Back in 1986 the first Honda VFR 400 was produced. It was set to replace the VF400F as the VF series was being phased out, it was designated the title NC21.
Little did Honda know at the time that the bike originally intended for the Japanese domestic market would become an icon in its own right across the world.
It would be the 3rd generation Honda VFR 400 NC30 that would capture the world’s imagination and be sold outside the Japanese market, particularly into Britain and Europe.
It now has a hardcore fanbase who treat the model as a scaled down version of a superbike perfect for beginners and track days.
It was essential for Honda to turn the new VFR bikes into a success at the time as the prior VF line had been struggling with a major cam-shaft crisis among other build quality issues.
So, in 1986 Honda dropped the VFR 750F and they had the redemption they sought as the motor was running how it was intended. The 750 class was big in the US and UK and the power was appreciated, however, in Japan bikes sub-400cc were vital to the industry.
The Japanese domestic market was being somewhat constricted by new licensing laws making it tougher for bikers to ride motorcycles that exceeded 400cc. So, in order to meet demand and ensure the home market still had access to motorcycles, Japanese manufacturers put a lot of effort into their smaller capacity bikes over the bigger bikes.
Therefore, with the release of the Honda VFR 750R (RC30) came the Honda VFR 400 directly targeting those who were being prevented from having access to the bigger bike.
The VFR 400 was exported to Britain between 1988 and 1994, it also had a spell of being officially sold in parts of Europe.
Some motorcycles found their way into the US and were entered into mini-superbike racing categories.
The model was replaced by the RVF400R in 1994 and that was the end of the era.
So, how did it do? Why is it considered to be such an iconic motorcycle with a large fanbase in Japan, England and the world over? Let’s take a look.
Honda VFR 400 Review
To truly understand the mystique of the Honda VFR400 you first need to look at the engine, after all that is the powerplant, the heart of the machine which Honda simply nailed.
Honda VFR 400 Engine
The 400cc market was mainly focused on the domestic market and it was almost guaranteed to appeal to bikers in Japan as it was in the realm of the awesome Yamaha RD400 but with significantly more power.
However, the bi product of being focused on producing a solid 400cc was that it was attractive to riders in Europe for whom it was an entry way into bigger bikes. It would be their first big bike after getting their license, the motor offered plenty of punch and was paired with exceptional build quality and Honda’s famous reliability.
Initially the engine was produced with a 180 degree firing order but for the NC30 this was changed to a 360 degree firing order (which gave it the big bang engine nickname) this improved torque but retained the smooth quality of a 90 degree V-4.
The NC30’s big bang firing interval was the main difference between the NC21 and NC24 versions.
The engine was expertly scaled down from the RC30 and is known as being one of the sweetest motors to ever sit between two wheels. It produced a wide power band that instilled confidence in new and experienced riders alike with a safe rev limit of 14,500rpm.
It produced 60 horsepower and 40Nm of torque which was more than enough for riders to get the full sports bike experience without scaring themselves on something more powerful.
Along with the characteristic whining from the gear driven cams when the engine was running, the exhaust note was enough for any motorcycle enthusiast to appreciate.
Aside from the main change being made for the NC30 the engines of the VFR 400 remained relatively unchanged by Honda for its full production run, this can be attributed to the fact that they simply got it right to start with.
After the debacle of the earlier VF line that had engine issues, Honda ensured the VFR bikes were not going to suffer the same fate.
Gear Driven Cams
Gear driven cams are the ultimate set up for getting the most possible out of an engine.
The engine requires very little effort to turn them over compared to a chain drive. Chain driven cams are typically cheaper which is why they are most common. However, Honda wanted to replicate the power output being the most possible as on the RC30 and so the smaller VFR was given gear driven cams too.
Gear driven cams were known for their reliability and Honda had the technology and equipment to be able to introduce these into the VFR’s. A big reason why Honda opted to go this way was that the previous VF models had issues with the chain driven camshaft and so they didn’t want to repeat that experience.
The set up produces a distinctive whining and whistling noise when the engine is running and you get up to speed.
In terms of the chassis, Honda initially started with a box section aluminium frame with a twin-sided swingarm, this lasted just one generation before being swapped for a Pro Arm single sided swingarm and a lighter aluminium beam frame. The NC24 had a 4 point rear wheel fixing system whereas the RC30 received just a one bolt system.
The frame was compact, wheelbase length ideal, bars positioned so you grab them while hunched over the boxy tank and the seat would hold you in place with some lower back support.
Honda’s creation was considered advanced for the time thanks to its technical V-4, single-sided swingarm and big bodied twin beam frame. It was a 400 that would easily be mistaken for the bigger RC30.
The suspension implemented came in the form of telescopic forks and a single rear shock both of which were preload and rebound adjustable.
Brakes were twin discs up front and single on the back, known to provide enough stopping power with no issues.
How did this all add up then to how the bike handled?
Well, the Honda VFR 400 is considered to be a great handling motorcycle that oozes quality and class suitable for both street riding and the track.
Taller riders might start to feel a little cramped but the seat support for the majority will be a positive experience, give you the confidence to twist the throttle and position yourself in a race stance.
