Honda. Past masters at the competent but slightly dull motorcycle. It’s what they do. And they are good at it. But what happens when the Captain Sensible of motorcycling surprises everyone by making something slightly left field and (can I even say this) exciting…?
Well, every journalist and commentator in sight of a keyboard begins jumping up and down to pile on the superlatives is the first thing. Had Kawasaki done the same thing as Honda with the Hornet, no one would have taken the slightest bit of notice. Because Kawasaki do have form in making left field bikes. And they’re not just good at it. They’re very good at it.
So it was when the original Hornet came along in 1998. Like Ford’s Escort XR3i, The CB600F Hornet created a mini earthquake in the industry, but it was less revolution than evolution, being a new take on something in essence already technologically old hat – just like the ‘scort in fact.
There it sat with its reworked CBR600 motor – the same CBR that every bike magazine had at that point agreed showed more than a passing resemblance to one recently demoted John Major: competent, but a just little bit too blandly conservative for most tastes. OK the Hornet had Fireblade wheels but the rest was like reading the motorcycling section of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Flat bars. Four CV carburettors. An upright riding position. Analogue clocks. A round headlight. A foam seat. Er….sound at all familiar? It didn’t matter. Honda were about to realise they’d finally tripped up the budget bike stairs instead of down them.
OK it wasn’t all old hat. The frame was new and interesting; a cheap-to-produce square section steel spine affair hidden completely from view (and luckily for us – it is incredibly ugly and utilitarian). There was also the Hornet’s signature flourish of the high level exhaust. Despite this, it seemed initially as if Honda had hung their flat cap on the wrong marketing peg. They’d made a cheap poser bike with needlessly fat rubber and an unremarkable old engine. I mean, isn’t that what Kawasaki was for?
But just like with the frumpy old Ford, a sprinkle of sporting pizzazz put the Hornet in a league of its own. Honda knew raiding the parts bin and dropping CBR nomenclature into the dowdy CB sector would titillate journalists and it soon came to pass. Magazines quickly became enamoured with the phrases ‘Fireblade rubber’, ‘twitchy handling’ and ‘CBR derived motor’ giving the bike the edge, heritage credibility and marketing boost it perhaps didn’t initially deserve.
Honda were also clever with the name, having learnt from their performance stable that a memorably aggressive anglicised name had much more media traction than a lettered prefix (Fireblade, Firestorm, Super Blackbird). And so like a Marvel comic super hero, the CB quickly transcended its bean-counter origins, pulled its horn rimmed gasses off and stepped out of the phone box as Hornet, complete with bulging thorax-shaped tank (and no they couldn’t use ‘Wasp’ – that’s what Vespa means.) Lesson? A memorable name in an average motorbike reaps rewards. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in British Bike industry marketing.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the Hornet. The old carburated one I mean. I have a problem with the aesthetics of the newer ones in the same way I have a problem with the aesthetics of most new bikes which these days seem to have been designed by people who’ve eaten too much processed food and take Ritalin. But the old ’98-06 models have enough positive aspects to make even the most cynical of bikers sneak a smile.
There are a few things and design quirks I really like about the Hornet, so instead of giving you some standard copy where I talk all meaningfully about the 16” wheel model’s ‘twitchy handling’ (© all Hornet reviews ever) and how it’s ‘more than the sum of its parts’ (ditto) I’ll focus down on what’s really important from an ownership point of view.
First it’s properly impractical – one of the first highly impractical roadsters which prefigured where we are today with the 600 naked class. It was supplied without a rack but with that pointless high-level exhaust, going against all previous lessons learned about keeping mass low and making pannier fitment nightmarish, frozen dairy goods transit next to impossible and pillion passengers suffer an inexplicable type of one-sided sunburn doctors know as ‘Hornet Leg’.
