Riders’ Reports…

Honda XL600
Honda NX650
Honda FT500
Honda GB400
Honda NX650
Honda FT400

Honda XL600
Honda XL600There’s always someone willing to put the boot in, isn’t there? On the ride home from purchasing the XL, the bugger stalled dead at a busy junction. The engine clacked away for what seemed like hours whilst the cagers played a symphony on their horns. Finally it spat into life, drowning out the horns and any passing aeroplanes. Though the XL had been polished up nicely for the sale, it sported 42000 miles and way too much temperament for my liking. Low rev work was hard going, the engine always feeling like it was about to die a death. The test ride, on the pillion, had been flat out when the big thumper appeared like joy personified and I’d written the owner off as a mad bugger rather than a cunning bastard.

By the time I reached home the exhaust was smoking heavily…at first I’d thought the rings had gone but the air-filter had collapsed, restricting air flow and making it run far too rich. The local Honda dealer more or less told me to piss off when I asked if I might be able to buy a replacement. Charmed, I decided to try the bike without a filter – with only one piston I didn’t really want to risk holing it, but there didn’t seem much choice in the matter. Low speed work was the same series of stutters, then a mid-range dip where nothing happened for a few moments, the power finally pouring in with something like fury. The engine was effectively turned into an on/off switch, only one way to ride the beastly thing.

As a 600cc thumper it didn’t take all that kindly to flat out work. A great deal of vibration poured out of the unit, its balancer system sabotaged by age and wear. Twenty minutes was all it took for the white-finger effect to take hold. The serrated metal footrests shook so much they cut a groove in the soles of my lightweight shoes, practically cut the buggers in half! The seat also thrummed a little, the padding sagged so that the edges of its base cut my thighs. Any mileage equalled major discomfort but the riding position did allow me to stand up on the pegs to relieve some of the aches.

Although it was a tall motorcycle, the bars weren’t too outlandish, relatively easy to get my head down and the speedo up to the ton mark. More speed might’ve been possible but the way the engine was shaking and the chassis weaving meant I never found the nerve to try for it. Using the throttle, acceleration was surprisingly good – as long as I didn’t mess up on the gearchange, which was out of the ark but pretty much what you’d expect on an old, somewhat tired Honda.

Forty horses were claimed for the motor, but I don’t think mine was putting out much more than thirty, judging by the way acceleration fell off as speed was gained. Its gearing meant it snapped away from the traffic lights at an unlikely pace – I had to lean forwards over the bars to stop the thing doing a wheelie. Not that I had anything against wheelies, just that the small front disc and SLS rear drum only had enough stopping power under combined use – lose the use of the front disc to a wheelie, there was no way of successfully slowing the bike down.

I didn’t like the way slamming the throttle shut had the back end and chain hammering away. I’m not sure if this was caused by the length of the swinging arm or the state of Pro-link rear end; or, indeed, the lack of springing in the shock. During part of its life, the XL was launched off cliff tops and thrown over fallen trees, and had other disturbing and destructive off-road adventures. These all added up to suspension that was close to sagging on its springs but was tolerable with a rider who weighed next to nowt and used the bike on the tarmac. I wouldn’t have liked to try it with a pillion.

Why did I bother with a bike with so many limits? It only cost £350; enough said! You pays your money and takes your choice. On the good side, the lean running engine turned in 65 to 75mpg despite the need to wrench open the throttle all the time. At around 350lbs it was heavy for a trailster but light for a large capacity roadster, easy to shove where I wanted it to go. The worn knobblies showed no sign of wearing out but reacted to wet roads by skating along with a mind of their own – just as well that it was a long, hot summer.

If the engine gave every impression of being very tired it was also a tough old thing that just needed the odd oil change to keep it going. Over 10,000 miles in less than six months proved that there was life left in the old dog yet. I even became used to the vibration – helped by proper rubber footrests and thicker hand-grips – and the seat, 75 miles in one sitting just about possible (the range with the huge tank and good economy was much greater). The vibes made the mirrors useless, to the extent that when one fell off I didn’t bother replacing it (or even stopping to pick up the pieces).

Big thumpers were supposed to be relaxing to ride, wafting along on a modicum of throttle and excess of torque, but there was little of that with the Honda. More a matter of steeling my eardrums to the blare and fighting the bars into submission – it was one of those bikes that loved to wander all over the road if the rider’s attention was distracted by the scenery or half naked ladies in the cages. I almost fell off once when I clocked some babe with legs up to her armpits in a micro-skirt that was pulled up to her waist by her contorted body in the passenger seat. Hmmm!

Over that six months various bits fell off as well as the mirror. The useful rack cracked up and hung on for a few miles until it was battered into submission. The side-stand buckled – awkward as there weren’t any other stands. The minimal chainguard disappeared. One of the sidepanels split and the headlamp bulbs kept blowing. Pretty much what you’d expect on an ageing Japanese motorcycle and nothing to cause much concern.

