Frank Melling, Contributing Editor

Honda Rune

If ever a motorcycle were worthy of the epithet “memorable” then it is the Honda Rune. In fact, there is a strong case for arguing that the Rune is about as memorable as motorcycles ever come. So this is why I, a hard core sportbike and super trailie fan, find myself sitting just 27 inches from the floor on a motorcycle which is nearly seven feet long and weighs in at an eye-watering 850 lbs plus. It is with a sense of real trepidation that I hook up first gear and prepare to let out the clutch to launch this truly amazing motorcycle.

The Rune is – first, last and middle – an American dream. After visiting the Tokyo show in 1995, and seeing the Honda Japan-designed Zodiac concept bike, Honda Research America began thinking about where the custom cruiser concept could be taken.

The Zodiac was a V-Twin and the immediate problem was that any V-Twin, no matter how good, always runs into is the accusation that it is trying to be a Harley-Davidson. However, the Zodiac was radically styled and the trailing link forks were particularly striking.

Back in California, the HRA designers did have one ace card to play: the truly awesome Flat Six Honda motor which powered both the Gold Wing and Valkyrie. No-one, and particularly not H-D, had anything like this powerplant at their disposal.

Executive Vice President of Honda America, Ray Blank, was a strong supporter of the, as yet unnamed, super cruiser and said: “We wanted to extend this concept (a motorcycle based on the Valkyrie/Gold Wing power plant) once again and take another cutting-edge motorcycle into uncharted territory, establishing new directions that no other manufacturer had ever attempted. We wanted to set the bar higher than ever, erecting standards that no one else had yet imagined, while also exploding old limitations on what an original equipment manufacturer could mass produce.”

Honda America produced four Valkyrie-based prototypes to test public reaction. These ranged from a mild, close relative of the Valkyrie labeled T1 all the way to the hugely aggressive Hot-Rod T4. In the middle was T2 – a motorcycle quite unlike anything seen before – or since.

At this point, it becomes all too easy to fall down the abyss which is marketing and design hype. The Honda press release at the time described the Rune as having a “Neo-Retro persona” – and you just know that anything carrying this label isn’t going to be on sale in the bargain isle of Wal-Mart. Incredibly, “neo-retro” isn’t a bad description. What Honda means is that the Rune is the sort of thing you might see in a sci-fi movie set in some imaginary 1930s parallel universe – maybe Batman with a touch less aggression.

Above all else, the Rune was designed to be looked at – and then the appearance was transformed into a useable motorcycle. Ray Blank again: “You have to remember that Honda’s greatest strength is its engineering ability. Function, horsepower, performance, durability – a lot of very measurable qualities. But now here we were, championing the production of what was essentially a one-off custom special, a show bike with a whole set of gut-level aesthetic qualities that are impossible to measure.

“The Rune concept is extremely extravagant, because it places the highest priorities on style rather than measurable science and engineering, and that created challenges during product planning. It is a very emotional product. But when a gut feeling is so strong, avid motorcyclists can communicate with one another on a different level. We accomplished a lot on this new concept after hours, at restaurants, just motorcycle guys talking to each other, scribbling on napkins, waving our hands around.”

So the Americans had their way: an utterly radical custom motorcycle which you could order straight off the showroom floor from your friendly local Honda dealer. The problem now was to make what would have been a truly impressive feat for a one-off custom bike builder into a machine which would go into series production. This was not an easy task.

Back in Japan, Masanori Aoki was chosen as Project Leader. Aoki had come from a sportbike background and wasn’t discomforted by the technical challenges. Rather, what caused the unease was starting the design process from what appeared to be the wrong end – especially at Honda where engineering is king. Instead of beginning with a series of performance targets, working towards them with engineering solutions and then finally allowing the stylists to finish off the job, the appearance of the Rune dominated the process. Did it matter if the Rune had a top speed of 115 mph, 120 mph or 125 mph? Not in the slightest. Was trimming the weight by 25 lbs going to affect the bike? Not at all. Appearance, sound and image were the holy trinity.

Not that the engineering was simple. Although the Gold Wing engine was now a whopping 1832cc, it was still a very mild, inoffensive unit. Aoki gave the monster lump a good tweaking with new cams, a re-mapped ignition and six individual fuel injectors all of which resulted in 118 hp and a truly eye-popping 123 lb-ft of torque – equating to roughly 50% more torque than the latest Honda Fireblade. Now, the Rune had a Gold Wing powerplant with attitude.

Mr. Aoki was also keen to bring in sportbike technology in terms of the chassis. The rear suspension is Honda Pro-link, which is both extremely neat and provides an element of rising rate in the 3.8 inches of travel.

Following customer demands, Aoki retained the trailing link front suspension. Previously, this had only been used successfully on sidecar motocross outfits but the beauty of it with the Rune is that it gives the front end the impression of being very heavily raked – almost chopper style – whilst in actual fact retaining almost conventional steering geometry. The fork is a mass of forgings, bushes and dampers and must have cost a fortune to make. In practical terms it is probably less effective than a conventional telescopic front end but there is no argument about the visual statement it makes: Honda does clever engineering, and makes it work, so never forget that Milwaukee!

