Monday, July 23, 2012

Phil Schilling’s 30-year-old review of the Honda CBX

Honda CBX Honda CBX
Cycle magazine's Phil Schilling wrote a beautiful story about the CBX, 30 years ago. Three decades on, it's a story that needs to be retold...

Powered by a 1,047cc, 105bhp six-cylinder engine, the late-1970s/early-1980s Honda CBX was an intriguing mix of superbike and sports-tourer. Back in July 1982, Phil Schilling wrote about the bike for Cycle magazine. It’s a beautifully written piece that tells the remarkable story of the CBX, a motorcycle we love so very much. Schilling’s story on the CBX was published exactly three decades ago, which means a lot of our readers probably never had the opportunity to read it. So if you love the CBX, here’s your chance to enjoy one of the best written articles about that magnificent machine:

Honda's CBX was a grabber from the start. In the desert darkness, along a deserted road, you hear again the rushed whisper that six cylinders and 24 valves make at 75mph, and you remember again the first time you rode a CBX. Strange, isn't it, how after tens and hundreds of test machines, you can recall how it was with the clarity and resolution of the day just past. Maybe it's the soft, backlit red glow from the instruments; the CBX had the dials first done in that motif, and this visual cue connects again and again with that first CBX.

Yet that could be only part of it. Because in so many ways the CBX is a memorable machine, and not necessarily in a functional way either. The CBX announces itself as an exotic – restrained but with an audacious self-confidence. See Me! Six cylinders! Twenty-four valves! Six carburetors! Presence. A motorcycle that you don't look through or past. See and look again. You can't say that about many Hondas.

Outlandish from the beginning, the CBX was introduced as an unabashed superbike, a war missile meant to blast the competition right out of orbit. Aggressor-bike, yes, indeed; it had the hard good looks of the CB750/900 Super Sports; it was 11-second quick and 135mph fast; it was as trim as possible at 606 pounds; and it possessed as much mechanical charisma as anything on this side, or the other, of Gallarate.

That was the CBX's dilemma. Its soul was exotic; its marching orders were superbike. As a complete superbike package, the CBX was two too much for its own good -- a proposition that Suzuki GS1000s and 1100s soon made clear. The total Superbike envelope had size-and-handling limits; and the original CBX, magnetic, charming and captivating, was nevertheless, as a Superbike, resistible.

After the fact, Honda understood. If Suzuki and Kawasaki wanted to fight a superbike war at the 1100cc altitude, they were welcome to duke it out, Honda seemed to be saying, and its message for 1981 was: Have this CBX Reincarnate: the Pro-Link Sports/Touring, Flash/Touring version. Penalties, yes: heavier, slower, more massive than ever; advantages: better braking, more comfortable, more civilized and usable, better handling – and to be perfectly honest, better shaped and toned and curried and softened for the clientele who could afford a CBX.

No matter how the CBX gets shaped, the central fact of the thing is its six-cylinder engine and heroic proportions. The thing easily fits on the desert landscape, out by Edwards Air Force Base, the touch-down station for the space shuttle. Six hundred and some pounds says security in a vacant land. An errant critter astray on the highway would be bunted aside with little more than a quiver filtering into the cockpit.

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Cockpit, now that's a civilized word for a sitting and steering place on machinery that leaves you outside. Cockpit is Airplane-talk, and the CBX parts the winds with fairing and lowers but leaves your helmet buffeting in that windscreen's air-wake. Like an old open-cockpit biplane. Your body doesn't fight the elements; just your head fights them. You have to wonder whether or not this union of protection and exposure reflects Honda's uncertainty with the CBX: should it be full-touring, corpulent and secure like an oversized armchair, or should the six-cylinder have a ruggedness that keeps its sporting rider in the elements? A compromise then. Body comfort and head drafts.

Early-morning commuter traffic begins to clog the Los Angeles freeway system. At seven the incoming arteries begin to choke; at eight traffic seemingly pulses in place. The freeway running in from the desert dumps onto Interstate 5 – that great north-south line that rifles through a yawning San Joaquin Valley – just as I-Five slides into the Basin.

