Honda CB400/4 Road test - 1975
When the Honda CB400 was introduced to the public
at last year's Cologne show it came very close to
stealing the thunder of the Honda flat four. At least
those looking at this bike could aspire to buying
it, and in the not too distant future. To tell the
truth, it came as rather a shock to find that Honda
had gone "European". The bike had all the
hallmarks of the successful cafe racer: the four-into-one
exhaust system, the apparent lightweight, the petrol
tank that had a deliberate starkness, with its lack
of lining, plus the sheer look. What was not clear
at Cologne was that the bike had larger virtues. It
was smooth, even for a four-cylinder. It wax light,
under 400 Ib. Above all, it handled. Better than any
Honda that we have tried.
These days the Honda road-test fleet is handled by
Tippetts of Surbiton, and we already knew that we
had to face one problem when we collected the bike.
The road-test machine was especially brought into
the country early to allow the press to report on
it. Unfortunately, it was intended for the American
market and gave us a taste of what is to come if ever
the law insists on lights on in daytime, for the headlight
came on the moment that the ignition key was turned,
and stayed on all the time. Not only that, when it
was on main beam the front indicators came on at half
power and stayed on without flashing. It was, frankly,
a menace and we had not ridden off Tippetts' forecourt
before the first cry of "Your lights are on!"
echoed across the road. A few hundred yards later
a police car had drawn it to our attention and not
long after a pedestrian had attempted suicide stepping
into the road in front of us to repeat the warning.
By the time we reached home only two miles away we
were heartily sick of the light. So, too, had been
some previous rider, for the first thing the next
morning the electrical system expired completely,
apparently the result of an attempt to neutralise
Perhaps we have become a little oversensitive about
the light, but we shudder to think of a situation
where we might have to use our lights all the time.
Granted that others will get used to the idea after
some years, but the education period would drive us
all mad. Eventually our immediate problem was solved
by the simple expedient of putting a Dayglo cover
over the glass in the day, which effectively filtered
out most of the light.
The machine had one or two other Americanisms, two,
at least one of which we were very disappointed to
find is not included on the "home bikes"
- a centrally-mounted ignition switch that also acted
as a steering lock. After one switched off, the bars
merely had to be turned to full lock and the key pressed
and turned. Magnificent. It is a real pity that it
is not used here, although it was recognised that
the switch had to be different to eliminate the lights
on/off switch. Also different was the stand, which
had a little rubber flap on the end to act as a return
spring should the rider move off with the stand down.
Running the four exhaust pipes into one silencer
has had a most effective slimming effect on the CB400
and the designers have achieved a fair degree of beauty
in the lines of the four pipes. It is a good idea.
Not only does it make the cost of exhaust system replacement
theoretically cheaper but it should last longer, for
the silencer reaches its running temperature more
quickly. It is quiet, too, giving the bike a smooth,
refined sound. The drawback is that following riders
will no longer be able to be intimidated by those
four silencers, but "we suspect that the prestige
of four silencers is a thing of the past anyway. For
the fastidious owner, perhaps the greatest benefit
is that he can now get at the front of the engine
to keep it clean and he will no longer have two silencers
on the inside eating their heart out.
In fact the slimming is not all illusion, for the
motor is only a few inches wider than the 250 twin
engine. The engine is said to be based on the 350
4 and has a bore of 51mm and a stroke of 50mm, almost
square. It gives a capacity of 408cc. It makes a change
to find an engine "under-claiming" its capacity.
Claimed output is a modest 37 bhp @ 8,500 rpm but
it is sufficient to propel the machine to just over
Compression ratio is 9.4 to 1. Carburettors are
four 20mm Keihin with the usual Honda double cable
arrangement. Although often criticised, I did not
find it too unbearable and the only drawback really
was the absence of a throttle friction adjuster. Snap
shut throttles might be all right for some, but they
drive me mad. Naturally the motor was completely oil-tight,
and the level of mechanical noise was far below that
which we have usually associated with the fours from
Honda. The multi-plate coil-spring-operated clutch
was, as always, reasonably light. To provide six speeds
with a four-cylinder engine seems to us to be denying
the whole idea, for a touring four-cylinder motor
should be flexible and, indeed, the Honda is. The
jump from, say, fifth to top was no more than a couple
of hundred rpm. From our point of view it detracted
slightly from the pleasure of riding the Honda, for
the motor was more Irian happy to pull from reasonably
low down and to have to keep changing gear, well,
not even to have to, but to keep doing it because
it is there, becomes a chore. The question is does
the CB400 need six gears? The answer, in our view,
is no. One final thought on the gearbox - it was as
sweet a box as Honda have yet produced and neutral
was silent and easy to find. Bearing in mind that
the gearchange is quite an elaborate arrangement with
a car-type adjustable linkage, that is a fair achievement.
The frame, the cornerstone of the bike's excellent
handling, is apparently little different from other
medium range Hondas. The front down tube is single
with a cradle bottom tube and a single top tube. The
real key to the good handling must lie in the suspension
units, which look the same as always, being the exposed
coil, adjustable type. The difference is they work
really well. Front forks are the "skinny"
Italian style and they, too, played an important if
unobtrusive part, for the steering of the Honda was
precise. Where Honda have gone slightly awry is with
the footrests. The front right-hand rest can be folded
to allow room for the kickstarter. Unfortunately the
return spring had already succumbed and a dozen times
a ride we unintentionally retracted the rest as we
lifted a foot upon starting. This is only usually
discovered when one treads into space. Eventually
we learned to describe an exaggerated arc with our
foot, but it was silly. The left rest was all right;
but the pillion rests were mounted on the swinging-arm
sub frame, so the passenger's feet moved with the
The brakes were above average, with the front disc
suffering less in the wet than most, providing a good
blend of power and sensitivity. The rear brake pedal
had a neat little bit of modern art built on that
was, we guess, either intended to keep the rider's
foot away from the crankcase or to help the less sensitive
foot to find the pedal. Tyres were Bridgestone, 3.50
x 18in rear, 3.00 x 18in front, and they showed themselves
to be more than able to cope with the abundance of
wet weather that we encountered.
