We’ve all done it, I suppose – set off to buy one thing and returned home with something completely different. That’s not a huge problem when you head for the supermarket to get bread and milk and come back instead with a pizza and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. But with motorcycles it’s different. I set out one Saturday some years ago to buy a Kawasaki VN1500 Vulcan Classic and by Sunday was the proud owner of a gleaming new Honda VTR 1000 Firestorm. That takes some explaining.
There was something about the Kawasaki VN1500 Vulcan Classic that appealed to me, and I’d lusted after one for about a year. But Kawasaki couldn’t point me towards a dealer with a demo bike anywhere in the country, and I really didn’t fancy buying a bike.without trying it first.
Strong press reports on Honda’s VFR800 and VTR Firestorm made me feel I should try them out before making the final decision, and my local Honda dealer at the time (Redline of Colchester in the UK) had demonstrators for both models. The VFR was first out. Now, I’d ridden and raved about the original VF750 as a road-tester back in 1983 and was prepared to be blown away by this latest incarnation. Yet somehow it left me unmoved – nice, but a little bland. Certainly not enough to part me from my borrowed cash.
The yellow VTR was a different proposition. I fell in love with the power delivery within minutes. The bike felt light, agile, secure, perfectly poised and plenty powerful. Here was the motorcycle Ducati had meant to build when they created my old 750GT, but with the power and acceleration of the CBX I’d sold a couple of years ago.
Forty minutes later I arrived back at the dealership, grinning from ear to ear. This was how all motorcycles should be made. The torque, the roll-on acceleration, the power out of corners. This was wonderful! The salesman had already sold two VTRs that same morning, and I happily made it three.
The first 1,000 miles were sheer joy, although they proved that the VTR is by no means perfect. After all these years, you’d think Honda would know how to build a slick-shifting gearbox. And the 100-mile range between fill-ups was simply ludicrous. Pillion accommodation could usefully have been a little more generous, and the sporting riding position a little less radical. I know that to modern sportsbike riders the Firestorm position was virtually upright, but nevertheless it placed a bit too much weight on your wrists below about 80 mph. And the mirrors showed more elbow than road.
But the power delivery was truly seductive and – despite press criticism of the styling as boring – the yellow paint made the Firestorm a thing of beauty for me. So I persuaded myself to overlook those initial shortcomings and take the bike to Naples that August, three weeks after it rolled out of the showroom. Sunshine, scenery and sinuous Alpine bends beckoned.
A trip to the dealer for a new tank bag and other sundries revealed that Redline was offering test rides on its Valkyrie demonstrator, so they let me borrow it for two hours the weekend before I took the Firestorm to Italy. Awesome! I’m not sure how long I could have maintained high speeds with that riding position, but otherwise I found the cruiser sensational. When my then-15-year-old daughter Charlotte and I swapped back to the VTR, we couldn’t believe how small, compact and unyielding the V-twin felt – and how the saddle felt like a plank of wood. How prophetic.
So it was with some niggling doubts about comfort that I headed for Folkestone and Le Shuttle the following Sunday. The plan was for a 2,750-mile round-trip to Terracina, half-way between Rome and Naples, using a familiar backroads route via Dijon, Chamonix, the Great St Bernard Pass, Aosta, and then the autostrada to Naples. Three days down, three days back and a few days on the beach with my sister and niece.
It felt good to be on the road again as the bike throbbed its way across the baking French countryside. The roads were largely deserted, apart from a few tractors and giant combines bringing in the harvest. Stopping every 100 miles for petrol was a pain, especially on a Sunday when more than a few rural French petrol stations are closed. After about 250 miles I had to concede that the pain was very real – and spreading to my backside.
With some relief I reached Dijon, about 500 miles into the trip. It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon and I was hot, sweaty, tired and sore. Next day was the highlight of the whole journey as the Firestorm flicked its way through the fabulous switchback roads of the Jura and the Alps, swooping through the gentler curves and dips on the less mountainous stretches. This was definitely Firestorm country and, although my bum still ached and the tank still needed almost hourly refills, I revelled in the sun-drenched ride.
Day three on the autostrada brought 110-degree temperatures and the growing realisation that, delightful though it was, the VTR had five serious flaws as a tourer. The first was the vibration through the right handlebar that frequently numbed my thumb – odd, this, since on the demo bike it affected the left ‘bar. Thicker, winter gloves all but eliminated the sensation, but wouldn’t have been my ideal choice in August. The second issue was the way the riding position made my right wrist ache.
Number three was the hassle of lubing the drive chain every evening, made infinitely worse by the absence of a centre stand. I’ve got better things to do after a long day in the saddle – like take a shower and have a couple of very cold beers. At least the chain went through two hard days and 900 miles without needing adjustment, and the adjustment process itself is so much easier than it was on, say, my old CBX.
A fourth and damning flaw was the fuel range. That little red light telling you it’s only 15 miles to walkies came on every 100 miles, on the nail. Twice I rolled into service areas on my last thimble-full. Who designs bikes like this? Don’t they intend people to ride them? How far do they think owners travel? It’s frustrating to re-pass the same vehicles three or four times in a day as they sail sedately on while you re-fuel. The headstock strap on the excellent Oxford magnetic tank bag proved a major nuisance in these circumstances, so I dispensed with it on day two and this at least made the process faster. The bag never showed the slightest sign of lifting at speed, so the strap was essentially redundant.