The CBX, agleam in the morning light, finds California Freeway life suitable. It’s comfortable enough over those freeway slabs, tractable enough to crawl at 1500 rpm in fifth, big enough to be seen, narrow enough to split lanes, and as long as the 7 a.m. day still carries a lingering 4 a.m. chill, the six-cylinder engine warms the cockpit. Most of the heat the lowers duct away, and the trickle of 7 a.m. warmth suggests how toasty the CBX might be on a Bakersfield August day.

The great inland California valley lies behind the CBX; in front there’s the 405, which breaks off Interstate Five and butts into 101 going west toward Ventura. That 101 interval, in California reckoning, is about 45 minutes. That measurement recognizes time and ignores distance, a pretty interesting calculation that’s indigenous to a freeway-style life. Since the freeways look the same everywhere, from bots-dots to green- and-white exit signs, travel has a treadmill quality. You motor along in place, just the names on the signs that pop by are different. That’s why passing cars becomes important on multi-lane freeways; it confirms that you’re making distance on the mill.

To running in place on the freeway, the CBX adapts. To hopscotching around traffic, the CBX adapts. Letting the big six-cylinder engine pull in second or third or fourth from its rpm-basement produces first a rising hum of determination that quickly transcends into a determined howl at 7000 rpm, and plenty of speed. Show-time machines like the CX500 Turbo give the rider lots of electronic games to watch; they have a rolling video arcade. But the CBX, as a more traditional piece, lacks computer-tech interior furnishings.

Breakfast in Ventura, on the Pacific Coast, provides the rendezvous for a passenger ready for a day up the coast. As a sports/tourer or flash/tourer, the CBX has space for the basic stuff for two: camera gear, binoculars, sweaters, jackets, tablecloth and picnic fixings for two who nibble. Fairing compartments, one lockable and the other not, hold glasses, maps and pocket-sized notebooks. One person – were he a light traveler – might live for a week on the road with the CBX’s lock/detachable luggage. For two, the CBX is an overnighter, a weekender, a motorcycle that joins interesting points and returns home.

With passenger onboard the CBX and the bags loaded to capacity, its damper push-pull know, side-mounted on the right, must be set on heavy damping. With the Pro-Link system, the single shock is well and truly buried, and taking the motorcycle half apart does little to expose that single shock. It's there, you know; you can feel the difference, as well as the difference boosted air pressure in the shock and front fork makes.

Turbo power might be entertaining for a rider traveling alone; but for two on the road together, there's no substitute for displacement. Big engines that work properly have immediate, predictable power delivered with authority and impunity that disregards grades, altitude steps, exhaust-system temperature and time of day. Passengers, to be sure, like that predictable power, the sameness of it, because a passenger sits back there, aware of controls, but utterly divorced from them. For that reason, there's comfort in mechanical things that respond immediately and predictably. It's something like being in a light plane, seeing the pilot move the controls and feeling no change in the aircraft's behavior for a second or two. On a motorcycle that eerie sensation has marbles rolling in the pit of a passenger's stomach, and not many passengers want to be turbo-eeriefied. Six cylinders of well-modulated and normally inducted power are perfect on a fast day up the Pacific Coast.

The day knits together on lines and points: To Ojai, over Route 33, a 40-mile stretch of high-speed mountain roads; into the desert and back to 101 courtesy of 166; up to Morro Bay and the sea; on toward the Hearst Castle at San Simeon; along the water's edge on One to Big Sur; back on 101, heading south into the night.

Day or night, the CBX would turn heads. The six-cylinder isn't as iridescent a flashbike as the Turbo, nor as in vogue with the click-word of the 1980s, nor as deliberate as the CX-TC. The CBX obeys that older, more traditional maxim about exotics: number of cylinders. Count 'em up, buddy, there are six. In motor culture lore, big numbers score: V8 Moto Guzzis, Honda RC-161s; Marmon V16s and V12s by the lotful, from Packards to Ferraris.

Turning the 101 corner at Ventura, bearing east from north, you find yourself passing traffic at an indecent speed in the early morning hours. And what do you do? Snick the CBX down a couple of gears to agitate the tachometer into the 7000-rpm range and let that sucker sing; those little cylinders trump out a sound that reaches your innermost ear, the one that finds the sound inviting, charming, engaging, thrilling, electrifying, satisfying. What's more, it's addicting: again and again you reach for the sound, a music that comes only from numbers. If the CX500TC has the word, the CBX has the sound - a wail that no compressor on earth can make.


Just listen to that CBX 1000 inline-six...!

Via CBX Club
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