Saying ‘konnichiwa’ to Honda’s NS400R was not the ‘Banzai’ charge that other two stroke race replica’s offered in the mid-80s; it was no shrinking violet either.
You didn’t have to be completely mad to get the most from your eighties two-stroke but it helped and whilst I enjoyed virtually all that the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ had to offer, fear and cost kept my ambitions under 350cc. The RD LC was the pinnacle of oil burning screamers in my world; I would look on in awe and admiration at the brave souls who wanted to replicate their GP idols on the race rep ‘strokers’. It was all fairly wild, an experience that would begin with the gentle ‘pop-pop’ at idle, often followed by leisurely progress as the revs climbed quite slowly. With the pilot lulled into a false sense of security the rising engine note warned of impending madness when all hell broke loose in a thick blue haze as the front wheel did its upmost to reach for the skies. That’s how I remember my 2 stroke experiences and whilst UK Yamaha’s and Suzuki’s were offering the full (pass the milk) Ghost Pepper chilli the NS400R was considered more of a red onion, all were too life threatening for me.
Whilst the NS400R was not the ‘high-side happy’ GP machine Randy Mamola managed to stay on, albeit side saddle in the 1985 San Marino GP, it was still a race bike for the road. A time when excess in everything was encouraged, Honda originally looked to the NS as a celebration of ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer winning the world title in 1983 on a V3. Two years in development the bike was late onto the market and typical of Honda this bike followed a different path in many ways. State of the art in ‘85’ (although Honda GP had moved to a V4) this was Honda’s first alloy framed street bike and the largest cubic capacity all burning engine they had ever produced; power came from a 90 degree V3 configuration of 387cc, water cooled with a scenery blurring 72hp at 9500 rpm. What made the NS400R (MC19) different was its power delivery; not as ferocious as the 500s available the Honda had AT AC (auto controlled torque amplification chambers) or in English their in house designed exhaust power valves for the front two cylinders. Whilst the idea wasn’t new the way Honda got theirs to operate was unique.
Electronically controlled with a solenoid operating a linkage at certain RPM; previously they had all been mechanical and consequently slower to operate. At low RPM the chamber is open and at the right point in time it closes making for a flatter torque curve and smoother power delivery, whilst the motor is content operating at fewer than 5000 rpm things become more urgent from there to 7000rpm. After that the NS is as naughty as any two stroke can be and pulls in a steady but hurried manner to the red line; peaking at 10k. Common practice at the time meant performance was restricted for the home market and the Japanese strangled the NS output to 59bhp whilst export machines including UK were gifted the unabridged version. A Japanese brochure states that the bikes name came from the materials used in the construction of the cylinder walls, NiCaSil; N is for Nickel and S for Silicon Carbide. A revelation for bikes at the time, certain car manufactures had used it throughout the 70’s especially Porsche. Honda claimed that this process enabled them to achieve the exceptionally close tolerances demanded by this high revving power unit’.
High Tech & All the Toys
Yamaha’s RD500 stole the march on Honda a year earlier (1984) and boasted another 16bhp whilst Suzuki’s RG500 went further adding another 23bhp but many believe the 400s superb handling was superior to both its rivals, all were available with a £3K price tag. Both of Honda’s competitors produced 400cc versions for the home market and some trickled into the UK years later as unofficial imports. Keeping the design compact was helped by the engine layout; the outer pair of cylinders are positioned outwards below horizontal whilst the single 3rd cylinder sits more vertically thus taking the same space as a small parallel twin. The NS was much leaner than both the RG400/500s with the square four configuration or Yamaha’s V4. Handling is assured with the forks air assistance and complimented with Honda’s TRAC (Torque Reactive Anti-Dive Control) whilst the rear Pro Link has adjustable pre load. All of the 80s race two strokes were a handful at times but the Honda was reckoned to be the best behaved in a class full of naughty juveniles. To sum up, the consensus of opinion was of a superbly (if not over) engineered ‘stroker’ that offered superior handling and was happy either pottering around town or replicating Mamola and Gardner in a power band blue haze on the best B roads.
The 1985 GP season offered the perfect back drop for Honda to maximise interest in the NS and journalists were flown to the former Yugoslavia in June to sample the new bike whilst watching the teams riders dominate on track; things didn’t quite go to plan. Yamaha’s Eddie Lawson took the win in the 500cc event with Honda filling the next three spots with Spencer, Gardner and Haslam. Rocket Ron was still riding the previous seasons NS500 whilst other works riders had been promoted to the V4 NSR; that didn’t stop him finishing every race that season with three podiums and a 73 point tally, joint 4th in the championship and a point ahead of Mamola. Fast Freddie Spencer did take both 500 and 250 titles for Honda but the Yugoslavian GP failed to deliver and when the line of test NS400R’s were wheeled out for the press to enjoy the weather turned the track into a swimming pool and the bikes were put back into their trucks. Three days later the bikes arrived at Snetterton along with Haslam and Gardner and the press pack reports of the time speak of ‘one hell of a bike’ and ‘well-nigh perfect’ which certainly aided the Honda Dealers to shift the first 300 without any discount in sight.
