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Big is Beautiful

Michael Williams sings the praises of the unclassifiable VF1000


While still using 'Novemba-Pappa-Yankee' to commute on every day, and sat in my office with no work to do, because they had moved my projects fifty miles away, and I was pondering on the redundancy packages they were going to offer me; I read an owners report on the VF1000, that I thought was a little bit unfair, so wrote my own. Three years later! It was published by the Used Motorcycle Guide!

This is the cover of the actual magazine, my report was published in, from January 2003. Mentioned on the cover, between the GPZ500s & the Enfield Bullet!

I got a years subscription to the mag, that I only got five editions of, because they were bought out by another title; and a T-Shirt with the logo "I write for the Used Motorcycle Guide" that came off the first time it went through the wash! But, HEY! I STILL had an article published, in a magazine people actually PAID for at the news agents stands!

Article as Published

Donít be fooled - it's big, it's brash and it falls squarely between the stereotype muscle-bike styling of the late seventies UJM's and the bland plastic fantastic offerings of the late Eighties and on. In Honda's ranking it succeeded the CB900/1000 and CBX1000 and preceded the jelly-mould CBR1000. It is a historical quirk, up a development blind alley, with the big chain driven quad cam V4 engine.

That means it had a two year model life, right when bike sales were at their lowest, and it wasn't popular in its day, so there aren't many of them around. This means that it is different, but it also means that parts are not as readily available.

The CBX1000 is now legend, but in comparison, the VF was fresh, faster, more powerful and better handling. Argument remains over whether the VF was an improvement over the CB900/1000. Certainly its specification would imply so, but in the real world, the old CB wasn't quite that bad, and the VF never that good.

For speed and handling the VF probably has the edge - ultimately, but the CB is probably easier to live with and today it probably comes down more to how well the bike in question has been looked after and set up.

The difference between the VF and CBR on the other hand is another matter. The CBR was not a great leap forward. With it's great mass, and great length, it was and is, a blamange - the fact that Honda decided to successively de-tune the thing to 100 Euro friendly BHP means that it just got worse. A good VF1000 beats a CBR1000 hands down for just about everything but reliability, and has some character to boot.

But the VF is a bit of forgotten splendour - the CBX is heralded as a motorcycling milestone and the CB900 the ultimate super-bike, and while the CBR is a trusty old friend, the VF lurks in the shadows and costs a lot less; as long as you look after it.

Looking outside the Honda range, today, the VF probably squares up against a Yamaha FJ1200 or Suzuki GSX1100F, both of which are bigger and younger. If you are looking for a big old sports tourer, bikes like early GSXR1100's or pre-EXUP Yamaha FZR1000 Genesis may creep into the 'look at' list - but in their day they were only ever considered as sports-bikes, and the VF definitely looses out to them in the performance stakes, but possibly not as much as you may think.

Against the myriad of 600's and 750's you could find at a similar price - the VF's extra cubes really do make a difference - a GSX600F for instance feels like a learner legal back to back with the VF, with the light weight and peaky engine urging you to thrash it a lot more than you need, where the VF just lugs along, then pulls like a freight train when asked, whatever the revs, whatever the gear. Living with the big VF is easy.

If you are new to biking, and want to move 'up' from a 125 or 33bhp machine, and think that a 600 is about as big as you want to go, don't be afraid to check out the Big Viff. OK it's big and it's heavy, but that also means that it's stable and the power is so flexible that it is easy to come to terms with.

Any way, the main criticisms of the machine are the high seat height, high centre of gravity and great mass. It certainly isn't nice trying to keep it up if you over balance when pulling it on the centre stand - but moving it's a joy. Forget the complaints about the 16inch front wheel, though. The big VF got a 17 inch rear wheel, rather than an 18 inch one like it's little brother and many other bikes of the era, so the differential isn't that great, AND the tyre sizings mean that the VF has wheels with a rolling diameter not that much different to a modern sportsbike with low profile 17inch wheels front & back (a fact not lost on Honda when they gave the first fire blade a 17inch rear, 16inch front combination).

Also, the wheelbase isn't that long, and the geometry that far off. The only real problem with the bike's handling are its mass and rather soft suspension.

The upright riding position is relaxed and roomy and gives the rider plenty of visibility, and all that mass does a good job of damping out side winds, bumps and clumsy gear changes, making it very easy to ride.

Handling is often criticised as vague and ponderous. It is and it isn't.

