Guest Story Intermission – Farewell, Old Friend

In Blog, Guest Writers by AbhiLeave a Comment

In the comments section of Kurt Bartlein’s recent CB900F story, commenter Walter Barlow mentioned that he had a similar story which could make for a nice follow-up. I agree – so come check it out!

Walter’s comment:
Short version- I bought a first year black/orange striped 1981 CB900F after lusting over it for a while as it came out in Europe first. I wound up keeping it for 18 years- eventually trading it for a Moto Morini Camel 501.

Around 2016 or thereabouts, feeling nostalgic from a Bike-urious story on one, I bought a 1982 black/orange striped 900F. Kept that one for 4 years and eventually sold it back to the person from whom I bought it – and he still has it.

Walter’s 1982 CB900F that he found on Bike-urious!

I’ll send Abhi the “long version”, which contains some interesting components that folks might find interesting.”

Well, here’s the long version!

Guest Story Intermission – Farewell, Old Friend
by Walter Barlow

November 1998

Recently, as I was nearing home from having successfully completed an Iron Butt BunBurner ride (1,500 miles within 36 hours, actually did 1,548 in about 32 hours) to the Barber Vintage Motorcycle Museum, the realization came to me that I was really enjoying myself and, in particular, riding this bike. The ride had consisted of a lot of highway riding (not my favorite type, but the route I used was at least pretty) along with some secondary roads and a bit of two-lane blacktop (my favorite) in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. The bike I used for this trip was my 1981 CB900F, which I bought new that same year. I couldn’t help but think back to when I bought the bike and my ownership of it over the years…(cue nostalgic music)

Relatively flush from having profitably sold a Triumph TR3 car I’d restored, I was casting about
for a new motorcycle to replace my trusty cafe’d out CB500/4 (Yosh 580 kit, IOM cam, Lester wheels,
TT100’s, aftermarket shocks/springs, clip-ons, rear-sets, dolphin fairing, Dunstall seat, etc. Bitchin!!). That bike had been my two-wheeled conveyance for quite a few years and I’d had a lot of fun with it: Sunday morning rides, general riding, touring, even my ultimately futile attempts at becoming a roadracer (Open Production, caused by the big-bore kit, was a tough place for the bike , and to be honest, this rider, to compete). While still a great ride, I had the desire for something a little larger, more powerful, more comfortable, and 80’s handling and suspension compliance.

While I would have liked to keep the 500, this was 1981, when owning multiple street bikes was
pretty rare (I only knew one person who owned more then one), and generally the province of the wealthy, unmarried and/or childless, or (I assumed) the fanatically dedicated. Plus, a friend (who had spent a lot of miles looking at my tail section) had made me a real good offer for the 500. So, it looked like money wouldn’t be an issue. The problem (and a great problem to have) was which bike to get?

I was pretty sure from the start it was going to come down to a choice between a Ducati Darmah
SD or SS, and a Honda CB900F.

Ducati 900 SD Darmah

A Laverda triple and Moto Guzzi CX100 were early contenders. While I’d never ridden, and seldom even saw, a Laverda, I was impressed with everything I’d read about it, the apparent build quality, and owner comments. The fact that the nearest dealer (whose reputation wasn’t real good) was about 100 miles away through some really rotten riding took it out of the running once I put aside the high lust factor and really thought about the practicalities of ownership. I kind of felt the Guzzi was a front runner: decent power and brakes, stable chassis, simple/reliable motor and shaft drive, with stunning looks. Two things really put me off with it: 1) the “local” dealer seemed pretty incompetent (out of business shortly thereafter) and the next closest dealer was the aforementioned one that handled Laverdas and, 2) In addition to a new one, the dealer had a used one in the shop that was about 6 months old. While the new one looked well made, I was appalled at how badly weathered the used one looked; faded and peeled paint, rusted nuts/bolts, and apparent shoddy switchgear/electrics (the reason it was in the shop). So, disappointed, I crossed the CX off the list.

Moto Guzzi CX100

I suppose I should mention that the above “reasons” would not deter me from making a buying
decision today for an older bike. But, considering that I was looking for an “only” bike and that I hate downtime and like high build quality, these were important buying criteria for me.

