Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Honda CB400F

I’d almost given up when I turned up to look at a Honda 400 four advertised in the local rag. When I saw it all reservations were thrown out of the window. This was just what I’d been looking for - 11000 miles, bog standard, 12 months MOT, serviced regularly, garaged; even the mudguards had been clear plastic coated. £350 was a reasonable price, any thoughts of knocking the price down were forgotten when I saw the gleam in the eye of a rival punter who arrived 10 minutes later, pacing up and down ready to pounce.

First impressions were of a compact machine with a neat riding position, the rearset pegs suited to my six foot frame, the taut frame and stiff suspension (compared to the GT380 and CD175 I'd owned before) were a revelation, the lack of bottom end power compensated by a nice power surge at 6000rpm. That 20 mile ride home along country lanes convinced me I’d made the right choice.

The next few summer months of 1983 saw 3000 miles under its wheels with trips to Scotland and the Lake District. The harder I rode, the more I noticed the lack of ground clearance, the ends of the footpegs wearing away. The handling was stable on smooth roads but above 80mph on bumpy sweepers the bike oscillated around the steering head, which I put down to fork flex since the steering head bearings were OK and I’d replaced the fork oil. The acceleration was adequate up to about 85mph, then it flattened off. It would hit 95mph flat out. I only saw the ton a few times - flat on the tank - and 105mph with a howling gale behind me.

Maintenance was limited by a lack of funds, although the oil was changed every 1000 miles, the oil filter at 2000 miles and the points needed frequent adjustment as they tend to close up, making the bike very difficult to start and producing much backfiring. I kept the bike cleaned and pampered as I had plenty of time for polishing, and regarded such effort as protecting my investment. Almost all of my dole money went on it, and it was a relief when I found that keeping the revs below 5000rpm gave 60 and even 70mpg. It never dropped below 45mpg even when thrashed.

A new tyre, a Dunlop TT100, and a set of brake shoes meant a fortnight without riding; frustration relieved by throwing darts at an election leaflet of Maggot von Hatchet and her cronies. Come September I’d got a sponsored MSc place at college, with expenses calculated for public transport, which helped pay for tyres, oil, chains, tax, etc. The daily run was a 40 mile round trip, a mixture of motorway and winding dual carriageway, with plenty of roundabouts to make it interesting. I soon learnt the route like the back of my hand and the thrash there and back was often the highlight of a rotten day.

On a few occasions every month this journey was enlivened by a prat in a two litre Ford Crappy who insisted on sitting six inches from my tail on the motorway, who would creep past smirking when I pulled over. Once on the dual carriageway he would almost hang out the back end of his car trying to keep ahead. Once I got past I could leave him for dead through the curves and roundabouts.

One morning I chased a Yam 250LC, which took off when he saw me in his mirror. We appeared evenly matched on top end but he had the edge on acceleration while I could take him through the roundabouts. We came to a long right-hand 80mph sweeper, which would have been a 80mph sweeper had not there been a nasty dip at its apex. When the LC hit this at 80mph, it went into wild oscillating acrobatics as it hit the dip, weaved into the kerb and tossed the rider onto the tank. I prepared to stop, but at the last moment he somehow recovered - had a car been in the left hand lane he would’ve been a goner. As I came alongside, he grinned weakly, looking pale. I accelerated away with a wave but he didn’t follow... a good knowledge of the road is worth at least 10HP. 

With the approach of the colder weather, a few annoying problems surfaced, the first one familiar to most SOHC Honda four owners was misfiring in the wet. True to form, my bike would manage about. five miles on wet roads before cutting onto three cylinders (always fancied a Laverda) then two cylinders. Funnily enough, it always managed to get me home, albeit with the indignity of being passed by Beetles and 2CVs. Heavy spraying with WD40 helped a little - it went ten miles before misfiring. However, the more WD40 I used the more the HT leads rotted, expanded and allowed more water in. Even new HT leads, plug caps and half a tin of grease on the coils failed to stop the bugger playing up - it did manage 15 miles before cutting out. 

Another problem was a squealing, binding front brake. A quick examination revealed a seized caliper bracket sliding pin - obviously a naff design which Honda dropped on their later bikes. With the caliper mounted in a vice and soaked in WD40 (I was using a can a week), I worked the pin back and forth with much squeaking and managed to partially free it, but even waving the welding torch at it failed to free it completely.

The piston was freed off with a G-clamp, working the piston back and forth. Reassembled, I found the brake had stopped binding, but continued squealing an groaning. This was a problem I never really cured. Once winter really set in, I found myself frozen to the bone despite the thermals, three jerseys, two pairs of jeans, four pairs of socks, boots and waterproofs. I was thrashing the bike mercilessly to college convinced that the adrenalin would keep me a bit warmer.

Tired of cleaning the bike every other day, I cleaned it thoroughly, then coated all the cycle parts, wheels, forks, frame, shocks, even the engine side cases in a layer of grease. Of course, after a few days the accumulated salt and filth looked absolutely disgusting but a reassuring wipe wit the finger revealed shiny metal underneath. I left it on until the spring, and restricted the Solvol and polishing sessions to the exhaust system which needed a good clean every week if I was to keep ahead of the dreaded brown rash.

Just after the Christmas holidays, with 21000 miles on the clock, I decided to change the camchain. I’d heard tales of how they’d snap without warning and although sceptical, I’d  begun to imagine the carnchain rattle becoming worse. Anyway, with the engine out and on the bench I became annoyed that the replacement of a single chain meant a complete stripdown. I knew it was going too smoothly when after the carbs and head came off without mishap, the clutch centre nut refused to budge. Tiring of the subtle approach, a chisel and two pound hammer resulted in a shattered piece of nut flying off. After a bit of ranting and raving, I reluctantly decided to take the engine to the dealers.

The clutch nut was undone, by mechanics who normally lounged around bored out of their heads, with a special Honda tool - in seconds - and replaced with a new one. Imagine my disgust when I was informed that I need not even have taken the engine out of the frame - apparently, even the dealers split the old chain and feed the new one in, riveting it back together. They split the old camchain for me and tied it up with wire, refusing payment. I left a few quid for liquid refreshment. Back home, the reassembly went smoothly. New oil and filter, eagerly I started it up to find that after all the effort it sounded exactly the same as before. Ah well, peace of mind.

The drive chain was replaced a month later, having done at least 10,000 miles, no doubt helped by frequent Linklyfe baths and the smooth power delivery. I never replaced the front tyre or brake pads, the wear so slight that it was almost unnoticeable, a dubious benefit of having such a weak front anchor. Arrival of the spring sunshine saw lots of other 400 fours around, most of them with the same boring blue colour scheme as mine - I did a red with black/white stripe paint job inspired by, of all things, a Ducati Darmah. Matt black on the cylinder barrel and head completed the effect, turning the bike into a sharp little head turner.

A new set of Koni shocks purchased at an absurdly low price from a breakers improved the handling on bumpy bends - they were softer and better damped than the originals. The end of college and the start of a job made the lure of a bigger bike too hard to resist. It wasn’t until the bike was advertised that I realised how much I’d miss it. Sold for £25 more than I paid for it, with 29000 miles on the clock, I’m sure the squealing brake sounded like crying when I deposited the bike outside the new owner’s home.

If you can live with the relative lack of power, they really are great little bikes, the combination of reliability, handling, riding position, economy and all-round competence is hard to beat at the price. Finding a low mileage example at a reasonable price may be difficult these days, but it’s worth the effort. Alternatively, there are so many knackered ones around you can buy two non-runners for next to nowt and make a good ’un out of the pair.

Gary Askwith

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