This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.
The story of the Rune is as much about flesh and blood emotion as it is about a chrome and steel motorcycle. One simply would not exist without the other. To aspire is human, but to actually convince a Japanese manufacturing empire to produce a bike as shamelessly stylistic as the Rune, well, that would've been impossible without the fire of a few strong-willed leaders on the North American side of the business, fueled by a country filled with people like you and me who prefer their motorcycles as stunningly beautiful as they are usefully efficient.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Rune is the plain fact that there's one heck of a gap between the acts of "building" a bike and "manufacturing" one. In America, we build bikes from the skin of our knuckles, driven by the pressing whisper of ambition. We call them customs, and they are always emotional: personal, brave and romantic. Manufacturing? Well, manufacturing is about making widgets and washing machines, right? It's systematic and sterile and oh-so-utterly boring. Artistic? No way. Creativity and efficiency are unofficial antonyms. Most of the time, anyway. If the Rune teaches us nothing else, it should remind us to revoke clichd thinking. When even the calmest cookie cutter can sprout such a comely wild hair, then surely anything is possible.
Stairway to Heaven
There's a tangible sense of validation around American Honda now that the Rune is off the line and running. On the street, people might stare slack-jawed at the factory custom and say, "I can't believe Honda built this bike," but back at Honda, the men and women who created it are just as much in awe. Of course it would take a successful mega-manufacturer like Honda to mass-produce a motorcycle of this caliber, but such immense entities rarely see the style for the trees. Convincing the dubious conglomerate that it was in its best interest to do a cartwheel on a tightrope was the first, and perhaps most formidable, task.
The Japanese parent company's question, of course, was, "Why?" It wasn't so much that Honda was reluctant to take a chance. This is a company with a long history of risk taking, though the trailblazing advancements are commonly made in the name of performance -- of technological superiority and increased efficiency. Flying in the face of proven technology for the sake of style alone? Find that in the manual of Asian business philosophy.
Ray Blank, vice president of the Motorcycle Division at American Honda, admits that historically it's been a feat of determination to deliver options to Americans who want more from their cruisers than efficiency. "Making Shadows in different colors?" he laughs. "That was hard." And yet he endured with the Rune. "We were looking to take the original Valkyrie to the next level," he explains. "When it was first introduced [it] had a significant impact on the motorcycle market. We wanted to set the bar higher than ever, erecting standards that no one else had yet imagined, while also exploding old limitations on what an original manufacturer could mass-produce."
Why use the Valkyrie as a platform? Why not the more trendy V-twin-driven 1800cc VTX? After all, the Rune has roots in Honda's 1995 concept, the Zodia, which featured a V-configuration. "The [flat-six] motor is traditional to Honda -- it's our DNA and no one else's," he explains. "Unless we share it with Porsche, which isn't so bad. The Rune is an honest bike," he continues. "There isn't anything on it that's lifted. All the shapes, all the bits and pieces are Honda's." But the winning formula for those original parts was pure people's choice.
Love, American Style
Most of you remember Honda's circa-'00 Valkyrie-based concept bikes, the T-series. The T1 was an existing concept that we drooled all over in the pages of Motorcycle Cruiser, and when we saw three additional prototypes show up on the motorcycle expo circuit with their own wranglers interviewing the public on which style it preferred, we knew something was up. Honda was mute, of course, explaining it away as a "design exercise." And indeed it was.
A year of beauty pageants and focus groups made one thing clear: Honda's T2 was a winner. "People who saw the T2 mock-up expressed a most unusual degree of excitement," says project leader Masanori Aoki. "In fact, the customer response was so strong it was difficult for many Japanese to understand such enthusiasm. The T2 was nearly four times more popular than any of the other designs -- far and away the overwhelming favorite."
American Honda's dream for a perception-bending factory-built custom required that the T2 concept be reproduced as a production model in every detail. Style alone ruled. Aoki, who came out of the sportbike side of Honda to create the successful new Gold Wing, admits that he and his team of engineers thought the assignment was more than daring.
"To be honest with you, I thought it would be impossible to mass-produce the project without changing the styling design. It was just too radical. And yes, as an engineer I thought the process was completely backward. There were some machines that started with styling models, but the Rune is the first model that reproduced the original design fully and faithfully."
