For many people, Honda signifies the best of motorcycle design and development. Road bikes like the CB450 Black Bomber, CB750, CBX1000, RC30 and the FireBlade were all ahead of the game. Then there were the race bikes such as the RC166 six cylinder 250, the exotic works racers of the ’70s like the RCB1000 and it’s ’80s counterparts such as the RS850 V4. Plus the screaming strokers, with the NS500 and the dominant GP racer, the NSR500. Like the NR750, those names instantly conjure an image in your mind’s eye, but you’ll notice the NR isn’t in the list?
That wasn’t an oversight. Whereas the others achieved huge success in showroom sales and racetrack glory, the NR bikes were never really winners. The NR500 story is a painful one, despite (or because of) it’s technological brilliance. Ultimately it failed to win races.
Riding the Honda NR750:
Our attention today is on the road bike, the NR750. In my opinion it was cruelly mocked. It was a bike so far ahead of the competition, but it’s potential couldn’t really be exploited as it was just too heavy. The carbon fibre bodywork and lightweight materials was more of a willy-waving exercise than an effective diet.
It was easy to poke fun at choices like the oval pistons and the massive price tag, but for all of that, the Honda NR750 was a gorgeous bike.
19 years later, and it’s become a design classic which has stood the test of time. Other than a Ducati Desmosedici, there’s nothing to compare to the arrogance and ‘pure heck’ of it’s approach. Some of the features may have filtered down to other Honda models over the years, but the NR750 is still the most exclusive owners club.
I was lucky enough to ride this example back in 2010. It wasn’t a track test for a glossy magazine, but more like 30 minutes playing on one of London’s busiest trunk roads, but I didn’t care. Our sugar daddy for this was ResCogs friend Frank Kellond, who owns quirky used bike emporium Motorcycles Unlimited (Expect a feature on it in the future).
I’d ridden to Perivale on my Honda VFR750FL, wondering how similar the NR might feel. Once I’d arrived, the only rule was not to wear my jacket so it didn’t scratch the blood red paint for the NR’s tank. It was also a clever way to focus me, as riding a £100,000 bike on the A40 in just a T-shirt gave me a handy reality check.
And I needed it, because it turns out a bike that’s so technically masterful can feel so familiar to ride…
Once away from the shop and across a small junction, I could make the LCD display go crazy. I would it up through the first few gears, hoping that was the rev limiter I heard, and not an oval piston shitting itself. The speed and how it revved was quire impressive, and my earlier comparisons to £700 worth of VFR proved unfounded. Heading down the A40 dodging speed cameras and car drivers on a hot London afternoon may not have been ideal, but it was enough to experience Honda’s technological vision.
The riding position was typically comfy and everything felt familiar in the Honda way. I’d love to pick holes in Honda’s R&D experiment, but I couldn’t find anything to moan about besides jaw ache from smiling too much.
OK, so a Fireblade from the same era would compare favourably, but in some ways that’s like comparing a Timex to a Rolex. The fact that the NR750 was designed and priced not to sell means that it’s a legend in it’s own right and will probably never be replicated again.
If you’d wanted to invest in this particular example, you’d need to speak to Motorcycles Unlimited and have £100,000 in your pocket. That’s a lot of cash, but outside of race machinery, you’ll have one of the most exclusive, yet still usable, bikes around.
Some Honda NR facts:
The Honda NR500 oval piston GP racer appeared in 1979. It was incredibly complex with 32 valves and eight con-rods packed into a normal-sized V4 motor. By the end of it’s run, it was putting out roughly 130bhp at over 20,000rpm but never managed success on a track, so the racing efforts switched to the NS500 two-stroke in the early 1980s.
The other side of the ‘New Racing’ project was the NR750 , which arrived in 1992. That was the same year the original FireBlade was unveiled by Tadao Baba, so Honda had given themselves some stiff competition. The NR originally cost £38,000, compared to £7390 for the brand new FireBlade.
Unless you were one of the lucky bike marshals at the Suzuka 8-Hour race who were supplied with NR work transport, you’d need to grab one of just 200 available for general sale, with somewhere between 300-700 actually being built.
You’d get a 747cc motor, with each oval piston running twin titanium con rods. Each cylinder head has eight valves, two spark plus, two fuel injectors, two intake ports and two exhaust pots. Like the RC30, the cams are run via cam gears, allowing the bike to rev to 15,000rpm.
The underseat exhaust was a strong influence on the Ducati 916 which arrived in 1994, and you got a single-sided swingarm, inverted forks, magnesium wheels and specially made four-piston brake calipers. LCDs might not be futuristic anymore, but the digital display used a mirror to reflect the image, so you don’t have to refocus when you glance down. And finally the key was nickel silver with an carbon fibre NR logo.