A Brief History of Honda Cruisers – With the metric cruiser category now in such disarray, the 2021 Honda Rebel 1100 proves there is still life left in the class and again illustrates how varied in design and power the segment has been through the years.
The 2021 Honda Rebel 1100 provides at least some proof of life for metric cruisers. Subtract baggers from the mix and metric cruiser offerings are now few and far between although the segment was once the strongest for several Japanese brands, especially Honda which dominated the category with a plethora of models. While some shed no tears to see the last of the metric cruisers it would be a mistake to downplay their importance to the last 40 years of motorcycle growth and history. Again, Honda in particular.
Honda didn’t build the first metric cruiser. This distinction is generally given to the 1976 Kawasaki KZ900, but Honda was edging into the segment in the mid-1970s. The cruiser then was without question the domain of Harley-Davidson and an air-cooled V-Twin was the defining component. Honda, while well established and dominant in the street standard segment with the revolutionary CB750, understood that success in the North American cruiser market meant catering to the American definition of “motorcycle.”
But to take on Harley-Davidson directly with the metric equivalent of a classic American cruiser must have seemed like a risky public relations strategy. Japanese automobiles had already taken a bite out of Detroit, and a challenge to Milwaukee might be going too far. It could be argued that if Honda had taken a hard run at the cruiser segment in the 1970s—Harley’s troubled AMF era—history might have been different. But that didn’t happen. It would be nice to think Honda was being magnanimous but the truth is, they probably just weren’t ready.
Approaching the segment from a different angle seemed like a good idea—things had turned out incredibly well when Honda looked at the street segment and decided an inline four would be a better option for a performance machine than an old stretched-to-its-limit parallel twin.
Honda’s early forays into the cruiser segment only tested the perimeter. The bikes probing for weakness, or perhaps simply space in the cruiser realm, were disguised as street standards with vague cruiser aspects. The bikes weren’t even called “cruisers” but instead were labeled “customs” because that’s what cruiser riders did, they customized bikes—so hey, let’s do it for them. Honda’s early bikes didn’t arrive with air-cooled V-Twins probably because from the company’s perspective that engine layout must have seemed somewhat archaic having been around since practically the dawn of motorcycles themselves.
Consider the development of the Gold Wing in the mid-1970s. The Gold Wing is obviously not a cruiser but with the big Wing Honda deliberately made an incursion into cruiser territory. The then-naked Gold Wing was a big, comfortable and powerful motorcycle destined to effortlessly eat the vast North American continent’s long miles. It had no other purpose but to roam highways. Yet it wasn’t a cruiser. A big horizontal slab that looked like a standard with a few extra pounds, it had the appearance of being able to fight in a class or two above its normal weight. The Gold Wing featured a liquid cooled flat four engine and shaft drive, which was about as far from classic American cruiser as one could get. The Gold Wing would sprout fairings and bags and go on to be one of the most successful and iconic Japanese bikes but it was not a cruiser (not yet anyway).
Around the same time another Honda bike was in the works and it would land closer to the mark. This one was a liquid cooled, V-Twin albeit turned the “wrong” way and it would edge far closer to the definition of cruiser. The Honda CX500 began life as a street standard but would evolve within a year as the CX500 Custom. Suddenly there were buckhorn bars, a sculpted seat and (tellingly) a number of shiny chrome decorative parts. The CX500 Custom may have looked like a cruiser but the mechanicals were not – including those Comstar wheels, the first tubeless motorcycle wheels introduced to the continent by Honda. But the paint was good and there were flashes of showiness.
By the early 1980s other Japanese manufacturers were taking a much more direct aim at the American cruiser with the likes of the Yamaha Virago 920 but Honda still chose to do things differently—perhaps for the sake of being different or perhaps because Honda’s engineers were convinced different could be better (hello Eric Buell).
The 1983 Honda V65 Magna was most definitely a cruiser and a good looking one at that. It was a distinctly Japanese take on cruisers and one that would serve them well. There again were the buckhorn bars, the stepped seat and even a small sissy bar. The front wheel gained some distance (perhaps in fear) from the square headlight through a raked front end. But that didn’t matter because the eye was drawn instinctively to the motor shoehorned into the frame taking up more space than was available. Today the V65 Magna and others in the Magna family would be called power cruisers, a label emphasized by their potent liquid cooled 1098cc V-4.
At the same time Honda was working on its most “traditional” cruiser with a family name that would serve the company far into the 2000s and be synonymous with the brand. The Honda Shadow would arrive in various guises, displacements, and styles ranging from Japanese modern to deeply American traditional. It would evolve as a liquid cooled V-Twin beginning life as simple 500cc and 750cc machines that hit the spot with new cruiser riders—a lot of them. Many years later the RS, one of the last new Shadows, would closely resemble a Sportster.
The Shadow and other similar metric bikes proved so popular due to their variety, size, price and performance that Ronald Reagan’s government of 1983 placed a whopping 49.4 per cent tariff on Japanese motorcycles with displacements over 700cc. This protectionist act was designed to aid a suddenly threatened Harley-Davidson shortly after it had been bought back from AMF in 1981 for a sum of $82 million raised by a group of 12 other Harley-Davidson executives including Willie G. Davidson and Canadian legend Trev Deeley. Harley-Davidson needed time to recover but they picked the right time to do so. Reagan may have been tough on air traffic controllers but he must have had a soft spot for motorcycles or Wisconsin voters. The blanket tariff affected all motorcycles even categories in which Harley-Davidson did not compete.
