Back In Time Review – 1992 Honda NR750

In Japan, Reviews, Sport by AbhiLeave a Comment

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Honda NR750. What else do I need to say?

Still, I got to spend an afternoon with one, so I had to share my experience with you, right? You know the drill by now – I get limited time with some classics so I can’t give you a full review, but I’ll gladly share a few takeaways. Here’s what I have to say after two hours with the craziest two-wheeler that Honda has ever offered to the public.

This joins a few other “Back In Time” reviews I’ve done recently – one for the BMW K1 and one for the Yamaha RZV500R. Apparently, I’m into red classics?

Let’s get right into what I thought about the NR:

Back In Time Review – 1992 Honda NR750
Photos by Nathan May

1.) This bike is terrifying.
It’s easy to exaggerate when it comes to bikes like this, but I don’t use the word “terrifying” lightly. Some bikes earn that descriptor because of the overwhelming horsepower. With others, it’s the lack of handling (there’s a reason why a few two-wheelers have been blessed with the nickname of “Widowmaker”). With the Honda NR750, it’s the combination of price and rarity.

An NR is valuable, sure, but so is the new Ducati Superleggera – did you see Ari’s review on RevZilla? The difference is, if something goes wrong with the Ducati, you can get parts pretty quick (assuming you can afford them). Hunting for NR750 parts is a different matter. It’s impossible to ride at your usual level of aggressiveness when you have this in the back of your mind, because it can be very difficult to replace parts if you end up on the ground.

For example – on a previous NR750 that we had in for service, the owner asked us to track down a NOS set of heel guards. It took us 6 months and cost the owner about $1,000.

Or how about the titanium-coated windscreen? The one on this bike has a few scratches after 30+ years of life, but the only still-new replacement we’ve been able to find is in China and the seller wants $4,000.

Heaven forbid you need some fairings. The upper bodywork is just one piece, and it’s No Longer Available (NLA). We found one in another country – the seller said he’d take $8,000 but later decided that wasn’t enough to part with his treasure.

Also NLA? Valve cover gaskets. We’ve got a Euro-spec version in for service right now, and our head mechanic Steve has to be VERY careful!

Photo by Adam Tromp.

Photo by Adam Tromp.

No one ever wants to crash. But on this bike? I really didn’t want to crash.

Safest at a standstill.

But why is the NR so valuable?

2.) Everything you like about bikes nowadays – the NR750 did it first.
That’s quite a bit of poetic license, but you might be surprised about what the NR converted from designer’s dreams to the public.

Ask your motorcycling buddy who their favorite designer is. A staggering percentage of them will say, “I don’t know,” but the majority of them with answers will likely respond with “Massimo Tamburini.” Why do I bring that up? Because Tamburini – who penned the Ducati 916 and the MV Agusta F4, among other icons – eventually admitted that he borrowed styling elements from the NR750 when he created the legendary 916. From a great interview in Sport Rider: “When I saw the NR750 in Milan I thought it was going to be the future of motorcycling. I didn’t want to copy it with the 916 but I wanted the 916 to look like it with sharper lines. At that point we had been experimenting with other exhaust positions, to the side of the bike like the 888 and at different heights, but when I saw the NR I tried under the seat and it felt right.

Tamburini doesn’t explicitly mention anything beyond the exhaust, but plenty of other people suggest that the NR’s single-sided swingarm and dual headlights (not that Honda was the first to do either) also heavily inspired the Ducati’s design.

The “dual” headlights of the Honda are actually one large light that’s split by the fairing.

As Tamburini said, “I wanted the 916 to look like [the NR750] with sharper lines.” I’d say he did quite well.

All these styling cues have become mainstream (underseat exhausts have since fallen out of favor, as they cook the seat and raise the center of gravity), but there’s a couple of tricks that you still don’t see today. To help with aerodynamics, the side stand has two individual pieces of carbon fiber on hinges that fold with the stand to fill up as much of the bellypan as possible. There’s even an extra feeler just so you don’t have to scratch the carbon fiber with your boot when you’re bringing the stand up or down.

You’ll also get carbon fiber inside the key. Modern keys should be cooler!

Honda had a hell of a lot to be proud of with this machine, right?

3.) What does it mean when a conservative company brags?
Most of the time, when a company that loves making limited editions (ahem, Ducati) spouts off some nonsense about a special variant with a paint job, some numbers on the triple tree, and maybe a plaque, I fail to see why that merits attention. But when a stereotypically modest outfit like Honda has the audacity to plaster “THE RESULT OF A DECADE’S PERFECTION” on their bike (not once, but twice), it should raise an eyebrow or two. Everyone’s got a quiet friend – and you know it’s extra shocking when they go out of their way to boast.

