(This Retrospective article appeared in the August 2007 issue of Rider.)
STORY and photography BY CLEMENT SALVADORI
If it succeeds the first time, make it even better—that could have been Soichiro Honda’s motto.
When Honda revamped the Magna for the 1987 model year it did a heckuva job, turning a rather distracted-looking cruiser into reasonable facsimile of a stoplight dragster.
Styling sells, the company realized a bit belatedly, and the Go-Bot (recalling those toys from Tonka) aspect of the first generation of Magnas could definitely be improved upon. Give the machine a little flow, smooth out the lines, integrate the whole design…which was done, and with flourish.
Hark back to when the Japanese began turning out “cruiser” models in the mid-1970s; some Americans doubted that any professional stylist had even been consulted. The Honda folk thought the key elements should be a stepped saddle, fatter rear tire, lower seat height, slightly extended fork, smaller gas tank and high-rise handlebars. It ended up with some pretty curious motorcycles by traditional standards, but the buying public ate them up, plunking down the cash. Which, in the case of the 1982 Honda VF750C Magna, meant $3,300. For that you got a mildly futuristic machine with a small, steeply sloped 2.6-gallon gas tank, which also served to cover the airbox and air cleaner. The tank was so small that Honda felt the need to put a second 1.1-gallon tank under the saddle, with a fuel pump. Obviously it had not taken a good hard look at Harley’s popular Sportster, with the 2.25-gallon “peanut” tank. There was no reserve on the petcock, just a warning light when the fuel level dropped sufficiently.
The footpegs, by company standards, were way far forward, the farthest ever on a Honda. And the four-into-two exhaust system was also unusually loud. The ever-so-slightly kicked-out front fork, with 37mm tubes and a 30-degree rake, gave over 5 inches of travel, which could easily be used up when clamping down on the two front discs with two-piston calipers. A slightly reduced-in-diameter 16-inch rear wheel, protected by a 130/90 tire, and a pair of short shocks offering 3.9 inches of play, helped move the seat down to 30 inches above the asphalt. The front wheel was a standard 18-incher, same as on the sibling Sabre model, the VF750S—S for Standard? Wheelbase for the Magna was barely over 5 feet—60.6 inches.
The motor of this Great Cycle—a little play on words as Magna loosely translates as Great—was a liquid-cooled DOHC 90-degree 748cc V-4, a brand-new design on which Honda had bet not the entire farm, but at least the south 40 acres. The side panels had V45 MAGNA writ large, a nod to the American use of cubic inches—45ci equals 750 cubic centimeters. This was the 65 horsepower (at the wheel) heart of the bike, turning 12-second quarter-mile times at well over a 100 mph, which could effortlessly blow off most of the cruiser competition, from Harley’s highly touted 1,000cc XLX Sportster to Kawasaki’s four-cylinder 750 Spectre and Yamaha’s V-twin Viragos. This was an exceptional engine, but it would give Honda much financial grief over the next few years; it worked well in the moderately tuned Magna and Sabre models, but developed camshaft oiling problems in the 75-horsepower Interceptor. That problem was fixed, but, as my Ozark friend says, “Give a dog a bad name, might as well shoot him.”
For the 1983 model year Honda introduced another Go-Bottish cruiser, the V-twin VT750 Shadow, which was well received by the buying public. This was when Honda and Yamaha were in furious competition and turning out many new models—some good, some ill-advised. In 1984 Harley got the feds to support its dumping suit and the Japanese 750s all became 700s.
The Magna complied by reducing the stroke of each cylinder 3.2 mm, for a displacement of 699cc or 42.7 cubic inches, but minor mods to the cylinder heads kept the power at about the same. And the V45 emblem disappeared from sight.
However, the U.S. motorcycle market was going flat-line, and Honda’s VF series was not the grand success the company had expected; it decided to cancel the Sabre, but keep a revised Magna as well as a revised Interceptor. Honda’s marketing fellows, having looked at the success of the company’s V-twin Shadow, decided that the Magna and the Shadow were competing with each other, so the Magna would get the major styling revision—and turn into that street-going, dragster-styled machine. Since the tariff was still on in ’87, it would still use the 700.
On this second-generation Magna the steel-tube cradle frame remained pretty much the same, but the underseat gas tank was tossed and an attractive 3.4-gallon saddle tank was settled on. To give it that stretched look the steering-head rake was increased to 35 degrees, with the fork tubes enlarged to 39mm so they would be less likely to bend; travel was now a shade over 6 inches. This helped lengthen the wheelbase to 66 inches, which is not exactly useful in the tight and twisty stuff, but great on the open road. The twin shocks at the rear were very slightly improved, offering a tenth of an inch more wheel travel—now 4 jouncy inches. Pothole-absorbing suppleness was not an issue here; you wanted to look low and cool, you paid the price. Which, in dollar terms, was $4,000.
Bigger news was the wheels. The rear wheel, still with a drum brake, was a lowly 15 inches with a fattish 150/80 tire, but it had an aluminum cover plate pressed on, making it look like a very stylish solid cast wheel. While the front wheel went the skinny route, with a 19-inch diameter and a 100/90 tire as well a single disc with twin-piston caliper.
But the most intriguing aspect was amidships, with big side panels and four mufflers. The panels had rather large vents carefully molded in, allowing for the heat from the rear cylinders to escape, and while some people complained about the panels’ size, others thought they gave the machine a more aerodynamic look—helped along by the new bellypan. Of greater/Magna note were the mufflers on the four-into-four exhaust, two biggish cans on each side providing a pleasant staccato note—which could intrude into the passenger’s ears. With the proliferation of V-twins, Honda wanted to make sure that the passing world knew that four cylinders were at work here.
In 1987 the tariff was dropped, and for 1988 no real changes were made except for the VF’s stroke being returned to its original 48.6mm, total capacity to 748cc. And quarter-mile times were now in the high 11s. The price had risen to $4,500, a 12 percent increase. Flat market, high price = no buyers. The Magna disappeared after 1988, as leftovers were going for garage-sale prices.
However, like a phoenix, it reappeared in 1994.