Honda VT1300CX: Art you can ride
Arlen Ness did it first and, arguably, best: that stretched-out, spidery look where the only really solid part of the bike is the engine. It's minimalism in metal, difficult to achieve in a motorcycle that's actually meant to be ridden.
The biggest surprise about the VT1300CX, however, is that it's not a one-off show creation at all but a production machine from the world's most conservative motorcycle company - Honda.
It's long and low, with swoopy West Coast styling, acres of chrome and surprisingly delicate cast-alloy rims. Its 1805mm wheelbase is the longest of any Honda to date - even the trucklike, 1832cc, flat-six Rune spanned “only” 1750mm between axles.
Where Japanese cruisers (and most American ones too, for that matter) are chunky and solid-looking, this one is visually light and clean, with no visible wiring or cables. There are no boxlike covers hiding clumsy engineering and a slim, trim tubular-steel frame, finished in the same striking metallic blue as the body parts, ties it all together.
Honda's design studio got the first, and most important, decision absolutely right; rather than start with the VTX1800 Shadow, Honda's biggest, torquiest V-twin, they chose the lighter, more compact 1312cc, 52-degree Vee from the VTX1300 Sabre, with its narrow crankcase and closely-spaced finning for that air-cooled look.
Then they ditched the CV carburettor in favour of PGM-FI fuel-injection on a 38mm throttle body and cut new cams to take advantage of its instant response. The result was 42.5 kW at an easy-running 4250rpm and a stump-pulling 107Nm at only 2250.
It's difficult to quantify without a rev-counter but the CX's midrange seems to kick in just off idle; there's no power-thudding, thanks to balance shafts, and the bike picks up speed with a real sense of purpose.
Full-throttle take-offs can be quite exciting; the clutch is light and a little remote, and first gear unexpectedly short. More than once I bounced the engine off the rev-limiter in first before I could get my feet to the way-out-front footpegs and I got the best results by short-shifting through the five-speed 'box (no clutch necessary after the rather noisy first-second shift) to get into top at less than 100km/h and ride the torque from there.
The 309kg Honda rumbled up to a true 158km/h with a needle's width less than 170 showing on the neat little five-sided speedometer that is this bike's only instrumentation. It got there after only a little more than 1200m of our six-kilometre test, stable as a rock and sounding completely unstressed.
I had enough space to back off, change down and try again in fourth; I got a lot more noise but the result was the same. The speedo stopped at 168 and the Garmin confirmed an identical 158km/h terminal velocity - which lends some credence to claims in US custom-bike chat rooms that the VT1300CX (known there as the Fury) is electronically restricted to 100mph (161km/h).
Be that as it may, 158km/h is quite quick enough on a bike that forces a 1.78m rider to rotate his pelvis the wrong way to reach the pedals, and I spent most of the test period cruising around (there's that word again!) at a relaxed 120km/h, which no doubt contributed to the bike's impressive, 5.9 litres/100km fuel consumption.
That speed seemed to correspond with the meatiest part of the engine's torque curve. Huge gobs of torque were never more than a flick of the wrist away and I can't remember even once changing down to overtake. It's a lazy, somewhat arrogant way to ride, aided by a crisp-as-breaking-glass gearshift and slightly clonky shaft final drive that rewards positive throttle as early as possible in a turn.
The bike's ultra-long wheelbase and low-slung chassis don't lend themselves to exuberant cornering but the narrow, 21” front tyre provides accurate if slow steering and the front suspension is firmer than usual on a cruiser.
It's still softer than the choppy rear set-up with its restricted 95mm travel, but firm enough that the bike will settle into a long sweep without doing the Hippy Hippy Shake.
Most cruisers - like scooters - have a stronger rear brake than front, but the VT1300CX is blessed with a beautifully balanced, combined antilock set-up with a 326mm front disc that only looks small because of the 21” hoop it's tacked on to, and a 296mm rear disc. Neither will get you into trouble on its own but, used together, they deliver plenty of Wet Cement Effect without much initial bite or, indeed, bad manners of any kind.
The seating position is not as bad as it looks, mostly because the seat is wide and deeply padded as well as deeply curved to hold your hips comfortably in position. The downside to that, of course, is that it offers no wiggle-room whatsoever and your nether regions will be crying out for a comfort stop long before you reach the theoretical 217km range limit of the 12.8-litre fuel tank.
The pillion perch, however, is purely for show; it's too narrow for any body bigger than a schnauzer and slopes the wrong way - your pillion will constantly complain that she's sliding off it even if she isn't.
Build quality, I'm sad to say, is not quite up to Honda's usual standards; far too many of the shiny bits on the outside of the engine are actually plastic under the easily-scratched fake chrome (although I shudder to think what the already-hefty CX would weigh if they were all made of righteous metal) and there is some spectacularly poor-quality welding very much on display around the steering head.
Nevertheless it cleans up quickly and easily thanks to its beautifully integrated styling and the metallic blue paintwork is breathtaking, while durability is guaranteed - every mechanical component has been borrowed or derived from an earlier model.
The VT1300CX is not the first factory cruiser - that honour belongs to Willie G Davidson's 1971 Super Glide - but it is the first true factory custom. Unlike so many home-built creations, however, it's also a rideable real-world motorcycle, and therein lies its strength. It's a work of art you can go to work on.
Price: R133 999.
Test bike from: Honda South Africa.
Engine: 1312cc liquid-cooled 52-degree four-stroke V-twin.
Bore x Stroke: 89.5mm x 104.3mm.
Compression ratio: 9.2:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with three overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 42.5kW at 4250rpm.
Torque: 107Nm at 2250rpm.
Induction: PGM-FI with automatic enricher circuit and 38mm throttle body.
Ignition: Digital with three-dimensional mapping and two spark plugs per cylinder electronic.
Clutch: Cable-operated wet multiplate clutch.
Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by shaft.
Front Suspension: 45mm conventional cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Hydraulic shock absorber remotely adjustable for preload and rebound damping.
Front brake: 336mm disc with combined three-piston floating calliper and ABS.
Rear brake: 296mm disc with combined twin-piston floating calliper and ABS.
Front tyre: 90/90 - 21 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 200/50 - 18 tubeless.
Seat Height: 678mm.
Kerb weight: 309kg.
Fuel tank: 12.8 litres.
Top Speed: 158km/h.
Fuel Consumption: 5.9litres/100km (measured).
Price: R133 999.
Test bike from: Honda South Africa.