Copyright © 1997 Mike Nixon. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Date sent: Sat, 01 Mar 1997 10:49:15 -0800
From: "M.Nixon"
Send reply to:
To: Mike Stewart
Subject: V4 Essay

 Mike: Here is the essay I mentioned. The period described was a fascinating time for me. I have probably left out some things. I hope you find it of interest.

Last year, I completed my twenty-first year in the motorcycle service business, most of which was spent in Southern California Honda dealerships. I was hired by Honda's U.S. headquarters (American Honda) in 1980. In addition to warranty, archive management and customer service duties, I wore a number of hats which called upon a modicum of mechanical background and training: I accompanied prototypes used on commercial shoots, maintained vehicles my department was evaluating, raced a company-owned Sabre (the first at Willow Springs) in early 1982, and I received V4 training as part of my technician's certification.

 I was on the "front line" of the V4 revolution at Honda. At the time, I was a field rep in training, and interacted daily with all of the players in the emerging drama that was to characterize the introduction of Honda's new V4-based technology: dealers, service reps, engineers, product liability people, and of course--the buying public. This was an interesting period. Honda had just experienced a renewal of sorts. Thanks in part to Kawasaki's Z1, few people thought of Honda as a performance motorcycle company up to about 1979, and Honda decided it was time to change that. The company made a concerted effort to regain a sporting reputation, and with its reentry into world roadracing, the emergence of the NR500, CBX, and CX500 Turbo, as well as Freddie Spencer's success with the 900F-based 1025cc machines, there was more than advertising hype in Honda's new slogan, "Follow the Leader." Big Red was cooking once again.

The new V4 streetbikes were released against this backdrop of success, and they were impressive monuments to Honda's engineering prowess. The motopress gushed with enthusiasm. Honda threw parties at Disneyland and on the Queen Mary, and it seemed as if the bonuses and congratulations and euphoria would never end. But there was trouble in paradise. Even before the public knew there was to be a V4 from Honda, the company had problems. Honda had to somehow convince Can Am, which had already released a dirt bike called the Sabre, to change its bike's name. Which it did. Virtually overnight, the name changed to the Sonic.

 In Hamamatsu, Japan, Honda has an engine factory. Before the V4s went into production, automated equipment was put online. The V4 engine was the first to benefit from the new technology, but unfortunately, the result was several thousand engines whose specs--particularly valve clearances--were less than optimum. The bikes' March 1982 arrival in the U.S., much-heralded in spectacular dealer conventions, was painfully anticlimactic. The machines wouldn't idle, blued pipes, and stalled chronically in traffic. Soon, Honda was feverishly attempting to pursuade its dealers to adjust valves it had already said did not need adjusting before the sale. The dealers were hard to convince. Juggling radiators was a new concept, and most dealers had been skipping the mandatory valve adjustment on all of Honda's product for years.

 Before the month was out, Sabres and Magnas were veritable pariahs, as much with the dealers as with the buying public. Field reps learned quickly to anticipate long lines of irate V4 owners at each stop on their rounds, and were instructed by the home office to give each dealer a list of things the factory said to check on problem machines. This list included valve adjustment--still being done with only one feeler gauge, retorquing the rocker arm shafts, increasing the spark plug gap, checking for improper choke cable routing, straightening kinked Magna fuel pump hoses, and adjusting float levels on all models (they came over a very lean 9mm). Few at Honda understood what was making the bikes run so poorly, and the company was reduced to grasping, at least for the first few months. The special warranty contact team that I was a part of even sent out whole carburetor assemblies, and for really bitchy customers, we authorized all sorts of unconventional service specs, many of which were technically illegal. But still the bikes clattered, wobbled, and got terrible fuel mileage, and easily 90% of the reports coming into the company involved poor driveability.

 In June of 1982, a Western Union mailgram was sent to each U.S. dealer which put the official Honda stamp on the rep's 17-point checklist, and added to it the use of two feeler gauges, enrichment of the pilot circuits, and checking the final drive cases for factory over-filling. By this time however machines were being returned to dealers all over the country. My department even sent people out to get bikes which had been repurchased outright from incensed owners. Despite this, the company was sold out of Sabres by the end of June, and Magnas would eventually sell in figures to make big-three auto makers jealous. It was in fact a record-breaking year for Honda. Which was fortunate. It turned out also to be the most expensive warranty period in the history of the motorcycle division. It would be a very long time before the next company mega-party.