They are known as pocket rockets, the superb handling is equally forgiving so slight mistakes aren’t going to end up with you being in a ditch.
The torque allows you to maintain corner speed so twisties are great fun and will have you keeping up with all the bigger bikes.
These light-middleweight machines are where my heart is, the fact is you can use the full potential of this baby Honda, something you can’t do (certainly on the road) with something like a Fireblade.
Gear shifts are smooth, the NC30 notably revs higher than the previous editions, keep the revs up and the bike will go sweet as a nut for as many miles as you like.
The brakes aren’t going to blow your mind because simply they show their age compared to modern bikes, however, they do the job and there can be no complaints.
This is a 90’s Honda motorcycle through and through and today that makes it super cool. I love 90’s sports bikes. It is big, boxy, purposeful in its design, its not made to be comfortable for touring. It is a road bike with race DNA and the various paint schemes compliment that.
It is a Honda with bags of character, which can’t always be said about the modern Honda’s.
Motorcycle Press and Public Response
At the time the VFR was met with a mixed response, selling well in the Japanese market but the unattractive price point of close to £6,000 in Britain meant that it was out of budget for many potential owners. If it wasn’t out of budget it made little sense for them to shoot for the 400 when the RC30 wasn’t that much more.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what sort of bike you ride you can’t fail to be impressed by the NC30. It is quite simply the best sports bike under 600cc, with the possible exception of the Aprilia RS250. Beautifully engineered, beautifully built and beautifully finished, it exudes such quality that you wonder how they built it at the price.Bike Magazine in the 2001
Reliable? Absolutely, assuming that it’s been properly maintained. The charging system is a bit suspect, but that’s it. Check the trueness of each wheel – they distort easily.
[Note: Regulator/rectifiers can fail, just like the bigger VFRs, that’s all].
It is safe to say that Honda had produced a winner, sure it may have been overpriced in Europe but there was no knocking the fact it was a fantastic bike.
This has been affirmed by the growth in popularity since and to this day.
The one thing that does often come up in personal reviews and press statements, is that the engine particularly needs to be maintained. If the maintenance has been kept on top of then it is a bike that will carry on for as long as you do.
Honda VFR 400 Specs – NC30
Engine and Transmission
- Engine – Four-stroke, 90 degree, V-4, four-cylinder, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
- Capacity – 399cc
- Bore x Stroke – 55 x42mm
- Compression Ratio – 11.3:1
- Lubrication – Wet Sump
- Induction – 4 x 34mm Keihin Carbs
- Starting – Electric
- Transmission – 6 Speed
- Spark plugs – NGK ER9EH
- Final Drive – Chain
- 59 horsepower at 12,800rpm
- Max Torque – 39 Nm at 10,000rpm
- Top Speed – 136mph
- Standing quarter mile – 12.6 seconds 109mph
Chassis and Dimensions
- Frame – Twin-spar aluminium
- Swingarm – Pro-Arm single sided swingarm
- Front Suspension – 41mm inverted forks, preload and rebound damping
- Rear Suspension – Mono-shock
- Front Brakes – 2 x 269mm disc, 2 piston calliper
- Rear Brakes – Single disc, 2 piston calliper
- Rake – 24 degrees
- Trail – 96mm
- Dry Weight – 165kg
- Length -1,985mm
- Height – 1,075mm
- Wheelbase – 1,345mm
- Fuel Capacity – 18 Litres
- Consumption – 42mpg
There were 3 generations of the Honda VFR400 and with each new variant the model was upgraded slightly.
The 3 generations each received a different title they were as follows, the NC21, NC24 and the NC30.
This was the first generation model and was given a total of four designations, R, Z, K and P for the Police version that was used in Japan.
It had a box-section aluminium frame, twin-sided swingarm at the rear, conventional forks, three-spoke wheels, a single headlight and full fairing. Some R models were officially imported into New Zealand in 1987.
The Z models were semi-faired (more of a naked version) with dual headlights and were largely used by Japanese riding schools.
Some made their way into Britain for purchase, these often came from the riding schools and came with crash bars. Most of the NC21 Z models that made into England were restricted.
The K and P models were equipped with high rise bars for a more upright position.
The NC21 claimed 55 horsepower.
For 1987 the second generation arrived and it was a game changer with the big difference being the use of a Pro-Arm single sided swingarm. Other changes included:
- The hydraulic clutch was switched back to a standard cable system
- New 8 spoke rear wheel and 6 spoke front wheel
- It retained the NC21 R single large headlight
- The exhaust silencer on the right side was moved higher up
- Three new colour ways were introduced including a Rothmans official replica.
By 1988 the final generation hit titled the NC30 and this is the version that would have the longest run with very few changes until it was discontinued and replaced by the RVF400. Japanese versions of the NC30 were designated K/N titles.
