Guide to the Honda Fireblade
It was early 1992 and I was working for the Honda dealer in Hull, East Yorkshire. Bikes were (and still are) my life and I was looking forward to getting the first shipment of new Fireblades on the showroom floor.
I was excited about the new Fireblade but no more than I was about the arrival of any new sports bike. At the time, no one realised just how important this new bike was going to be in the history of the performance motorcycle.
It’s only now that I look back that I think it’s the most important bike since the Kawasaki gave us the Z1 in 1972.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Fireblade was a revolution and the key to its success can be expressed in just two words: light weight.
For twenty years, the Japanese factories vied with each other to produce ever faster bikes - with spectacular results. The Yamaha FZR100 EXUP was released in 1989 and, in unrestricted form (achieved by taking a Stanley knife to the inlet rubbers!) it gave the rider 145bhp and a 170+ mph top speed. This colossal performance was available to anyone with £6000 or a reasonable credit rating. All the Big Four manufacturers had their own version. Kawasaki had the ZX10, Suzuki the GSX-R1100, and Honda the CBR1000F.
The problem was that every increase in power was accompanied by an increase in weight and bulk. The CBR1000F weighed in at 235kg dry and the FZR1000 Exup tipped the scales at 205kg. They may have been fast in a straight line but the litre sports bikes of the day were ponderous and unwieldy.
The Italians offered an alternative. They were usually poorly built and they were always expensive. Their engines were
low on power compared to the Japanese fours but their bikes handled properly and had a certain exotic appeal. You paid your money and took your choice: you could have power or handling, but not both.
A New Approach to Speed
The Fireblade changed all that with its new design philosophy. Its design team was led by charismatic, chain-smoking visionary Tadao Baba who said in a recent interview:
It was in 1989 and I was riding with a group of Honda engineers on some of the competitors' machines. There was a Suzuki GSX-R1100, a Yamaha FZR1000 and our own Honda CBR1000F. I was thinking, 'How can these be called sports bikes when they are so very big and heavy?' They didn't deserve the name.
Baba introduced the concept of “Total Control”. His new bike was to be light, agile and responsive. It would not be dominated by engine power and the weight needed to contain it. Instead, the chassis, suspension, brakes, engine and ergonomics would work together to provide the motorcyclist with the highest possible levels of response and control.
Back at the old Honda dealership, no one was prepared for the revolution that was to come because no one had realised the importance of this number: 185 kilograms. We just didn't look at the weight of bikes. All we looked at was the bhp.
I still remember having quite a heated debate in the pub one Friday night with my FZR1000 EXUP owning pal, Mark. He was absolutely convinced that the Fireblade would be no match for his bike because a) it only had 125 bhp and b) it was only a 900. At no point in did anyone mention the word “weight”.
When the first road tests came out, the game was up. All other litre-class sports bikes were instantly rendered obsolete. Within two weeks, we’d sold our entire allocation of Fireblades for the first half of the year.
I remember being profoundly shocked by my first ride on Baba’s miracle. The bike was just so responsive, agile and precise. And of course, because it was light, its power to weight ratio meant that the straight line performance was shattering. The bike world would never be the same, and it was five years before anyone came up with a convincing response in the form of Yamaha’s R1.
Over the years, I’ve had several Blades and I wanted to share my experience and enthusiasm for this fantastic family of bikes with other riders. What follows is a history of the evolution of the CBR1000RR from its 1992 debut to the 2016 SP model.
CBR900RR (SC28) 1992-1993
Released on to an unsuspecting world in 1992, the SC28 is where the revolution began. The bike was originally intended to be a 750 but Honda upped the stroke to give a capacity of 893cc. Dry weight was 185kg and the wheelbase a mere 1405mm. The bike was only 2kg heavier than the CBR600F and a full 34kg lighter than the FZR1000.
It was here that we first saw Honda give serious thought to mass centralisation. The bike is quite wide around the middle as engineers moved as much bulk as they could away from the extremities to help make direction changes quick and easy. The tiny 8 amp-hour battery, plastic headlight lenses and aluminium silencer all contribute to the bike’s agility. The holes in the fairing are claimed to be there to offer further weigh savings but, twenty years later, the jury is still out on that one!
A controversial aspect of the design was Baba’s decision to use a 16” front wheel. Some riders complained of a lack of feel from the front end and a tendency towards instability due to the size of the rim, but this wasn't really an issue. In fact, if you look carefully at the front wheel of an early Blade, you’ll see that the tyre has an unusually deep profile. That way, the design gives an overall diameter similar to that of a 17” wheel while saving the weight of a significant amount of metal from the rim and spokes.
