What is it?
The Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird is a motorcycle produced between 1996 and 2007. When it was first released, its sole intention was to claim the crown of the World's fastest production and at just-shy of 180mph, it took the crown from the Kawasaki ZZR1100. The first models were fitted with a carbureted normally-aspirated 1100cc engine but in 1999, Honda introduced a vastly updated version, the so-called PGM-1, that brought in fuel injection, ram-air and a host of other cosmetic and internal changes. All the models had Honda's revolutionary but controversial linked braking system.
This is a review of a 1997, carbureted model.
My Blackbird, it's mine
They say time repeats itself and in the case of my motorcycling career, it most certainly did. I remember my dad taking ownership of a brand new Honda CB1100R motorcycle in the early '80s. It was white and red and gorgeous and with a top speed of 147mph, it was the fastest bike in the world at that time. Dad passed away, I reached middle-age, time marched on and nearly 25 years later, I took ownership of a (nearly) brand new Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird which, for a while at least, was the fastest bike in the world also. Mine was black, gleaming, menacing and while the two bikes are poles apart in terms of technology and looks, there's a certain spirit that I felt had been passed down.
Dimensions and Looks
The Blackbird is a big old bike and at 223 kg's it's very imposing. The mid-1990's saw a sea-change in the way motorcycle manufacturers improved the performance of their top-end models. Prior to that they took the view of bigger engines + more BHP = faster bikes and bragging rights. This is certainly true but the late '80's saw some stupid motorcycles being released including the '86 Suzuki GSX-R 1100 that paired a ridiculously strong engine with a chassis that just couldn't handle the power. It was dubbed in some quarters the 'Widow-maker'. This was true. It was the motorcycle my dad was riding before the crash that led to his death.
Honda then released the Fireblade in 1994 to massive acclaim. The engine was powerful but the chassis and weight of the bike had been paired down and now here was a bike that was fast but handleable. The Blackbird was a nod back to the old school but with a modern application. Its profile looks like an eagle about to eat some small defenseless animal and the large single cluster of lights I personally think looks mean and angry. The seat is double meaning pillions don't feel they're perched on top, rather they fit into it like an armchair.
It doesn't feel like 223kg when pushing around, although *you* try and pick it up if it falls over. It's balanced beautifully and surprisingly nimble when wheeling in and out of the garage. Even with a wheelbase of 1490mm (59 inches) (compared to the Fireblade's diddy 1400mm), it's easy to shuffle around. I am 6'1 (and a bit, don't forget the 'bit') with long legs and can easily put my feet flat on the floor. At 810mm, the seat height is slightly too much for my much shorter father-in-law (he's about 5'3 - 5'4) who has to stretch to touch the floor. Tippy-toes is not a good thing to have on a bike like this.
At 720mm, it's also wide. I had to widen the door on my shed to fit it in.
With a reported 164bhp on tap and weighing only 223 kilos, the inline 4-cylinder engine brings a power-to-weight ratio around the 730 bhp-per-tonne mark. This is similar to an *actual* Formula One racing car. The raw figures don't really do it justice. 0-60mph takes less than 3 seconds, the quarter mile is achievable in 10 seconds and top speed is 180mph. But there's much more to it than those figures and they are never real world anyway. Despite that long wheelbase, it takes super-human control to nail the throttle in first gear (or second, or even third) and keep the front wheel on the ground. Keep it nailed and you'll be on your arse in no time.
The revs climb to a respectable 10,750 rpm and at that kind of pressure, the Blackbird is ridiculously fast, scary almost. However, the power delivery is smooth, refined and incredibly deceptive and that is one of the big selling points of the Blackbird. Pick-up is instant in 6th gear from as low as 40mph and the top-gear roll-on is impressive thanks to the 78lbs of torque driving through the back wheel. At motorway cruising speeds, the engine is barely being tickled at around 4,500 rpms. It's almost like riding a big scooter but if you want it to, it can be a bit of a hooligan.