I had ridden several Ducatis (and raced against them), and was really impressed with how well
they worked. Yeah, they weren’t too fast compared to similar displacement 4’s, but that was of academic
interest on the street (I had come to the realization that I was not the second coming of King Kenny by
this time, so track performance wasn’t a big deal). They sounded, handled, looked, and “felt” great. I was a little intimidated by the intricacies of the desmo valve system, but having a dealer who seemed to know his stuff about 35 miles away made this not too important. While I really liked the Darmah SS, I figured the SD offered most of the looks, virtually all of the performance, and a lot more comfort. It was looking like a Duc was in my future, and I was pumped. But there was still the 900F to check out.

Honda CB900F. Photo from Motorcycle Classics.

Based on the highly touted 750F, Honda had introduced the 900F in Europe in 1979, and I really liked both the concept and the styling (I still think it is just about the best looking UJM “standard” ever made). Seemed like a great combination of open-class power with an excellent chassis; as long as they didn’t screw up in the combination. I had been reading everything I could find on it (which wasn’t much) and had a bad case of “unobtanium desireous” and was hoping Honda would bring it to the US. Which I’d heard a rumor they would do for 1981. Now, rumors in 1981 were a little bit different then they are now when, thanks to the Internet, it seems like new bike descriptions and plans are on the net as soon as the designers put pen to paper. So I was a bit skeptical, but hopeful.

Anyway, one day I was driving to a customer along Rt. 1 in NJ. As I passed by a Honda car/bike dealership, I noticed a bike in the window that looked like a 750, but it’s black with a red stripe. I liked the color combo and turned around for a closer look. Gads! It’s a 900F! Here in New Jersey! It’s beautiful! Yo, dealer man, let’s talk. I’m obviously very interested, and grill the poor guy unmercifully. He is beyond his depth and pleads ignorance on everything. It turns out he’s a car salesman and he tells me that the dealership is getting out of the bike business once the several bikes on the floor are sold. I ask if I can take it for a ride and he says sure (gotta love the car dealer mindset that considers a test ride a mandatory part of buying) and gets a temp plate and a loaner helmet. I return a half hour later with mixed emotions: the 900F seemed like everything I’d hoped it would be, but I was sad because I knew I wouldn’t be getting the Darmah.

Totally blowing Negotiation 101, I tell him “I’ll buy it, how much is it?”. As soon as I utter the sentence, I realize I have no idea how much it costs and probably should hand the guy some KY right now; but that doesn’t seem to be so important (you know what it’s like when in the throes). The other open classers are all about four thousand as is the Darmah, so I figure it’s around there or maybe a little more then that. The salesman checks his invoice for a minute and says “if you buy it today you can have it for $2,850, which is $100 over our invoice”. Blinking and making mouth noises like a fish out of water, I can’t bring myself to say “deal” because I’m flabbergasted. The salesman misinterprets my condition for the normal kind of sticker shock and says something like “look, I really can’t do any better then that”. I compose myself and agree to buy the bike. I ask to use his telephone, call my wife and ask her to go to the bank, get a certified check, and bring it over; along with a license plate and her brother to drive my car home. I call the insurance company and get coverage, and then call the customer I was going to see and tell him I’ll be there tomorrow, or maybe next week. I then wait around until my wife arrives and take the bike home.

The very CB900F that Walter bought in 1981

After I broke it in and started to explore its performance envelope a bit, I just started liking the bike more and more with each passing mile and each strafed apex. I was amazed at how well it handled, and it was plenty fast for me. I took the bike to the local drag strip and got a best time after several tries of 12.34 at around 110 mph. Compared to the Darmah, it seemed to have a little less low-down power (though not as down as you might think), equal midrange, and much stronger top end, about equal front brakes, better rear brake, was just as smooth, a little more comfortable (the higher bars and lower pegs weren’t too great, but the relative positioning of them and the seat were pretty good), and equally pleasing (though in a different way) sound. Handling? In my opinion, while the Darmah *may* have been more stable in triple digit sweepers (and I’m not saying it was, just that it may have been), the 900F would run rings around it everywhere else; all the while providing superior suspension compliance with tad quicker steering that I liked more.

It was fast, handled well, smooth, comfortable and looked great; what more could I want? Was this
“buyer’s elation” at work, or was this bike as good as I thought it was? Finally, the magazines got around to testing it. Cycle (who I felt did the best and most honest evaluations) did a road test in the May 81 issue and pretty much wrote the performance part of the road test just about the way I would have. It turns out that Honda upgraded the 900F in the areas of suspension, chassis, and brakes when they brought it to the US, and still had an MSRP of only about $3,500. Later that year, my wife got me the Hondaline European Sport Kit (lower handlebar, semi rearset pegs, brackets, and cables) as a present. This was the finishing touch; as the bike went from “pretty comfortable” to “just about perfect” for all kinds of riding.

