Review: 2014 Honda CB1100 vs. 1975 Honda CB550

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This is something for which I’ve been asked a few times, both on this forum and elsewhere, but for a variety of reasons I’ve been too lazy to write it up. As some of you know, I bought a leftover 2014 Honda CB1100 Standard in July and have since put about 2,700 miles on it despite the various inconveniences of travel and tibia fractures.

The CB1100, like the Volkswagen Phaeton, was a home-market smash brought to the United States to the annoyance of a dealer body that didn’t want it and wasn’t sure how to sell it. It was sold here for two model years — 2013 and 2014 — and in two trim levels — Standard and Deluxe. The Standard was $10,399 and the Deluxe was $11,899. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, the chromed-out Deluxe sold pretty well but the all-black 2014 Standard was a tough sell. Which is how I picked mine up at a thirty-percent discount this year.

Long-time readers of my various websites and blogs may remember that I owned a cafe-racer-style ’75 CB550 for a while before the turn of the century and that I bought another ’75 CB550, this one almost entirely stock, in the spring of 2012. So how does this all-new Universal Japanese Motorcycle compare with one of the originals?


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I should start with a note in defense of the CB550. Although the conventional mythology of the UJM has the CB750 as both the original and best of the inline-four standards, contemporaneous reviewers often preferred the CB550 and its predecessor, the 1971-73 CB500, to its bigger brother. The difference in speed was just half a second in the quarter mile and the CB550 had a stronger, stiffer frame.

Used as a commuter in the year 2015, the CB550 can still keep up with freeway traffic, cutting and thrusting with the best of them up to its practical top speed of 90mph or so. The single front disc is noisy but adequate. Peter Egan had his CB550 dyno-tested and it turned out 36 horsepower at 9,000 rpm. By way of comparison, today’s CB500F standard usually dynos at about 44. The power-to-weight ratio with me aboard is somewhat better than that of a modern four-cylinder Accord.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a forty-one-year-old motorcycle, holding up only slightly better than its forty-four-year-old owner. Enter, therefore, the CB1100. It’s actually an 1140, fuel-injected, and it’s the first all-new air-cooled passenger-vehicle engine from Honda in decades. Like the Eighties CB750F, CB900F and CB1100F, this is a twincam, but unlike those square-tank standards it’s tuned for flexibility rather than power. Dyno numbers are a problem, because the bike still has a Japanese 112mph limiter and therefore won’t redline in fourth gear, but the consensus is that it’s capable of putting about ninety horses to the rear wheel. It hits the limiter in the quarter mile; without that it might run to 120 or so before the lights.

Not that anybody buys an air-cooled retro-bike for raw speed. Still, the substantial torque available on the left side of the tach makes this a very rapid vehicle in the real world. There’s simply no situation where the engine feels inadequate to the task. Do you want to roll through downtown traffic at 30mph in fourth gear? Not a problem, and you won’t need to shift before sprinting for the next gap.

My CB1100 is a six-speed, but the truth is that it could do pretty well with four gears, or possibly three. After two decades of riding 600cc sportbikes and the like, there’s something surreal about this big motor; there’s no problem with leaving it in fourth gear and treating it like an automatic. It’s not a ZX-14 or a Hayabusa, but nothing on four wheels short of a Huracan is going to trouble it around town. The VFR800 I bought earlier in the year, which is nominally slightly faster according to the magazines, feels limp-wristed by contrast, particularly when the VTEC isn’t operating.

Thanks to big dual discs up front, the CB1100 stops as well as it accelerates. I’ve locked the front up a couple of times but it requires a real panic grab to make it happen. You know — those biker stories that start with “There was a Lexus RX350 in the lane next to me.” As far as handling goes, I don’t consider myself a skilled motorcyclist but I can attest that the big CB leans down to the pegs easily and without fuss. It’s a hundred pounds heavier than my CB550 but it’s far easier to ride at all speeds. The frame feels sportbike-stiff. You can make more pace on this bike than you really should on a public road. In my first few weeks of ownership, before I decided to settle down a bit, it was cutting ten minutes out of my thirty-five minute commute home in the afternoons, mostly because I was effortlessly running at 90-105 between gaps in traffic. Above that, there’s the limiter but there’s also nontrivial resistance from the wind.