At low speeds it feels precarious, like that little front wheel doesn't know where it wants to go, and at high speeds it can feel like it has a mind of its own. While in the twisties, normal riding styles have the bike laughing at you whilst you tie yourself and the machine in knots trying to make it lean and turn and not fall over.

But there's a knack to getting the best out of the Big VF. If you want to explore the envelope you can. Just don't try riding it like a modern sports-bike. Ride it like an old fashioned super-bike and you are getting close, but you'll be fighting the machine, and it is one bike that doesn't like to be argued with.

To make it handle, you have to treat it like a very big, very heavy, very fast moto-crosser. Don't pull her down into a corner from underneath, you get on top of her and use her own weight to make her lie down and do as she's told. Counter steering heavily helps, but you have to use a delicate hand on the throttle and use the torque to drive her through a corner, throttle off and she'll stand up and drift wide. It's a bit un-nerving at first, because it seems totally contrary to everything you expect, but it works - it just takes confidence, but it's very rewarding to get it right, and even more so when you go piling into the twisties against a GPZ600 who thinks he's going to dust you through the bends, only to loose ground to the 'ponderous beast'.

So it does handle, in it's own way, it just handles differently, and it's only vague and ponderous if you don't take command of it, if you do, spirited riding is possible and it is rewarding, even if it isn't encouraged. But it is a lot of hard work, and for not a lot of real gain.

But scratching is not what the Big VF is about. It's a bike you can load up with 150l of hard luggage, assorted camping gear, and stuffa bags, slap a two tier tank bag on, add a passenger and not have to adjust the suspension - it just takes it in its stride, and riding with all that luggage isn't a lot different to riding normally, as long as you don't expect to try the moto-crosser judo antics in the twisty bits. And whether loaded or unloaded, it just wants to be ridden.

With a five gallon fuel tank and the ability to return over 50 to the gallon, ridden moderately, you can be in the saddle for five or six hours before you think, 'hey, what time is it? - the wife' expects me back for tea'.

It is not a Sunday thrasher, it's a grand tourer, it doesn't have all the whistles and bells of a Goldwing, or the staid reserve of a BMW. If a Goldwing can be likened to a Winnebago with two wheels, and a BMW to say a diesel Mercedes, the VF would be likened to an Aston Martin.

It's, carefree easy going, enjoying the ride? No, ok, then let's just fast forward through the boring bits. You can enjoy the ride, or you can enjoy the riding.

But a good all-rounder should be everyday useable - and the VF is useable, just. The riding position and power delivery are brilliant for swift safe progress through traffic. But where paddling through a Cotswold village on a Sunday afternoon, avoiding Japanese tourists walking backwards into the road with a camera pressed to their face, or weaving through old grannies shunting for a parking space, is no problem, sustaining that for three quarters of an hour across a busy city centre is not fun.

The weight starts to become apparent, and all that low down power is far too easy to unleash on a disgruntled Sierra driver at the next set of traffic lights, and zero to 60 to zero riding in ten second blasts sees you watching a gallon of petrol disappear in under 20 miles and a rear tyre in under 1000. Along with it goes the chain and sprockets, the rear wheel bearings, the brake pads, and disks, as all that torque is unleashed and all that mass is pitched violently forwards and back.

But I suppose that's not fair - if you rode it like a BMW in traffic, you could see BMW type MPG and maintenance, it's just it takes a lot of self control.

I took my VF to the Island, and that really did show it at its best. Packing was easy - hard luggage made it more so, but no faffing around trying to find places to strap stuff, or move it around to get the weight lower, it's big and heavy and tall to start with, and the bike just takes it all with lest a shrug.

The ride to the ferry was just a dull motorway blast in the dark. Not a VF strong point - the lamp is definitely not bright enough for its speed. But with lighting most of the way, it shouldn't matter, though mine has gained a couple of spots to illuminate the way for me.

Fast Forward. Nothing fell off, shook, wobbled or caused alarm - the only concern was remembering 40Litre panniers stick out a long way, and just 'cos I could get my knees through a gap between cars, didn't mean the boxes would fit too.

Riding onto the ferry was easy, with lots of steering lock and slow speed control. Whilst sports-bike riders shuffled, shunted and grunted, lifting their machines into the right place, I just put her onto the centre stand, whilst others swore at deck hands or tried to prop their bikes on beer cans, and stuff spare jumpers between the fairings. Riding off again was just as uneventful.

On the island it was implacable. With so many bikes all in one place, the latest hot snot bikes that stood out from the crowd at the local meet, just merged into the throng, whilst customs and specials just blurred into a one-ness of over-chromed harleys or loud polished GSXR based street-fighters.