"Because it was a Honda," Blank says, "it had to fit within our performance parameters. We had to put value in ownership beyond the obvious aesthetics. The Rune concept is extremely extravagant because it places the highest priorities on style rather than measurable science and engineering, and that created challenges during product planning." There were many style concepts on the T2, like the exhaust system and invisible rear suspension, for example, that didn't translate into reasonable production strategies.
"It is a very emotional product," he says. "But when a gut feeling is so strong, avid motorcyclists can communicate with one another on a different level. We accomplished a lot on this new concept after hours, at restaurants, just motorcycle guys talking to each other, scribbling on napkins, waving our hands around." When you hear the note of pride in Blank's voice you quickly recognize how large a part human emotion played in the building process.
Passion is this bike's lifeblood, and dedication is what brought the dream to fruition. The Rune was conjured and coaxed by true motorcycle enthusiasts as an offering to the rest of us. "A gift to yourself that is really for others," says Blank.
Gift Horse with Golden Teeth
If the Rune is a gift, the eye is the first to profit. Never have we seen such finesse -- such attention to detail -- in a production bike. There is hardly a physical flaw to grumble over, and the closest we've come is to criticize the Rune logo on the sleek, seamless tank, which appears to be a stick-on graphic that causes a rise in the thick clearcoat. A Princess and the Pea issue, for sure. We adore the bike's '50s-hotrod-meets-Rocketeer styling, but the thing that really makes it work is the depth of detail. The bike is totally integrated "like a puzzle," says Blank. "Each layer must be absolutely perfect before the next layer is applied." These bikes are built on a line, but at a speed that lends to a "handcrafted" result. "There are so many white glove inspections," says Blank, "that the approval process takes as long as it does to build some other bikes."
Blank says that one of the most amazing things about the Rune's path to production was watching Honda's "alchemists" at work. "We had people who could turn our thoughts and feelings into reality." And indeed, these men seemed to have turned base metals into gold, though not without great effort. Eleven new manufacturing processes were created for Rune production, and it runs on its very own line in Marysville, Ohio. The fork alone costs a fortune, says Blank, who concedes that Honda certainly isn't building this bike for profit.
How Does It Feel?
OK, so looks aren't everything, even when they are blinding. When we finally got our test unit away from its ever-protective attendants at Honda we rode the $1500 optional chrome wheels off the pretty thing. It's our nature, you see, even though we know darn well that hardly anyone who forks over the dough for one of these impressive baubles will ride it with such childish zeal. If you did choose to ride it hard, however, the Rune would actually be as much at home skinning its nether nuts as it would propping up the curb.
The first thing people ask is, "How fast?" Very, in feel, since the torque on the bottom end could uproot a lamppost. The Rune will come out of your hands if you're not careful when you gas it off idle. The horizontally opposed, fuel-injected 1832cc flat six adopted from the mighty Gold Wing has been tuned for off-the-line muscle at the expense of a potentially long gait, which gives it the illusion of extravagant power. The same motor in the 'Wing is actually running more than 10 ponies over the cruiser's on the top end, the result of the Rune's near-vertical torque curve, which points heavenward at 2000 rpm. Also a factor in high-end output is the cruiser's unique exhaust system, which allows only limited volume through its attractively short, stout chambers.
At the dragstrip the hefty 888-pound (when fuel laden) Rune outdid the Gold Wing (which weighs -- yikes -- only 10 pounds more) by a 10th of a second with 12.42 at 107.23 mph, and it actually gets spanked by its (somewhat) wispier relation, the VTX 1800C, which scored an impressive 12.21 at 107.48 mph.
The second question we heard during our time with the Rune was, "How does that wild-looking fork feel, anyway?" Great. The trailing-link suspension, one of the exotic components carried all the way from the Zodia concept bike, is as stable as any well-damped telescopic fork, and offers more wheel control than many forks on modern cruisers. We think the futuristic-looking front suspension is one of five key styling elements that place the Rune on its very own planet. (Other favored beauty marks are the headlight, the seamless, stretched tank and gauge combo, and the mufflers, single-sided swingarm and rear fender). Although we know the sexy front-end setup, which uses twin pushrods to transfer load through a linkage system, is extremely expensive for Honda to manufacture, there's hope it will find its way onto other production cruisers. "You won't see it on the Rebel 250," jokes Blank as he explains that one of the challenges of the Rune should be finding ways to make its most-admired features more reasonable to repeat.