An issue today is that the 16” front limits the range of tyres available. I’d recommend Bridgestone BT-016, or Metzeler Sportec M3.
By modern standards, the early Fireblade is relatively roomy with a good stretch to the footrests. Brakes are strong and the suspension is supple, with well-judged spring rates and a fully adjustable rear damper. The gearbox is quite notchy but not enough to affect your enjoyment.
An interesting aspect of the bike’s design was the decision to use conventional, right way up forks. Although they’re less rigid than inverted forks, they have one major advantage: they’re lighter. It wasn’t until 2000 that USD forks appeared on a Fireblade.
It’s not its most glamorous feature, but don’t underestimate the usefulness of the spring-loaded passenger seat that gives access to a surprisingly large “boot” - something sadly lacking from later under-seat exhaust models.
The early Fireblades were made to a very high standard and build quality is excellent. Good, original examples are getting hard to find and are starting to rise in value.
One area that you will need to address if you plan on taking to the track is ground clearance. The standard footrests are far too low which is good for long distance touring but won’t help you round Druids. Removing the hero blobs isn’t enough - the only solution is a set of rear sets.
The original design ran for two years until the second generation was launched. Affectionately known as the “Foxeye”, the bike had minor changes to the styling with both headlights now behind a single, irregularly shaped plastic cover. The fairing design was also changed and there were fewer holes in the nose cone and belly pan. This version was available in the classic "Urban Tiger" colour scheme which was reprised in 2014 (Honda had a load on unsold stock which they had resprayed by SprayBay in Immingham).
Suspension featured revised springs and damper rates and the front forks were given compression damping adjustment.
The gearbox was treated to a new shift drum to improve the shift feel. The upper fairing stay went from steel to aluminium and the cylinder head was made from magnesium alloy.
Finally, the footrests were re-designed along the lines of the RC45 (without improving ground clearance) and the instrument panel gained an electronic speedometer that was driven from the countershaft sprocket instead of the front wheel - useful for monitoring your speed during extended wheelies.
Apart from the gearshift, the bike felt very similar to the original and remained the undisputed king of open-class sports bikes.
The third update looked very much the same as the 1992-1995 machines. However, Honda had worked hard behind the scenes to further reduce weight and, at the same time, improve the rigidity of the frame.
The seat unit gained two shark-gill slashes on each side that were claimed to improve aerodynamics. More importantly, there was a capacity hike from 893 to 918cc which resulted in more torque and a power output of 128ps. Engine response was improved with a new throttle position sensor and the fuel pump was deleted. The result was a 1kg weight reduction.
It was difficult to tell the difference in normal road use but taking to the track showed that Honda’s work on the chassis resulted in even sharper responses and improved stability and feedback from the more rigid aluminium frame.
Meanwhile, as Honda tweaked their baby, their arch-rivals Yamaha were preparing to unleash their new R1 on an unsuspecting motorcycling public. Yamaha had taken Fireblade’s recipe of light weight and combined it with a monster 1000cc engine that moved the superbike to a whole new level.
CBR919R (SC33) 1998-99
The fourth generation Fireblade is the least loved in the series. Giving away almost 100cc (it’s capacity was raised slightly to 919cc) to the Yamaha R1, even a weight reduction to 180kg wasn’t enough to keep the Honda on top. The Yamaha got all the headlines and sales of the Blade slumped.
New, slightly bulbous styling made the Fireblade look second best next to the sleek, modernist R1. Riding the two back to back, the Honda felt quite pedestrian (for a 130bhp motorcycle), with an uninspiring power delivery and a dull exhaust note. Higher bars and a higher and wider screen added to the feeling that the Blade had gone a bit soft.
CBR929RR (SC44) 2000-01
2000 saw the first major revision to the Fireblade. In keeping with the original philosophy of Total Control, Honda managed to bring the new bike in at a mere 170kg dry. At the same time, they upped the capacity to 929cc and added PGM-FI programmed fuel injection to bring power up to 148 bhp.
In keeping with almost all early attempts (and some current ones) at fuel injection, the response was harsh and abrupt, making it difficult to apply the increased power smoothly from a closed throttle. I added a Power Commander to mine and it improved matters considerably but it was no match for the earlier carburettor bikes. So much for progress.
Where the bike did score was its chassis set up. The all new frame was lighter and optimised to provide just the right amount of flex to give the rider high levels of feedback.
The swinging arm was a new design that pivoted from a U-shaped plate attached to the engine. This set up enabled the swinging arm to be more rigid without having to add weight and bulk to the frame.
