17 Feb 2013

Living with - Honda CB600F Hornet

Owner - Stuart Jewkes
Bike - Honda CB600F Hornet, 2010


I vividly remember what happened the first time I went out on my Hornet after I’d bought it. I only rode into the centre of Warrington to fill the tank up. I stopped at some traffic lights, and a bloke on a ZZR-600 pulled up alongside. He looked across at mine and said “That’s nice that mate.”

Kudos on Day 1, and I hadn’t even cleaned it yet. I knew then I’d made the right call.

I bought mine in May 2010, shortly after passing my test. It was on an informal shortlist of about four naked bikes. A Hornet wasn’t actually at the top of that list – not at first, but after consulting a few resources online and in print, I realised a Hornet was the right combination of essentially everything a novice needs in a motorcycle, and everything that I wanted, because I’m firmly in the camp that believes a novice should aim for an older, less expensive machine that can be repaired easily when you inevitably drop it (because drop it you will, even if it takes two years like I did).

I saw mine in the now-defunct Knutsford Honda in Cheshire, all bright yellow and decals, and, well, it chose me. That’s what Hornets do to you. Its previous owner had done just 74 miles on it between MOTs, and I was about to get into doing that in two hours every Sunday morning.

Here Comes The Science

Mine is a 2000 CB600F-Y, with the 17-inch front wheel and a couple of other mods to the induction and brakes that essentially moderated it and made it slightly less frantic than it's ’98-’00 predecessor. As is common with Hornets, mine had been slightly modified cosmetically by a previous owner, and there is a seemingly infinite range of mods available for them – to the point that with older models like mine, you’re unlikely to find two alike. For the record, the most common mods tend to be flatter, wider Renthal bars and braided brake lines that improve the brakes no end.

The definitive 600 first arrived in 1998, featuring a simple, parts bin combination of an almost crude box-spine frame carrying a detuned, retuned, 95 bhp CBR600F engine as a semi-stressed member; together with basic suspension, non-adjustable except for preload on a rear monoshock that doesn’t even have a rising rate linkage.

The thing about that Honda parts bin though, is that it can only have been raided after the designers had a heavy sake session in one of those late-night karaoke bars in Hamamatsu. It’s all in the wheels. The Hornet’s standout feature, and the one aspect of it that gives a true insight into the Japanese character, are the wheels: they are straight off a Fireblade. The oversized 180-section back tyre is a pure style statement that has no basis in common sense (a 160-section would improve the handling further); but hey, it looks great, and let’s face it, it’s more manly. I know this to be true because it’s part of the reason why I bought one. As a bunch of female bikers once said in a magazine interview I read: “if his back tyre is wider than his hips, then he’s alright.”

If I sound critical of the Hornet by pointing out flaws, it is only to highlight that it is one of the best examples out there of a motorcycle being considerably more than the sum of its parts, to the point where any flaws are cancelled out by an indefinable, sake-influenced “X-factor” that makes it enjoyable and fun to ride. This and the enormous potential for customisation is how the Hornet’s cultish reputation has grown over the years. An extremely popular race series was created around them (the Hornet Cup), and you’ll still see the odd one in the club paddock today, not to mention trackdays.

The round, retro headlight means it is egalitarian: everyone will nod at you and non-bikers will stop and look at it and consider it cool. Hornets have a purposeful stance about them, which you only notice when you park it next to something else. Next to a Hornet, a Bandit 600 looks like it’s made of bamboo.

What’s It Like To Ride?

The riding experience is all about flattering you and helping you get on with learning to ride, which means you’ll become obsessed with the size of your chicken strips [1] – they become a target. The handling has no vices, and an experienced rider would enjoy throwing it on its ears in corners – although an experienced rider might also find the suspension is actually a little too soft; a situation not helped if it hasn’t been refreshed or upgraded at some point. 

It’s also quite a diminutive bike, which means it’s great in traffic as you can filter like a scooter, and the riding position is benign and quite comfortable for someone of my height (5’8”), although if you ride for more than an hour at a time your arse will feel it eventually – the lack of a clock on the clocks means you tell the time by your Numb Arse Clock: if your arse is numb, it’s an hour since you set off…

As an inline-four, it has those trademark thrashy mid-range vibes through the pegs/bars/seat - it’s a Hornet and it buzzes like one. There are two ways of keeping this to a minimum: either add Redex or Silkolene Pro-FST to the fuel, or get the oil warmed right up by absolutely caning it, which is what it wants.

