Honda's CBX, a Six-Cylinder Classic
The year was 1978, and Soichiro Honda's engineering team had completed work on their most ambitious consumer product yet, the 1047cc, 24 valve, six cylinder "CBX." Honda drew upon their prior 6 cylinder experience, notably the 247cc DOHC, RC166 race bike, that the legendary Mike Hailwood won the 250 cc World Championship with in 1966 and 1967. "Magic Mike" took a bored-out version of this bike (297cc) and accomplished stunning wins in the 350cc class as well, setting an absolute lap record at the Isle of Man along the way.
There were obstacles to overcome in the CBX development, some that were unexpected. The short stroke engine loved to rev, and ramped up so fast that alternator shafts were snapped with regularity. To solve this, Honda clutched the alternator. The peculiar, yet endearing, "electric cricket" sound my CBX makes while it warms up is a reminder of this.
The test team came up with an eerie discovery with the original CBX prototypes: the howl of the exhaust sounded uncannily like the deadly war whoop of the F-15 tactical fighter jet! Thinking this sound was just too spooky to be marketable, the exhaust baffling was redesigned to change the tone.
An oil cooler solved the remaining overheating problems, and in late 1978 the new "1979" CBX was available to the masses. Cycle magazine, if memory serves, clocked the 1979 model CBX at 11.55 seconds through the lights at 1/4 mile, making the CBX (at the time) the world's fastest production motorcycle.
After riding a 1977 Kawasaki KZ650 to death, then drag racing a 1977 KZ1000 for a time, I was ready for a change. The change came in the form of a 1980 Honda Gold Wing, a beautifully boring motorcycle. After a trip in the snow from Illinois to Fort Lauderdale and back I realized that the reliable Gold Wing that sent a shower of sparks flying off the pegs with every curve was just not my ticket to ride.
The CBX was selling like mud even then, as the width of the engine, 24 valves to shim, and six carbs to synch intimidated folks. The silver 1979 model was slightly de-tuned for 1980, with more of a moderate camshaft set than anything else.
The 1980 CBX was black, and was selling for far less than the $4198 retail price. I was able to grab mine for $3500 out the door, and even that was a huge boatload of cash for me back then. But, I fell in love with the bike, and love for motorcycles can make you do things that others find inexplicable.
The factory bike, I discovered, was jetted way too lean. So, two sizes up on the main jets gave the bike a bit more gas to burn and a K&N air filter helped it avoid suffocation. The bike then had no problem hitting redline (9500 rpm) in 5th gear, around 135 mph or so, calculated.
It was generally "calculated" back then, as the anti-fast bike rhetoric was in full force. As testimony to that, my CBX still has its "safer" factory 80-mph speedometer, which it pegs easily in 3rd gear. Due to the relative obscurity of the CBX, in those days it was a great bike for winning a few bucks in casual street races. The toothy grins of "Hey wanna go for a twenty?" provided a lot of free gas money from those who elected to count exhaust pipes, not header pipes. A power down shift, and the game was done. I would have been badly beaten by a Z-1 with nitrous oxide injection, had the dear sweet soul brother not thrown a rod at exactly the right time. I was young and dumb back then, anyway. Now, I'm not young.
The slippery factory tires were replaced by a pair of V-rated "Conti Twins," the factory pipes with some Russ Collins 6 into 2 headers to save a few pounds. I wasted money on a space-age fork brace that did nothing to stabilize the bike. I welded a flat steel plate to the kickstand, as the factory configuration (once) sank into warm, soft asphalt too deeply. This happened on a road trip, and it smashed a new helmet locked to the side of the bike, but the CBX was unscathed.
Time marches on, and a Vetter fairing / radar detector was installed, and I changed back to the factory pipes to save a headache at the end of the day. The bike does get a bit wobbly at about 120 mph, but I'm not as fast as I used to be, anyway. The CBX lives on, and does everything I could wish for in a motorcycle. Most would call it a "sport touring" rig at the moment, for its reign, as a really "quick" bike was even briefer than its production.
Jay Leno rides one, and once joked that he bought it because, "It was Honda's first big mistake." From a sales standpoint, it certainly was. Yes, you need to drop the engine to shim the valves, the massive valve cover gasket is a pain, and there are a lot of fins to keep clean. It's the most pleasurable mistake I've ever owned, and the six tiny pistons still pump as smoothly as ever. Not many things have been with me for twenty-three consecutive years, but the CBX has. I've developed a deep affection for electric crickets over time, and I strongly suspect that others have too.
Copyright 2003 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.