Its August 1978 and I am an impressionable 13-year-old petrol-head. At this stage of my life, I was more into cars than bikes, but they still fascinated me. My eldest sister worked at a bike shop in Northumberland. The long defunct Fewsters of Alnwick. They also sold Datsun cars and Massey Ferguson tractors. I loved the place.
King of the Hill
The head bike mechanic was a chap called Dennis. He was ‘King of the Hill’ locally and looked up to by many of the local bikers, especially the young lads.
Sitting in the showroom, gleaming, was his latest acquisition: A brand new Honda CBX1000. One of the very first in the country. At the time it seemed impossibly huge to me. A real road warrior. The mighty six-cylinder engine hanging in free space. The cylinder block canted forward at a slight angle and the chrome exhausts cascading down the front of engine like Niagara Falls in full flow.
The mighty CBX
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind. What a great looking engine
I sat on the beast, and everything seemed to be scaled up when compared to its peers. Even such icons as the Kawasaki Z1 were dwarfed. Two cylinders stuck out either of the voluminous petrol-tank. Hefty cast clip-on bars fell to hand either side of pair of prominent instruments conveying revs and speed.
All very impressive and imposing. I even got to ride another example years later. What a behemoth! It steered and cornered like a ‘Super-tanker’! However, that turbine like six-cylinder mill just dominated the whole experience.
The Italian’s Got There First
But the big Honda was not the first six-cylinder bike to hit the market or was even the first six made by Honda! No, the first six hitter of the modern era was the Benelli 750 Sei of 1975. Beating the Honda to the market by a good three years. This was altogether more delicate take on the theme. Based on expanded SOHC Honda four-cylinder engine that Benelli had been producing under licence for a couple of years already.
The Sei was stylish bike and again the exhausts were a key element of the package: Each side had three dramatically stacked and angled silencers. The tank mounted clocks added to it’s stylistic flourish. The Sei was a real statement bike for Benelli.
Both the CBX and the Sei stayed on sale until 1984. The CBX loosing a certain something as it developed into the faired, mono-shock CBX-C touring bike. The vast frame mounted fairing and panniers detracted from the bikes look and stance in my opinion.
6×2 =12! The Big hitters together at the Sammy Miller Museum
The Sei meanwhile morphed into a 900cc bike but kept its cool, stylish Italian icon persona. These days it rare to see either a 750 or 900 Sei, but they still are an impressive sight when you do.
The Rivals Respond
The launch of the CBX in particular seemed to trigger a response from Kawasaki, The Z1300 featured a monolithic slab of an enter. Notably the big Z was water rather than air-cooled. The bike stylish in a square jawed sort of a way. Who remembers the exploits of Dutch stunt rider Arto Nyquist? Hopping of the back of his Z1300 and being towed along behind as his wooden clogs showered sparks from their titanium soles! He also pulled the odd monster wheelies on this mightiest of the big Z’s. An impressive sight and well worth checking out on YouTube.
About twenty years ago Allen Millyard, the genius who creates beautifully engineered home-built specials, which are literally museum quality, first came to prominence with his amazing conversion of a Z1300 into 2300cc V12! Today that bike is on display in the Marber Museum in the USA. An amazing place that is on my bucket-list to visit.
Oddly Honda have produced two other notable six-cylinder bikes: The petite RC-166 an exquisite 250cc race bike and the legendary Goldwing.
The RC-166 which, unlike the CBX, was a delicate piece of precision engineering. Like a classically elegant Swiss watch. Think Rolex Oyster Perpetual or possibly a Longines. The Honda is beautiful to its very bones.
However, while the watch would just emit a gentle, regular ticking heartbeat, the RC-166 emits a guttural 20,000 rpm howl. Genuinely spine-tingling. All in 1964! Amazing.
The RC-166. Pictured at a classic bike show a couple of years ago
The Motorhome of Motorcycling
The third six-cylinder Honda is, of course, the legendary Goldwing fitted with a water-cooled flat six. The ‘Wing’ evolved from the original flat four 1,000cc bike of 1975 through a few generations to become a flat six 1500 from 1987.
The 1200cc four it replaced was already the Winnebago of motorcycling. The 1500cc (and later 1800cc evolution) took this to another level. It even had a ‘reverse-gear’, so you wheel the 300kg behemoth a little more easily. The Goldwing isn’t really my sort of bike, but it is certainly imposing and impressive.
The Goldwing has evolved into this. I prefer the CBX to be honest
What I do like is one of a couple of other applications of the flat-six lump. Namely the gloriously titled F6C Valkyrie. A stripped back cruiser it is a wonderful piece of excess for excess sake. Much like some Harley-Davidsons, but with that creamy six soundtrack.
The F6C makes mote of a feature of the flat-6
However, when fitted with a freer breathing exhaust they can sound like a P-51 Mustang a low fly-by. Absolutely glorious. A friend has one and seems to be totally smitten with it.
A Dying Breed?
Today there is still a choice of six-cylinder bikes: In addition, the Goldwing BMW offer their K1600GT. For people who a R1250RT simply isn’t enough! It has been on the market for several years now, but I have only seen a couple. Another touring bike it lacks the flamboyance of the Honda, and it is very much a Teutonic take on excess, and none the worse for that. For some reason I can’t get images of the enormous Messerschmitt Me323 Gigant out of my head! A German transport plane of WW2 fitted with six engines appropriately enough. I prefer my BMWs to have four less cylinders and fewer kilos thank you very much.
BMW K1600RT – This one belongs to a rider who are their fourth example
I should give a nod to the Horex VR6 too. A brave design that a couple of different set-ups have been battling to bring to the market without success for around a decade. I doubt it will ever be a significant player especially with the electric bike spectre looming in the future.
What can we conclude from all this? The six-cylinder bike is an interesting niche in the overall firmament of motorcycling. From manic 1960’s race bikes, stylish Italians, crazy Dutchmen, brutish Sumo bikes they have all featured. Sadly such fabulous excess is on borrowed time. It has been a hell of a party, but the sirens came be heard in the distance: The door is about to be busted down as the ICE engine in all its forms slips into the history books over the coming decades as zero emission bikes come to the market.
I for one, will miss, even mourn them…
Words and Pictures: Tony Donnelly