For several years, it was my only bike, and I did everything with it; and it never disappointed in any of its roles. As society has become hedonistic and multi-bike ownership became more common, there were a few bikes that came out in the 80’s and 90’s that I really liked (some of which I bought, including a LeMans III and a rubber band 900SS, and still have), but I kept the F. As time went by, I made few changes to it: new rear shocks and fork springs, added a small luggage rack, but not much else. A few years ago, I finally found a long sought-after accessory; the Hondaline Sport Fairing (striped in 82’s scheme, but close enough). I added a fork brace and steering damper when I put the fairing on, more out of habit then any known need, and added an after-market seat. The bike has only had one failure: the stator went bad at about 25,000 miles (a fairly common problem, from what I hear). Other then the normal replacement parts (sprockets, chain, tires, plugs, etc.) it is all as Honda built it. It’s never even blown a fuse or a light bulb. Quite amazing, when you think about it. Valve check every 6,000 miles or so (when checked before this trip, 2 exhausts were a tad loose). The carbs have been synched once, at around 20,000 miles. Gas mileage, until this trip (when I added a large windscreen, which knocked it down quite a bit) has been just about 40 mpg.

Walter’s CB900F with the Hondaline fairing.

As I’ve added a couple more bikes to the household during the ensuing years, I ride the F less in
absolute terms then I used to; but still have a great time on it when I do. I find that it still works real well, whether for a long trip, a Sunday morning ride, or just tooting around.

I’m not saying that motorcycling evolution stopped with this model, that this bike is the greatest
bike of all time, or even of it’s own time. What I am saying is that it’s been a great bike for me, and that too often I hear the term UJM used dismissively by snobbish alleged motorcyclists who might do well to take an older bike (of any type) out for a ride. Too often, we tend to focus on the latest/greatest; and indeed, the improvements that the manufacturers have made over the years have resulted in absolutely stunning purpose-built bikes. But there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in these older bikes (and at absolutely bargain prices to boot).

March 2000

I always thought it would be sort of cool to do a comparison ride between the F and a Darmah. Until recently, this hope was going unfulfilled because I didn’t know anyone with a Darmah that would do this. Then my friend Nicolas Simon bought one late last year; so I approached him with the idea for a swap. Being the good guy that he is, he agreed to do so just as soon as he sorted it out (tires, suspension, etc.). Nick’s is a 1978, but it’s basically the same as the 1981 I was considering. Nick is also a dedicated Italian motorcycling enthusiast (aka certifiable Italian bike nut); so it would be interesting to get his perspective on the F.

To make it somewhat equal, I removed the Hondaline fairing for the comparo.

Nicholas on the 900F…
Climbing on to a Honda CB900F for the first time in 15 years was not the pinnacle of my day. I wanted to ride the Ducati on the roads that I knew Walter was going to take us on, as it was built for them. Drat, he was going to have all the fun. I would be watching the Ducati with a maniacally grinning Walter at the helm disappear into the distance, while I, trying to wrestle 550 pounds of 1970’s technology, would be struggling to keep the Honda out of the ditch.

Ah, preconceptions… So the Ducati did pull away from the Honda on the twisty stuff, but it wasn’t that dramatic a difference. In fact, in terms of practicality, the Honda was all over the Ducati. Comfortable, smooth, well-suspended, one could have loaded the bike up with luggage and passenger and gone for a long ride. Thousand mile days? I don’t doubt it. No fuss, no muss sums it up. Starting was easy and instant. The gearbox was fine, clutch action light and smooth, as were the mirrors. The seat was comfortable, the engine powerful and the chassis adequate, even by current standards. The brakes too were powerful, if a little hard to modulate smoothly. They seemed to go from mild retardation to full-on-tire howling-maximum-power over a fraction of a millimeter of lever travel. Alright, I exaggerate a little, but they did not have the progressive action of the Ducati’s Brembos. Out on the open road, the Hondas engine built power progressively from nothing to the redline, with no dips or surges in delivery. Very nice. Overtaking was a snap; just wind on the throttle, and off you go. For those tight gaps you could drop a gear, and get the task over a little quicker, but it wasn’t essential. It’s quiet too. The bike feels big, but not too intimidating. Even on the twistiest of roads, it could be hustled along at a respectable rate. If anything, it felt a little remote from the road surface, which put one off exploring the handling limits. Seeking the limits of available ground clearance would require riding in a manner more suited to a racetrack. The chassis never seemed to get bent out of shape, and the Olde Worlde narrow bias ply tires were perfectly adequate.

