Honda X11 (CB1100SF) Review
Jack Speedkinson & Seth Gonewizz
Bigger isn’t always better, just like smaller isn’t always worse; but sometimes only big will do. That’s certainly the message I get from my wife, anyway, when she’s not too busy adding powdered glass to my sandwiches.
Honda had that very thing in mind when they created the Blackbird. It was a silly thing, but less silly than the other gigantic over-powered motorcycles available at the time. It was eventually upgraded to the imaginatively named ‘Super Blackbird’ which was neither more super, blacker, nor more bird-like.
It was an 1140cc engine in an alloy frame, wrapped in a mountain of horribly unstylish plastic. Somebody at Honda must have been staring at it while a wheel-barrow full of tools fell on his head because, suddenly, the X11 was born. It was the answer to a question nobody was asking. “What would happen if we stuck that engine in a naked bike?” Honda did exactly that, presumably thinking it was a perfect recipe for success of some kind.
It was known as a naked Blackbird, but it was actually subtly different in several key ways. The engine was slightly retooled to provide more torque, a 5-speed gearbox replaced the 6, it only had one balancer shaft, and it had a partly different frame. But, while it isn’t technically just a naked Blackbird, it essentially is exactly that. It’s a big engine in a big bike that’s designed to go too fast and use too much petrol. Everything else is a secondary concern.
It’s an oddly-styled thing with a huge, oddly-styled tank. It has weird indents to allow your knees to tuck up inside—into which, your knees cannot tuck up inside. Presumably this was only designed to accommodate someone with legs so short they’d actually not be able to touch the floor if they sat on the thing. It might be ideally suited to a squirrel, perhaps?
It has gigantic blobs of plastic bolted to the sides of the radiator. Love them or hate them, they certainly give the bike some character, much like if you had a second head sprouting from your neck. They’re reportedly designed to force air into the huge cooling system as well as creating downforce, since at full speed the bike tries to take off.
The bike tries to take off… That fact alone made me need to buy one.
It has a pair of clocks tucked inside two gigantic things that look like family-sized air-fresheners, the kind that old people with dogs buy, that still don’t work. The intent is that they force the air around the rider so they aren’t blown clean off the back of the thing under hard acceleration.
All of this makes it sound rather like this is a perfect machine for the suicidally depressed—which it undeniably is.
Apart from the weird design choices, the bike is almost normal. It sports a round headlight, comes in unexciting, neutral colours and has a big, comfy seat to wallow in. The frame is a bulging, muscular thing that looks like two of any other bikes bolted together sideways. The swing-arm is a big, no-nonsense slab of alloy and everything else is what you’d expect to see, but scaled up.
The frame has a weird notch in it that makes it look like a piece is missing, and the tail is slightly over-designed with two swoopy air-intakes that channel the air exactly nowhere. Everything about this thing looks just subtly, very slightly, wrong.
Throwing your leg over gives a very strong impression. This bike is big and it’s heavy too. You kick up the stand, you heft it and it feels like a gigantic, lumbering monstrosity. The suspension feels like it should be able to handle the weight, even though it might not look like it. The front forks are spindly little things and they don’t inspire confidence.
Turning it on is more of the same. Despite it having the same fuel injection setup as her blacker, more avian sister, it also has a choke. Tucked up under the left rear of the tank is a cold starting knob that you pull out, just like you’d find on a machine with carburettors.
It has two gigantic exhausts sticking out, like a pair of industrial bread-bins bolted to the back. They do a great job of keeping the noise under control and the engine purrs like a kitten. The clutch is rattly until it warms through, but this is reportedly quite normal. Another thing you have to accept as normal is that if you make a mistake on this thing, the weird rattle is going to be the last sound coming out of you, while you wait in vain for the ambulance that isn’t going to make it in time.
Once you put it in gear, this thing is quite intimidating.
To put it into perspective, of the top ten most powerful naked sports-bikes ever built, this thing matches the leader for a standing quarter mile times. It’s also packing more weight and is mounted on 20 year old suspension technology with brakes that weren’t quite enough two decades ago. This is less of a motorcycle, and more of a weapon, and it’s a deadly weapon at that. More frightening still, this weapon is loaded, armed, and is pointing directly at the rider. None of this is to be taken lightly.
Brakes are weird and wobbly too, and a first time rider won’t know what to expect. It has mechanically linked brakes, gripping down on the front will automatically activate the rear. Not only will it activate it, it will work out the precise amount of pressure required. This is all done by engineering miracles, with not a computer in sight. Some people, especially experienced riders, hate it; others love it. Some, especially bald writers, don’t give a shit either way.