The final – and unforgivable – flaw was the seat. I must have owned 15 bikes and ridden more than 100 more by that time in my life and couldn’t recall a more uncomfortable perch. We’re talking real saddle sores here that took more than a week off the bike to heal. I tried changing from jeans to light cotton trousers in case the stitching on the pockets was a contributory factor, but that made no difference. Sitting on the fleece lining of my Schott jacket offered only a partial cure.
By day five, I was plotting my next move. Any future touring would require some fundamental changes: a decent seat, at least 150 miles per tankful, and shaft drive. I knew all that in the 1970s – how stupid can a guy get? So I told myself I’d be taking a long, close look at the Moto Guzzi California, the Pan European, the Gold Wing, possibly the BMW RT1100, and (despite their touring range problems) the Kawasaki Nomad and the Valkyrie.
My disillusionment with the Firestorm increased when it passed the 2,500-mile mark and the engine started making mechanical noises that it hadn’t made the previous day. I have a pathological hatred of new and unusual engine noises, dating back to when I was 17 and my Honda Benly CB92 ate its big-ends in a big way, costing me every penny I owned to fix. My two years of BMW R100 ownership were sullied by an annoying tappet noise that just wouldn’t go away.
On returning to England, the chief mechanic at Redline assured me that the engine was fine and sounded like all the other Firestorms he’d worked on. Fair enough, but I preferred the sound when the engine was tighter. Maybe my dissatisfaction with other aspects were suggesting problems that didn’t exist. I got no real sympathy from the salesman I’d bought the bike from, either. “If you’d told me what you were going to do with it,” he said, “I’d never have sold it to you!”
While I was there, my rear still very tender, I spotted a used Pan European ST1100 and borrowed it for a test-ride. Ah, bliss! Deep, comfy seat; upright riding position; no strain on arms or wrists; no noise; ton-plus cruising; mirrors that gave a clear view behind; 270-mile touring range. God, I could have used one of these last week.
But when I stopped to look at the Pan, I found it difficult to like it. Motorcycles don’t look right when covered from stem to stern in bland slabs of plastic, in my view. Would I get out of bed on a sunny Sunday morning and wheel this bike out of the garage for a couple of hours in the saddle, just for the hell of it? Or stare at it in admiration? In a word, no. Comfortable and rational it may have been, but it didn’t tug at the heartstrings. And motorcycles need to – otherwise, what’s the point?
So I kept the VTR, and was still thrilled with it in many ways. It deserved its many media plaudits and its current sales success. It reminded me of some of the most enjoyable bikes I’d ever ridden: the Laverda Jota, Ducati 750, MV Agusta 850 and Norton Commando. Okay, in one sense it was nothing like any of those classics, except the Duke. But, like them, in my book it was a real motorcycle. It worked on a physical level, providing a thundering drive out of corners missing from most other bikes of that era. It had an honesty about it that was very refreshing. It was the kind of bike that Ogri’s more sensible cousin might ride (Bike readers will know what I mean).
Being a Honda, it came with the sort of mechanical reassurance and build quality that this kind of motorcycle had often lacked in the past. At 192 kg, it was probably the lightest bike I’d owned since my Yamaha YR5 350, and it was the better for that. The brakes, according to reports, were not quite state-of-the-art but I found them perfectly good, even in the demanding environment of Alpine passes or the amazing mountain road that connects Cannes with Frejus.
Handling was a revelation to those of us whose main riding years encompassed powerful Japanese bikes that wallowed and shimmied on fast sweepers. The VTR was an eye-opener when laid well over into a fast bend where the surface would have sent my old CBX into a fit of minor shakes; it tracked straight and true, solid as a rock, with just an occasional twitch at the back end on poor surfaces.
Top speed was said to lie in the 150-155 mph range, depending on which test you read. The way it picked its skirts up at 120 mph when you twisted the throttle in top gear was proof enough that it’d do such speeds. For me, the real joy was the feeling you got when you opened the throttle on a stretch of backroad in fourth gear at about 60 mph and blasted past a bunch of trucks like they were standing still. That was sheer magic, every time.
I reckon the Firestorm was a fabulous motorcycle. It’s just sad that if even a quarter of the ingenuity and talent that went into designing the engine and chassis had also been devoted to fuel capacity and seat shape and materials, the VTR would have been one of the most desirable bikes ever produced.
Eventually I traded it in for a second-hand Vulcan 1500 before moving to Hong Kong, where I went out and bought a Suzuki TL1000S with an amazing Yoshimura system. Charlotte, thousands of miles away back in England, questioned my sanity: hadn’t I learned my lesson about sports bikes, and what was I going to do it in the urban environment of Hong Kong?
Two good points, well made and well taken, so next day I traded it in for a Yamaha XJ1300. That was okay, but it was showing a little more wear and tear than I like, and it wasn’t entirely satisfying; cruising at, say, 70 mph it felt too revvy, too buzzy and in need of a sixth gear. A month later I changed it, at last, for a rare Honda Valkyrie. I had finally found my perfect bike – but that’s another story.