The motorcycle that Honda lost millions building
As enthusiasts, we often catch ourselves wishing manufacturers would build something without the accounting team’s input. Just think of what could be! The splendor of a concept that goes straight to production and then rolls out to dealer showrooms for us consumers to purchase and tool about town on. Something that is truly cool and unique.
That’ll never happen … again.
Mainly because Honda learned its lesson from the Rune. Back in 1995 Honda rolled a concept called Zodia into its booth at a Tokyo show. The wild cruiser garnered the standard attention and also standard, “That’s neat, but nothing like what we’ll see in showrooms”-type comments.
Then in 1998 a bike called T1 appeared. It captured a similar feel and showed that Honda just might be serious about this wild cruiser thing. Look a the T1 and you’ll probably see more VTX than anything but that was only because in the background the T2 was being formed. Like the T1, the T2 was based around the Goldwing flat-six engine. It was an aluminum twin-spar engine and Pro-Link rear suspension that was a staple of Honda during the time. This was the same decade where Honda decided oval-piston 750cc engines were something worth developing, so when the public said the T2 was great there was not much more prodding needed.
The reaction was strong. Really strong. People loved it.
There were two more largely forgettable concepts, but T2 was the one that made the most impact. As the team pivoted towards producing something like T2 the news came down from on high that the normal shackles of production would be unlocked and design would take precedence. Cost be damned, build a factory custom cruiser like never before! Enter the Rune, and the start of wild financial adventure at Honda. Ryan at FortNine recently rode one and gave a little insight as to how wild these big bikes are.
See, with design being paramount there is very little parts sharing. Seemingly every part is crafted to look one-off and unlike anything else Honda had built, was building, or would build. The front suspension alone cost more than some of the smaller displacement Honda bikes that were in showrooms at the time. The two front shocks are even side-specific, with the right holding the main spring while the left controls damping and has a lighter sub-spring. The bike appears absurdly long and the extremely low 27.2-inch seat height only exacerbates the wild proportions.
That stubby yet flowing exhaust was created using lost wax casting, an incredibly time- and material-intensive process that creates parts one at a time at an absurd cost. From the switchgear on the handlebars to the curved multi-core radiator, the Rune has numerous one-off bits and pieces that compile to create a nearly 900-pound motorcycle that is unlike anything else Honda would build.
So what is the Rune then? A middle finger of an executive on the way out the door who greenlit an absurd project as a final task? Honda trying to cash in on the wild custom chopper craze of the early ’00s? Something even wilder?
No, the truth is stranger than fiction here. It’s a motorcycle made to be ridden and make a statement when it’s parked. It does that second part in spades. Whether or not that unspoken statement is in your language is personal and up to you. Regardless of how you feel about it, the Rune stands out as one of the times, if not the time, that a manufacturer threw out logic. I guess we can’t complain that Honda didn’t do exactly what we asked for, even if it didn’t age as well as other contemporary designs.
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The real trouble here was this was not Honda being Honda.
The trouble has always been that Honda see a competitor and they say well we can do it better. But they often choose models that are landmark vehicles that are not expected to be perfect.
Case in point. The NSX was a better 328. But the trouble was it was still not a Ferrari. Several of Honda’s bikes tried to be a better Harley but the trouble was they were still not a Harley.
This bike tried to be something along the line of a Indian. Again it was not an Indian.
Asian companies have trouble with legacy and heritage like models as they are always pushing forward. They assume if you make it better people will flock and that is not always the case.
Honda has always done best when they just try to be Honda. The fact is Honda now has been around long enough they can do better legacy models of their own today. They have in some cases with great results.
They can do a remake of a Trail 70 and do much better than a copy of a bike like this. There are a number of their older bikes I would love to see in modern trim.
Imagine a Kawasaki 900 that was built right and not have a death wobble. That is the kind of stuff these companies need to do. The British are doing it with their bikes and Indian has done well with their models.
Solid point about trying to remake the Trail 70. I have a CT110/Trail 110 (1982). Great bike, but the new CT 125/Trail 125 is the “same only better”. It has glowing updates like a modern bike should along with the old CT line of being easy to ride, fairly indestructible, and best of all, looks like the same old design.
Fully agree they made a far better bike than Harley ever put out, but its still not going to attract any Harley riders. It will attract people who truly want a better bike, that happens to try to look like a Harley.
I have 2 CT 70’s and often wonder if the new Monkey is the “same only better”. Rode one to a local car event and got many smiles. Plan on riding to the local pub and parking with the Harley’s.
Not to mention the famed story – or is it legend – that when Honda made their first Harley clone, the Shadow, they were satisfied and cocky because they had made what was – in every way – a motorcycle that had all of the iconic Harley styling cues (not to mention the V twin engine). But apparently it was too good! The engine ran like a Swiss watch and when market research was done with current Harley owners, the response was negative – they wanted the off-kilter vibration, they wanted the mystery clicity-click noises coming from the top end. Basically they wanted the “soul” of their beloved Harley. And these research respondents had already been screened as to eliminate the super hard-core Harley guys that wouldn’t buy a Honda for a dollar. So they dutifully gave high scores to everything else about the bike: fit and finish, paint quality, controls etc. I no nostalgia for a clunky gearbox because they loved the gearbox too.
Another surprise was that current Japanese bike owners who were looking to get into the super-hot cruiser market via a Harley, The Shadow’s market research results were very similar.
Even these customers, who were huge fans of the flawlessness of Japanese engineering, were expecting to not only get a style statement from buying a Harley, but they also wanted the rough edges as well. And Honda, thinking of the whole thing from a very logical standpoint, they thought that Harleys were a joke because on paper they were very antiquated from an engineering standpoint – and they attributed Harley’s mechanical lapses as unsophisticated American engineering and building. All of which could easily be fixed by the more high tech Japanese engineers.
There’s an analog to this in the previously mentioned NSX/328 situation. On paper, and from an engineering standpoint, the NSX was light years ahead of the 328 (which was already a 15 year old design by the time Honda introduced the NSX). So for Ferrari and Porsche guys, driving an NSX was like driving an especially cool Accord. It did everything so well and the engine was such a precision Swiss watch time piece (etc), and that the NSX took away the rough edges that But true sports currency easiest wanted in their cars. (And I won’t get into the whole debate about the Honda/Acura “brand image” deficit.)
But the Japanese were just approaching these markets purely from their left brain. But the right brain is where all of the fun is. Just makes for a much more complicated business plan to show your boss!
Nice article, but for a more in-depth point of view and the inspiration for this article you might want to check out the author’s creative muse.
I recall when these came out, and I was far from alone in wondering why such a design had been approved.
Huge, heavy, and cumbersome, they looked…unique. I would have been surprised if they DID sell well. The high price did not help sell them, certainly.
It doesn’t look like a Honda but it looks interesting in certain aspects to me.
I got to put some miles on one of the Rune prototypes, as a friend of mine worked the factory in central Ohio. I owned a Heritage at the time, so for me the comparison was easy. I loved the looks, especially with the single-sided swing arm and the excess chrome. I loved the sounds coming from the ‘Wing’s six-cylinder, even with a stock exhaust system. Not better than my HD, just different, and it would have sounded amazing with a more open set of pipes. The suspension up front was amazing for any bike, not just compared to my HD. The bike was heavy, with ponderous handling at slow speeds that would not have bothered me on my HD. I remember not being fond of the linked brakes. Overall, it was a great bike that deserved better treatment in the market than it got, in my opinion.