 In July, the first seven of more than forty official Honda notices were sent to dealers, to formalize and revise the provisional emergency recommendations. These seven bulletins kicked-off an EPA and NHTSA approved factory/dealer program addressing most of the then-known V4 problems. Along with instructions in proper valve adjustment, the recommended float level checks, etc., the dealers were sent stacks of adhesive-backed correction pages to be pasted over no fewer than five pages of each of their customer's owner's manuals. One such page detailed a new method of rear wheel installation that had been worked out only a few months previously on the GL1100. It was determined that the accelerated final driven flange wear evident in both the Wing and the V4 was due to the same cause, incorrect welding of the swingarm, the compensation for which was an unusual and painstaking alignment of the final drive unit each time the rear wheel was removed and replaced. The service manuals were revised as well, but unlike the Gold Wing, which received a generous warranty extension and improved parts, the defect in the V4 went unpublicized and is largely unknown even today, though the special procedure is published in the two above-named factory-generated sources, and most shops are familiar with the problem. The July 1982 update program was a very big deal. Not only did it formally disseminate the techniques and data found, belatedly, to be essential for good running V4s, it also formally mandated the use of 07908-MBO0100, the long 10mm valve adjusting screw locknut wrench, whose use was designed to prevent the locknuts rocketing themselves through the 6mm thick valve covers. Normal tightening wasn't enough, it was ultimately found, because the rough, "as forged," unmachined surface on the rocker arm was not allowing proper tightening of the nut. The extra long wrench was the immediate fix, but by 1985, the rocker arms in the new bikes would be milled flat under the nuts, and the adjusting screw diameter increased, both of which increased tightening torque and security.

In August of 1982, a new department was formed within American Honda whose sole responsibility was to monitor new U.S. model problems and pursuade, if possible, the appropriate people in Japan into something resembling immediate action. The group's first official act was to ensure the availability of V4 oil filters and service manuals, which were--five months after the bike's release--still on backorder. Not even engine gaskets were available, a situation that resulted in Honda having to give away a number of engines. The next thing the QA department accomplished was to call for an immediate retro-modification to the V4's float bowl vents inside the airbox. It was discovered finally that one of the major causes of the engine's mediocre performance and lean surge was due to the effect that normally varying airbox pressures was having on the fuel levels. Mere correction of lean levels wasn't enough, for the levels were oscillating as the engine ran. This was another major step in the gentrification of the V4, and one for which credit should be given the field reps, who had long since discovered the phenomenon and had been busy screwing CR250R air bleed correction jets into the airbox vent orifices, with remarkable success. The new edict, however, put a more sophisticated face on the situation, largely by specifying specially-manufactured tapered plastic restrictive inserts, Honda code 1357490. In September, VF750 Bulletin #8 formalized the procedure, and a year later the same thing was provided for the V65.

 By October of 1982, the '83 dealer convention was under way, and Honda engineers were quietly informing us at the U.S. headquarters that many of the improvements made in the 1983 models would be available, on a first come-first/served-basis, to dealers whose '82 model "problem" customers were deemed the most deserving. With the year they had just experienced, the company had learned much about their new progeny, and one of the most important lessons concerned the cylinder head. The '83 heads got noise-abating reduced cam-to-bearing clearance, and the journal area under the cams was increased. Most of these head kits went to dealers in so-called "lemon law" states. (See note #1.)

 Midway into the '83 model year, which was graced with the introduction of the very capable Interceptor, the dust began to clear at American Honda. The panic of '82 was over, and the motorcycle service division's new slogan, "Out in Front and Pulling Away" significantly symbolized the feeling of accomplishment within the company. Interceptors were winning races, and the public was no longer mad at Honda. Warranty activity was still high, but we were no longer getting up at dawn to field phone calls four and more time zones away and two and a half weeks old. There were still problems, of course. Poorly fitting Sabre sidecovers and FOIL alarm systems that didn't work. Weaves and wobbles that hadn't as yet been solved. Mufflers that spit out their baffles. Instruments with minds of their own (caused, it was found, by stray inductive currents in the wiring harness affecting the LCD). Frames which cracked under the seat area (leading to a design change in 1985). Loose crankcase galley plugs, incorrectly made seat locks. Oil lines whose soldered joints (the factory finally admitted) restricted oil flow. Plus, there was still the occasional customer with a noisy engine whose dealer didn't understand the dual-feeler procedure, and we still sent out the occasional carb assembly, despite the special letter to dealers categorically discontinuing the practice; we had learned in short order that fully 90% of the carbs returned to us had merely been badly adjusted by the dealer.

 By early 1984, cam problems surfaced, though it would be another year before Honda, pressured by the aggressive European motor press, would admit their existence. Das Motorrad in particular was fairly blunt about the matter. Its April 1984 feature article depicted a plastic model of a 750 Inteceptor being rubbed into a hand-held cheese grater, with parts--most noticably a camshaft--falling through on the other side (see note #2) . In response, Honda's European subsidiaries were issued the infamous special cam tool and related propaganda (see note #3) . I was no longer with the company by this time, but back on the service line at a Honda dealership, and I remember that everyone I knew in the service end of the motorcycle business was seriously disappointed with the way in which Honda responded to what all of us--and perhaps myself the most--regarded as the "cam debacle." The blame for cam lobe pitting was first put on the dealers, and incredibly, this remains the official line to this day.

