Honda CB400/4 Road test - 1975
When the Honda CB400 was introduced to the public at last year's Cologne show it came very close to stealing the thunder of the Honda flat four. At least those looking at this bike could aspire to buying it, and in the not too distant future. To tell the truth, it came as rather a shock to find that Honda had gone "European". The bike had all the hallmarks of the successful cafe racer: the four-into-one exhaust system, the apparent lightweight, the petrol tank that had a deliberate starkness, with its lack of lining, plus the sheer look. What was not clear at Cologne was that the bike had larger virtues. It was smooth, even for a four-cylinder. It wax light, under 400 lb. Above all, it handled. Better than any Honda that we have tried.
These days the Honda road-test fleet is handled by Tippetts of Surbiton, and we already knew that we had to face one problem when we collected the bike. The road-test machine was especially brought into the country early to allow the press to report on it. Unfortunately, it was intended for the American market and gave us a taste of what is to come if ever the law insists on lights on in daytime, for the headlight came on the moment that the ignition key was turned, and stayed on all the time. Not only that, when it was on main beam the front indicators came on at half power and stayed on without flashing. It was, frankly, a menace and we had not ridden off Tippetts' forecourt before the first cry of "Your lights are on!" echoed across the road. A few hundred yards later a police car had drawn it to our attention and not long after a pedestrian had attempted suicide stepping into the road in front of us to repeat the warning. By the time we reached home only two miles away we were heartily sick of the light. So, too, had been some previous rider, for the first thing the next morning the electrical system expired completely, apparently the result of an attempt to neutralise the headlight.
Perhaps we have become a little oversensitive about the light, but we shudder to think of a situation where we might have to use our lights all the time. Granted that others will get used to the idea after some years, but the education period would drive us all mad. Eventually our immediate problem was solved by the simple expedient of putting a Dayglo cover over the glass in the day, which effectively filtered out most of the light.
The machine had one or two other Americanisms, two, at least one of which we were very disappointed to find is not included on the "home bikes" - a centrally-mounted ignition switch that also acted as a steering lock. After one switched off, the bars merely had to be turned to full lock and the key pressed and turned. Magnificent. It is a real pity that it is not used here, although it was recognised that the switch had to be different to eliminate the lights on/off switch. Also different was the stand, which had a little rubber flap on the end to act as a return spring should the rider move off with the stand down.
Running the four exhaust pipes into one silencer has had a most effective slimming effect on the CB400 and the designers have achieved a fair degree of beauty in the lines of the four pipes. It is a good idea. Not only does it make the cost of exhaust system replacement theoretically cheaper but it should last longer, for the silencer reaches its running temperature more quickly. It is quiet, too, giving the bike a smooth, refined sound. The drawback is that following riders will no longer be able to be intimidated by those four silencers, but "we suspect that the prestige of four silencers is a thing of the past anyway. For the fastidious owner, perhaps the greatest benefit is that he can now get at the front of the engine to keep it clean and he will no longer have two silencers on the inside eating their heart out.
In fact the slimming is not all illusion, for the motor is only a few inches wider than the 250 twin engine. The engine is said to be based on the 350 4 and has a bore of 51mm and a stroke of 50 mm, almost square. It gives a capacity of 408cc. It makes a change to find an engine "under-claiming" its capacity. Claimed output is a modest 37 bhp @ 8,500 rpm but it is sufficient to propel the machine to just over 100 mph.
Compression ratio is 9.4 to 1. Carburetors are four 20mm Keihin with the usual Honda double cable arrangement. Although often criticised, I did not find it too unbearable and the only drawback really was the absence of a throttle friction adjuster. Snap shut throttles might be all right for some, but they drive me mad. Naturally the motor was completely oil-tight, and the level of mechanical noise was far below that which we have usually associated with the fours from Honda. The multi-plate coil-spring-operated clutch was, as always, reasonably light. To provide six speeds with a four-cylinder engine seems to us to be denying the whole idea, for a touring four-cylinder motor should be flexible and, indeed, the Honda is. The jump from, say, fifth to top was no more than a couple of hundred rpm. From our point of view it detracted slightly from the pleasure of riding the Honda, for the motor was more Irian happy to pull from reasonably low down and to have to keep changing gear, well, not even to have to, but to keep doing it because it is there, becomes a chore. The question is does the CB400 need six gears? The answer, in our view, is no. One final thought on the gearbox - it was as sweet a box as Honda have yet produced and neutral was silent and easy to find. Bearing in mind that the gear change is quite an elaborate arrangement with a car-type adjustable linkage that is a fair achievement.
The frame, the cornerstone of the bike's excellent handling, is apparently little different from other medium range Hondas. The front down tube is single with a cradle bottom tube and a single top tube. The real key to the good handling must lie in the suspension units, which look the same as always, being the exposed coil, adjustable type. The difference is they work really well. Front forks are the "skinny" Italian style and they, too, played an important if unobtrusive part, for the steering of the Honda was precise. Where Honda have gone slightly awry is with the footrests. The front right-hand rest can be folded to allow room for the kick starter. Unfortunately the return spring had already succumbed and a dozen times a ride we unintentionally retracted the rest as we lifted a foot upon starting. This is only usually discovered when one treads into space. Eventually we learned to describe an exaggerated arc with our foot, but it was silly. The left rest was all right; but the pillion rests were mounted on the swinging-arm sub frame, so the passenger's feet moved with the springing.
