We love to champion the people and bikes that rocked our world both back in the day and years later. Today, we look at Tadao Baba and the first generations of Honda CBR900RR FireBlade…
It’s fair to say not many classic bikes have had the impact that the Honda CBR900RR FireBlade has…
Perhaps the original Honda CB750, the Yamaha RD350LC, its successor the Powervalve of course and maybe the Suzuki GSX-R750F to name a few. So let’s look at the original versions of this modern classic and dig out some interesting facts about the bike – along with words about the machine’s creator – Tadao Baba.
The first RR-N/P version of the FireBlade was released in 1992 and it set the world of motorcycling on fire (see what we did there?) but it was a fair few years in development. Tadao Baba was the man behind the bike and he ignored the marketing men’s calls for bigger, faster and heavier machines and – being an ex-racer himself – wanted something that could carve through the corners with ease.
To this end, Baba-san designed a chassis that would do the business and then worked out what motor he could shoe-horn inside the frame rails. Originally the bike was under the control of former HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) boss Yoichi Oguma and was always going to be an ‘RR’ race replica and not a road-going ‘F’ model. The original machine was also going to be 750cc.
So why the move to 893cc? In an interview in 2008 Baba revealed: “We designed the chassis first and the bike was a CBR7500RR, but this would be way too similar to our own VFR750R RC30 and VFR750F, so we looked at 1000cc but this also was too like our CBR1000F which was our top sportsbike of the time. So why was it 893cc? We took the original measurements of the CBR750RR: wheelbase, castor, trail, everything we could and then looked at the motor, what could we do with it to make it better, faster more powerful? We realised that if we kept the bore but stroked the 750cc motor we would get 893cc – and that’s why it became that cubic capacity. We found that the 750 had good top-end power, but with 893cc we also had good torque. Same with front wheel: we wanted lighter wheel so 16 inch would be good. The CBR750RR had 17-inch front wheel, but with the 900 we saw we could have same height with 16-inch wheel and tyre and have better handling, quick turning but lighter weight. Always we want lighter weight!”
Baba’s quest for ‘light is right’ became an obsession which became the bike’s philosophy. But it all started out humbly enough… First of all the bike tested at various tracks was an ugly mule… the swingarm was off a CBR1000F and the tank barely fitted the frame rails. But it was all about getting the basics and getting the geometry right. This was 1989 and it would be tested right through to before that 1992 launch at Phillip Island in Australia.
One of those involved back then and since was former Honda UK employee Dave Hancock. Dave not only did many different high-flying jobs in Honda UK but the former racer also became a test-rider for the firm – ready at a moment’s notice to fly anywhere around the world to test a new bike. The FireBlade was his first test riding role… He says: “You’d nervously turn up and there was Baba-san: sitting on a drum of fuel in the pit garage smoking a cigarette. Baba would say to us: “You’re part of something special, to make the best supersport motorcycle ever seen.” And he was right. He rode hard and fast too! At Assen in 1991 I think it was, he crashed and totalled a Yamaha FZR1000 EXUP used in back-to-back testing with the (by now) further developed FireBlade. By that time we had Phil McCallen – the pure roads racer and TT star – helping out with testing. That original FireBlade felt slow, but really wasn’t. One time Phil felt that he’d gone faster on the EXUP so went out on the Blade and was grounding away footpegs and exhausts… not realising he was actually quicker anyway on the ‘lazier’ feeling FireBlade.”
The 16-inch front wheel was a big part of early Blade folklore, but again Hancock says it was Baba who insisted, even after trying out 17-inch front wheels and tyres: “…he simply wanted lighter parts and the 16-inch would mean lighter wheel, and lighter front tyre…”
At a time when most Japanese chief designers were hidden away by the major manufacturers and simply wheeled out at launches, Baba-san soon became something of a folk hero for bikers. He smoked (a lot back then) he apparently loved playing football and indulged in a spot of karaoke. Soon, as the various models of FireBlade came and went – all with Baba at the helm – Honda shrewdly used Tadao Baba himself in the adverts: ‘You don’t buy a FireBlade,’ one advert trumpeted: ‘You borrow it from this man…’
The first RR-N/Ps were legend. That bare, twin-headlight stare, cool colours (we at CB-Net love the butch black and silver launch scheme) and around 110bhp with just 200 kilos fully fuelled to push around. Fast Bikes magazine back at the launch pretty much summed things up when future GP and British Superbike star Sean Emmett said: “The FireBlade is 30 kilos lighter than the EXUP, just two kilos heavier than a 900SS but has 50% more power than the Ducati…”
For 1994/5 in came the RR-R and S, with aesthetic changes – which included taller screen/wider fairing, better front and rear suspension, gear-box mods and that ‘foxeye’ single-piece headlamp: an ‘Urban Tiger’ paint-job even made ‘beige’ look cool.
Come the third generation of Blade in 1997/7, the RR-T/V and it was more refinement for overall comfort – even if the bike looked pretty much the same. Frame construction was altered, gills sprouted on the tail unit, suspension improved once more, but most importantly the engine grew in size to 918.5cc. This may have resulted in slightly heavier pistons, but Baba-san was still being meticulous: he saved weight anywhere he could, even making the final-drive chain a 525 not a 530, saving more weight… Overall it was three kilos lighter in dry weight and had MORE power!
We know that 1998 saw the launch of the Yamaha YZF-R1 which finally trounced the FireBlade, but to be fair that year’s RR-W was still an improvement over the Blades that went before, even if they were looked at as a bit porky and yesteryear. Shame as today they make ‘Blade Bargains’ in our eyes: especially compared to the lusted after N/P and second gen R/S models.
Even with the 900RR FireBlade falling short of the R1’s (and later GSX-R1000’s) ‘full’ 1000cc or thereabouts, Baba insisted that he didn’t want to simply up capacity to beat the others. Hancock says: “I truly believe that he knew he would up the capacity of the FireBlade in his time in charge, to 918.5, 929 and 954cc, but not to the full 1000cc.”
So, for 2000 in came the 929cc FireBlade: at last this had inverted forks (originally discounted by Baba-san in 1992 for being too heavy) and a 17-inch front wheel. In came a ‘quirky’ new look and fuel-injection. Today this model is also still a bargain as well as being a very comfy, yet still fast sports bike.
We reckon Baba’s masterpiece was left until last: the 2002/03 954cc model. The man himself rates it as the best Blade ever. What we love most about the man comes after he retired. For 2004 Honda released the full-fat 1000cc CBR1000RR Fireblade. To celebrate Baba-san’s commitment to the FireBlade story, not only was the capital ‘B’ in FireBlade retired with him, but Honda also presented him with an engraved piston from each version of the bikes that he developed. That’s class.
Classier still was the fact that – as he was retired – a Japanese magazine asked him to come on a group road test of the class of 2004 litre sportsbikes, which included the Yamaha YZF-R1, Suzuki GSX-R1000, Kawasaki ZX-10R and (of course) the Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade…
Legend has it that he got into some hot water with his former employers when – in the magazine – he said of the new Fireblade: “Good brakes, good engine and good chassis, but it isn’t fun to ride!” Class! Baba-san, we salute you!