I’m 6’2″ with a 32-inch inseam and a 36-inch sleeve, and the bike is in no way cramped for me. It does fit a bit tighter than the 550, mostly due to a lower seat. The stock seat is nothing to write home about but it’s not miserable. Passenger comfort is acceptable over moderate distances and of course this engine doesn’t really notice the weight of a second person over the rear wheel. I’ve put a lot of two-up miles on my 550 and I always felt like I was abusing the machine. Not so with its pumped-up descendant.

As a 2014 Standard model, this bike has the digital gear indicator of the 2013 Deluxe but not its larger fuel tank. As a consequence, it’s not a good idea to plan for more than about 120 miles between stops. Average mileage as reported by the dashboard and roughly confirmed by fillups is about 40 mpg regardless of use. Keep in mind that I ride with a bit more aggression than the average middle-aged cruiser operator; some of the people on the CB1100 are reporting a consistent 50 miles to the gallon, which would stretch the range to 150 or so.

As you’d expect from a Japanese-built Honda aimed at an affluent audience, fit and finish is peerless throughout. There’s no flashing on the plastic, no wave in the metal, no bad beads on the welds. The four-into-one exhaust is mildly discoloring around the catalytic converter but I don’t worry about stuff like that. When some drunken vagrant deliberately shoved it over in its downtown parking spot, back in September, the only damage was a snapped-off brake lever end and some scratching to the bar end, the right-side engine cover, and the speedometer body.

So far, the bike has never failed to start. It runs smoothly at all ambient temperatures from the low nineties down to freezing. It doesn’t appear to be sensitive to fuel quality. The headlight is bright and clear.

Would I buy this bike again? Without question. What complaints do I have? No legitimate ones. It looks like a proper Honda CB, it starts and runs flawlessly, and it’s a joy to operate in all conditions. I expect that it will last forty years or longer, the same as its Seventies ancestors. There was some griping upon its introduction than an 1140cc engine really isn’t in keeping with the original CB tradition, but if you think about the engine size of a base Porsche 911 back then (2.2 liters) and now (3.6 liters) you’ll see that Honda is just trying to keep things in proportion.

Which leads me to my illegitimate complaint: power. The CB1100 has more than enough power for any situation you might possibly encounter, but I want more than more than enough. For the last ten years or so I’ve looked enviously at the Euro-market big-bore standards like the Yamaha XJR1300 and Honda CB1300. I know that we’ve had the ZRX1100/1200 and the Suzuki B-King here, but as a long-term ownership proposition I’d really rather have a Honda or Yamaha. As it is, I’m willing to accept the CB1100’s lack of pace compared to the Kawasaki ZRX1200 in exchange for the higher quality of materials and engineering (IN MY OPINION, I should say) but what I really want is to have 120 or more horsepower at the rear wheel, not ninety.

It’s possible to get another twenty horses out of this bike with the usual intake/exhaust/PowerCommander tweaks, but I’d prefer to keep it stock for reasons of durability. When I eventually heed the siren song of the ten-second motorcycle, it will be by adding a fourth bike to the fleet, not by fussing with this one. And as fate would have it, there’s a fourth bike entering the garage this afternoon. But it’s not for me. More on that later, but in the meantime let me close by giving the CB1100 a solid Recommended. If you are still captivated by the concept of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, forty-six years after the first one, this is now your best option.

19 Replies to “Review: 2014 Honda CB1100 vs. 1975 Honda CB550”

  1. -Nate-Nate

    Sounds good to me Jack ;

    I imagine if the catalytic converter ‘ falls out ‘ as it did on my 2010 air cooled 750 twin as it was being uncrated , the improved breathing might make you happier…..

    Just a thunk from a long time Motorcyclist .

    -Nate

    Reply
    • VolandoBajo

      How easily does the speed limiter “fall out”, Nate?