As I hadn’t done much maintenance to the engine I decided it was time to move on before something expensive happened. The bike sold very quickly for five hundred notes and I heard later that it’d skidded off the road during the autumn showers but was still going with 60,000 miles on the clock. Ironically, the replacement CX650 blew up after three months of abuse. The XL was certainly rough and ready, far from the sophistication of new bikes, but as old hacks go it’s one of the better examples that I’ve had the dubious pleasure of experiencing.

C.C.

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Honda NX650
Honda NX650It was a bit dubious, buying a 32000 mile NX650. Only a year old, with just the one owner, there was a full service history and a guy who insisted he had never had a moment’s trouble. The plastic still looked new, the red frame paint a bit faded and there was a lot of crud around the rear suspension but no unnecessary movement in the swinging arm. £1250 changed hands.

The NX has a 644cc OHC single cylinder engine that, new, develops 44hp at 6000rpm and 5.4kg-m at 5000rpm. With a dry weight of 400lbs, this added up, on my initial excursions, to not much grin inducing acceleration. It tottered along on tall, loose suspension. Below 2000rpm there was a lot of grating in the transmission, perhaps amplified by the engine balancer whirring away. Not that it exactly subsumed the vibes expected from such a large single.

If I ignored the transmission’s protests then I found there was usable torque right down to 1000rpm even in top gear! Wrapping open the throttle as fast as my wrist could manage, made the engine gasp and stall if done from such perilously low revs. There was always a tendency for the engine to stall dead when rolling along at low revs or ticking over at junctions. Luckily, it took only a quick hit on the electric boot button to revive the motor. There wasn’t a kickstart fitted.

After a few days I’d become used to the way it would bounce around on its suspension. There was nine inches at the front and eight inches at the back, at least when new. With 32000 miles on the clock a good half of that was taken up as soon as I bounced on to the saddle. As the seat height was a leg stretching 34 inches, the worn suspension made waiting at junctions much more comfortable as I could get both feet firmly on the floor.

On the other hand, hitting the brakes with any kind of serious speed on the clock had the NX bouncing all over the place. Each end had a single disc, a strange set-up on a bike that was supposed to have some off-road ability. The rear groaned and creaked, always seemed on the verge of seizing up. It felt more like a drum brake with an oval casing than a state of the art disc brake. The front was more powerful, but when I got the Honda the pads were almost down to the metal, so they rattled around when the brake was not in use. In less than a month I deemed it necessary to strip them down, fit new seals and pads, give ’em a thorough clean-up.

They worked well after that, both powerful and sensitive, but they kept showing up the state of suspension. An R and R shock, slightly used from a breaker, was persuaded on to the back end, but only after I’d torn the Pro-link and swinging arm apart for a good greasing. I wasn’t the first to have done that because there was still a trace of lubrication on the bushes, which were all in good shape. I’d got to them just in time.

The new shock had only four inches of travel, so I had to modify the forks to match, adding heavier springs. The gaiters had protected the legs, no pitting, and the seals were still intact. I was rather impressed with the chassis until I took a look at the sprockets. The teeth were so hooked that it was a wonder the chain hadn’t flown off. New sprockets and a cheap chain (the OE was an O-ring job).

Back on the road, I was immediately impressed with the lower, tauter chassis. As it was a narrow single it was still impossible to scrape the engine in curves despite it being four inches nearer the tarmac. The bike had previously gone up to 85mph then felt like it was hitting a brick wall, whilst the whole beast wobbled laconically on its loose suspension. Now, 95mph was easily achieved and the chassis gave a wonderfully secure feel by way of contrast.

I quite enjoyed sticking the motor into fifth gear, using the throttle to determine my speed. This may have had something to do with the five speed gearbox which felt, to my liking, rather too much like an old Superdream’s than a year old bike. Hard charging on the throttle would give a nice push come 5000rpm but more than 7500 revs had the engine falling apart in a frenzy of vibes.

Still, I was beginning to believe that the NX was a fun machine, especially in town where it could be flipped around cars and made enough noise to have cagers quaking in their seats. Even in the wet, the newish set of Avon Gripsters provided excellent grip and enough feedback to take outrageous risks. They were quite good on grass, too, something I found out when forced to go straight across a roundabout. The front didn’t seem to wear at all, despite the fact that I only rarely wheelied the NX.

Top speed proved to be dead on the ton. Stability, once modified, was fine and the half fairing provided enough protection for 90mph cruising, although the screen was laughably low, an excess of water streaming into my lap in the wet. A few more inches all round would’ve transformed the protection. Even when riding like a lunatic, fuel turned out to be a tolerable 55mpg, as much as 65mpg possible under mild use.