I say pointless high-level exhaust but that’s not really correct. The idea is to make the aesthetics of the rear of the bike flow seamlessly and aggressively upwards while at the same time making the exhaust more visibly impressive to bystanders. With its drilled stainless heat shield, it certainly does that. And being closer to one’s ears, the Hornet’s pleasant burble-scream soundtrack reaches out much more effectively too, making the rider infinitely more attractive as life-partner material. Not pointless at all, see?
Perhaps what is pointless is the enjoyably daft tank size. Early ones were notably small so Honda, keen to allay criticism, gave the mid-cycle refresh Hornet one extra litre of capacity. One litre. With a massive 17 now available, the Hornet rider could easily make, ooh, say 100 miles of spirited riding between full and reserve even though the motor was retuned (I prefer this to detuned as the Hornet is still a bit screamy and wearing once you get going in earnest).
No, despite being less powerful than the CBR, the Hornet is not especially economical as a result, and you’ll have to excuse it for this. Instead, the Hornet is edgy – just like the Firestorm. And if you’ve ever owned the otherwise fantastic Firestorm, you’ll know just how often you have to visit petrol stations in the name of edgyness.
Of course Honda did test the waters in 2000 and made a practical Hornet with a useful headlight fairing and screen, meaning progress over 80mph was possible for more than ten minutes at a time but guess what? It was quickly canned when no one bought it. No one wants a practical Hornet right? That’s why the CBF600 exists.
Next the tyres. The rear sports a 180 section tyre. I carify, one eight zero. This bike has around 95hp, not exactly a mass of torque and weighs next to nothing. The tyres are a simple expensive styling exercise – but a great one. A lot of riders excuse them technically, saying there’s a better choice of sports rubber as a result, but deep down we all know the real reason. Wide tyres impress like nothing else. Never mind that it turns slower than a bike on 160 section rubber and has nowhere near the horsepower that the contact patch of a 180 section tyre merits. Fat tyres win prizes.
Suspension? Honda knew if they started adding fancy suspension it’d just get reviewers laser focusing in on its actual handling merits. But supplying it with basic commuter tech unadjustable forks, caged ball bearing steering bearings and no rising rate rear linkage was a stroke of utter genius. You simply cannot criticise a budget bike for having budget suspension. It is what it is. As a result people liked it despite its basic suspension inadequacies –as people tend to with a bike that’s not sold as a carefully honed scythe of the racetrack. As the basic design was good, people were happy to upgrade it, which is where we arrive at next. Bolt on mods.
The Hornet is the insect king of the bolt on mod. Most motorcyclists are happy to accessorize with things like tank protectors and helmet ears but Honda conceived the Hornet to be properly rashly modified. Aftermarket fruity exhaust cans, Renthal bars, crash bungs, Dynojet kits, crappy anodised engine bolt sets – there’s a whole world to explore in the art of making your Hornet worse. In fact modding a Hornet is one of the joys of ownership and a reason why so few run properly. Then that’s another story.
Finally we come to finish. Taken as a whole, Honda are probably one of the best manufacturers in terms of finish, at least in my experience (and as I once worked for a breaker I’ve seen a few bikes pass beneath my hands). But the Hornet is comparatively woefully finished. It’s hard to clean (being designed for a faired bike, the engine block is a mass of annoying nooks and crannies) and the paint finish is thin. The yokes and fixings rust badly on the front end and the frame paint is poor, tending to rust in spidery tendrils beneath the black finish. Forks pit. Corrosion gets into the main loom electrical connectors leading to high resistance electrical joints (and the occasional melty plug as a result). The downpipes are stainless but the mounting hardware and collets are mild steel and rust like billy. The rear shock paint dissolves at the base from flexing (buy a hugger – the best Hornet mod ever) and the inside of the faired model is unenclosed and just looks horribly cheap (even a Diversion has upper closing panels for cock’s sake).
Yet all this just inspires owner love and dedication in the Hornet as it does with an old Ducati. You will buy black Smoothrite. You will tenderly apply ACF-50 and buff away its inadequacies. And why? Because you will like it for how it looks and rides. And that’s the best recommendation I could ever give you about Honda’s excellent little Hornet.