In the early ’70s, riders hungry for sport bike performance, handling and styling in a single package found famine in most motorcycle showrooms. Japanese four-stroke fours, two-stroke twins and triples made strong engine performance easy to come by, but many of us were looking for more than muscle car-humiliating acceleration. If Ducati hadn’t brought its undiluted and dreamily tempting 750 Sport to America, enthusiasts looking for machines delivering high-performance handling would have felt forgotten.
For many, the way to satisfy sport bike appetites was customizing affordable, standard Japanese motorcycles. Most had more than adequate power, and with some skill and dedication, their styling and handling could be elevated to surprising levels of sport bike likeness. Low bars replaced taller touring types, road race-styled tanks took the place of common, conservative teardrop shapes, lighter and louder four-into-one exhausts were mounted in favor of stock four-into-four systems, and rear set controls completed the riders’ desire for sporting riding positions. The café racer was reborn.
When Honda unveiled the café racer-inspired CB400F Super Sport in 1975, sport bike fans were either hypnotized or cheering in the streets. Nobody expected a Japanese manufacturer to hit the mark so squarely. The 400 had it all. Its tiny inline four had the mystique of Honda’s exotic road racing multis. A 10,000 rpm redline and six-speed transmission, rare at the time, underscored the fact that the Super Sport’s statement was sincere. The styling was stare-fixing perfection. The low bars, the tank’s purposeful lines and minimalist graphics, the seat’s riveted-on cover and gently upswept tail, and the knockout punch, the gracefully unique four-into-one exhaust, were almost too perfectly executed to be true.
That milestone in motorcycling is where the road to Mick Sakakeeny’s meticulously restored 1975 and 1976 Honda CB400Fs began. “I rode with a friend who had a 400 Super Sport in the ’70s,” he says, “and I always loved the Honda’s styling-perfect proportions.”
Recently, Sakakeeny obtained two 400s and, with friend Peter Arcidiacono, an accomplished mechanic and restorer, transformed them into sparkling examples of the breed, so true to the original that only a handful of 400F fanatics can find any detail differences. “I’ve never been prouder than to restore and own these bikes. Whenever I uncover them in the garage, I can’t even believe it. They’re that beautiful,” Sakakeeny beams. “Even non-motorcycle types know they’re something special.”
I completely understand Sakakeeny’s passion for the 400F. I fell in love with the model from the first time I saw it in magazines in 1975. Twenty years later, I bought two and built one that I thought was presentable. I started with a blue first-year 400F that had punched its #4 cylinder’s connecting rod though the case. A crashed 1977 provided a strong running donor motor. The assembled machine was one of the best, most enjoyable motorcycles I have ever owned-exciting, reliable, and an endless pleasure to look at.
Seeing Sakakeeny’s, I realize my finished 400 was not nearly as nice as the machines he started with. The trendsetting first-year 1975 model, available in blue and red, is the most collectible, followed by the mechanically identical 1976s, which were offered in red and yellow. Black side covers distinguish the ’76s from the ’75s. Honda realized that sport bike enthusiasts were being drawn away by the faster Yamaha RD400 and Kawasaki KH400 two-strokes, and the 1977 model was compromised to woo the commuter crowd with taller bars, moved-up pegs, and a striped tank with a concealed cap. Thankfully, the stirring engine and exhaust remained.
What is it like to ride a 400F in 2009? Sakakeeny’s succinct review is beautifully accurate: “It’s nostalgic, special. This is such a cool bike in so many ways, it’s kind of like trying to explain to someone what it’s like to go to Bangkok. You’ve got to go there to know.” As I thumbed the 400F’s familiar 1970s Honda starter button, I was awash in memorable sounds. As Sakakeeny says, even the starter sound is unique. Once the engine lights, the exhaust and intake take advantage of their chance to harmonize.
Pulling away, there is no mistaking this is a small four. The low rpm power is soft, but smooth. At 7000 rpm, the Super Sport pulls solidly and the revs soar with thrilling ease. As the 400F’s tach needle swings toward 10,000, it almost sounds like the engine has open air filters or no filtration at all, and the exhaust has a sweeter sound than any stock system deserves. The transmission’s ratios are closely stepped, and the shift action is as crisp as the shutter release on a Nikon F camera. Keeping the engine howling uphill and through turns is pure joy.
I always have a vintage Japanese street bike or two in my stable, and I am reminded how sporty the Honda’s riding position feels compared to its contemporaries. The bars are flatter and the footpegs are mildly rearset. The feel is conservative by modern pure-sport standards, but it is so correct and comfortable I cannot believe it wasn’t copied. The 400 is slimmer and lighter than typical fours of the ’70s, and it willingly drops into turns and holds its line. Few Japanese bikes of the mid-1970s had chassis so well matched to their engines. The brakes don’t compare to those on modern machines for power and feel, but they are more than adequate for the 400′s speed.
Downshifting as I roll to a stop, I take a deep breath and reflect on how much Mick Sakakeeny’s Honda CB400F Super Sport gave me in an afternoon’s ride. The sound, the feel, the easy handling, the bike’s compact size, and the machine’s understated, focused styling! I am still in love with all of it. Back when I rode my 400F, I knew I had found one of the most memorable motorcycles I would ever own. Riding one of the finest examples of that machine remastered some of my favorite motorcycling memories. They are brand new again, and better than ever.
Photos by Don Williams