At about 37000 miles, starting became difficult, fuel dropped to 50mpg and the Honda didn’t want to do more than 85mph. I thought rebore or valve regrind time, but there wasn’t any smoke out of the exhaust and no excessive rattles. Talking to another NX owner he reckoned a new air-filter might sort it. £15 poorer, I pulled the old one out after a minor hassle – sure enough, it was full of crud. Filter fitted, the engine was as good as new.

Feeling well pleased with myself until I realised that the chain had started flapping about. It should’ve had an easier time with the reduced suspension travel but in under 5000 miles it was in a terrible state. I tore it off before it broke and put on a high quality O-ring chain, something that the NX really needs with all those destructive thumper power pulses. As they last several times longer than plain chains in the long term it’s money saved.

I hadn’t done much to the engine, other than change the oil and filter every 1000 miles. This might be deemed excessive but on such a high mileage motor I thought it a good idea – the filters only cost £4 a throw. As a single with electronic ignition the only maintenance I had to do was check the valves, but they were always within tolerance.

It went through the 40,000 mile barrier in a blaze of sun in the South of France, where this type of bike is much more popular. Apart from touching up the frame every month, finish was still in line with its age, even the gold anodised wheel rims were like new – I’d given the bike a good clean every month. The only item to cause any concern was the upswept exhaust. It was loud when I bought the bike, by then was doing a passable imitation of a Sherman tank. Rust had blitzed the system, the baffle a long lost friend. The engine was so mildly tuned that, apart from a flat spot around 2500rpm, it still ran cleanly. When rozzers were around I pottered by at 1500rpm in top gear, the noise tolerable rather than raucous.

Coming back to the UK I was involved in a race with a Suzuki GSX550, which meant cruising at 95mph for about an hour along the motorway. I saw him off but coming home the engine was rattling and smoking. The clock read exactly 41,600 miles.

I had no time to check it over, a sudden dose of overtime had me working around the clock, just using the Honda for riding back and forth to work. I began to wonder, though, when the normally excellent light blew its bulb from the vibes and the front mudguard fell off. It was plastic, so self-destructed rather than making me fall off – it had never provided much protection in the rain, so I didn’t notice much difference riding around without it.

The end was nigh. For some stubborn reason I refused to take the bike off the road, rode it until just over 42000 miles the engine seized solid. The piston rings had broken up, ruining the bore in the process. What the hell, though, for £500 I bought a 3000 mile engine from the breaker, fitted it in over a weekend and was back in business.

The NX has crap suspension but an otherwise sturdy chassis that can take the occasional dance with the tarmac. Consumables, cheap chains apart, wear moderately and fuel consumption is good. The engine seems reliable to 40,000 miles, but could do with a bit more power and a better transmission (my low mileage engine is much better, to be fair). It needs hardly any maintenance and consumes sod all oil. Overall, I like the NX650, would recommend it to anyone not obsessed with outright speed. They are cheap secondhand, so bargains abound.

Phillip English

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Honda FT500
Honda FT500Chuff, chuff, chuff…clunk, chuff, chuff… clunk, clunk, chuff…..sudden silence. Just the whirring of the drive chain as we headed for the roadside. I sat there for a while, trying to calm my shaking body. The level of vibes given off by the worn thumper were even worse than an old Bonnie I used to ride. After 30 minutes it’d been difficult to hold on to the bars, but then the motor was original and had done 30,000 miles.

This breakdown was caused by the camchain tensioner falling apart. It’d gone way back but I’d managed to bodge it so the spring exerted some extra pressure. The tensioner had snapped. It may’ve happened under the extra stress from removing the engine balancer, although to be fair to myself it’d become so worn that there wasn’t any discernible increase in the level of vibration. Engine balancers don’t really eliminate vibes, they just change the nature of the buzzing.

That’s the problem with big thumpers of this era, there was so much energy lost in dealing with the vibes, so much limitation in the amount of revs they can tolerate, that any advantages their size might give in theory were lost in practice. Newer, watercooled singles are a bit different in so far that modern design and stronger materials have minimised reciprocating masses, leading to subsequent decreases in the vibration.

The FT was still running on the original piston and bore. Something of a record for an FT which could kill off pistons in as little as 10,000 miles. I put that down to my 500 mile oil changes and religious servicing sessions at the same mileage. Not that I had much choice in the matter, the valves would become so clattery that they’d drown out the noise of even the Goldie style megaphone.

Even when the mileage was as low as 10,000 miles, performance was only just ahead of a 125 learner. In theory it was possible to break through the 100mph barrier, in practice the vibes became so vicious once 90mph was reached that even good teeth threatened to fall out and my eyesight was as bad as after I’d drunk ten pints of best bitter. As mileage increased the tolerable top speed decreased until, by the time 20,000 miles was attained, no more than 80mph was possible.