At the front, upside down forks were fitted to the Fireblade for the first time, and the 6 spoke 16” front wheel was replaced by a three spoke 17” item. The addition of an all titanium exhaust system completed the redesign.
The 17” front wheel on this and all later Blades opens up a wide range of tyre options. For track days, the Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa is the default choice. For less aggressive riding, where mileage is more important, the Bridgestone BT 016 Pro is a good option. Also worth considering is the Michelin Pilot Power 2CT. They’ve been around for a while now but they’re an excellent choice if you’re on a budget. They’re superb in the wet, last for ages and, assuming you plan on staying out of hospital/prison, provide all the grip you’ll need on the road.
Even now, the fifth generation Blade remains a formidable weapon. Although it’s light, it’s physically quite a big bike which makes it well suited to taller riders. The throttle response isn’t as good as it could be, but if you make a conscious effort to be smooth as you roll it on and off, you’ll find it OK. Overall, this is the most under-rated Blade and one that can be had for relatively little money. It’s built to Honda’s traditionally high standards and is an excellent all-round road bike. I took mine to Spain a couple of times and it was comfortable on the Autoroute and a riot in the Pyrenees.
CBR954RR (SC50) 2002-03
The sixth Fireblade was the subject of significant revisions to the engine with an increase in capacity to 954cc thanks to a 1mm increase in bore diameter. Updates to the crankshaft reduced rotating mass and brought enhancements to performance and responsiveness. Improvements to the fuel injection - larger fuel injectors and a more powerful and remapped ECU - meant better throttle response and made the bike easier to ride smoothly.
The chassis didn’t escape the attentions of Honda’s engineers who added some rigidity to the frame and swinging arm to increase high speed stability. There were also changes to the bodywork to give a sleeker, more streamlined appearance. More importantly, the footrests were raised to increase ground clearance.
The pursuit of lightness resulted in the shedding of a further 2kg, bringing dry weight down to just 168kg - even lighter than the CBR600.
Many riders and journalists felt that the GSX-R1000 was closer to the spirit of the original Blade and that successive updates had moved the bike closer to sports-tourer territory. It’s certainly true that the Blade was becoming more refined, but that just meant that its colossal performance was accessible to more people more of the time. The SC50 did feel less aggressive than the competition but, if you wanted a fast, highly evolved road bike that was also happy on the track, the Blade was the bike to have.
CBR1000RR (SC57) 2004-05
The seventh generation Fireblade was a radical departure from previous models. Capacity was up to 998cc but for the first time in the bike’s evolution, weight was up too - to a still svelte 179kg.
This was a major shift in Fireblade philosophy and it’s doubtful that Tadao Baba would have approved it. However, by this point, the father of the Blade was no longer on the team.
The increase in weight was accompanied by a rise in power to 178bhp, which meant that the power-to-weight ratio was superior to the previous generation. The PGM-FI fuel injection system now had two injectors per cylinder, there was a ram air system, and lighter engine internals meant better throttle response.
In truth, it wasn’t really possible to tell that the new bike was heavier then the old one, and the increase in torque and flexibility added to the enjoyment.
Part of the reason for the change in capacity was the decision to allow four cylinder bikes of up to 1000cc in World Superbikes. If Honda were going to be competitive, they needed a bigger engine.
The racing influence didn’t end there. The design of the bike was clearly influenced by the Moto GP bikes of the day and 2004 saw the introduction of an under seat exhaust (meaning there was no room for the boot) and styling that resembled the RC211V racer.
The most interesting innovation was the addition of Honda’s HESD electronic steering damper. The system increased damping force with speed, ensuring excellent high speed stability without compromising low-speed manoeuvrability. The result was a fabulously capable machine that was incredibly easy to ride very fast.
Criticised by some as being bland, the new CBR1000RR was, in fact, just an incredibly effective and well-developed bike. Its rivals felt unfinished in comparison and were no match for the Honda’s civility and ease of use.
CBR1000RR (SC57) 2006-07
2006 saw a number of detail changes. The valves and porting were revised for better torque and the red line went up to 12,200 from 11,650 rpm. There were also modifications to valve timing, compression and valve lift. Better acceleration came from a one tooth smaller rear sprocket.
Honda also introduced the Repsol replica paint scheme for the first time.
CBR1000RR (SC59) 2008-11
The 2008 CBR1000RR Fireblade SC59 was a completely new model. With 171 bhp and a dry weight of 175 kg, it was an instant hit.