      And did you re-jet to compensate for the reduced back pressure? I did in a VW which also had a cat converter go (legally, per the EPA) and which also acquired a Canadian downpipe, as the hollow converter shell made it backfire when I suddenly closed the throttle.

      The straight down pipe, plus a Dasher .175 main jet, was the ticket. Stock had been .15, then .125 with the EPA cat delete, and finally my mod to solve a severe skipping problem in midrange.

      So I would expect you’d need to do the same, as would also Jack if his converter unfortunately fell of and got lost.

      Not sure where you can get an upsized jet for those though. In my case, the heavier Dasher was a willing donor. Trying to get a jet drilled out might work though if it was a last resort and you had a good machinist, or were one.

      Reply
      • -Nate-Nate

        Speed limiters are on computer controlled Motos ~ echh .

        I’m no Machinist , I have a nice older set of jet drills I use , many of my oldies have hand massaged main and idle jets .

        Pretty much anything air cooled needs bigger jets with to – day’s ethanol (crappo) fuels , maybe only a smidge but always a bit .

        When I was peaking and tweaking my Son’s 1972 Datsun 620 pickup , I found an old vintage Hot Rod carby for it and was dialing in the jets , he watched for a while , took it for his own test drive and pronounced the ” Racing Screws ” (?!) to be a good thing =8-) .

        -Nate

        Reply
  2. Carbs

    The CB1100 really makes me miss my old CB900F, but I’m still mad at Honda for a decade of aimless dickery and will probably get a Moto Guzzi Griso as my next standard bike.

    As for your first 10-second bike, please allow me to recommend the criminally underrated Kawasaki ZZR1200 (that is unless you’re gonna buy new). There are loads of reasons why you should consider it, starting with the $3k entry price for a mint example. It’s a rare and unloved masterpiece of 90s technology. Despite a 600lb wet weight, it ran a 10.15 at 135mph back in the early ‘oughts.

    However, if you have access to very technical twisty roads you might want to steer towards a litre-bike because the ZZR excels at high-speed handling (over here in the West, that’s something like Chief Joseph Parkway in WY, and Lochsa Trail in Idaho), and is a bit unhappy in quick transitions and sharp corners.

    Carbs, perfect fuelling, angry V8 airbox noises, amazing fuel economy, actual wind protection, and nobody knows what it is.

    /I really just wanted to talk about my bike

    Reply
    • VolandoBajo

      That sounded like a nice price/performance tradeoff for me, until I read 600lb wet weight.

      At somewhere around 400 plus pounds wet, my 600cc Norton Dominator twin carb was lighter by about 50 to 100 pounds compared to Commandos, Bonnevilles, etc., if I still recall correctly.

      And that seemed like an easy to handle bike. I’m 5’10”, used to weigh about 155, and now weigh about 20 more. I’m neither weak nor superstrong, but I can’ imagine trying to wrestle a bike that heavy. Seems like it would be a tortoise if it ever went down…only outside help would be able to get you right side up again. Am I wrong?

      Reply
      • Carbs

        You don’t notice the weight from walking speed – it’s a well-balanced bike and easy to manage in most conditions. It just doesn’t zip around 15mph corners like a lighter bike. If it goes down, anyone can pick it up if they do it correctly (gods forgive me posting a grocer’s apostrophe):

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          My CB1100 was knocked over by a vagrant drunk at my job. It was picked up by a fellow who is six foot two and very slim.

          Reply
          • VolandoBajo

            Baddest motorcycle lifting story I ever heard was told to me by an older guy in my hometown who had seen it happen.

            Back in the fifties (not that you would remember them, even this old geezer doesn’t go that far back)… there were two rival MC clubs in my hometown and the next one up the coast.

            They used to fight over the rights to cruise and park in the local driveins. The out of town guys had gotten kind of bold and were trying to runoff the home team from a drivein restaurant clearly in the hometown.

            The home team MC had a member who had a glandular disorder that caused him to grow much larger than most people. Shortened his lifespan, but while he was young, he was close to seven feet, and built like an NFL player.