Borrowed from the company's world-beating racebikes, the exotic, adjustable Unit Pro-link setup in the rear is completely veiled by the Rune's wraparound rear fender. The shock, which translates compression to the frame via linkage, utilizes the swingarm as the load-bearing cross-member, which is one of the reasons the Rune's chassis feels so rock-steady in hard, fast cornering. Even our speed-glutton brethren at Sport Rider enjoyed canyon-running the Rune.
We aren't great fans of the Rune's rear-wheel action, however, and find it a shame that the bike's back end doesn't match its front in stability. There is a dial for rebound damping, but we found that even a full-hard setting isn't enough to adequately pack down the rear, which would benefit from a stiffer spring and a bit more travel.
If the Rune's overall performance is glass-smooth, our two complaints about the bike's running character are like pebbles that ripple its perfect surface. In addition to the harsh movement in the rear end, the bike's abrupt throttle response at mid- and high rpm, which is exaggerated by a good amount of driveline lash, mars its chi. When we first rode the bike, we assumed our throttle hands would eventually recalibrate for this light switch effect, but not so. Riding the Rune in a higher gear does ease the problem, though, and the motor could absolutely care less, since it will pull smoothly from a near stop in top gear.
This hovercraft feel is one of the qualities that make the Rune so incredibly comfortable to ride. Like the deep, modern sounding purr of the big six, everyone also loved the light feel of the controls and the smooth transmission action. The ergonomics seem to have a universal appeal, too, with both our tallest and shortest testers giving positive regard to the seat-peg-bar relation. The smaller set did prefer the extended bar, but only by a slight margin. (The Rune is sold with two options.) As the miles tick by, some taller riders are bound to feel cramped by the motor placement, which positions the feet very much under the rider's core. But you probably won't spend long days in the saddle because this bike is not equipped to carry luggage -- and certainly not a passenger -- on its delicate rear fender.
Another key element that contributes to everyone's immediate comfort with the bike is its surprising ease-of-use factor -- once it's moving, that is. At a stop or at walking speeds the Rune feels like a rhino, but once it's underway it becomes a gazelle. We started telling first-time testers to throttle away as soon as possible just to get out from under the bike's intimidating heft and length. We also found the braking system to be well suited to the Rune's mass and muscle. Honda uses the same coupling system found on the VTX 1800 models, which links one piston of the front caliper's three to the rear brake pedal. The front lever controls the two remaining front pistons. The Rune sports even larger discs than the VTX, however, with dual 13-inchers up front and a single 13.2-inch disc for the 180-equipped rear wheel.
All Things Considered
We haven't been this passionate about a production motorcycle in a very long time, and each person we came upon while testing the Rune was likewise lit by its flame. Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- this motorcycle touches everyone in some way, and even more deeply when they hear of the dreams that drove it. It doesn't require a penchant for two wheels, or even an eye for art to appreciate something as profound as perseverance, which is one of many very human elements embodied in the Rune. It's a moving sculpture that can be interpreted in many valuable ways, just like the Nordic fortune-telling stones it's named for. The future? For now it looks like the Rune will reign, at least for a couple of years. We're told dealer orders tripled the planned production schedule, so Honda must now grapple with another dilemma of mass-producing a custom: How much of a good thing is too much?
The most remarkable fate, however, may lie in Honda's future. "I think we'll do it again," Blank says, insinuating that there are one or two unique factory customs brewing behind the scenes. "I think we can equal the Rune."
Once, Honda had a Dream. Now, it seems to have an utterly new reality.
Fantastic! As in supercalifragilisticexpialadocious! Yes, I was smitten from the start, and the more I learned about the Rune's gallant plight and desperate measures of manufacture, the more I was captivated. The proof is always in the product, though, so I climbed aboard with the requisite objectivity. And I felt rather shrewd -- until I turned the throttle and gassed it up the nearest winding road, that is. Just a few miles with the artsy bike under my butt and I was hooked like a fish.
