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Hey Honda, where are the new ‘classic’ bikes? Modern tech can make them great – again

Image used with permission by copyright holder

After getting hammered by the global Great Recession, the general Endless Japanese Recession and the horrific earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Japan’s motorcycle industry is slowly getting its legs back.

But Honda seems to still be asleep at the handlebars when it comes to what many riders want: cool-looking classics that ride like modern machines and include the tech goodness present in Big Red’s cutting-edge cars and sportbikes.

After too many years of sparse (if any) new model releases, plenty of BNG (bold new graphics) and limited mechanical or style updates to existing bikes, new models are now beginning to appear in earnest from all the major manufacturers.

Honda’s highest-profile new bikes include a surprise hit with the little-bike-that-can CBR250R and strong sales of the do-all, be-all NC700X, which has received warm reviews for being very good at what it is: a fairly tepid commuter bike for the everyman (or woman) that thinks a bit outside the performance and design box and is essentially a two-wheeled Accord or CR-V (depending on options).

That’s not damning praise, either. The NC700X is a great piece of tech-heavy, new-think (and low-priced) machinery that hopefully brings new riders into the fold. I’d ride it. It looks cool, and will probably last forever if cared for. You can also get it with Honda’s nifty dual-clutch-with-manual-toggles automatic DCT transmission if shifting gears the old-fashioned way seems inconvenient (or intimidating).

And now, the NC700X has been joined by a trio of equally unintimidating 500cc twins built on a common platform along with the new pair of CTX 700cc… whatever they are. They all look like fun for new or re-entry riders, should get huge mpg numbers and we will try to get some riding time in on all of them.

But I’d be lying if I said I was staying awake at night in anticipation.

Always looking forward and bringing new tech and ideas to market is fine and dandy, but it’s also par for the course. It’s what every company does. And last I checked, Honda’s ethereal slogan was “The Power of Dreams,” not “Us, Too.”

Which brings me to a conundrum when it comes to Honda: Here’s a company with very deep roots in the American and European psyche, a supremely innovative company that changed the game for the whole motorcycle industry with their biker-image busting “Nicest People” ad campaign and the world-beating 1969 Honda CB750 – picked by many as the most (or one of the most) influential motorcycles of all time.

Along with the seminal CB750, Honda has a huge legacy of iconic bikes in their historical portfolio, many of which are now trading for big dollars in stock form on the used and auction markets.

And yet, Honda seems to ignore their glorious past and the huge market potential I believe it represents. Why? Outside of the recently announced throwbackish CB1100 and the now cult-status GB500 from 1990, where the heck are the new retro classics loaded with modern tech?

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Remember the CB450 Black Bomber? 305 Superhawk? The CL Scramblers? The perfectly-sized CB550/4? Even the butt-ugly CX500 Deluxe? Running examples are in demand. Huge demand. Why? Because older riders – and now young hipsters who saw their parents and friends ride them – love them. L-O-V-E them.

Suzuki is having great success with their TU250x retro bike, and Kawasaki sold a ton of their way-too-fun ZRX Lawson tribute bikes (I was the proud owner of a green one, along with too many resultant speeding tickets). Moto Guzzi has joined the retro fray with their V7-Series models and outside the now-defunct 1200X Sportster and V-Rod models, much of Harley-Davidson’s business model seems based on retro love.

Royal Enfield brought modern updates like EFI to their lineup without sacrificing one bit of the vintage flavor. Vespa is certainly in on the game with their newest model, the 946, showing just what can be done when retro design meets a modern update. Bella!

So where is the new spoke-wheeled, four-pipe Honda CB750 Classic with fuel injection and ABS? The ready-to-cafe CB450 Black Bomber that gets 80mpg? Or a suite of app-ready 305-Series city bikes, Benly twins and Dream scooters, ready to pair with Bluetooth helmets and rider’s phones? Hello?

Could those smaller throwback models be 120mpg hybrids as well? Hybrids work best in cities, where smaller bikes would likely roam. Honda could do it.

