STILL CRUISING

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By Stuart Grant

Top Gun, the 1986 blockbuster film named after an article in California magazine, follows life at the US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School in California. There’s lots of flying action, testosterone, one-upmanship and danger packed into the mix – and of course there’s also a love story between pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), a Porsche 356-driving astrophysicist and civilian Topgun instructor. A risky inverted manoeuvre with the MiG-28 by Maverick sparked Charlie’s interest, but for motoring fans the world over his Kawasaki GPZ900R was the real deal clincher. Was it the best mid-ʼ80s sports bike… or did the movie make the legend? (As an aside, the movie made at least two other things legendary: bomber jacket popularity sky-rocketed the world over and Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses sales – like those used by the flying aces in the flick – jumped a jaw-dropping 40% that year.)

As an impressionable 8-year-old at the time, I thought the GPZ was cool but while on a Wednesday afternoon jaunt to Rosebank Mall with my grandmother, I spotted a bike I reckoned was cooler. One that I would rather have had on my bedroom poster and one that, in my mind, would have helped negate the need for that risky invert. Though, admittedly, that wouldn’t have made for much of a movie script!

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Anyway, the bike, which I saw that day in between the host of delivery Honda CD200s, Suzuki B120s and the local pharmacy Vespa Ape, was Honda’s VF1000. Decked out in white with blue-and-red flashes, it looked racy – made even more so by the addition of an aerodynamic-looking headlight cowl and lower bikini-fairing sporting a ‘V-FOUR’sticker. How many sold in South Africa? No idea. But since that first sighting, I have seen very few on the road or at shows. (Any local bike statisticians out there should feel free to send in some sales figures on these and the GPZs.)

What I have seen though is a number of Honda VF750 and VF500 FII models popping up lately. Like a one-piece bathing costume, these are fully faired and have aged better than the high-cut-bikini-and-perm look of the VF1000 I saw 30-odd years back.

Armed with aviators and a bomber jacket, the hunt began. The criteria? Period-correctness, of course. Like it was back in the day, the more powerful 750 version was top of the list. But I had no luck. Any bikes that I found were either missing bits of bodywork or were painted in schemes of lurid metallic purple and yellow. It was this desire for the bigger bikes that damaged VF500 sales figures back in the 1980s, but it is probably also the reason why I was able to track down a very original one today.

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No, the main manne didn’t want the little 500. A few sold to individuals not concerned with ‘bigger is better’ and Midmacor, the Honda importers, set about selling the rest to companies as delivery bikes. These workhorses would have lived a hard life, either ending up forgotten in the office basement or at a scrapyard. But judging by the mileages of the privately owned ones that still exist, they were used as daily commuters, for the odd weekend away and gentle breakfast runs (while the 750 and 1000 crews raced to the dam).

As the business district started moving from Johannesburg to Sandton, so the VF500 FII rider started a family, traded his brown suit for a blue one and bought a car. He clearly dreamt of riding the Honda again and wrapped it up in a cosy cover, safely in the corner of the garage next to the VHS machine and video cassettes (with Top Gun in the pile, of course).

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Decades on, the kids left home and the rider pulled out his cherished bike. It took more money than he paid for it when new to flush out the rotten fuel and brake fluid, redo the carburettors and calliper seals, buy a new battery and fit some fresh tyres. All done, the VF500 FII coughed and spluttered into life, gave the rider a blast down memory lane and he went off to buy a BMW GS adventure bike with ABS and heated grips. The Honda and the VHS set-up stayed in the stable though – not as a tool but rather a nostalgic bit of artwork and party trick to show the kids and grandkids from time to time.

The VF500F (badged as ‘Interceptor’ for the American market) was part of Honda’s family of first-generation V4 engine motorcycles (VF400F, VF500F, VF700F, VF750F, VF1000F) and sold from 1984 through to ’88 – the full fairing V500FII was a European (and clearly SA) market option. The formula was simple, with a 498cc engine slotted into a square-tube steel frame and conventional front forks, and a rear mono-spring/damper (both adjustable in stiffness with air pressure) kept the rubber on the tarmac. To save weight an aluminium swingarm held the 18-inch rear rim, but the front was dropped to 16-inch to reduce the rotational inertia and make steering a breeze. And it worked a treat, with the V500 widely regarded as one of the finest handling bikes of the ʼ80s.

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Added to this nimbleness, the over-square water-cooled V4, which featured four valves per cylinder, mixed fuel and air via a quartet of 32mm Keihin carburettors and was good for 70 horses, 43Nm of torque and a 12 000rpm redline – 1500rpm more than the Yamaha FJ600, which had up until then been the rev-leader in the class. If kept above 8000rpm the acceleration impressed, running a ¼-mile in 12.66 seconds and up to a max of around 196km/h – a higher top number than the Yamaha FJ600 and GPZ550.

The VF500 might not have been the period top gun (I blame the marketing team for not getting the Honda onto the big screen), but I reckon it should have been.     


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