Cruising speed was only 65 to 70mph, even then the vibes were on a level that would annoy most people used to newish Japanese multi’s. The flat track riding position was fine for such mundane speeds, which was about the only positive aspect I could find in the chassis. The rear shocks were of the Fade Very Quickly variety, had already gone when I first bought the bike with a mere 4000 miles on the clock. Perhaps they were crap from new!

The result of the weak rear suspension was lots of shuffling about in bends, high speed weaves and the feeling that at any moment I was going to be thrown clear off the seat. The complete lack of damping and sagging springs made for an incredibly uncomfortable ride that had me screaming for release after as little as 50 miles even on a relatively smooth motorway. Not that I often took the FT on to motorways, the lack of speed left us a sitting target for bored car drivers.

The front forks did the same trick at 12000 miles. The bike had been heavy and imprecise in town, once the damping disappeared it’d just leap from bump to bump with all the joy of a crack addict stomping a victim in search of easy money. There were a couple of times in town when the front end became so vague and bouncy that I lost all control, whacking into the side of cars, postboxes and the odd pedestrian.

As the FT was a complete rat, even at its extraordinary low mileage, falling off or hitting things held few terrors for me. It was, if nothing else, quite sturdily built and able to roll down the road with the best of them. Even so, my skin couldn’t take being scraped along the road at 50mph, so I soon determined that stiffer springs in the front forks were necessary. These were acquired from the local breaker and judging by the complete lack of apparent movement must’ve come off some 700lb behemoth. Still, it ensured I didn’t have any more damping problems.

The rear shocks are still there! They were already so bad that they never became any worse. One irritant that they emphasized was the way the swinging arm bearings would turn to dust after less than 5000 miles. When that happened the bike went into a handlebar snapping speed wobble at just 25mph! The first time I had to extract the spindle it was a three man job, each of us taking turns with the sledgehammer for a whole afternoon before it shifted. Subsequent renovations were made relatively easy by using a tin of grease during the reassembly. Each time the swinging arm’s removed it needs a new coating of paint as it seems to seep out rust.

The brakes were another area totally susceptible to the English climate. The calipers would seize up so quickly I couldn’t believe it! The separate parts of the caliper would seize up so solidly, after as little as a 1000 miles in winter, that it’d take me a whole weekend to strip them down. Even when rebuilt frequently it’s impossible to get more than 12000 miles out of them. Spares in breakers are so rare that any time I see any, even in a wrecked state, I grab it with both hands.

Pads lasted quite well, over 10,000 miles. This was probably because the braking was marginal for most of the time, a finger snapping amount of pressure needed to squeal the tyre. Dunlopads were more expensive than EBC but necessary as they gave a much needed edge to the braking in the wet. On stock pads all the horrors you’d heard about wet weather lag and suddenly locked wheels came true with a vengeance that suggested Honda had fitted the cheapest possible brakes.

A problem shared with the XBR was brake discs that became wafer thin after 20,000 miles. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this at the time, put the noise, every time I touched the front brake lever, down to a caliper going terminally rotten. I found out the hard way when the disc broke up, sending sharp bits of metal into the side of a new Escort just before the front wheel’s impact. Fortunately, speed was down to 15mph by then and the front wheel escaped serious injury. As did the cager but not the car, which was both dented and peppered with bits of brake disc. He viewed the sight with disbelief and tears in his eyes.

The exhaust note can have the same effect on innocent pedestrians. The stock exhaust was an incredibly huge bit of engineering but true to its base nature quickly started to rust away, the collector going first before holes started appearing in the silencer, a warning that the whole lot was about ready to fall off (at 18000 miles). An old alloy C-G collector was combined with the down-pipes and a megaphone. This gave a rather fruity sound that turned from a nostalgic, mellow note to a milk bottle shattering snarl above 3500rpm.

The change in exhaust system added to an already hesitant power delivery, the carb seemingly connected to the throttle through about two miles of very elastic cable. A number of times I sat on the bike, in desperate overtaking situations, with the throttle all the way open, praying for the deepening exhaust note to turn into some back wheel brawn. It was idiosyncratic enough to turn an atheist deeply religious!

Any attempt at reasonable forward progress was hindered by the mind blowing gearbox, a device which wore out at a faster rate than the human body could learn to adapt to its nature. The best bet was to locate a reasonable gear, say third or fourth, as soon as possible and remain in it come what may, massive abuse of the clutch preferable to attempting to select another gear. First and second, on those rare days when they could be engaged, were accompanied by such a frenzy of vibration that I really thought the whole plot was going to fall apart under me. Top gear was so tall that the bike would only accelerate down the steepest hill, when almost inevitably the engine would jump out of gear and scream maniacally.