While the figures would indicate otherwise, in terms of current motorbike performance, the Blackbird is considered a distinguished gentleman. Manufacturers, in their quest for the best performance, shave mere grams off the weight of their bikes and each year brings slight modifications to the engine output of the top sports bikes. The Blackbird was something of a one-off in that regard as it was never massively modified or tweaked (the 1999 revamp notwithstanding) over the course of its production life. It just never needed to.
The Suzuki GSXR1300 Hayabusa would go on to trump it in the top-speed stakes, as did the Kawazaki ZX12-R a couple of years after that and no doubt as do a whole slew of modern-day super-sports pretenders today. But they all lack that refinement, smoothness and deceptive power. The ZX9-R for example, is as fast up to 150mph and is massively more raucous and loud but it just doesn't possess the same kind of on-the-road presence or smoothness of power delivery.
Handling and Comfort
Handling is probably the Blackbirds weakest area. It was never a super-nimble track day bike and while it can just about keep up with the young whipper-snappers in a straight line, around the corners it lacks somewhat. When the Blackbird was introduced to a salivating public in 1996, a new class of motorcycle was invented just to fit it in - Hypersports. These are motorcycles designed to cross whole continents in as short a time as possible. They're for the German Autobahn, not Donnington.
That long wheelbase means it's a little like turning an oil-tanker. At 5mm longer than even the notoriously-long Hayabusa, it's not a bike to be flicked through a series of tight, twisty bends. In the hands of a more accomplished rider, a lot could be achieved but against stiff opposition, it will always lose out.
The Blackbird does come out on top in nearly every comparison test it is run through on one important characteristic - its comfort. Having ridden many bikes (see my motorcycling career below), it's definitely been the most comfortable to ride of any bike I've owned or ridden. The Honda VFR nearly broke my wrists after only 10 minutes of riding and I gave that back, the GPZ nearly crippled me after 17 hours straight of riding, the unfaired bikes I've ridden are a pain on the motorway. The list goes on but the Blackbird is the only one where, after a marathon session, I've not had any major complaints regarding aches and pains in my body.
I've completed the Mencap National Rally four times now, three on the Blackbird. The first year was on the Kawasaki GPZ500 and as mentioned, after 17 hours I was doubled up in agony from every quarter of my tortured torso. It took me a week to recover. Subsequent years on the 'Bird were an absolute pleasure and despite a low-ache in the bummage area, I suffered no drastic ill effects. This bike does long distances very well and in the National Rally we completed close to a thousand miles at a time. The riding position I found to be exceptional with the front fairing taking the brunt of the wind. Even my wrists didn't feel too pressured - a common complaint on sports bikes and there is sufficient space behind the fairing for legs to be tucked in.
Honda's Combined Braking System (CBS) is where depressing the back brake level will also apply a certain amount of front braking as well (it's about an 80/20 split). In normal, everyday riding, it is simply not an issue, end of. It's only if you ride like a complete lunatic will you ever notice it and it's those types of rider who I find complain about it the most (even those who've never ridden a bike with CBS before have complained about it!). And if you do ride like a complete lunatic, get off the road and go on a track. You're giving bikers a bad name.
I can say, the bike brakes well even with all that weight to come to a stop. It's predictably progressive and feels strong with the three-pot callipers providing plenty of reassurance and confidence, especially in the wet. The brakes feel much stronger than say, the ZX9-R with its piddly twin-pot. Don't even get me started on the drum-braked Suzuki T500 with its rubber-mounted handlebars. Scary.
Reliability and Running Costs
In the three years of ownership and 12,000 miles under the belt, nothing went wrong. What can I say? They are renowned for being reliable work-horses and as they attract the more 'mature' owner, they are generally very well looked after. Reliability is never an issue and Blackbirds have been known to keep running well beyond 100,000 miles.
Of course, there are consumables. It will chew tyres and even with careful riding, expect to replace those rear 180/55r17's after 5,000 miles. The chain has a propensity to stretch so keep on top of routine maintenance. Bikers know this though. More so than cars, I've not yet met a biker who isn't almost psychotically fanatical when it comes to the maintenance and care of their riding machine. There's no room for error or lax maintenance and it can be a matter of life or death. And I mean actual, real, death. Really, you don't want a high-speed blow-out or snapped chain on a motorcycle.