            When the first Harley from the other guys pulled into the drive-in, rolling at walking speed, Tiny (what else would they have called him?) stepped out beside/behind the bike, grabbed the rails above the rear fender and PICKED THE BACK OF THE BIKE, WITH ITS RIDER ON IT!, up off the ground, gave the whole bike a twist with his waist and arms, dumping it and its rider to the ground.

            He then stepped back, and glared at the rest of the column. He was clearly closer to the exit side than they were, and they quickly decided to turn around (after helping their buddy get back up on his wheels), and road out the way they came in.

            The fact that he was able to lift up the back end of what must have weighed close to half a ton overall, was legend in our town for years afterward, whenever the subject of large bikes and how heavy that they were came up. Not sure if he was able to hold it up or just lift it and push it away, but either one would be enough to impress me.

            And of course, the speculation was that Tiny must have been a fan of the movie The Wild Ones..

            There was also another large Harley rider named Tiny in our town. The first was Caucasian and the second was African-American.

            Seems the second one had been running bolita tickets (a type of numbers), using his saddlebags to hold his bank. And had been doing so in opposition to another “bank”.

            In order to reduce competition, Tiny’s adversaries arranged for him to be T-boned at his rear axle while he was going down the main drag outside of town, at about fifty miles an hour.

            Killed him and scattered bolita tickets all over the highway.

            They never did find out who was driving the hit and run car or what happened to the driver or the car.

            But considering that a fairly famous (historically) don lived in and allegedly controlled a town less than an hour away, speculation naturally centered on them.

            Since I don’t know, I will not say it must have been them. Only that all the rumors centered on the fact that supposedly Tiny had been offered an opportunity to have his “bank” be acquired by them, with a job there for him, but he chose to tell them to procreate with themselves instead.

            Florida wasn’t always a sleepy tourist-driven state, especially not before and right after WW II.

        • VolandoBajo

          @carbs That was instructive, though even if you deadlift with your legs, if you have a bad back, that might be a non-starter, no pun intended.

          With my Norton it was never an issue, but I imagine the chick in the video probably is able to deadlift at least two or three hundred pounds (depending on how low the center of gravity is, which would determine the lever advantage working against the 800 lbs.)

          I consider myself a fairly educated person, but what the flock is a grocer’s apostrophe. Never ran into it before.

          I suppose I could google it, but would rather read your explanation.

          (Another service of jackbaruth.com – incremental education!)

          Reply
          • Carbs

            Back in the early nineties, I had a Honda CB900 Custom that weighed over 600lbs dry (shaft-drive and made of pig iron). Having it keel over very slowly into a snowbank one spring day (don’t ask) made me learn how to deal with overweight bikes. I do understand that Mr Baruth in his current state is likely not picking up anything more than a quart of milk.

            Anyway, a grocer’s apostrophe is the habit people have of putting an unnecessary apostrophe after the plural form of a word: bike’s instead of bikes; helmet’s instead of helmets; etc. The context in which I used it was wrong – I don’t even know what to call it when someone writes ‘pick’s up’ instead of picks up. Grammar nazi stuff.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            As fate would have it, I was a little sloppy coming out of the garage this morning and had to support the full tilting weight of the CB1100 on Ye Olde Pinned Leg.

            Worked fine but I’m not eager for a rematch.

          • VolandoBajo

            @carbs that is what I thought it might be. Back in the day, when I was first starting out in computers, I was working at a newspaper that was computerizing, and used to build some of those grocery ads, including the old hot metal ones with angled cut in type. So I have seen those apostrophes in action, but had never heard them called that before.

            Grammar nazi-ing can be fun, as long as it isn’t mean-spirited. A relatively painless way to improve, and to keep ourselves on our toes.

            The only time I am really serious about grammar though is when I am working on bettering my Spanish. Fortunately it is good enough that I have to focus on details to get better. So I end up reading tales from the journals of the Spanish grammar nazis.

            The most interesting one I read recently was from a prof at UDel, written in Spanish, explaining the use of the subjunctive, without the long WIERD-O acronym, and with an easy to apply reason.

