Poor Boy's Superbike
If you got your first sportsbike in the 70s there’s a good chance it was Honda’s sublime 400 Four. Some thought it underwhelming but that’s because this was a motorcycle designed for young guns dreaming of Phil Read’s MV 500, not crying over the tepid ashes of the British motorcycle industry. Generation 400 Four wanted an agile, sporting motorcycle that would look good in the pits of Imola or Daytona - and outside the chip shop. From 1975 to 1978 this meant a four-cylinder, four-stroke with six-gears, four-into-one exhaust, humped seat and low handlebars. It was also cheap(ish).
Designer Masahiro Sato remembers the transformation of the costly 350 caterpillar into the Super Sport butterfly: “Having failed with the 350 Four, I was really grateful that they gave me another chance with the 400.” He wanted the 400 to have the longest tank possible, and sod any pillion passenger. The shape of the tank was limited to what could be achieved with a two-piece stamping, rather than the three pieces usually used. Budget restrictions also led to the iconic four-into-one exhaust.
Increasing the 350’s bores by 4mm gave an over-square 408cc for most markets with licensing restrictions capping that to 398cc for France and Japan. Handily this would make the 400F a success on the Isle of Man, where the Formula 3 TT allowed sub-400cc four-strokes to compete. Acknowledging the inevitably rev-hungry nature of a small-bore four the gearbox gained a sixth ratio, a Honda first. Those who got it, who understood that this was a sporting motorcycle that lived for revs, corners and riding as fast as you could on roads you loved were smitten. Including road tester Dave Minton: “The 400 Four was just superb! It really was… You felt like Jack the Giant Killer on it. Woe betide the bloke on the CB750 in front of you because you could get under his elbows with it.”
Not only did the Four dominate the sub-400cc TT F3 races, when Pops Yoshimura started selling tuning parts tweaked 400s stretched to 458cc and even 492cc ruled the F2 TT class as well. Going fast was what Honda built the 400 for. They just spelled it 400 Four.
Full story in The Road, buy it on the shop page