By Gary Ilminen

More than just a powerhouse engine

The 1984 Honda V65 Sabre, or VF1100S, was a bike that captured the imagination of the media and riders alike, with superbike power, top-of-the-line comfort and convenience features, low maintenance requirements, and edgy styling. To this day, if you can find one in good condition, the Sabre is a great ride, even after 30 years – but finding one in good condition is the trick.

Around Madison, Wisconsin, Suter’s (Sooter’s, not Sutter’s) Speed Shop trades in older (remember to call them “vintage”) motorcycles. As a result, it is a shop I visit pretty often, because you never know what they may have in their inventory. One day early in 2011, I was there and spotted a 1984 Honda V65 Sabre in excellent condition. After a little dickering on price, I acquired it.

Back in the early half of the 1980s, the 1100cc powerhouse used in the V65 Sabre and Magna models was the top of the Honda V-Four line. With four valves per cylinder, double overhead cams, liquid-cooling, four carbs and six speeds with shaft final drive, the V65 powerplant and powertrain was one of the most impressive performance packages Honda had ever put on the market. With the engine producing a claimed 121 horsepower, the calculated top speed at the 10,000 rpm redline in sixth gear is enough to make even experienced riders weak in the knees: 177 mph! Heck, the Sabre can break the 55 mph speed limit in first gear!

The claimed numbers appear to be backed up by actual period road test data: Cycle magazine’s staff achieved 0-60 mph in 3.04 seconds and a standing start quarter-mile in 11.2 seconds with a terminal speed of 121.69 mph.

Despite those imposing performance numbers, the Sabre is predictable, well-mannered and easy to ride. Of course, its sheer size is noticeable immediately, particularly in low-speed riding around town or when you have to maneuver the bike by hand. But the weight and long 62.6-inch wheelbase that works against the rider around town, make for stable, smooth handling out on the open road.

The only time all that horsepower begins to get a little intimidating is when you tuck down behind the fairing and roll the throttle on. Before you know it, those 600 pounds of motorcycle are feeling really light and the frame-mounted fairing is buffeting in the wind like the whole thing is ready to take flight. Some vibration even becomes apparent above 8,000 rpm, but at most speeds the V-Four is smooth.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Here’s what Cycle magazine testers said about the Sabre in their July 1984 issue:

“Straight line, high-speed work is the Honda’s forte; set all the dampers on maximum, pump the fork full of air and load the rear suspension with about 35 PSI – the 1100 will suck up long stretches of straight road effortlessly.” And, they added, “The Sabre gobbles up fast, smooth sweepers, as well, tracking steadily through corners, yet responding willingly to input through the handlebar. With the fuss-free shaft drive and sure-footed high speed manners, you’d swear the Sabre was at least part European. No Euro-bike, though, ever pumped out nearly this much horsepower.” Amen, Cycle, amen.

Of course, with all this hype about horsepower and straight line speed, the big Honda’s ability to scrub off all that speed is perhaps even more important. The twin-piston double disc brakes up front deliver most of the stopping power, and the calipers activate the TRAC anti-dive system. They are augmented by a single disc brake with double piston caliper on the rear wheel. When used in unison, the three disc brakes can dramatically but predictably haul the Sabre down to a stop. The Cycle road testers documented stopping from 60 mph in only 122 feet.

The Sabre’s fairing and performance credentials might make you think it’s a sportbike with the speed tuck, forward-leaning, fetal position seating that type of bike usually has. Not so; in fact, it has more of a conventional seating position with high enough bars and midships footpegs to make for an upright riding posture with just a bit of forward lean due to the long, wide 5.8-gallon fuel tank pushing the seat location back.

The handlebars are something of a puzzle, rather narrow and with minimal rearward sweep. As a result, they have a flat appearance and even after adjustment to tilt them back a bit, will have the rider’s hands hitting the edge of the windshield when turned to full lock. For riders under six feet tall, the long tank and 33-inch seat height combine to make the Sabre a little awkward to handle for parking and stop-and-go situations, but once under way, it’s no problem at all.

Going along with the hydraulic disc brakes is a hydraulically operated, wet multi-plate clutch that feeds the Sabre’s triple-digit horsepower to a six-speed overdrive transmission and shaft final drive.

All the focus being on the power of the big V-Four engine can cause the refinements on the VF1100S to be overlooked, such as the instrument panel. The speedometer and tachometer are conventional analog instruments, but there are LCD indicators for fuel level, engine temperature, gear position and the usual display of warning lights for oil pressure, neutral, turn signal and even a warning light to indicate a burned out tail light.

The bullet-nosed fairing has a smoke-tinted windscreen and an up-turned top edge that does a nice job cutting wind turbulence for the rider, while allowing a good view over the windshield. Looking through the windshield was apparently never really given serious thought. Storage is available in the panniers inside the fairing; one compartment locks with a key (that is not matched to the ignition) and the other compartment has a non-locking rotary closure button. Though they don’t seem all that large, the fairing compartments actually can store quite a bit of cargo. The tool kit has its own locking storage box behind the right side cover, so that frees up the fairing space for other things.

Once you get over the stunning performance of a bike like the V65, you begin to notice the amenities, the smooth ride and build quality – but twist that throttle good and hard for a bit, and you are quickly reminded of what the bike is all about, even after 30 years!