Where Aoki wouldn’t be distracted by styling was in the safety element of the Rune. The weight and size of the Rune needs putting into perspective. At around 850 lbs ready to roll, the Rune is more than 1/3 of the weight of the Honda Fit four-seat car, and the motorcycle will slaughter the automobile in terms of performance. For example, the Rune will run up to more than 120 mph and manage 0-100 in a shade over 11 seconds. This is no “Easy Rider”, cowboy hat wearing cruiser but something quite different.

In order to stop this behemoth, Aoki fitted twin 330mm front discs with three-piston calipers. The hydraulics are also set up so that a firm two fingers are all that are required to put the Titanic’s propellers in reverse and bring what is a very large, surprisingly fast, motorcycle under control. Once again, it is clever, but subtle, engineering.

However, what dominates the bike is its stunning finish. There are very few custom bike builders anywhere in the world who can even match, let alone surpass, the quality of the chrome and paintwork on the Rune. In terms of a production motorcycle, it is in a class of its own.

So this brings us to the pre-launch chat. Sean Davies, the General Manager at Knutsford Honda, is all smiles and encouragement but there is no forgetting that this is a $30,000 motorcycle I am sitting on. There is an interesting conundrum about Runes. First, they are invariably, in unbelievably mint condition. No-one buys a Rune to go trail riding or even for nipping down to the shopping Mall. Second, for the same reason they are always low mileage. Together, these factors mean that a six year old Rune is now worth more than its original $26,000 cost.

The only downside is that repair costs are horrendous. Each Rune left the American Honda Plant at Marysville, Ohio, costing the company a reported $100,000 – and sold for just a quarter of that price. Honda has got to get its money back somehow and therefore repairing a Rune is never going to be a cheap exercise.

Watched by a gaggle of Knutsford Honda staff, I make triple-certain that the road is completely empty, feed in the clutch – and then watch as the front of the bike leaves the parking lot followed by me, and the rest of the motorcycle, in what seems like a considerably long time afterwards. This is a seriously huge motorcycle!

Once moving, and with thoughts of crashing the bike and having to sell my kidneys to pay for the repairs put to the back of my mind, it becomes apparent that the Rune is rather clever. For a start, the Flat Six engine is a joy – a real gem. Possessing unbelievable torque combined with silky smoothness, the motor provides a magic carpet experience. A glance at the “neo-retro” digital speedometer reveals that the feeling is reflected in the facts: 70mph is available in a blink and 90mph is there at will. Dull this bike most certainly isn’t.

The exhaust note is intoxicating. The nearest equivalent is a small jet turbine. Stand at an airport perimeter fence as a Lear Jet rolls by and you will be in the same aural ball park as the Rune.

The gearbox and clutch are typically Honda sweet, the brakes are everything one could ask for and the shaft drive completely innocuous. Even the apparently silly riding position is practical – although I can never see the attraction of having one’s arms spread out crucifixion style: perhaps I am not sufficiently religiously inclined.

The problem comes with the handling. Even easing the bike into corners, it has a most disconcerting habit of skipping over irregularities in the road surface. The first time the Rune does this seriously is at the joint between the concrete and Tarmac on the Interstate access ramp. The Rune skips – and my heart stops. A quarter of a ton of bike plowing into the guard rail – and I’m going to die with it!

Slowly, over a period of maybe 30 miles, I realize that the fault is not so much with the bike as with me. Despite having 50 years of riding experience on every motorcycle known to mankind I am making the classic beginner’s mistake of being too tense. I simply need to relax and let the bike do its own thing.

So, the next time the Rune skips and shakes its head I do absolutely nothing – and the bike plows on effortlessly. It has to be said that all corners are still something to be taken very seriously on a Rune – but they are not traumatic or dangerous. The Rune is no CBR600 – but it is a million times better than a custom cruiser.

Trick suspension or not, the ride on the Rune is mediocre. Again, it’s no doubt better than mainstream custom bikes but ride a Rune more than 50 miles and you will get aches in the butt, spine and shoulders. The fuel tank is also far too wide and has a ludicrously large capacity at six gallons. Six gallons equates to a cruising range of nearly 200 miles and no one is going to ride a Rune this far unless they are being pursued by aliens looking for their motorcycle to be returned. Is the pleasure worth the pain? Read on…

In all the years I have been reporting on motorcycles, I have never, ever, seen the reaction to a bike like the one we had at the Rune photo shoot. If we had parked Tom Cruise on the Rune the crowds wouldn’t have been denser. Quite simply, if you want to be the center of attention then buy a Rune: it is ground zero in the motorcycling narcissism stakes.

Ironically, it is also a cheap motorcycle to own – providing you are a major shareholder in a polish manufacturing company and don’t crash it. The word in the bike trade is not only that Runes are not depreciating, they are actually going up in value – and that’s a rare feat outside the classic bike world.

However, saving, or even making, money is not the reason for buying a Rune. It is a very special motorcycle and deserves to be appreciated for what it is: a true technical masterpiece and a great credit to Honda’s engineering ability – not to say their willingness to lose money on a prestige project.

Our thanks to Knutsford Honda for the loan of the Rune.