Attempts at wheelies were a quick way to make the clutch fall apart or lurch the bike sideways with potentially expensive results, depending on the kind of car and type of driver thus assaulted. It was just about light enough to kick back upright and do a bump start……which reminds me, the starter motor was one of those kind devices that made life in the effete nineties tremendously interesting by either burning out or exploding its clutch mechanism.

There were lots of other minor problems but by now you’ve got a pretty clear picture of the kind of hack we’re talking about here. I fixed the camchain tensioner with some bits from the breaker and the thing has now run to 36000 miles. That’s over 30,000 miles in ten years of mindless abuse. I dare say that had I spent out some money on decent shocks, chassis bearings and proper tyres I could’ve sorted out the handling. That would’ve encouraged me to ride the bike at higher velocities than the engine could withstand, or myself, with the resultant vicious vibes. Despite this diatribe I rather enjoy the challenge of riding such a hopeless hack and expect to carry on bodging for the next ten years. No hope for some of us!

Frank Knight

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Honda GB400
Honda GB400I always thought that the XBR500 was a neat bit of tackle but one never came up at the right price at the right time. Imagine my enthusiasm, then, when its sibling, the GB400, was on offer as a grey import. 8000 kilometres on the clock, immaculate condition and a mere £1500. No guarantee for that kind of dosh but the reassurance of a shining new MOT certificate and 12 months tax thrown in. Okay, I’ll take it!

The GB400 looks just like what you’d expect a modern BSA or Norton to look like, if they were still in the business of making motorcycles. Neat, narrow, compact and light, its dimensions were less conspicuous than many a 125! The riding position was full of nostalgia. Clip-ons on the top of the forks, rear sets and a big chunk of a steel tank with cut-outs for my knees. It was as instinctively right as it was comfortable.

The motor spat into life without too much effort on the button, with the reassurance of a kickstart for back-up. Five minutes, or so, were needed for the thumper motor to warm up. Neglecting that would cause first gear to go home with a bang and the engine would try to conk out if ridden below 3000 revs. Once warmed up, though, everything was much smoother. 400cc being rather more suitable for a single than half a litre, there was markedly less vibration getting through, the depreciations of the balancer system leaving just the gentlest of impressions of a motor working away.

Acceleration was brisk rather than startling, just about able to keep up with a good CB400N or GS450. At 340lbs it was lighter than either of those bikes and was even able to keep up with the odd XBR, at least up to 80mph when it began to run out of puff. 100mph or even 105mph was possible under extreme abuse and favourable conditions. For most of the time 90mph was the most that could be reliably extracted.

To be honest, I was happy with the performance because the bike was quite delightful to run around on. It was a combination of the thumping torque that made the gearbox largely redundant, easy steering and, most importantly, feeling part of the machine rather than just perched atop it.

The only thing to annoy me was the Japanese rubber in the wet. Japan has torrential downpours all of its own, so there was no excuse for such poor tyres. It just turned to teflon on wet surfaces, allowing the lightweight machine to slide all over the shop. Worse still, the tyres would aquaplane at 60 to 70mph, the first time I’ve ever experienced that strange floating to oblivion sensation.

They had to go. Of course, the GB400 didn’t exists on any companies’ lists of bikes suitable for their tyres. A pair of Venoms were available in appropriate sizes and levered on to the alloy rims. These are old fashioned tyres in shape and compound, but then the GB’s a kind of old fashioned bike, too. They stopped the wet weather madness, wore moderately (still not out after 12000 miles) and didn’t limit cornering angles, although they would squirm around a bit. They ain’t recommended by the manufacturer so if you fall off your insurance may be invalid!

The brakes were in line with the rest of the bike – ie usable and practical. A remarkably good rear drum that was an object lesson in how to design a back brake, and a single front disc that needed a manly right hand but had no hidden horrors ready to spit you off in return for a moment’s inattention. After about six months the front brake went a touch spongy, Goodridge hose and new brake fluid sorted it out. Unfortunately, I spilt a little fluid over the paint which immediately bubbled, leaving a large scab. The finish had been beautiful, putting me into a really foul mood for the next month!

Some drops of fluid had also hit the engine casing, causing the lacquer to curl off and the alloy to go white. I had to take all the old lacquer off and paint on some new stuff……five days later that started to come off as well. I ended up giving the casing a polish every month which just about kept up with the corrosion.

The only other break out of corrosion occurred on the exhaust’s collector. Backfiring started when holes appeared and didn’t stop until I’d replaced the collector with a bit of old exhaust pipe. The downpipes are just starting to turn rusty as I write this (on a four year old bike). Honda are renown for their fine finishes, it’s just a pity they don’t make their exhausts out of stainless steel. I’m not sure if aftermarket XBR exhausts will fit or not.