I am more than impressed that Honda built this motorcycle; I'm personally inspired by the daring and determination it required. Would I buy a Rune if I could get my hands on one? You bet your fat fender. Or maybe a better plan is to talk a riding buddy into buying one so I can spend more time looking at it.
The Rune is a fabulous motorcycle...to look at, ride or simply see troll by. However, the best thing about the Rune will be if it influences future Honda cruisers that you and I are likely to own.
For example, I'd like to see that fork on a VTX. Honda says it hasn't been done because it would be too costly, but between its appearance and superior ride, it might be worth it to build a VTX 1800 Linker. More generally, I hope some of the daring reflected in the Rune shows up in future full-production models. The Rune has raised the bar for what a production cruiser can be. I hope it raises the bar for Honda's efforts on less exotic models, too.
This motorcycle is so beautiful in the flesh that Honda could have put the bike into production without developing the mechanicals. It could be slower than a Nighthawk 250. It could have Flintstones brakes. Most amazingly, it doesn't. In fact, the Rune is a complete hoot. True, you'll need to order peg feelers by the case, but the chassis is stunningly nimble and refreshingly honest.
Would I plunk down 25 large for the Rune? No, probably not (it helps to know that journalists are woefully underpaid), but I'm hugely impressed that Honda built the damn thing. It's a courageous move only a well-funded company would consider but, I think, the more important story is that Honda -- conservative, big-volume, aggravatingly stubborn Honda -- broke free of its own corporate culture. Let's hope it's not an anomaly.
I would've never expected something like this from Honda -- big and fat and low and friggin' humongous. I figured the Rune was a Boss Hoss for the masses when I first laid eyes on it. Luckily, you're reminded of its Honda-ness the minute you blip the throttle. The power, the handling...oh man. Against all reason, this land yacht just works. But even if it's silky and sinewy, it's not perfect. A harsh rear suspension that beat my butt into hamburger on bumpy roads, and throttle response that's a tad abrupt for my liking are my main quibbles, but the Rune's six purring jugs of instant power and flat-out, otherworldly sex appeal make it nearly unimpeachable. You could put a paper bag on this thing and still want to take it to the ball.
Specifications 2004 Honda Rune
|Suggested base price:||$25,499, $26,999 as tested|
|Standard color:||Black, blue, maroon|
|Standard warranty:||36 months, unlimited miles|
|Engine & Drivetrain|
|Type:||Liquid-cooled, horizontally opposed six|
|Valve arrangement:||SOHC, two valves per cylinder|
|Displacement, bore x stroke:||1832cc, 74 x 71mm|
|Transmission:||5 speeds, multiplate clutch|
|Wet weight:||888 lbs.|
|Seat height:||27.2 in.|
|Inseam equivalent:||31.8 in.|
|Overall length:||100.7 in.|
|Rake/trail:||29 degrees / 4.9 in.|
|Front tire:||150/60R-18 tubeless radial|
|Rear tire:||180/55R-17 tubeless radial|
|Front suspension:||Trailing bottom-link; 3.9 in. travel|
|Rear suspension:||Pro-Link single damper; 3.9 in. travel|
|Front brake:||2, double-action three-piston caliper, 13.0-in. discs|
|Rear brake:||Double-action two piston caliper, 13.2-in. disc|
|Fuel capacity:||6.2 gal.|
|Handlebar width:||33.6 in.|
|Electrical & instrumentation|
|Forward lighting:||Triangular (7-in. max width), dual-bulb headlight, position lights|
|Taillight:||Dual LEDs, license plate light|
|Instruments:||Digital speedometer, odometer, dual trip meters, fuel level indicator; lights for high beam, neutral, turn signals, engine heat|
|Fuel mileage:||30-36 mpg; 34.0-mpg average|
|Average range:||204.6 miles|
|Horsepower:||90.6 @ 5250 rpm|
|Torque:||110.9 ft.-lbs. @ 2500 rpm|
|60-80-mph acceleration:||5.20 sec.|
|Quarter-mile acceleration:||12.42 @ 107.23|