The brakes were above average, with the front disc suffering less in the wet than most, providing a good blend of power and sensitivity. The rear brake pedal had a neat little bit of modern art built on that was, we guess, either intended to keep the rider's foot away from the crankcase or to help the less sensitive foot to find the pedal. Tyres were Bridgestone, 3.50 x 18in rear, 3.00 x 18in front, and they showed themselves to be more than able to cope with the abundance of wet weather that we encountered.
The electrics have already had fair coverage on the lights-on-all-the-time theme, but it is worth mentioning that when we wanted them in earnest the lights were a good average. The rear light was, as we expect from Honda, large and bright and the same can be said of the flashing direction indicators.
The indicator switch was a great improvement, too, having a good positive location. Naturally it needed more pressure but I'll settle for that as opposed to over-cancelling any day. The switch was on the left-hand side, where were positioned the horn, which was poor, and the dip-switch, which was the other side, so to speak, of the indicator switch and really too far away for easy or speedy use. On the left was the starter button. The familiar off/on/off engine kill on top of the right-hand switch still does not isolate the starter and we do urge Honda to adopt the Kawasaki system which does, using the same switch.
Perhaps one point that we have not stressed highly enough is that the Honda is such a manageable bike. The weight, with one gallon of petrol, was 392 lb, quite a saving on the 500 four of the same configuration. This is achieved, to a certain degree, by cutting out the clutter, which has also had a beneficial effect on the price. For example, there is no rear grab handle, less bulky mudguards, a lighter seat — things like that. In fact they have overdone it with the seat, for it is just a little skimpy. The height's right, though, 30in which, aided by the seat being narrow at the front, meant that my wife could get both feet on the ground in comfort.
Equally important is a riding position that suited both of us fine. The bars are European touring, as narrow as they can be and still leave room for all the essentials. Well, some regard them as essentials. The relationship of footrests to seat and bars was about right, too, for our taste. Still on the seat, it was 24yin long, which is just about the minimum acceptable, hinged to reveal a covered tool tray that is a fair step forward, and two helmet locks.
We have always enjoyed our rides on big Hondas, have never subscribed to the view that the big fours are less than very good motorcycles. So when we say that the CB400 is head and shoulders above all of them it is not to imply that the others are not much good. Starting was first rate, with the minimum warming-up period being needed. Tick-over was reliable and slow and pick-up clean all the way up the range. A new innovation, for Honda, is a cut-out on the clutch lever that prevents the starter being used with the engine in gear unless the clutch is withdrawn. Engagement of bottom gear was always silent, gear selection was light and positive. Small features, in part not too significant but on the whole helping to make the Honda one of the most attractive motorcycles to ride.
The handling, in particular, deserves full praise. Perhaps having a well-tucked-in and neat exhaust system, low riding position, decent bars and being light all combined to create confidence. Perhaps the suspension units have taken a massive step forward, perhaps the front forks have, too. Whatever the reason, this bike handles very well indeed. It has none of the feel of heaviness at low speed that we normally associate with the bigger fours and was far less prone to milching. It burbles its way around town, pulling from 3,000 rpm, less if we had a mind. Truly a delightful town machine, in spite of the constant gear changing, and in this environment returning a steady 61 mpg.
Out of town, the bike lost none of its good manners, just produced them in a more rapid order! Top end performance was really more than adequate for today's conditions and top speed was, as we have said, over 100 mph. Cruising speed could more realistically be placed 20 mph lower and, if the wind and gradient were being uncooperative, that was occasionally the top speed as well. Not often, though. With 70 limits everywhere on motorways, and less elsewhere, it was never a problem. Around the lanes the Honda really excelled. It reminded us of the pleasure a good motorcycle can give. Everything combined to inspire confidence and encourage us to ride just for fun. Tyres, handling, handlebars, seat position, petrol tank shape, gear change, clutch. All played their part, none could be faulted. Such games have to ne paid for, of course, and we returned only 46 mpg on our out-of-town frolics. It was money well spent.
There is just one thing that we have not mentioned about the CB400, its price. Even this was right, £699, putting it in direct competition with the "other" Japanese 400, undercutting anything similar from Italy and bringing home very sharply how much better value for money it is than Honda's CB360. It seems impossible to imagine how the same company can have made both machines.
Jack Wiley, BMP Secretary, who has owned a CB500 for the past few years, was astounded, and had the shops been open at the time could well have gone out and bought one! Fantastic, was his reaction. Eric Rosentall, who sold his CB500 to buy a BMW last year, was even more impressed by the Honda. He did not think that he would be selling the BMW, preferring its larger 750 engine for foreign touring, but he is seriously thinking of adding the CB400 to the garage for his "up to 200 miles" riding. My wife, as we have already mentioned, was also very impressed by it and found it the first big bike (well, medium bike, then) that she didn't feel was in charge of her.
To sum up ... If there is any justice, this bike will walk away with machine of the year titles. It is not perfect but it is very close to it and if it has any limitations it is purely one of engine size. As Honda have already announced similar changes to their larger machines in the United States, we look forward with interest to the arrival of the CB750 in similar guise. Certainly, at £699 the 400 will be attracting many newcomers to the ranks of four-cylinder machine owners. You will have gathered that we liked it.