The GB shares with the XBR (and even the FT500) a dodgy starter motor. The clutch seized up on mine. The resulting noise made me think that the main bearings were gone but, providentially, all that was needed to free it up were a few taps from my favourite hammer. The starter looks identical to the XBR500’s so replacements shouldn’t be impossible.

The other XBR fault, poor rockers and cam lobes hasn’t reared its head for the simple reason that I haven’t taken the cylinder head’s cover off. The only maintenance I’ve done is change the contents of the oil tank every 3000 miles. I’ve always been of the persuasion that leaves well alone if it’s running at all well. Either a naff gearbox (oil worn out) or poor economy (carbs or valves out of adjustment) give plenty of warning of an engine in need of attention.

Fuel was very good, much better than the XBR. A minimum of 60mpg with 75mpg possible on quiet country road riding. The only annoying consumable was the rear chain, a trait shared with the XBR, which wore out in 4000 to 5000 miles. There were some crunching noises at low revs as the chain wore out and it would ultimately turn the gearbox wicked. Admittedly, I always fitted the cheapest chain I could find and a top quality O-ring job might go for twice that. On such a practical piece of iron full chain enclosure would’ve been good but at least there were gaiters on the front forks.

The only time the handling went a little funny was when I went camping. There was so much junk tied down on the seat that there was barely space for me to sit. It was just as well that I didn’t have a pot-belly. The front end felt dangerously light, coming close to a wheelie for the first time in its life. After half an hour I was used to it, could rumble along at a reasonable 80mph without too much weaving.

No, what caught me out was a bit of low speed manoeuvring in a narrow country lane. I was trying to turn around but the bike just suddenly slammed down on the tarmac, catching my ankle on the engine. Normally, I’d wear boots but as it was the high summer I was in trainers. The burn went right down to the bone. The pain was so intense that I flipped the bike off me so that it bounced on its other side, breaking another set of levers and indicators. I had to bind my ankle with a torn up shirt and ride forty miles to the nearest hospital, cursing and swearing all the way.

That was the only bad moment in 12,500 miles of riding and not really the bike’s fault. I think it’s better than the XBR and most other singles on the market. It has more character and quality than middleweight twins with similar performance. It’s pretty cheap to run, fun to ride and nice to look at. I can recommend it for any type of riding.

James Dugley

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Honda NX650
Honda NX650The sheep were mad! Welsh maniacs that rushed under the front wheel as the Dominator and I thudded through the Brecon Beacons, cutting along a deserted track that was only marked on the most local of maps. The Dommie was loud thanks to a silencer degutted by nature (rusted out, to you) and some resonance of the exhaust sent the sheep into a frenzy even more intense than when they sighted a drunken Welsh farmer.

To keep some kind of order in the world I resorted to using top gear and low revs. An unholy alliance when thudding up the steeper hills that made the chain whip away on its sprockets. The whole bike seemed to vibrate with the intensity of the forces, my feet fast going dead. I felt lucky there were no bulls on the loose, the big red Honda a natural target for bovine anger. Cresting what seemed like the highest hill in the Beacons, the back end fell apart as if a sheep or two had been caught in the spokes.

I didn’t really want to know how a previously pristine three year old NX survived a fall but can report than the indicators were wrecked. I hadn’t killed a sheep or two, more’s the pity, but the rear spokes had broken up, leaving an egg- shaped wheel. The bike could still be pushed but it had the same rolling resistance as a tank with flat tyres. Two hours later I came to a small town. At least the Welsh know how to drink and the pub was open all day long. I was quite happy when my mate turned up with a car and trailer four hours later for the exciting trek back to Bristol.

I had the choice of rebuilding the back wheel or buying a used one from the breakers. Because the rear disc brake was already seized into uselessness and the tyre was almost bald, a clean 17 incher with a drum brake was picked out of a pile of discarded wheels and bodged on without undue hammer work.

The tyre was a newish Avon AM which didn’t match the front Gripster on a 21 inch loop. The NX felt like it wanted to go in two different directions at the same time. Any sensible person would’ve bought another rear tyre but I decided that a matching 17 inch front wheel was the answer. Back to the breakers but there was nothing with spokes but a nice used 17 inch Avon AM was found for a tenner. I had the front wheel rebuilt to suit the tyre. Just to complete the metamorphosis a shorter rear shock was added, the OE one already turning to mush after 14000 miles of abuse. The damping couldn’t control the machinations of the back wheel after it attacked a pot-hole.

I was petty pleased with myself as the standard seat height was around 35 inches, which left me tottering on tip-toes when waiting at junctions. Yes, people laughed at me and I fell over a couple of times when the camber of the road surface was extreme, but protected the bike from damage with my fallen body. Taking two inches out of the ride height did wonders for my confidence and enhanced the security of the handling. All this because of those mad Welsh sheep!