I saw only one other VF-thou on the isle, but that was a Bol'd'Or tourer. It was anonymous individuality - I had a bike like no one else on the island, and we didn't have to shout about it.

Through the week, we had the speed to keep many a race replica in sight round the course, but most of the time, it wasn't worth the effort. Head up, I could enjoy the scenery, and the bikes, and the riding.

Down narrow tracks, the height and riding position let me see over hedges or round corners, and we could explore the back tracks as well as the main roads.

In fact, its 'off road' ability was put well to the test. For most of race week we'd had torrential rain bursts, and a lot of riders in the campsites had packed up and gone home. Come Saturday, only the stalwarts were left, and they were beginning to regret it.

I emerged from my tent to find that most of the bikes were crammed onto the hard-standing on the farm driveway, and lots of riders were lugging tents and packs up the hill piecemeal to load them up. The odd bike tried to make its way up the slippery slope, but most were not loaded and plenty were being bodily dragged, sometimes on their sides, through the mud.

Even the dirt bikes were having trouble. As I started to take my tent down and load up the VF, the crowd at the gate murmured - I could almost hear the comments "He'll be the next!" But I carried on and loaded up. On went the hard boxes, and the tent, cameras et al. Then I climbed aboard, thumbed the motor and pulled up the kick stand!

Second gear, and very gently, eased in the clutch, to get her moving. Then, standing on the pegs and leaning forward, just let her find her way through the mud and the ruts up the hill to the gateway. With just one dab as I crossed the deepest grooves by the gate. There was a stunned silence from the crowd. Big, unwieldy and ponderous?

On Douglas Prom, I even found the courage to show off a bit. My bike had a pair of short American Supertrapp mufflers that had a definite bark to them (but directed hot exhaust onto the panniers, unfortunately). The anonymous VF caused a bit of a murmur when I fired her up on the prom and I suddenly realised I had an audience. Oh well, where I had just seen a GPZ600 dropped attempting a donut, I gunned the throttle, lifted the front wheel, and left a black stripe behind me - well, it had to be done. Not quite what the crowd expected from an overweight street-bike with a top-box and a rider in a yellow anorak!

And that is the VF's biggest strength - it is completely non-descript and defies classification. It's no tourer, and no sport-sbike, it's not a muscle bike, or cruiser. It is a street-bike, but one with a degree of all-round competence that is very difficult to match. But it needs a confident master, to get the best out of it.

In conclusion, a bike out of time. The VF1000 bridged that brief gap between the muscle bikes of the seventies and the sports-bikes of the Eighties, without being either, and consequently, without finding many buyers.

If the model had continued, it would have been re-marketed as a sports tourer, and in the company of machines from a similar era that were so re-classified it fares well. It is far more nimble and better handling than the muscle bike derived FJ11/1200, and a league away from the faithful XJ900.

Whilst the sports bike derived GPZ900R has only a slight edge in the handling stakes, and while an FZR1000 will leave it behind on overall performance, it cannot compete for rider or passenger comfort, and in all likelihood, you'll get a VF for a lot less money.

Watch out for bent, damaged, or badly repaired examples, quite a few went down the road - listen for rattling engines - that is their biggest weakness. Like the VF750, the VF1000 suffered a number of top end failures, either the cam chain, tensioner or cam shafts. It was never as bad in the less stressed big VF, but it was still prone. Good oil and frequent changes are recommended, as with any machine.

Back ends are also prone to wear - chain, sprockets, tyres and wheel bearings, due to the torque and mass. But don't be put off by a bit of wobble - this is all fairly cheap and easy to sort out.

Routine maintenance isn't that difficult and there isn't much bodywork to take off to get at everything. Service spares are pretty easy to come by, and not too expensive. But the bike is tyre sensitive. It doesn't like pointed profiles, especially Metzlers, but rides well on nice rounded ones. Pirelli Match work well.

The big VF I doubt will ever become a classic, it doesn't have that super-bike style of the '70's UJM or the kudos of being a real race replica. It has charm, and it has presence, and a lot more ability than many would give it credit. So its biggest asset is a low price tag. For a given budget, you'll get a lot more bike with the VF, and being a Honda, the quality of finish will make many believe that it is a much newer bike.

Mine is getting on for 20 years old now, but looks better than many bikes half its age, and I'm no Autoglm freak. Keep your eyes open when you're shopping and don't dismiss it from your list - because of the rep, they can be worth a look.


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