt that’s attributable to a combination of increasingly stringent emissions restrictions and also, possibly, the demands of the UK’s A2 licence laws, requiring that power output be capable of being halved, by restriction, to 48bhp for new riders.
Old-school styling but still has presence.
How many left?
According to 'How many left?' (www.howmanyleft.co.uk) - the web site that allows you to see, well, how many are left in existence of any make and model of vehicle, both cars and bikes - there are just 195 2004 CBR600F4s still licensed in the UK, with a further 121 currently SORN (still in existence but not currently in use on the road). Add in those from 2005/6 and you only barely scrape a total of 400 that remain in active service.
That’s a shame. Because it means that it’ll become progressively harder to find one that’s still at its best, although reports of 100,000 mile CBRs suggest that they may have greater longevity than some of their more disposable contemporaries.
My CBR600F is a keeper. If I were ever foolish enough to part with it I’m fairly sure I’d regret it; what little financial value it might yield is insignificant when weighed against the satisfaction I get from riding it. And hopefully if I care for it, keep it serviced and well maintained, then it will continue for years to come.