In its day, the Honda 900F was a benchmark motorcycle. Very few Japanese bikes could keep up with it, and then few matched its handling prowess. The Italian contingent of the time could outhandle it, and were a lot more exciting, but they could not match the all-around competence of the Honda, or its price. The Honda was born of another age, but that doesn’t make it a bad bike, even now. For the rider seeking a used inexpensive classic general-purpose machine, the Honda is well worth a look. It won’t stir the soul like the Ducati, but it’ll take you further and probably won’t let you down either.

Brit friend and fellow moto writer Nicholas Simon and I trying to persuade each other of our respective choices.

Walter on the Darmah…
Yeah, I was grinning. The Darmah is just as much fun as I remembered. Still looks good too, and has “the sound” in spades. Nick’s example is a real nice rider and with the newly installed shocks and tires provides a ride that is as confidence inspiring as you’d expect from a Ducati. The engine seemed a bit stronger down low (compared to the 900F) than I remember; but this may be a result of the mileage difference: the F has about 45,000 miles on it, the Darmah has about 10,000 miles. I’ll not dwell on the potential difference those numbers may mean; and not just from a performance standpoint ☺

The nature of the power from the big 90 degree Vtwin is very sweet – power starts very low and just builds in a very linear fashion. Though I didn’t flog it near redline (well, not too much anyway), the motor never seems stressed and imparts a sense of being able to run at whatever speed you want all day. This characteristic is hard to describe accurately, but it’s one that I really like. The real nice thing that a torquey motor provides is effortless roll on acceleration almost regardless of speed or revs: something the Darmah also has in spades. Accompanying the power and sound (in my opinion a Conti-equipped bevel Ducati is the best sounding motorcycle ever created) are engine vibrations that are just right – you know you’re riding a motorcycle and it feels good.

The Darmah has a great seating position – relative positioning of the bar/seat/pegs is excellent and
very conducive to long untiring days in the saddle. When new, the Darmah was reported to have a very
uncomfortable seat; but I guess years of repli-racer seats have sort of changed people’s perceptions of
comfort: I found it very nice, just a tad wide.

I found the brakes pretty good, not as wooden as many early Ducatis and providing good feedback, but with high lever effort. On the street, I prefer brakes more like the F’s because I often like to trail brake (I find it reassuring more than anything else) and very light initial effort makes this easier. No doubt I would adapt to the Darmah’s brake with time and it would cease to be an issue. Shifting was hallmark bevel Ducati – snick snick short and precise. Clutch action was very smooth and worth the firm pull required to use it. Another bevel trademark is the lack of driveline lash; this is another area where Ducatis of their day were superior to all other bikes.

Ride quality was excellent as long as the road was smooth. The old tech forks don’t seem to respond very well (quickly) over small bumps. This is probably because the seals exert a lot of pressure against the fork tubes resulting in a fair amount of what’s called stiction. This is a common characteristic of a lot of bikes before the 80’s (and Ducatis until the Paso/906/907/STx series of Sport Tourers). The tradeoff for that is unflappable composure at speed – a fair trade given how most of them are used.

With a gobs o’ torque engine, excellent ergonomics, good brakes, high quality suspension components, lots of ground clearance (no one grounds Ducati hard parts on the street!), and a very stout well designed frame that uses the engine as a stressed member, hustling the Darmah up and down twisty roads is an absolute blast. It’s not a point and shoot specialist, the very long wheelbase, skinny 18” bias ply tires on skinny rims, and conservative rake and trail numbers will never let it be that: but on anything other than real tight stuff the it’s street capabilities are very high. Not just for an “old bike”, but in absolute terms as well. Like any older bike, it would get slaughtered on the track by any modern bike; but at street levels it still works exceptionally well. A clear case of the reality living up to the legend.

While now considered one of the best of the bevel Ducatis to own (if you want a rider), when
introduced in 1978 many hard core Ducatisti thought the Darmah (and it’s predecessors the 860 and 900
GT and GTS models) represented a sad softening of what Ducatis were most representative of: lean mean
sporting machines; production racers with lights. Damn, it even had blinkers, an electric starter, reliable Japanese switchgear, and was almost comfortable. A true purist lament, or elitist whining? Probably a little of both.