Photo by Ricki Marenghi.

Where’s the perfection? Well, Honda’s presumably referring to what everyone seems to say when they see an NR in person for the first time: “Is that the oval piston bike?

The oval shape on the tank (including the gas cap) is patterned after the piston.

Smarter people than I have covered the oval piston engine concept in detail, so I’m just going to give you an abridged refresher: back in the late ’70s, Honda wanted to get back into GP racing. At the time, most of the competition was using two-strokes and they were typically putting out about 120 horsepower. Honda created the NR (New Racing) project to investigate how they could compete with a four-stroke motor knowing that GP regulations capped motors to four-cylinders, and they decided that they would need to get eight valves per cylinder to make that happen. To fit eight valves, Honda decided to go with an oval piston.

Photo from Honda

So if we’re being frank, I’m not sure where the “decade’s perfection” claim comes from, though it sure sounds good. I’ll admit that it was a decade of wild ideas – Honda experimented with all kinds of things in an attempt to make the oval-piston motor successful in racing (including the wild V-Twin NR250 from 1983, which utilized twin turbos), but nothing yielded the long-term results Honda was hoping for. Their best ever GP finish was 13th at the ’81 Austrian GP, and the only win in any discipline was a 1981 endurance race at Suzuka (Honda’s site says 200km on one page and 500km on another) with a 500cc oval-piston motor that put out 135 horsepower. Honda would retire the four-stroke oval-piston idea from competition after 1983. “The experience had left them with a deep sense of frustration.

If you want an idea of what it sounded like, here’s some audio from the 1979 NR500 GP racer:

I have to admit, I don’t really get excited about the oval piston concept. I think it’s an impressive feat of engineering, but (especially with the gift of hindsight) it just feels like Big Red was trying to do too much to make a four-stroke competitive with a two-stroke because of Soichiro Honda’s noted hatred of the latter. This quote from engineer Toshimitsu Yoshimura, who helped developed the NR500 motor, sums it up for me: “When I look back at it, I’m not sure if we were experimenting with cutting-edge technologies or obsessed with foolish ideas.”

None of this would have been appreciated by the public if it wasn’t for the 1992 release of the NR750 (officially, the street bike is just called the NR), which produced 125 horsepower. Still, the whole thing has a “what’s the point” stench for me. Honda wasn’t commemorating any sort of race triumph – there was barely anything to celebrate. It reminds me of the Aprilia RSV1000R Bol d’Or: Aprilia created just 200 examples of a limited edition livery for the RSV because they competed in the Bol D’Or, a 24-hour endurance race that occurs every spring at Le Mans. They didn’t win, they just…participated.

That’s the same feeling I get here. Is the NR only special and cool because you’re supposed to think it’s special and cool? I know I’m being harsh, but expectations are high when Honda says that something is the result of a decade’s perfection. Where’s the perfection?

4.) The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Let’s flip the order this time around:

The ugly.
When new, the NR was approximately $50,000, and you got 125 horsepower for your troubles. That’s all well and good, though I will point out that the sub-$10k Honda CBR900RR also put out 125 horsepower in 1992 (and it weighed 90 pounds less than the NR). But here’s the one true disappointment from my experience with the NR: JDM horsepower restrictions. Did you know that, before 1993, a motorcycle sold in Japan had to be smaller than 750cc? Kawasaki couldn’t even sell their legendary Z1 from the 1970s at home – they had to create a 746cc variant called the Z2. In addition, motorcycles between 401cc-750cc were not allowed to make more than 77 horsepower.

Did you catch my video with the Z1 and the Z900RS?

In other words, I’m on a ~540 pound motorcycle motivated by about 75 horsepower. When I asked what you wanted to know about this bike, Robert Broderick asked for me to find a modern equivalent in terms of power/handling/weight. I spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to find the present-day equivalent and came up empty, but a Euro-spec version of my old 1988 BMW K75C (not a bike that anyone would call fast) made 75 horsepower and weighed 536 pounds. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between how fast it looks and how fast it goes.

If we try to be a bit more fair and use the Euro-spec numbers instead (125 hp, 540 lbs), the closest 2020 motorcycle I could find is the BMW R1250GS: 136 hp, 549 lbs.