The Dommie has a big thumper motor that has more than a passing resemblance to the old XBR unit (strange that you don’t see many on the road, these days). The NX has less power than the XBR, only 40 horses at 6500 revs and torque peaks out some 2000 revs lower. This means it’ll run along quite nicely in top gear for most of the time, although those of a sensitive nature might be better off using the gearbox to avoid 2500 to 3500 revs, as the intricacies of balancing a big thumper break down within those revs. Even then it’s annoying rather than especially bad – if you come across an example that thrums the tank noticeably don’t buy it as the mill’s probably on the way out. A naff engine ain’t a disaster as they are simple to work on and there are quite a few bikes in breakers (usually with bent front ends).

I don’t find the vibes really annoying, although they are heavier than a straight four they are not so intrusive – you have to try one to understand what I’m getting at. The NX runs on torque rather than power, probably ideal for Harley owners who want something to ride in the winter or go shopping on. This thumping torque has all the more effect because the Dommie weighs under 350lbs and the fairing has a passing stab at aerodynamic efficiency. Putting 115mph on the clock ain’t impossible, although above the ton it’s hard work. 90mph cruising, especially with the lowered suspension, was pretty easy going. The fairing actually whipped a lot of the wind around me at that speed.

The only complication was the 100 mile range, a combination of three gallon tank and 35 to 40mpg. For sure, 45 or even 50mpg was possible but that needed softly, softly riding (ie no wheelies) which turned me crazy with the outrageous boredom of it all. The poor economy was probably down to an engine design that has its origins in the 250cc model (which is quite economical) and the effort needed to balance a four inch slug of a piston even when moving through a relatively short stroke.

A stock bike’s handling is generally good. Better in town, where it deals well with pot-holes, than on the open road, where bumpy bends will set up a bit of wallowing, especially after the suspension has worn out a bit. With the shorter, tauter shock and smaller front wheel most of the wallowing went away. The only hassle was that on slow speed, sharp corners the front wheel would try to tuck in if the single disc was applied even gently. I didn’t notice any lack of leverage due to the smaller front wheel size, doubtless a result of the change in tyres.

Tyre and brake pad life was quite reasonable, expect over 10,000 miles from Avons and EBC’s. The chain and sprockets suffered both from the thumper power strokes and my daily wheelie, less than 5000 miles a set. I keep thinking about robbing a big Harley of its belt drive.

The horrible plastic around the forks and disc was easily removed although the very sensible fork gaiters were retained. The hand-guards come out in the winter but their lack of aesthetics don’t make it in the summer. To my eyes the tank and fairing look horrible but there’s no cheap way of replacing them – oh, for an old Triumph tank. The seat, with 30 thou on the clock, had gone hard enough to cause piles after 50 miles, although it’d never been good for much more than 200 miles in a day even when it was in reasonable shape. The front light was excellent and I couldn’t really fault any of the controls.

The NX, being air-cooled, is a relatively simple device that would surely benefit from a more conventional seat and tank – judging from the XBR’s sales, perhaps not. As a ritzy road bike with a large element of practicality the Dommie comes across as a winner and better than most dual purpose tools. New examples obviously lose out to the BMW F650 but used ones are available for as little as a grand for an early model, although twice that’s needed for a really nice one. There are lots of clean examples on offer in the private market.

My bike now has 49000 miles on the clock and a new exhaust system. The finish is still excellent despite constant winter use but not despatching – I know one guy who completely ruined an NX in ten months and 50,000 miles of despatching, both chassis and engine completely knackered. That reminds me, I had to take the Pro-Link down twice a year to keep the whole mess from seizing up (I don’t know what’s wrong with twin shocks) and I’ve had to put in one set of bushes (at 28 thou).

The engine’s a good old slogger as long as you keep away from the red line. Valves can be left for 5000 miles and there’s sod all else to piss around with, save for 2500 mile oil/filter changes. There’s a slight bit of oil weeping from the cylinder head gasket and some more coming out of one of the gearbox seals. The bike will still knock its way through the ton but I haven’t seen 115mph for about 20,000 miles.

Harry West

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Honda FT400
Honda FT400Beggars can’t be choosers. Or something like that. Stop making excuses, I tell myself, it ain’t as bad as all that! Put it like this – for eight hundred quid it was the only thing available with low mileage (7700 miles) that wasn’t some daft 100/125cc commuter. A 1983 grey import in bright red, flat track style. A mere 27 horses at 6500rpm, 350lbs of somewhat faded metal. It fitted me like a glove, the upright riding position reassuring me that it would be the business in my cross London daily commute. Money changed hands, all set for another great motorcycle adventure.