 April also brought fuel tank recalls on all of the California models. July gave us engine replacements on VF500 Interceptors, and August 1984 saw information come out concerning Hondaline fairing problems on the V65 Sabre. A kit was assembled to correct the fairings and a bulletin issued (see note # 4). The following month, dealers heard from Honda concerning the removal of foam strips from the forks of '83 and later V4s (Service Letter #11), and they were instructed to eliminate V4 wobble by a special steering bearing alignment procedure, and we learned that '84 and later models were built with ball type bearings incorporating special friction roller cages, in an effort to reduce the overloaded tapered bearing's tendancy to "walk" in the frame and generate torsional forces in the fork assembly.

 Finally, in June 1985, the controversial cam tool arrived at U.S. dealerships, accompanied by Service Letter #13 specifying a new adjustment procedure and revised idle rpm specs. At the same time, a three year warranty extension and factory-paid replacement of pitted cams was announced, but only for the '83 and '84 Interceptor, the focus of the Euro press. Less than a month later, however, American Honda shot off to its dealers an innocent little parts memo offering the buyback of any and all V4 cams in dealer's stocks. Though this memo said nothing about warranty, the cat was now out of the bag. All told, there had been no fewer than eight camshaft supersessions for just the '82 and '83 Sabre and Magna, a fact that was already clear from a careful perusal of the official parts book, but which became really signifcant when seen in print under Honda letterhead. Honda even addressed the '82 model's loose-as-a-goose cam bearings. A special 315 series cam kit was put together for these bikes which consisted of cams hand-matched to bearings (see note #5). By 1986, the excitement was mostly over. The new generation of V4s closed the book on a period of Honda's history that the company presumably would just as soon forget. Honda's slogan for '86, "Consistently the Leader," aptly symbolized the company's renewed emphasis on quality.

 A lot of interesting things happen in the mass-production world. I was fortunate, I think, to have been in the middle of one of the more interesting and exciting times; in the thick of things, as it were, while with American Honda (see note #6).


Note #1 - Basically, the various state's "lemon laws" say repairs can't take over a certain number of days or the customer has a right to a full refund. In states without this law, the manufacturer has the option of repairing the vehicle over and over.

Note #2 - Although the cam is obviously from a CX500!

Note #3 - This tool is superfluous. Yes, it removes slop from the bearing, ostensibly making clearance adjustment more accurate. But a number of mitigating factors, not the least of which is the necessary higher idle specs, belie its effectiveness, and indicate that the end product of using the tool is much tighter--not merely more "accurate"-- valve clearances. It is typical for engines whose valve clearances are too tight to need their idles raised. Compression checks will show a loss also. Moreover, in August of 1985 and again in February of 1986, Honda revealed its uncertainty regarding this "solution" to the cam problem, by suggesting in a dealer publication that the special tool wasn't in fact necessary to get correct valve adjustment (The Wrench newsletter, dates as indicated).

Note #4- There was another interesting situation regarding the Hondaline fairing for V65 Sabres. Testing by Honda Canada showed that the bike developed a weave, at post-legal speeds, if the Hondaline saddlebags were mounted in the absence of the fairing. At first, the decision was made to offer the bags only as part of the fairing package, in an effort to limit liability. Ultimately however this was deemed unfair (the fairing by itself retailed for almost $600 U.S.), and the saddlebags were dropped from the catalog.

Note #5 - The cam supersession breaks down as follows:

Part Number
To Supersede
82 750 Sabre/Magna 
83 750 Sabre/Magna
and 84 700 Magna 
84 700 Sabre
83-84 V65 Magna
84 V65 Sabre

Note #6 - To this day I am amazed at how much access I had to virtually every corner of the company. Everything my department did was couched in terms of "customer goodwill," a euphemism for the securing of repurchase intention. I and my colleagues made decisions ten and more times a day which resulted in the flow of truckloads of money out of the company, most of the time based on strict guidelines as to how the money was spent, but at all times with the unmistakable understanding that every penny was somehow being invested in the public's perception of a company which, like any mass-merchandiser, made its share of mistakes, and unfortunately, whose public relations acumen had far to go to catch up to its technical genius. If at times the company couldn't afford to be second in the mass-production technological race, it certainly, it was agreed, could afford to exert its non-technical resources in order to woo back into the fold those who inevitably suffered from said obsession.


Mike Nixon