Here are the key facts about the NC30:
- Completely re-designed, looked like a scaled down version of the well received RC30
- Aluminium beam frame
- Pro-Arm single sided swingarm with a single bolt fixing to the rear wheel as opposed to the four bolt rear wheel system previously
- 41mm conventional forks
- 296mm twin front discs and four-pot callipers
- Full fairing with twin headlights (like the bigger bike, RC30)
- 55mm x 42mm Bore x Stroke with a 360 degree crank/firing order
- Some small engine modifications to make it lighter, more efficient and to get the most out of it
- 60 horsepower and a top speed in the vicinity of 130mph (if de-restricted)
- Eight paint schemes were available
NC30 – British Version L/M
The versions officially imported into the UK for sale from Honda had a few changes from the machines being sold to the Japanese market. These imported models were known as ‘Grey Imports’.
- No restriction (110mph speed limit was enforced on the machines in Japan).
- They often came with a different CDI
- Only two paint schemes were ever officially available in the UK
- Larger indicators were fitted
- An extra number plate light was included
- 60/55w headlamp bulbs
- A MPH speedo fitted
- They also came with an oil cooler
Many of the additions and details found on the UK version were simply to meet UK regulations for a road legal motorcycle.
Buying an original VFR 400
When it comes to buying an original Honda VFR400 today you should expect to require some patience and take your time to find a sweet stock model that the previous rider has taken care of.
They are out there and as we mentioned the Honda VFR series of motorcycles have a big fanbase, affectionately known in England as ‘Viffers’.
Thanks to the appreciation of these motorcycles, finding the right machine to purchase isn’t too hard as while they have undoubtedly been ridden many have also been well looked after.
In the UK you can expect to pay somewhere between £3,500-£6,000.
However, prices do vary significantly and this is based on a variety of things.
Where the bike was registered, which market the bike was produced for, the bikes mileage, if it has any service history, the condition and how much of the motorcycle is still stock.
There is some significant disparity in price due to what the owners think they are worth and what they can get for them.
This Rothman’s edition 1988 NC24 has a guide price of £2,000-£4,000. It is mostly unrestored and is good condition.
I suspect if this was a straight private sale as opposed to an auction lot the owner would deem it of higher value and aim for more money.
On Car and Classic this NC30 has an asking price of £10,000, it comes with lots of paperwork and looks to be great original condition. However, £10,000 is definitely significantly more for the bike than the average price.
In the US you can pick up a Honda VFR400 ranging in price from $1,500-$12,000. With the average price being on the higher end of the scale, simply because far fewer of the originals made it into the country.
Things to look out for:
- Check to see if the bike has been restricted, if it is a Japanese version then it is likely it has, make sure you check if the owner claims that is has been unrestricted
- Look for any bodywork damage, this is a clear indication of the bike having been dropped and while cosmetic damage can be fixed, you need to determine that it is structurally sound
- Check for oil leaks, check the oil filter, this is will be a good sign that the model has had a recent service if it is clean and in good condition, same goes for the air filter
- Make sure the bike matches up with any paperwork it comes with
- Knowing the differences between each version, the different designations etc. will give you the basic knowledge needed to ensure you know what you are buying and the seller isn’t misleading you
Restoring an Honda VFR 400
When it comes to restoring a VFR 400 the key point is to be aware that they will have likely been ridden hard and many will have seen a race track in the hands of an amateur rider.
As a result many will have suffered some abuse both cosmetic and structural. Generally finding parts to fix internal components, exhausts, engine parts, wheels etc. isn’t too difficult.
Where you may have to search a bit more for the right thing is matching and correct bodywork.
CMSNL tend to be my go to site for parts for a whole range of motorcycles and they have a great selection of parts available for the VFR 400’s across the various generations and designations for bikes in the countries where they were officially sold.
CMS are based in the Netherlands but ship worldwide at a reasonable price.
eBay is also another great source for the bits you might need.
Prices for parts are affordable and they certainly aren’t reaching classic bike prices any time soon.
The one thing to be aware of is the different designations, as a bike will have been specifically produced by Honda for a specific market whether that was domestic or international and there will be differences across these markets.
This is something to be conscious of if you are trying to restore a bike back as it was originally intended to be like. If this is less of a concern and you are just trying to restore a bike back into working condition to be ridden then mixing parts isn’t an issue.
The other good news is that a fully restored bike will fetch good money as they are very popular. Even more so now the lightweight market is booming with bikes sub-500cc becoming very popular again.
Also, with the bikes on the used market varying in price so substantially, it is quite easy to pick up a cheap project bike for your restoration, and so there is money to be made.
Are they a good investment?
The VFR 400 is a great machine and the following that it has keeps it relevant and desired around the world.
The disparity in price is a good thing for an investor as there is a demand for the bikes, where there is a demand, the seller can price the bike at whatever they think someone will pay for it.
So, purchasing a VFR 400 at a good middle of the road price, in great condition and holding on to it, is a solid investment. You will certainly not lose money and the chances are you can make some if you find the right buyer when it’s time to move the machine on.
I have done it again, I’ve researched a bike, fallen in love and now I have another to add to my mental list for when I have a garage big enough for my immense collection.
How can you not love the VFR 400? It ticks all the boxes, reliable, quick, fun, stylish, performance focused and all the real world usable power you could ask for.