Whether a manufacturer was staying within the 750cc permitted by the racing regulations of the time or trying to beat a rival by a few cc without regard for an upper displacement limit, the goal was to squeeze as much output from the engine as possible. It was the early 1990s, and such was the situation in the new super sport bike market. For many riders in this new era, racing fandom came together with dreams of owning a flagship motorcycle. Responding to this desire, Honda launched the CBR900RR, whose heart was a new inline 4-cylinder 893cc engine delivering maximum output of 125 hp.
While exceeding the racing regulation limit of 750cc, the CBR900RR was lower in displacement than rival flagships, which typically boasted over 1,000cc. Yet, despite not offering the most raw power, upon launch the CBR900RR was greeted with happy surprise by enthusiasts around the world. Its amazingly lightweight and compact design overturned the conventional wisdom of what was possible in motorcycle design.
Former Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) works rider Hikaru Miyagi: I clearly remember thinking at the time that you’d done something really bold. First, the 900cc displacement figure was unusual, since back then high-displacement full-cowl super sport models were either 750cc-class racer replicas or 1,000cc-class sport touring bikes. Instead of complying with conventional wisdom and offering the body size of a 1,000cc-class bike, the CBR900RR had the wheelbase of a 600cc-class bike, everything in it was designed so compactly that you could see right through the frame, and its cowling was amazingly thin. When it launched, a completely new category of motorcycle was born.
First-generation CBR900RR Large Project Leader (LPL) Tadao Baba: Indeed, lightweight, compact design was the point of departure for this bike, and its reason for existence. When advanced development began, our goal was nothing less than creating a motorcycle capable of beating the RVF750 HRC works racer in the Suzuka 8 Hours Endurance Road Race.
Miyagi: So you actually began development with 750cc in mind. But it’s amazing that you selected a Honda bike as your benchmark and made defeating it the goal of development!
Baba: At the time, riders had a pretty hard time handling the full-cowl sport bikes that were selling well in the market. Both the 750cc-class racer replicas and the 1,000cc-class flagships had been evolving year after year into more powerful bikes, but their bodies had also become proportionately heavier. Of course, there was enjoyment to be found in mastering such bikes, but the number of people who could do so was not very large.
Miyagi: To riders, big power and a large displacement offer a great deal of value. Yet it got to the point where riding those bikes took a lot of strength and made riders tired, and controlling them was difficult. As you said, only a handful of riders could truly master them. Thus, you had it in mind to change this trend.
Baba: That’s right. For that reason, we were aiming to create a bike that was the most lightweight and compact in its class. It was a given that it had to be better than our competitors’ 750cc bikes, but if it could also beat Honda’s own RVF750, then we’d have an entirely new type of sport bike that anyone could enjoy riding. And so we began development of our new super sport bike, which leveraged the lightweight and compact inline 4-cylinder engine that we’d been working on for a long time under the radar. We came up with the phrase total control to establish the image of the model, and based on this we developed every function and performance characteristic. Also, since there was no English phrase that perfectly matched the Japanese, we discussed options at length and eventually selected total control as the translation.
The most lightweight and compact in its class. Capable of defeating the RVF750 HRC works racer in the Suzuka 8 Hours Endurance Road Race. Offering every rider total control. With these goals, advanced development began for the motorcycle that would become the CBR900RR. Now the team’s job was to clarify further these fundamentals and realize them in physical form.
Baba: Our basic thought was this: If we were going to create something new, instead of developing a motorcycle that would compete directly with other bikes in the Honda lineup, why not go for something that transcended the preexisting categories of 750cc racer replica and 1,000cc flagship sport bike? Fortunately, we had the dimensions, center of gravity position and all the other packaging details we required for a 750cc bike—exactly what we needed to offer all riders total control. Our challenge then was to create a bike based on this packaging that offered riders total control while transcending preexisting categories.
Miyagi: So you didn’t have the 900cc figure in mind from the start. Still, if you’re crossing that 750cc limit, there’s no upper boundary to displacement. That’s why other super sport bikes had become powerful but heavy.
Baba: First of all, our target environment was the autobahn in Germany. We researched the level of speed that the rider of a flagship motorcycle wanted to achieve. As you know, there are many sections of the autobahn system that have no speed limit. Speed demons aside, people travel at an average speed of about 160 km/h. For this reason, our goal was to develop a bike that could go from 0 to 160 km/h in the same time as a 1,000cc-class bike. Achieving this objective depended on the power-weight ratio, so we needed to figure out the right horsepower and displacement figures. Of course, we would be sticking with the 750cc packaging we had. Our subsequent research told us that a displacement of 893cc was what we needed.
Miyagi: But doing so was the exact opposite of the trend at the time, wasn’t it? The birth pangs, so to speak, must have been substantial.
Baba: Yes, this was the era of engine power supremacism. No. 1 in engine power. No. 1 in top speed. No. 1 in displacement. These things were easy to sell. Since you can’t tell how a bike rides by these numbers, it took a while to convince people we were taking the right approach. But when we invited riders associated with our affiliates in Europe to Japan to try out our motorcycle, it was very clear that they were enjoying themselves. From there, we were able to realize a finished product. In Europe, they didn’t want to promote the “900” figure very much, so the motorcycle went on sale with the name “FireBlade.”