The bad.
Hit the starter button and the NR instantly settles into an idle of 1,300 rpm. It’s absurdly quiet – more commuter- than race-inspired. I don’t want to give away the entire video that Nathan’s currently editing, but here’s a preview, as I figure it’s much better for you to hear it yourself instead of trying to guess the audio based on my written description. First is a startup and acceleration up to ~75 miles per hour in first gear. I apologize for the GoPro in the way, but you be the judge:

One of the most staggering achievements of the NR is its redline of 15,000 rpm. Approaching it should make you all tingly inside, but it doesn’t. I hate to say it, because I’m one of those people who thinks the word “character” is simultaneously over- and incorrectly used when evaluating motorcycles, but, for all the pomp and circumstance of the technology, this bike does feel a bit bland. By the end of our time, Nathan concluded that “it’s just not an interesting sounding bike.” Here’s another quick clip, but this time it’s hovering near redline as I take about 10 seconds to accelerate from 60-100 miles per hour:

It really needs a pipe, as that’s probably the dullest 15k rpm exhaust note I’ve ever heard. Interestingly enough, we have another NR coming our way to Iconic, and the fine folks at Graves have agreed to build us an exhaust for it. I’ll be sure to let you know how that sounds!

As we transition into the good news, I will say that, even if the peak power number is underwhelming, the delivery is quite impressive. It’s reminiscent of an electric drivetrain, with linear progression and good fueling everywhere except immediately off-idle. The fuel injection computer relies on seven inputs, and I’m impressed with how smooth it is all the way up through 15k rpms. In fact, everything is smooth – the transmission, the clutch lever, even the kickstand. Every touch point on this bike feels good and has held up very well over nearly 30 years (and in this case, about 6,000 miles). That’s not a claim that can be made frequently with exotic two-wheelers.

The good.
OK, so we’ve learned that you either want a Euro-spec NR or, if you buy a JDM model, you want to derestrict it. Either way, once you get it up to speed, the NR is sublime.

As noted above, it’s heavy. You feel it as soon as you sit on it, and it’s even got significant visual weight when you’re in the cockpit or staring at the wide tail.

But once I finally got accustomed to the bike and picked up the velocity, I was absolutely blown away by how well the NR handles at higher speeds. I was rewarded with stability that ignores road imperfections and made me feel like a hero. Hell, I swear I felt the endurance racer roots! Within just a few minutes, I was so comfortable that I was dragging the kickstand feeler. Once I realized what was happening, I immediately backed off, seeing as we needed to sell this…

The suspension is magical – it’s somehow simultaneously supple and sporting (how’s that for alliteration?), and these ~30-year-old suspenders are better than most of the non-electronic suspensions I’ve tested in bikes released this year. Pick a line and the NR will hold it without fuss. I don’t understand how it’s possible or which engineer at Honda sold their soul to the devil.

5. Would I buy one?
On one hand, the NR is so historic that it would seem foolish to pass one up. But a) you better make sure it’s de-restricted and b) you could use that money to buy several interesting motorcycles instead…

When I finally had time to reflect on my time with the NR, I felt that it provides what I look for in a sport-touring bike – incredible stability at speed. But it’s the opposite of what I want in a “fun” bike, seeing as I wouldn’t be putting many miles on one of these if I was lucky enough to own one. When it comes to play bikes, I prefer light and even a little twitchy. I concede that such a simple evaluation omits the collectibility and special nature of the NR, and I know that, no matter the price and history, no one’s buying a ~30-year-old bike because they think it’s the fastest motorcycle around. I just wanted to share both my highs and lows with this Honda, because this was a rare (and cherished) opportunity. Along those lines, sitting in the cockpit and watching the projection dash click upwards makes you feel like you’re in what the ’90s thought the future would be.

If you like being the center of attention, you’ll love this flash of red and black – and you better know its history, because you’ll get peppered with questions any time you ride one. But will you have fun? Ask me again once I’ve ridden one that’s making the full 125 horsepower, but I’m not convinced yet. It’s not easy to have fun and appreciate Honda’s engineering prowess when you have a voice in the back of your head reminding you that you can’t afford to replace it if you wreck it. Thankfully, I suspect the average buyer won’t have that problem.

Even if the NR750 were something I could afford to crack up, I would still think that nowadays it functions better as a museum piece than a rider. The technology behind the engine is fascinating, but that’s not a good enough reason to buy something, especially when the tech didn’t win anything of significance. More importantly, the feelings I currently crave from a motorcycle – brisk acceleration, quick turn-in, an aggressive-but-not-obnoxious exhaust tone – are lacking. To me, the NR feels special because it’s worth a lot of money, not because the riding experience offers significantly more than other bikes of the time.

So, for now, I vote that you drool at an NR if you get the chance to admire one up close, then be amazed at how far motorcycles have come since.

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