The “official” name for the motorcycle, car, lawn mower, F1 race car engine, outboard marine motor and light jet maker we all know as “Honda” is Honda Motor Company Limited, and there are some really, really good reasons for that name.
There are almost too many iconic Honda “motors” to count, but let’s do a quick thumbnail of Honda’s consumer-facing motorized products that have been game-changers over the decades: The race-derived 305cc air-cooled twin of the 1960s that could outhustle many of the “big bike” 650cc Britbike twins of the same era, the 750cc-class inline four in the CB750 of the 1970s that spearheaded Japanese world domination of the motorcycle market, the 500, 750 and 1100cc liquid-cooled V4 Interceptor engines that ushered in the era of the modern sportbike in the early 1980s, and the automotive VTEC four-bangers and V6s that brought tech-driven performance – and fueled the rise of tuner cars – in the 1990s. Game changers, all of them.
But while perusing the bikes for sale on one of my favorite time-burning websites, Iconic Motorbike Auctions, I came across one of Honda’s rare failures in internal combustion, albeit a “failure” that resulted in one of the rarest, most iconic and intriguing motorcycles ever made: The amazing oval-piston powered NR750, also known as the RC40. And there one sits on IMA, for a platry $90,000 and change.
Honda’s ultimately ill-fated journey down the oval piston rabbit hole began with a search to solve a 1980s regulatory problem more than a performance issue: Officials prohibited V8 engines in motorcycle racing (and Moto Guzzi was really the only major bike maker to even give that a go at any point in time), but Honda’s four-stroke machines, good as they were, were struggling against the lighter, faster 2-strokes of the day, so the anything-goes engineers at Honda, who had ruled racetracks with the jewel-like and boundary-pushing 250cc inline six RC166 in the 1960s, thought WAY outside the round box and hit upon an idea: What if they essentially joined the pistons and cylinders in a V8 to make a “V4” – but with much of the same power characteristics of a V8?
The result was the NR development series of heavy-breathing “V4” 500cc race bikes that featured eight valves in each oval cylinder head, along with two conrods and those weird-Harold oval pistons. But the expected domination at the racetrack didn’t materialize and the technical hurdles were considerable, and after a decade of frustration despite continued refinement, the NR oval-piston engine project was shelved and Honda re-focused on motors using boring old round pistons like everyone else – and has ever since. Except for one final signature Honda we-can-do-anything-we-set-out-do technical statement: The 1992 Honda NR750 oval-piston streetbike.
Like the legendary CBX inline six from 1979, which was another poor-selling (but also broad market) “statement” bike by Honda that’s now a coveted classic, the NR750 didn’t sell “well,” even though every one of the 300 produced were sold… eventually. A price tag of over $50,000 and the bike’s highly unconventional… everything… may have warned off some from immediately pulling the trigger, but those who did received a machine that was not only novel, but revolutionary is some unexpected ways.
The beautiful NR’s flowing bodywork was mainly carbon-fiber to cut down on weight. CF bodywork was highly exotic at the time, but it would become more common on high-end sport bikes years later. And while tail-up exhaust pipes were not totally “new” in 1992 (Suzuki’s 1980s almost-as-rare RZ500 “Gamma” 2-stroke street-legal sportbikes had two of four pipes up high), they were a very high-profile example of the style, so much so rumor has it Ducati stylists revised their upcoming next-gen breakthrough sportbike, the iconic 916, to include its now signature tail-up pipes.
And long before LEDs better enabled slit-style headlights, the NR750 featured two slim horizontal headlights (they were not LEDs), one a projector, in the fairing snout. Round (Suzuki GSX-R) and cat-eye (Yamaha FZR) headlights had come before the Honda’s twin peepers, and the thin twin headlight array also appeared on the 916 a short time later. The slim-style lights allowed for sportier/sharkier fairing profiles and went on to become an almost de-facto styling element for years to come across the sportbike industry.
In the cockpit, a swank (and likely expensive) digital display showed speed, tripmeter and odometer data years before most bikes had LCD panels, but Honda had done much more simple LCD panels before with the Sabre 1100 V4 back in the early 1980s. The NR’s display, which appeared to “float” in the dash, was next-level – as was the color-changing, titanium-treated windscreen designed to shade the display during daytime riding. Other touches abound: the kickstand cover folds in flush to the body when closed. Small driving lights are tucked into the fairing. The rear swingarm is single-sided, a clear nod to the NR race bikes. Carbon-fiber tubes run from the high-pressure front of the fairing to flow cool, pressurized air into the airbox. Not a totally new idea, but one they expanded on with what many consider the Son of the NR, the brute Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird, which came five years later and held the World’s Fastest Stock Motorcycle title for a time (Disclosure: Author owns a 1999 Honda Super Blackbird).
And then, of course, there was That Motor. While the NR750 makes a robust (claimed) 125 horsepower – a very big number for a 750 at the time – it was how it made the power, with those four essentially hand-finished pistons, 32 valves, two titanium conrods per piston and two fuel injectors per cylinder all working together to allow the crank to spin up to a then nearly race-only redline of 15,000 rpm. To ride one at speed, in the open and at full song, must be a glorious experience. And it can be yours for just short of six figures.
The NR750 was also one of the first true “limited edition” super-expensive bespoke motorcycles from a major manufacturer. While there had always been hard-to-get and expensive marques (think 1960s MV Agusta or Bimota models), such a limited run of clearly hand-built bikes from a mega-producer like Honda was a rare move. It paved the way for bikes like Ducati’s MH900e, Desmosedici and Superleggera V4, Yamaha R1M and other spendy, limited edition issues, including Honda’s $184,000 RC213V-S.
Admittedly, the 1992 NR750 on IMA is no pure-spec bone-stock hanger queen. The previous owner or owners actually rode this rare beast and it shows 34,000 kilometers on the odo, or just about 20,000 miles. They also swapped out the front 16-inch wheel for a 17 (a correct front wheel is included), and the rear wheel is also not stock. It’s been repainted and the rear signals are aftermarket as are the levers. The exhaust has been (thankfully) derestricted. It has wear, but no tear. It’s all there, or enough there to still be what Soichiro Honda and his team aimed to create: an exotic, unique machine that at its heart, is a “Honda,” a bike made to be ridden, and not exactly delicately.
Honey, are you sure we’re gonna need this 401K money?
Special thanks to Abhi Eswarappa and his team at Iconic Motorbike Auctions for the use of their Honda NR750 images, photographed by Gray Van Dyke.