The electrics have already had fair coverage on the
lights-on-all-the-time theme, but it is worth mentioning
that when we wanted them in earnest the lights were
a good average. The rear light was, as we expect from
Honda, large and bright and the same can be said of
the flashing direction indicators.
The indicator switch was a great improvement, too,
having a good positive location. Naturally it needed
more pressure but I'll settle for that as opposed
to over-cancelling any day. The switch was on the
left-hand side, where were positioned the horn, which
was poor, and the dip-switch, which was the other
side, so to speak, of the indicator switch and really
too far away for easy or speedy use. On the left was
the starter button. The familiar off/on/off engine
kill on top of the right-hand switch still does not
isolate the starter and we do urge Honda to adopt
the Kawasaki system which does, using the same switch.
Perhaps one point that we have not stressed highly
enough is that the Honda is such a manageable bike.
The weight, with one gallon of petrol, was 392 Ib,
quite a saving on the 500 four of the same configuration.
This is achieved, to a certain degree, by cutting
out the clutter, which has also had a beneficial effect
on the price. For example, there is no rear grab handle,
less bulky mudguards, a lighter seat — things
like that. In fact they have overdone it with the
seat, for it is just a little skimpy. The height's
right, though, 30in which, aided by the seat being
narrow at the front, meant that my wife could get
both feet on the ground in comfort.
Equally important is a riding position that suited
both of us fine. The bars are European touring, as
narrow as they can be and still leave room for all
the essentials. Well, some regard them as essentials.
The relationship of footrests to seat and bars was
about right, too, for our taste. Still on the seat,
it was 24yin long, which is just about the minimum
acceptable, hinged to reveal a covered tool tray that
is a fair step forward, and two helmet locks.
We have always enjoyed our rides on big Hondas, have
never subscribed to the view that the big fours are
less than very good motorcycles. So when we say that
the CB400 is head and shoulders above all of them
it is not to imply that the others are not much good.
Starting was first rate, with the minimum warming-up
period being needed. Tick-over was reliable and slow
and pick-up clean all the way up the range. A new
innovation, for Honda, is a cut-out on the clutch
lever that prevents the starter being used with the
engine in gear unless the clutch is withdrawn. Engagement
of bottom gear was always silent, gear selection was
light and positive. Small features, in part not too
significant but on the whole helping to make the Honda
one of the most attractive motorcycles to ride.
The handling, in particular, deserves full praise.
Perhaps having a well-tucked-in and neat exhaust system,
low riding position, decent bars and being light all
combined to create confidence. Perhaps the suspension
units have taken a massive step forward, perhaps the
front forks have, too. Whatever the reason, this bike
handles very well indeed. It has none of the feel
of heaviness at low speed that we normally associate
with the bigger fours and was far less prone to milching.
It burbles its way around town, pulling from 3,000
rpm., less if we had a mind. Truly a delightful town
machine, in spite of the constant gearchanging, and
in this environment returning a steady 61 mpg.
Out of town, the bike lost none of its good manners,
just produced them in a more rapid order! Top end
performance was really more than adequate for today's
conditions and top speed was, as we have said, over
100 mph. Cruising speed could more realistically be
placed 20 mph lower and, if the wind and gradient
were being unco-operative, that was occasionally the
top speed as well. Not often, though. With 70 limits
everywhere on motorways, and less elsewhere, it was
never a problem. Around the lanes the Honda really
excelled. It reminded us of the pleasure a good motorcycle
can give. Everything combined to inspire confidence
and encourage us to ride just for fun. Tyres, handling,
handlebars, seat position, petrol tank shape, gearchange,
clutch. All played their part, none could be faulted.
Such games have to paid for, of course, and we returned
only 46 m.p.g. on our out-of-town frolics. It was
money well spent.
There is just one thing that we have not mentioned
about the CB400, its price. Even this was right, £699,
putting it in direct competition with the "other"
Japanese 400, undercutting anything similar from Italy
and bringing home very sharply how much better value
for money it is than Honda's CB360. It seems impossible
to imagine how the same company can have made both
As a matter of interest, we asked two owners, one
past and one present, to give us their reaction to
Jack Wiley, BMP Secretary, who has owned a CB500
for the past few years, was astounded, and had the
shops been open at the time could well have gone out
and bought one! Fantastic, was his reaction. Eric
Rosentall, who sold his CB500 to buy a BMW last year,
was even more impressed by the Honda. He did not think
that he would be selling the BMW, preferring its larger
750 engine for foreign touring, but he is seriously
thinking of adding the CB400 to the garage for his
"up to 200 miles" riding. My wife, as we
have already mentioned, was also very impressed by
it and found it the first big bike (well, medium bike,
then) that she didn't feel was in charge of her.
To sum up ... If there is any justice, this bike
will walk away with machine of the year titles. It
is not perfect but it is very close to it and if it
has any limitations it is purely one of engine size.
As Honda have already announced similar changes to
their larger machines in the United States, we look
forward with interest to the arrival of the CB750
in similar guise. Certainly, at £699 the 400
will be attracting many newcomers to the ranks of
four-cylinder machine owners. You will have gathered
that we liked it.