            If the possibility of an alternate outcome exists in the speakers mind, a subjunctive is used in the dependent clause. If the speaker thinks or asserts that things are just, and only just, as he states, it is the indicative. Unless of course the subject of both clauses is the same, then it is the infinitive.

            That one paragraph distills the essence of what usually takes up twenty to forty pages in an intermediate or advanced Spanish book. And in that case, the grammar nazi-ing has a payoff.

            In another way, though, so does the grocer’s apostrophe, in that it helps prevent a common error. Or should I have said “grocers’ apostrophes’ help prevent grammar problems.”? (Note that extra one hiding in their, just for grins.

            But @Jack, two questions: what was the purpose of putting bags of nickels in pickup trucks? More weight over the rear wheels for better traction?

            And did R&T really delete any comments or was that just a weasel way to discredit you and it? Inquiring minds want to know.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            The original prize for the overall win in the 24 Hours Of LeMons, in the first year, was $1500… in nickels. It weighed quite a bit.

            We don’t know what happened with the FB comments. I suspect it was a Hearst employee who saw some of the more negative stuff and said “fuck it, we don’t have to deal with this.” But nobody is saying.

  3. Don Curton

    Thanks so much for posting this. The CB1100 is much like the new Mustang (in my mind, at least). For men my age it will be a toy, sometimes a second or third toy. The main competition is not another new vehicle, but the same vehicle from 30, 40, 50 years ago. I can get a reasonable clean, stock and reliable CB from the 70’s for roughly $4000 around here, as long as I’m not too picky about size, year model, or color. The new one is more than twice as much, but with it I don’t need to clean carbs, adjust points, etc.

    Your summary that it remains true to the original, while a better bike in any measureable aspect, is certainly a good recommendation. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • VolandoBajo

      PPS My name is a deliberate intrduction of bad Spanish into the mix. VolandoBajo means flying low, as in rolling down the highway in my Panther at night, with the dashboard lights dimmed, and some soft jazz on the radio. Only Volando in Spanish is only supposed to be used as part of certain verb conjugations,, and never as an adjective, as it is in English.

      So VolandoBajo for Flying Low is (intentional) bad Spanglish, just for the heck of it, and because Un Tipo Que Esta Volando Bajo is a bit too long for a username.

      Sort of the reverse of someone saying I’m Wenting Low, or something like that. Because I get a kick out of people who don’t know, and who put down people whose English as a second language has problems. Yet when they whip out a guidebook to ask for breakfast, they sound like the Spanish equivalent of Tarzan, at best.

      Though in the end, people calling me Volando, short for VolandoBajo, works fine for me, as long as I don’t have to listen to anyone pronounce it as Voh-lon-dough Badge-oh. As, of course, the J is pronounced like an H.

      Maybe it reminds some people who do say Badge-oh, of Badger from Breaking Bad. Now that’s a scary thought. Maybe I should say “Say my name!” 😉

      Reply
  4. VolandoBajo

    IMNERHO they shouldn’t have pulled it, at least not until they conferred with you to see if you were OK with that and/or if you wanted to reply to it instead.

    The net result is that they have made both you and themselves look bad. They ought to put them back, apologize and pledge not to pull anything unless it was just outright derogatory or profane.

    Though it was before my time, Hearst doing this reminds me of what I understand was BS’s ban-hammer.

    If the guilty party can’t be found, at least the deed should be undone and people warned not to take matters into their own hands. Apparently whoever did it realizes that they were swimming in the wrong direction, or else they would be taking a bow. And if the general sentiment there is that it was wrong, the best thing to do would be to promptly admit it, publicize a new policy against such actions, and put up and rebut comments that were tossed out.

    Your points (a) that mistakes were made, which are debatable, but the fact that they were is not; and (b) that the primary focus should be safety and improvement, not blame-avoidance and the shaming of critics of current safety procedures; are both accurate and worthy of defense.

    Resorting to pulling negative comments is just stooping to the level of people who don’t want their actions examined.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I should also point out that comments have disappeared in the past on R&T articles, but generally nobody cares. The integration with Facebook and its comments is, apparently, a technical nightmare.

      Reply

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