The 16-litre fuel tank (designed to resemble a wasp’s thorax) will give around 120 miles to reserve under normal use, but 100 miles-to-reserve is more realistic when caning it, which is what actually constitutes “normal use” with one of these. That’s how it wants you to ride it; to trundle around in the bottom-half of the revcounter is to waste it, and to ride it like that requires some sort of iron self-discipline that frankly, I haven’t got. In fact, do this in traffic on a warm summer day and you will eventually incur its displeasure – as it gets hot, the clutch will become grabby and the gearshift will get clunky. You have to make progress – you get that trait with small bike radiators where the temperature gauge creeps up a bit when you’re following cagers down a road, as any cooling airflow through the rad is disrupted by the cager’s presence in front of you. So there you are: progress must be made for the bike’s own good…

The dual character of the engine is obvious – there’s a noticeable step in the delivery at about 6k after which it takes off and pulls hard all the way to a 13k redline and, if you use the six gears properly to keep it bubbling away in the mid-range at about 8k, it becomes a giant-killer that will shut down most averagely-ridden sportsbikes on a country road.

A Hornet is as reliable as a stone because of that inherent simplicity that I referred to earlier. In my just-under three years of ownership, all I’ve needed to do is routine maintenance. Like any bike, it will thank you for regular oil/filter changes, and that bulletproof, eminently-tunable CBR600 engine will go on forever as long as the cam chain tensioner is monitored – listen for the tinkling sound that indicates replacement is near.

In my experience, a Hornet’s gearshift is very sensitive to chain tension and clutch freeplay. If either of these are out by even a small amount, the quality of the shift degrades dramatically. But then that should only ever be an incentive to be the mechanic that all bikers should be [2]. Keep on top of it and, when it’s run-in after about 20,000 miles, the gearshift is like a rifle bolt.

Tyres: that 180-section extravagance means there’s a massive choice of full-on semi-slick sportsbike tyres available to you, or you can stick with the rock-hard, wooden commuter tyres like those Avons my mate’s got on his Hornet, which have not appreciably worn at all in about 7000 miles. I use Dunlop D209 Sportmax Qualifiers, which suit the kind of riding I do (I get about 4500 miles out of a set), and offer massive confidence in all conditions, even in winter, and even on the M56 last month in the kind of heavy rain that they test jet engines in.


As far as value for money goes, the ’00-’02 model is the way forward for a novice rider, because it is a better ride than its ’98-’00 predecessor and the running costs are still reasonable. You’ll find a good one for <£2k, and if you’re subject to the A2 licence restriction, then the 47 bhp restrictor kit is widely available. Then you will keep it for two or three years, you will learn to love it, and during your ownership, you will evolve from a noob into a proficient and skilled motorcyclist, who will be able to keep up with anything on a twisty road, and if you’re really good, set the pace. You’ll upgrade it as your ability progresses, and it will get better alongside you. You may even name it.

A Suzuki SV650 or a Yamaha Fazer may be technically superior bikes (especially a Fazer with its R1-derived brakes), but neither of them are the kind of bike that will make you look back at it before you close the garage door after a quality ride. A Hornet will. Every time.

* * *

[1] Chicken strips explanation for non bikers - strips of untouched rubber at the edge of the tyre, which means you're not leeeeeeeaning it over enough
[2] I had a search term show up on my blog the other day: “am I a real biker if I let someone else service my bike?” No mate, you’re not…

The Timeline
1996: Hornet 250 – the original Japan-only tax-avoider that started it all and remains seriously niche. Only available over here for a short time as a grey import.

1998: first of the 600s. 16-inch Fireblade wheels gave Fireblade handling (twitchy in an exciting way). 

2000: the upgrade: improved brakes; massively improved stability in corners with the 17-inch front wheel. Re-mapped ignition improved throttle response.

2000: Hornet S introduced, with the bikini fairing. This was the only version you could get in Australia.

2001: the Hornet 900 with the Fireblade engine and twin pipes. You’d automatically assume this would be a fire-breathing Z1000-killer, but it wasn’t. For some reason it just didn’t work. Sold few; dropped in 2007. The sake drinkers mustn’t have been involved...

2003: 600 mid-life upgrade. Engine mapping changed again for emissions control. New clocks and re-styled headlight arrangement; HISS immobiliser; 17-litre fuel tank; suspension settings improved. 

2005: USD forks introduced on the 600, with LCD/analogue combo dash.

2007: the facelift. CBR600RR mill with fuel injection; totally new waspish headlight arrangement; plastic everywhere. Cast aluminium frame instead of steel.

2009: suspension gets rebound adjusters.

Further reading

Hornet Owners’ Club and Forum: http://www.hondahornet.co.uk 

Many thanks to Stuart for his review of his Honda CB600F Hornet.  You can find Stuart at his own website here http://thisbikerslife.wordpress.com