As you pull away, you’re grimly, morbidly and horrifyingly aware that you’re sitting on an explosively powerful piece of poorly-judged machinery that doesn’t even bother trying to fit into its own niche—because it doesn’t even have one. It’s a bike that isn’t a sportster, nor a muscle-bike, nor a tourer. It’s too clumsy to be a commuter, it’s too fast, too wide, too big and too heavy. It’s an explosion captured in a bottle and slowly released to a back wheel that wants to go round faster than you suspect it can stop.
Then you twist the throttle and the world changes. Suddenly you realise that Honda weren’t wrong to build this thing at all—it was the world that was wrong all along; I always secretly suspected.
The acceleration is vicious but smooth, predictable and invigorating. Want more, she has it. Want less, she can do that too. No matter what you want or where you want it, there is power on tap and the power is shockingly usable.
What is even more shocking is that this bike does something you would never have expected—it handles! It corners sharply, despite a narrow turning circle, it has excellent poise and a powerful road-presence. Weaving around tight corners is simple and it encourages you to push a little harder.
The brakes are surprisingly predictable and, even as an experienced rider, I liked them. The front is definitely sharp, and slamming on the rear has no effect on the other end. It worked perfectly well, and even though there is an after-market de-linking option, I doubt I would be interested in it.
The seat is huge and comfortable and there can be no doubt that riding this for extended periods would be no problem at all. You find yourself leaning slightly more forwards than I had expected and the riding position is a little more aggressive than the normal naked bike. With the torque that can find its way to the back wheel, pushing the weight forwards is a fair design choice, if you don’t want to be riding along staring at the clouds.
Pushing on, the overall impression is that this bike is effortlessly smooth. Everything it does feels effortless, but not to the degree of it being lazy. This is a bike for a seasoned rider, a man not a boy. It’s not going to go toe to toe with the latest racer, but it won’t be embarrassed either. It’s a machine for a person who knows what’s what, and knows what really matters.
This is a motorcycle that delivers on a promise that nobody asked it to keep. It’s widely referred to as a modern classic and it belongs in that territory. It certainly should have caught on, but the fact is that it didn’t. For some reason, it never found a home in the hearts of the buying public.
Current owners cherish their bikes jealously, and they tend to change hands rarely. Once you ride one, you very quickly see why. It’s fantastic fun, but also oddly functional.
None of this is to say it doesn’t have some drawbacks. Fuel consumption is pretty awful. It’s a bike built for performance and nobody cared about anything else. Consequently, the early EFI is a thirsty system and, at the fuel pump, the bike punishes you for loving it.
The low-speed steering is poor. You can’t expect it to be excellent on a machine like this and it doesn’t let you down. It’s heavy and slow manoeuvring isn’t helped by the wide turning circle.
The biggest issue is the gearbox. The 5 speed box is a mistake, and the gears run out long before the engine has given all it’s got.
But none of these little issues are deal-breakers. The weird clock covers actually work, the odd styling starts to make sense after a while. The intakes in the tail cool the charging system, which is a known issue with these bikes. Everything seems perfectly suited to doing its job and everything seems to do it exceptionally well.
My partner sat comfortably on the back as we weaved through traffic and leant over into a sweeping bend. The sound of giggling could be heard from behind as the bike made all this totally effortless, and the acceleration pushed us along like we were being launched out of a cannon. She asked how we could go round corners so fast on this thing. My only answer is that this isn’t a bike that Honda cut any corners on. It’s quality from the ground up and everything works nicely.
I’m used to riding big singles. When you go over a pothole you tend to blip the throttle, just pulling the front end up just enough to smooth it out. I do the same trick on curbs and other steps I negotiate my way over. I found you can’t do it on an X11, and when habit got the better of me, I nearly dislocated my shoulders.
Ignoring my stupidity, which isn’t always easy to ignore, this is one of the all-round best motorcycles I’ve ridden. It makes you feel like it’s built in the old-school manner. It reminds me of Streetfighter magazines where old bikes had been turned into hooligan racers. You don’t really see much of that anymore, but the X11 comes from the days where bikes lasted for decades and it still looks ready to take on the world after smashing through a white van whose driver ‘didn’t see you, mate.’
My only guess is that the price of the thing was against it. Maybe it was too big, too intimidating for many people to take a chance on? Perhaps slightly less expensive offerings such as the smaller Honda Hornet or the much cheaper Bandit were more attractive?
Certainly, this is one of the best bikes I’ve ridden and among the most satisfying I’ve owned. Aftermarket parts are rare and options are few. Lucky then that Honda seem to have got it almost perfectly right the first time.
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