But motorcycles would boom. Race replicas where about to skyrocket and so were cruisers. Times were so good and Harley-Davidson felt so sure of their dominance in the segment that the company asked that the tariff on Japanese bikes over 700cc be dropped a year before it was set to expire. Money and enthusiasm were abundant which led to the next chapter some might label “excess.” Bigger, shinier, more powerful and more expensive was the only way to go. There seemed to be enough cruiser demand and enthusiasm to satisfy all and Harley-Davidson dominate the segment to such a degree that what happened among metric cruisers was of little concern to Milwaukee. With the stage now set the cruiser segment, and motorcycle sales in general, were about to be supersized.
Even the Gold Wing would be drawn into the mix. The Shadow peaked at 1100cc in the 1990s and bigger was necessary. The Gold Wing was bigger. The 1990s era Valkyrie undeniably placed the Gold Wing into the cruiser category. The Valkyrie was big and heavy and unabashedly American in styling but also Japanese in character blessed as it was with the Gold Wing’s six cylinder motor. Valkyrie owners loved them for their smooth abundant power, reliability and shaft drive. Alas, the Valkyrie would not endure long after the 1800 Gold Wing was introduced with a brand new motor. The Valkyrie and F6B would make one more appearance when the next generation Gold Wing was about to makes its swan song. But the Honda Rune also borne of the era deserves a nod of acknowledgement for taking a risk in attempting to build a factory custom the to the peak of factory standards. Time has been kinder to the Rune than its present was as in the history of Honda cruisers, the Rune has now become a collector item.
Running parallel to the Valkyrie’s timeline was the Japan-only Honda X4—a model with over-the-top styling by Honda’s conservative standards, yet deliberately designed that way to compete with Yamaha’s V-Max. With a monstrous 1287cc inline four, many raved about its performance. But something much bigger and more cruiser-esque would take its place.
The History of Honda Cruisers : The 2000s
Honda introduced the VTX1800 and the smaller VTX1300 to greet the first years of the new millennium. Here was the largest production V-Twin on the market with a gargantuan displacement of 1795cc—a juggernaut soon to be eclipsed by Kawasaki’s Vulcan 2000.
The VTX styling was conservatively streamlined and muscular and the quality was reliably Honda. The big bike’s torque was ferocious. Available either stripped down or with a full touring kit the VTX bikes hit the ideal balance for the time. But with the other Japanese manufacturers firmly committed to the bigger-is-better mantra, new models from all factories came front-loaded with fairings, saddlebags, footboards, driving lights, big comfortable seats and chrome packages. The differences between the big Japanese cruisers became less and less obvious. Something had to give and Honda again provided the push—although this time there would be no happy ending.
It was a classic case of bad luck and worse timing when Honda introduced arguably its most daring and stylish cruisers: the Fury, Stateline and Interstate. The Fury arrived in 2010 to compete in the custom market, and it was certainly the most radical production cruiser from any manufacturer (with the possible exception of the short lived Rune). Unfortunately development for the Fury and its siblings began before the great Recession and their reveals followed shortly after. They would soldier on in a market that saw depressed cruiser sales until the plug was finally pulled in 2019.
Honda must be given credit for trying other avenues to stem that cruiser decline and it seemed at times that any idea was on the table. The CTX700 and 1300 were Hail Marys intended to ignite something resembling enthusiasm for metric cruisers. Somebody needed to take the next step for cruisers. With Honda’s willingness to try unconventional power trains, the CTX700 was a parallel twin and the 1300 a V-four sourced from the ST1300. Both bikes were long and low with no traditional styling cues. And then there was the NM4 that defied just about all the rules. Honda, more than anyone, was trying to define the “new”cruiser. The problem became, did anyone actually want the new cruiser?
With the chips down and the future looking dim for the metric cruiser, it seemed the best bet was to go small, back to the realm of the Rebel 250, a bike that had been so long in the lineup one could be forgiven for believing it had simply left and returned again. But the style of the Rebel 250 hearkened back to the days of its 1980s origin so something new was required and the Rebel 300 and 500 soon arrived on the streets. Still, there was a large hole remaining in the segment above 500cc.
Now the Rebel 1100 performs big cruiser duties for Honda. Its only competition for size in the metric format is the Suzuki M109R, which is old enough to be the Rebel’s daddy. Fittingly Honda went back to tendencies from its early cruiser days by fitting the bike with an unusual engine choice: a big parallel twin. There’s a precedent in the even larger 1697cc Triumph Thunderbird but Honda chose an engine already available in its inventory. Do the styling cues of the Rebel 300 translate to the much bigger 1100? As always, aesthetics are personal.
Reviewing the history of Honda cruisers, it is difficult to decide where its cruisers reached their pinnacle of style. The Magna and the Fury must be considered among the top picks. The Magna because Honda got the look of the power cruiser so correct before other bikes defined the category. The Fury because here was a production motorcycle that was both comfortable and unusual. Perhaps in the best test of styling, both machines still look good long after their introduction and are clearly identifiable for what they are and the segment in which they competed.
Times may be tough, but don’t give up the metric cruiser for dead yet.