How about an updated 305 Superhawk with EFI and ABS brakes? A refreshed CB400/4 (aka CB400F, pictured above), generally considered one of the most beautiful bikes Honda ever made, enlarged to a 500/4 and with Americanized dimensions would seem an obvious choice. And those are all just to start. Honda’s history is deep and wide. So is their tech portfolio. 

The cost and complexity of developing EFI and ABS has come in line with the expected economies of scale – the work is done. If they can put EFI in a 150cc scooter, it can be easily fitted to a small retro street bike.  EFI tech costs are now just part of keeping bikes emissions-legal, while ABS is still an understandable premium. But for how long? Bike ABS systems are getting lighter, faster, cheaper to produce and more transparent while riding. Riders want them, especially beginning riders.

In fact, retro models should be slathered with tech, either as standard equipment or as options, as the NC700X is.

A small digital panel in a retro CB750 instrument cluster could show any number of performance parameters- even GPS.  Other choices for riders that are nothing more than software/firmware tweaks could include ignition options for power, high-mpg for touring and low-traction settings. Some diagnostic information on the panel, when needed, would also be a nice addition that requires little if any hardware. And since EFI hacking is the new customization craze, why not monetize that and make downloadable fueling maps available for purchase right from rider’s phones? Pair your phone to the bike for install and away you go in 5 minutes. 

Image used with permission by copyright holder

I’d love to see a new CB450 line  (1973 model, above) that recalls the early 70s models. Honda made a zillion of them and for good reason: fast, bone-simple and great looking, they are in demand today on the used market 40 years later. I think they would go over pretty well in today’s retro and cafe climate. Make them 399cc so first-time Tier 1 riders can legally ride them. 

While Honda continues to pump out little 250 Rebels to this day, basically unchanged three DECADES after they first appeared, it seems they would do well to bring back the non-threatening Twinstar line for those riders that don’t want to be miniature Marlon Brandos. After fuel injection, add ABS, a GPS option and maybe an F-type sports model, and let owners equip them as ultimate city bikes that can also get 80mpg. And why not make the engines 305cc’s for some actual highway ability? 305cc’s too small? Don’t tell that to Kawasaki as they sell out of Ninja 300s. Times have changed.

The Honda brass had to shudder when BMW recently debuted not one but two tech-laden sport-tour models with an inline-6 that have been rightfully hailed as the kings of the sport-tour segment. I owned a 1982 CBX (photo below) for 20 years. I bought it when “sport touring” was some obscure notion, not the hottest growing segment in tour riding as it is now. The six-cylinder, six-carbed, 24-valve air-cooled CBX was a majestic, unearthly bike, a blast of pure joy to ride even when it was decades old. It drew a crowd everywhere I went and looks of jealousy from FJR owners. Anyone ever see an ST1300 do that? I haven’t.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

So where is the new CBX? It is Honda MOTOR Company, is it not? A new CBX1300 sport-tourer with a “modern” retro fairing packing GPS, EFI, ABS, 150hp and electronic suspension control? I’m in line with my checkbook.

I’m not the first journalist to decry the now long-running streak of staid happening at Honda. I love Honda motorcycles. When it’s go-fast time, I ride a Honda Blackbird – a fantastic bike. I’ve owned a dozen Honda motorcycles spanning from 1970s models on up.

But I dream of a modernized CB450 like the crimson, sparkle-flecked beauty I had years ago. I long for an updated but beautiful 400Four that I don’t look like a Shriner riding because I’m 6 foot 1 and 210 pounds. I fantasize about a do-everything CB750 that looks just like the awesome original but runs and rides like a modern bike. It doesn’t need to make 115hp or be water-cooled. It just needs to look like a classic Honda.

And I know I’m not alone.

Here in motorcycle-crazy Portland, I see middle-aged riders quickly buying up and riding the classics from their youth and young NEW riders fixing up, customizing and riding around on those same classics they are finding in barns, garages, on Craigslist and in motorcycle boneyards.

So where are the new and improved versions of the beloved Honda motorcycle icons?

There’s a lot of power in our dreams, too, Honda.

What classic bike – Honda or otherwise – would you like to see come back in an updated form? Leave a comment below.

Bill Roberson
Former Digital Trends Contributor
I focus on producing Digital Trends' 'DT Daily' video news program along with photographing items we get in for review. I…
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