Economy-wise, I found it to be amazingly frugal, considering the size and performance of the engine. On a reasonably slow run, 45mpg+ was easily achievable. On the Mencap Rally, with my Father-in-law as a more sedate riding partner, I calculated it to be near 60mpg. To achieve that required fast changing to top gear and bimbling along at the speed limit. Even pushing hard would never really reduce it below 40mpg. With those figures, the 23 litre tank is good for over 200 miles between fill-ups. It even has a fuel-gauge, an absolute boon for a motorbike.
Insurance I found to be reasonable too. Rated as group 16, fully comprehensive insurance came in at around £230.00 but that required a little shopping around I have to say. That's for a (ahem) 35+ year old with an unblemished record and garaged overnight. It's cheap because it's no longer considered a cutting-edge bike and therefore, less desirable. That means a good deal for Blackbird owners.
Second-hand prices remain strong. Expect to pay upwards of two grand for a decent pre-1999 model such as mine, more with low mileage and in an exceptional, standard condition. Third-party exhausts are OK (make sure they have the original) but walk away if it's got a lot of blinging adornments such as anodised footpegs. Check the crank case cover for scratches and the rear seat pod too. Those areas tend to take the brunt of a careless drop in the car-park. I paid £2800.00 in 2005 for an unblemished 1997 P-Reg with 18,000 miles on the clock and from a reliable source.
It all depends on what you want from a motorcycle. I had four criteria when choosing the Blackbird; It had to be (i) comfortable, (ii) fast (of course), (iii) economical and (iv) cheap insurance. On those points, the Blackbird fulfilled every one with ease. As a best of everything, the CBR1100XX does an amazing job. It may not be the fastest (any more), nor the most agile but within that sensible-looking package, it's stupidly powerful and will accelerate nearly as fast as gravity. It's comfortable, reliable and still commands that all-important 'respect' factor at the bikers' meets. Its looks haven't particularly dated and for the price, you're getting Formula One performance for the price of one of Lewis Hamiltons jock-straps. To me, it's about as perfect a motorcycle as it can get. My dad would have been proud.
About the Author
From those early formative years sat behind his dad as they rocketed down motorways and back roads, going to watch the racing at Donnington, to the coast for fish and chips and back again, it instilled in him a passion for bikes. It wasn't until he took up off-roading in his twenties did he develop a hankering for a life on the open road. Since then, his ownership history has included Yamaha's (DT175 2-stroke, XT350 single and XV125 parallel twin), Suzuki's (4-cylinder GT550, a mad, bad, dangerous and insanely fun 1972 T500 2-stroke), Honda's (CB100 single, CB500 parallel twin, CBR1100XX) and Kawasaki's (a scary mental KX250 2-stroke motor-cross bike, GPZ500 parallel twin and a ZX9R Ninja). He's also had grateful opportunity to ride and test other bikes including R1's, ZXR's, Gixers, YZF's, Beemers, Bandits and just about everything in between except a Ducati (which he seriously wanted).
Also, the author killed his Blackbird and in the process, nearly killed himself. At 70mph, while overtaking a car on a dual-carriageway, the car decided to pull out and Papa went into the back. His mate, riding a Yamaha R1 behind, went into him. They were both lucky. Wearing full leathers prevented major damage and after waking up, Papa only suffered a broken arm, as well some massive bruising on the legs. As the jacket wasn't zipped to the trousers, most of the skin from his lower back ended up on the road as well as from the hands thanks to some crappy gloves. 4ku-Papa says it hurt, it really f**king hurt. His beloved Blackbird died a silent death on the side of the A616 Stocksbridge by-pass. More scary, his mate was out cold for a good few minutes and there was genuine worry he was dead too. The car driver left him and his mate lying in the middle of the road, never to be seen again. Suffice to say, his biking days are finally over.