Mass centralisation was clearly evident, especially with the fairing removed. Everything seems to be located in the area under the fuel tank, with very little in front or behind. The short, Moto-GP inspired exhaust was positioned low down and further contributed to the concentration of weight were it would least affect the ride.
On the road or the track, the SC59 is sublime. The electronic steering damper and superb suspension give the rider a feeling of total stability. At the same time, the chassis provides confidence inspiring precision and agility.
The EXUP style exhaust valve keeps the bike quiet around town and opens at 4000rpm to change the soundtrack to a hard-edged rasp that’s the perfect accompaniment to sports riding. The gear change is slick (especially on post-2012 models), and the brakes give excellent feel and fade-free performance.
Talking of brakes, Honda’s excellent Electronically Controlled Combined ABS brake by wire system was available from 2009 onwards. It not only offers a reassuring safety net but helps the rider by applying a slight amount of rear brake when the front is applied (except under very light lever pressure) to reduce fork dive on corner entry.
On the negative side, the fairing is ridiculously difficult to remove and replace, some bikes use oil, and the footrests are a bit high for tall riders. But don’t let that put you off. If you’re in the market for a really fast bike that’s well made, reliable and, above all, fun to ride; look no further.
CBR1000RR (SC59) 2012-13
To mark the Blade’s 20th Anniversary there were some important upgrades. The bodywork was changed to give a sharper, more aggressive look. The fuel injection was improved for a smoother transition from a closed to an open throttle. Honda also updated the front and rear suspension, adding Showa Big Piston Forks and a new “Balance Free Cushion” rear shock.
The bike also received a new LCD dashboard with different display modes and a sequential shift light.
Significantly, Honda fitted light weight twelve spoke alloy wheels which contribute to the improvements in handling and road holding.
The result is a bike that feels a little better than its predecessor in every important aspect.
CBR1000RR (SC59) 2014-16
There were further evolutionary changes to the Blade for 2014. The cylinder head was re-worked to improve gas flow and liberate an additional 3 bhp, and there was improved midrange torque. Honda refined the riding position with revised clip-on and footrest placing. Finally, changes to the fuel injection improved the already excellent throttle response.
CBR1000RR Fireblade SP 2014-16
In 2014 Honda released the CBR1000RR SP as a higher spec alternative to the standard bike.
- 43mm Öhlins NIX30 fully adjustable inverted forks,
- Unit Pro-Link fully adjustable Öhlins shock
- Brembo M4 front brakes with four-piston calipers with 320mm floating discs
- Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC tyres
- Lightweight subframe
- Blueprinted engine
- Bubble windscreen
- Repositioned footrests and clip ons
- New top yoke for improved steering feel
- Thinner rider's seat
- Pillion seat cowl
- Deletion of pillion footrest
I bought one of these in 2016, trading in my 2014 'Blade. Was it worth it? Yes.
The bike is subtly improved in all important aspects and the individual improvements combine to elevate the bike to something that lives up to its SP tag. The blueprinted motor is smoother and spins up with real aggression. The more focussed riding position is ideal for track and fast road riding and the Brembo calipers provide mighty stopping power with high levels of precision at the lever.
The most significant improvement over the standard model is the Öhlins suspension. There is a much clearer sense of connection to the road surface and a greater level of feel - the result is a more confidence inspiring bike. Small changes to damper settings make a real difference to the suspension action so it's straightforward to arrive at a set up that suits you and the way you ride.
There you have it. A guide to 25 years of the Fireblade from someone who was there at the start and is still there now. Over the years, I’ve done tens of thousands of miles on different Blades. I’ve been lucky enough to have owned lots of bikes but I keep coming back to the CBR.
Bikes like the BMW S1000RR may be lighter and more powerful, but nothing else on the market offers the balance of extreme performance and ease of use that keeps the Fireblade selling by the boat load. It’s simply the best bike for most riders - it flatters the inexperienced but provides the precision and thrills sought by more seasoned riders.
It’s beautifully built and has been refined over more than two decades. It will take you to work, down the Autoroute du Soleil, and around the Nurburgring with equal aplomb. It'll easily return 45 mpg and, because it’s a Honda, it'll never go wrong.
Paul Jordan, RSR Moto
If you're thinking about buy a Fireblade, this book is highly recommended. It only covers 1992-2008 models but if you're in the market for one of those, it's a great read.
RSR Moto offer a great range of TÜV approved carbon fibre parts for the CBR1000RR Fireblade including the following items:
- Chain Guards
- Side Panels
- Heel Plates
- Body panels
- Air intake covers