Immediately, there were a couple of things I didn’t like. Attached to the cast wheels at each end were a pair of single discs, with calipers that age had left all jerky and lacking in power. The forks shuddered and the back tyre skipped whenever I tried to pull up in the normal way necessitated by London traffic. Rather than stopping I had to wrench the bike around the offending cage, admittedly easy enough. At least the horn was some nonstandard item rescued from a ferry, or something, and made the poor old car drivers jump in their seats.

Then there was the motor. An absence of both power and torque below 3000 revs suggested it would need a firm hand on the throttle; not to mention that the transmission felt like it was falling apart and the gearchange was of the shotgun going off variety. Unfortunately, wringing the engine mercilessly merely provided an excess of terminal noises and not a lotta of juice. The bike thudded up to 75mph but then went to sleep.

An all time high of an indicated 95mph was experienced – after about 12 miles of motorway, with the obligatory following gale. It was fairly safe in the slow lane but had little in hand when I wanted to overtake some wallowing caravan or lumbering artic. Several times its lack of zip left me stranded in the middle lane with cars zooming past on each side.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, especially back in town. Being a 400cc thumper it was at least narrow and fast turning, making it a breeze through the cages. After I fixed the calipers, following the obligatory imprecations, duffed up thumb and excessive hammer work, the brakes reacted to a hefty input by squealing the merely adequate Far Eastern tyres.

Some spectacular slides were experienced in the wet but the relatively neutral steering allowed me to grin and bear them rather than check out my life insurance policies. If the bike was often burnt by derestricted 125’s it could at least cut and thrust past lumbering fours with an ease that annoyed their owners.

After the first month I was quite pleased with my purchase, the engine noises seeming to fade a little, though it never gave an impression of astounding build quality – more your jack-hammer than Swiss watch!

Those of a caring, kind disposition might describe the thumper vibes as character building but an hour in the saddle had me wondering why I was losing all feeling in my hands and groin. The motor has one of those balancer systems that, when a little wear gets into it, does more harm than good. Turns the buzzing into a high pitched grinding that absolutely refuses to fade into the background. It did smooth out in the 45 to 60mph range and didn’t really disturb me in my 30 minute commuting sessions.

I was less sanguine about the fuel and oil consumption. A 100 mile ride required a pint of 20/50 and fuel varied between 35 and 45mpg, on a whim of its own rather than relating to how I treated the throttle or gearbox. The fact that the baffles had gone should’ve made it run leaner and more efficiently than stock, so other than pure bad engine design I can’t think of any reason why the consumption should’ve been so bad. Unless it’d been clocked and the motor really was as shagged as it sounded.

When the can finally fell off I was a bit panicky, what with the rareness of the bike (I only ever saw one other in London). But apart from the engine’s stroke, the FT400 and 500 were identical, and I was able to pick up an intact exhaust system from the breakers for £30 (I think he’d despaired of ever selling any FT500 stuff, as they are also rare). That went straight on with a bit of hammer work.

That was after nine months and some 11000 miles. The winter hadn’t been kind to the finish, save that the tank and panels had retained their bright red shine – a useful safety feature as it sorted of glowed under the street lamps at night. The rest of the bike was submerged under the rot. The alloy corrosion was worse than getting barnacles off a ship, whilst the frame paint fell off in great scabs. A mad weekend in March sorted the worst of it out.

At least it was cheap on the consumables, neither tyres, chain nor pads showing any sign of wearing out. And it was a reliable starter, clanging into life even on the direst winter morning. Somehow, its base nature got into me deep enough to make sure I never left it outside without a couple of shackle locks to secure it against the nasty nature of the locals, who from its appearance probably thought it quite butch! I wasn’t that far gone, though, that every night I went to the hassle of carrying it into the house.

I should’ve been, though, because one morning she started up in the usual way only to develop a fit of the stutters half a mile down the road. I swore my head off at it and she promptly locked up…it looked like some vandal had put sugar in the petrol tank! I was almost a goner by the time I pushed the bike back home, those damnable dragging discs.

A quick and bloody strip down revealed just about every engine component was shagged out, not from the seizure but down to wear – this with 24000 miles on the clock! An all too common hassle on Hondas but to be fair usually at twice that kind of mileage.

As the chassis was in reasonable shape I had the choice of fitting one of the larger Honda thumpers or an RS250 mill. I say choice, but it was only insofar as when I checked out the bikes in their photo’s then the motors looked like they might fit. As I didn’t want any more vibration and the RS250 made 26 horses, it seemed sensible enough to fit one of these engines.

No, it didn’t fit straight in but I got there in the end. The trouble with RS engines is that most of them are worn out by now. The one I bought I heard running and it sounded good compared to the 400 motor (not hard, not hard…) but its performance was diabolical … some rascal had removed its balancer! It vibrated across the floor like some old British twin even at tickover. There wasn’t a remotely smooth spot in the whole rev range. Amazingly, I sold the bike for £550. What’s known as cutting your losses.

Dave Kerridge

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