There was something about the unbaffled wail of a 4 into 1 exhaust pipe fitted to a 1970’s Japanese four cylinder motorcycle which was unique and still stirs my heart today. Back then we would try and identify each Japanese manufacturer’s distinctive exhaust note emitted by an open Kerker and other makes of aftermarket silencers from kilometers away. Perhaps it was the design of the engines. Perhaps it was the type of exhausts. Perhaps it was the lack of watercooling or unrefined carburettors. Perhaps it was just that my teenager’s ears had not yet lost their hearing after years of abuse! Whatever the reason, 1970’s four cylinder engines have an aggressive sound quality which make the far better, far more powerful and higher revving modern engines sound far too politically correct to my ears.
Honda had revolutionised motorcycle engine design forever by introducing their four stroke, four cylinder, SOHC 750 cc model in 1969. They had a head start on their Japanese rivals and while the others were battling to catch up and were still relying on two stroke technology, Honda expanded its four cylinder range to include 350cc and 500cc four cylinder models. The 350cc was an innovation in engine technology because of its small capacity but was not appealing looking and lacked performance. The two strokes of similar capacity, like my 1973 Yamaha R5 350cc, gave the CB350 Four a hiding. Then Honda introduced an absolute winner in 1975, the iconic CB400 Four. Although the engine design was identical to the 350cc, the capacity was increased to 408cc and a new cylinder head with bigger valves and combustion chamber was fitted. This engine could rev to a 10 000 rpm redline, which was staggering for this era, in each of its six gears. Even a six speed gearbox was an innovation. Although the 37hp and a top speed of 150km/h was still beatable by well tuned two strokes, this Honda was the winner in every other aspect. Its modern cafe racer styling, gorgeous 4 into 1 factory fitted exhaust, superior handling and braking, smooth power delivery, electric start and great fuel economy had our oil burners beaten. And did I mention the sound! With an open exhaust pipe this is probably the sweetest sounding four cylinder engine you will ever hear. I remember riding my friend’s blue 1975 model at every available opportunity, just to enjoy hearing that free revving motor sing its song at over 10 000 rpm! Honda stopped production of the 400 Four in 1977 and introduced the cheaper to produce twin cylinder models.
Our featured Honda 400 Four café racer was recently completed by the talented guys at V Custom Cycles in Centurion. This beautiful custom motorcycle was built to its owner Basil’s personal specification. Basil is the owner of the popular Ed’s Diner in Pretoria East and he has a great love for rock and roll music, memorabilia and motorcycles. We previously featured his BMW R100 cafe racer. Although this CB400 FOUR is now dressed up as a unique 1960’s café racer, most of the original motorcycle’s components have been used.
Ask anyone who knows Honda models which is the easiest way to identify a 400 Four and the answer will be by the shape of the exhaust headers. These curvaceous 4 into 1 headers are the 400 Four trademark. When I heard that Basil had asked V Custom Cycles to install separate exhausts on either side of the motorcycle, I was concerned that this signature element would be lost. I need not have worried. The end result has the best of both worlds, with the standard headers retaining their shape but now splitting into two under the motorcycle and running to the silencers on either side of the motorcycle.
The tank and side covers are still the standard items but the seat and tail piece with integrated taillight are a V Custom creation. The flawless paint job is by Kicker Cycles and Paintworx. The frame and standard rims are powdercoated. Dion, the leatherman, upholstered the seat. The number 57 is the year that Basil was born.
The running gear is still all basically original. The wheels and brakes are unmodified, as is the suspension. The front end has been lowered slightly to improve the Honda’s sporty posture. The original headlight now houses a new and improved lens and glass. The mesh cover is an aftermarket item. The original gauge cluster was too shabby to be reused and so a set of gauges off an earlier model 350cc have been installed. Everything that is not painted or powdercoated on this motorcycle, is polished or chromed. Even the switch covers and brake fluid reservoir are chromed. Clubmans and bar end mirrors are café racer essentials.
I have been patiently watching this CB400 Four evolve in V Custom’s workshop, knowing the end result would be good. Now that it is finished, it is definitely one of my favourite motorcycles out of all the superb customs that we have been privileged to feature. It is understandable, but still a pity, that Honda chose to cut costs after only three years of production, by switching to the twin cylinder design to match their rivals products and prices. This makes the CB400 Four relatively scarce and very desirable. A few more years of production would have made them more freely available now, so that more of us would have the opportunity to include this motorcycle’s song on the soundtrack of our lives.