So I asked myself a couple of follow-up questions. What did I give up in choosing the F over the Darmah or Darmah SS?

Pedigree? Nah, Sure, Ducati won Imola in 72, Daytona Superbike in 77, and Hailwood’s TT win in 78 was certainly amazing, but Honda’s won a few races over the years, and Mike The Bike did ok on them. Besides, the 900F was very competitive in some European series: in fact it was dominant in endurance racing (the bike wasn’t called the Bol d’Or in Europe for nothing), and the subsequent F based 1100R models had just started a three year domination in production racing outside of the US.

Honda CB1100R

Performance? Nope, they were pretty close as I mentioned already.

Reliability? Doubtful that the Ducati would have been more reliable, and probably at least more maintenance intensive.

Pride of ownership? Doubtful again, as this story probably indicates.

Fun to ride? Overall probably not. Under certain circumstances, quite possibly.

Attention factor? The old Ducs are certainly better attention-getters and foundations for bench racing. However, one odd thing is that, around here (northeast USA) I’ve seen more Darmahs “around” then 900Fs (which never was the sales hit Honda hoped it would be). Probably a lot of real and perceived reasons for this, but it is my observation. Besides, this is a pretty poor reason for owning something.

Character? Very subjective area. Let’s say pretty different but in my opinion pretty equal. While a Duc singing at 5 grand and above sounds great, so does an inline 4. The Duc sounds better at idle though, especially with a set of Contis.

Tougher question – would I currently rather have (or trade the F for) an 81 Darmah. Yeah, I would; mostly because I’m now fortunate enough not to have to choose just one bike for all kinds of use. So, an old bevel twin of some type will probably eventually sit alongside the F in the future (note: it is with a sense of irony that I mention that I bought a bevel Ducati (though not a Darmah) on 4/1/00; one week after I traded the F for the Camel).

Bottom line question, do I regret buying the F instead of the Darmah or SS? Nope, not one bit. I always got a thrill seeing it when I took the cover off before going for a ride. Tough to regret any choice that can do that. Besides, the person to whom I traded it said he’d give me the right of first refusal if he sells it – I just hope I don’t have to wait 19 years.

Hard Facts:
The following specs were mostly taken from Cycle Magazine. The Darmah from the 4/80 issue and the 900F from the 5/81 issue; so they should be fairly representative.

Ducati Darmah:
1⁄4 mile: 13.13 @101.35
Top speed (observed): 116 mph
Horsepower: 52.31 @ 6500rpm
Torque: 45.33 @ 3000rpm
Wet weight: 517 lbs.
Front suspension: 38mm hydraulic
Rear suspension: preload adj., 3.8” travel
Wheelbase: 61″
Rake/Trail: 31.5/6.1”
Ground clearance: 7.8” 5.9”
Front Tire: 3.5×18″
Rear Tire: 120/90×18″
Front Wheel: 2.15×18
Rear Wheel: 2.5×18
Front Brakes: 2 11” dual pistons
Rear Brakes: 1 11” dual pistons
Seat height: 32”
Fuel capacity: 3.9 gallons 5.3 gallons
MPG: 43
Honda CB900F:
12.02 @ 111
139 mph
66.8 @ 8500rpm
43.6 @ 7500rpm
575 lbs.
38mm air/oil, 6.3” travel
adj. rebound/comp., 3.9” travel
2 10.9” dual pistons
11.65” with dual pistons
5.3 gallons

P.S. As you presumably saw, Walter originally wrote this story several years ago. He added a little update to wrap things up:

The last chapter of my original 900F story is kind of sad – around 2018 I got a notice from a NJ police department that they were in possession of a 1981 CB900F as part of an unspecified crime that was committed; and that NJ DMV records indicated I was the owner. Apparently, the person I sold/traded it to almost 20 years prior never retitled or registered it.

If I wanted it back I would need to “go through a process”. More curious than anything else, I contacted the storage yard, and they told me that it was in very rough shape and had almost $2,000 in storage fees associated with it.

Hearing that, I lost all interest and had my lawyer write the PD and storage place explaining that I sold the bike a long time ago and had no interest in the motorcycle.

I never heard from them again re: the bike, and resisted the powerful temptation to go look at it.

That ending still makes me sad. It deserved better.