There were very few official NS400R imports, just 300 in 1985 including the bikes clothed in the limited edition Rothmans colours which numbered 100, the remainder in Honda Racings red, white and blue’. One fact of note was that every NS came with its own paddock stand; I doubt if many of those have survived. This particular machine was one of the last produced and registered in April 1988 and sold by Queens Park Motors of Salford to first owner Mark Saunders from Hertfordshire. He kept the bike for five years before it moved the short distance to Waltham Cross and it remained just north of the M25 until owner number 4 sold it to Andrew Birtles from Manchester in 2010. Andy is a self-confessed two stroke ‘geek’ who has enjoyed three of this model plus many others, making him best placed in avoiding pitfalls whilst carrying out a full nut and bolt restoration to the very highest standards. Over a 5 month period working all hours, the bike was stripped down and checked over, especially the 2nd gear, as one of the few issues this model had was leaping out of 2nd under load as it entered the power band, not pleasant. Every bush and bearing was replaced and the bike was rebuilt to the exact factory detail with a polished frame and exhausts clothed in satin black and shiny stainless.
Every nut was polished and lacquered; this NS became ‘Concours’ standard. One mouse click of a well-known auction site brought the NS to Andy’s door but the machine that had arrived bared little resemblance to the images he had bid on. ‘I couldn’t get it off the van’ he told me ‘punctured tyre and seized brakes, I thought oh no what have I bought’, so he put an image of his previous completed and mint NS above his bike ramp as an incentive and it certainly worked. There is nothing like a woman’s scorn they say; there is nothing like a restorer’s passion is my reply. Obsessive maybe, single minded definitely, many restorations become all-consuming and whilst the self-satisfaction is the objective, stopping another classic machine entering the scrap yard gates is a bonus.
Still Creating a Stir
The NS400R is currently enjoying semi-retirement by the seaside on the south coast with another two stroke obsessive Geoff Rogers. Looking for a perfect example Geoff did his research and knew this 27k mile NS was the right one, a young man’s dream that becomes reality 30 years late maybe, but the chance to launch this bike through the country lanes brings out the hidden hooligan in him. So what is it like to ride this bike three decades after it was involved in the street battle for top two stroke honours; Geoff put his reasoning onto paper… ‘At 17 in 1980 I was riding a Yamaha RD200 as the water cooled 2 stroke frenzy started in earnest. Foolishly at such a young and impressionable age I traded up to a very sensible Honda CB400F and remained on 4 strokes for a very long time. However, the smell of 2 T oil from those hazy days of the 1980`s were niggling at me like a bucket list item yet to be ticked.
I needed a liquid cooled hooligan 2 stroke in my life, I`m 52 for God’s sake and need an adrenalin fix before senility kicks in. The Honda NS400R fitted the bill perfectly and as soon as I saw it had to have it. Low down it rides very much like a tractable 4 stroke and lures you into a false sense of “what`s all the fuss about” security. Wind it up and at 7,000rpm it will launch you at the horizon quicker than you can say “are you really sure officer” with a sound like 3 angry hornets fighting in a metal dustbin. The power band is VERY VERY addictive and coupled with excellent handling and stopping capabilities makes for a fantastic machine for blowing away the cobwebs’.
As followers of the ‘Total Burning’ faith are now mostly over 50, including myself, there is little doubt we no longer want our expansion pipes to annoy the neighbours. We accept the environmental argument that our chosen combustion method has caused the sea to rise, although we may not agree. Our joints may not be flexible enough to endure hours of ‘head on the tank’ travel in all weathers but we do though yearn to return to an era when costly new sports cars would suffer the indignity of being blown away at the traffic light Grand Prix by a complete nutcase, trailing blue smoke in his wake; just for an hour or so, before my old hips start aching…
Grant Ford for classic-motorbikes.net
Honda MC19 NS400R Specification
- Engine: 90° V3 387cc Reed Valve, Water Cooled
- Gearbox: 6 Speed Chain Drive
- Carbs: 3x 26mm Keihin flat sides
- Ignition: CDI unit, Kick Start
- Performance: 72bhp @ 9500rpm/ Max Torque 5.1 kgf-m @ 8000 rpm
- Standing ¼ 13.03 secs Terminating 100mph /Top Speed 125.5mph
- Frame: Aluminium Double cradle
- Suspension: Fr Air assisted forks. Adjustable anti-dive
- Rr Pro-link adjustable preload
- Brakes: Fr 2 x 256mm discs Twin Piston Calipers
- Rr 1 x 220mm disc Twin Piston Caliper
- Tyres: Fr 100/90 -16 / Rr 110/90 -17
- Seat Height: 780mm
- Fuel Capacity: 19 litres/30mpg
- Dry Weight: 163kgs
- Price on release: £2899.00