Every once in a while, a motorcycle manufacturer puts out a machine that makes reviewers and the buying public scratch their heads. Honda has repeatedly shown that it isn’t afraid to put ambitious ideas into production, but not all of them work out. Back in the 2000s, motorcycle manufacturers were tearing up the streets with large, powerful cruisers that made just as much of a statement sitting still as they did on the road. Honda, a company that already flirted with the idea in the past, put out the power cruiser to rule them all. The Honda Valkyrie Rune was a piece of art cosplaying as a motorcycle. It was expensive, impractical, arguably irrelevant, and Honda allegedly lost $225 million selling the things, yet so many riders still cannot resist the allure.
Last week on Holy Grails, reader ClemsonWahoo showed us the best version of a meme car. The Nissan Altima SE-R took an otherwise forgettable family sedan and added a few spicy touches to turn it into a Nissan Z-inspired sporty sedan. Unfortunately, those sporty touches came with a huge hike in price, making the car a sort of bad deal compared to the even sportier Infiniti G35. But, if you wanted an Altima, the SE-R is the ultimate Altima.
This week, we’re doing something a bit different. Since this series made its debut, every “grail” thus far has been a car. That’s fine, of course! There are a lot of rare, interesting cars that have been lost to time. I want to expand on the theme of this series. Cars aren’t the only type of vehicle to come in variations worthy of being called a grail!
I’d love to see some motorcycles, trucks, or maybe even RVs that few people know about. To kick this idea off, I’m cheating a little and instead of a reader nomination, this vehicle comes from us.
Today’s journey keeps us in the same enthusiast hot spot that was the early- to mid-2000s. However, instead of cars, we’re looking at motorcycles. As with cars, this was a great time to love motorcycles. Honda’s dependable CBR600F sportbike gained fuel injection for the first time, as did Suzuki’s versatile SV650 as well as the influential Ducati Monster. If you don’t like fooling with carburetors, the 2000s had tons of bikes with EFI. The 2000s also saw excitement from Buell, more than one revival of Indian Motorcycle, jet fuel-powered motorcycles went into military service, and oh yeah, cruisers got properly nutty. The power cruiser–a cruiser with an emphasis on huge power–rose to popularity during this time, and led to developments like the Harley-Davidson VRSC (V-Rod), the Triumph Rocket III, and loads of competition from Japan.
Perhaps the king of all of the absurd cruisers of the 2000s is the Honda Valkyrie Rune, a rolling art piece that Honda reportedly burned $225 million trying to sell to riders.
The Gold Wing Lends Its Engine To A Muscle Bike
As noted by the book ‘The Honda Valkyrie‘ by Peter Rakestrow, in the 1980s and 1990s, Honda began development on American-style custom cruisers. In 1991, a project to lead development on these machines was dubbed the Spirit of the Phoenix, and here’s how Honda describes it, roughly translated from a Japanese press release:
[SPIRIT OF THE PHOENIX] further refines the style of motorcycles that has been nurtured in the climate of America, and “the spirit of freedom that resonates with the rider’s heart”, in other words, communicates with the rider like a horse. I sought the spirit of motorcycle building.
Rather than a cowboy image, it is one of the directions of world wide custom bike construction that can gain the sympathy of Japanese and European riders while imagining aggressive and open American pioneer spirit.
And this [SPIRIT OF THE PHOENIX] is a summary of the basic policy of custom model building currently being developed by Honda. Based on “evolution” and “sublimation to a more free style”, it is positioned as a guideline for the development of the new generation custom.
Honda then lists out requirements that a Spirit of the Phoenix model must fulfill. A machine built under this project must have an upright riding position, low and long styling with a strong presence (achieved through a low seat and a long wheelbase), a high-quality engine with power and presence, a teardrop fuel tank, and high-quality independent components.
When a bike meets those requirements, the bike is supposed to be something like a horse, from Honda:
After fulfilling these requirements, we have named the spirit of creating a motorcycle like a horse where the will of the rider and the motorcycle communicate with each other as “SPIRIT OF THE PHOENIX”.
Below Honda’s definition of Spirit of the Phoenix, the manufacturer listed a table of motorcycles that fell under the project. These models are the Honda Shadow Aero (above), Steed, Shadow 400 and 750, Magna V4, Magna V-Twin, and finally, the Valkyrie. So, if you’ve ever wondered why Honda used to be so obsessed with American-style cruisers, look no further than the Spirit of the Phoenix project.
The flagship of the Spirit of the Phoenix was the Valkyrie.
As Cycle World notes, the development of the Valkyrie began in 1991. The first sketch was drawn by Honda R&D Chief Designer Makoto Kitagawa. Cycle World talked with Kitagawa about his mission in designing the Valkyrie and much of the end result has to do with the fact that the Valkyrie was supposed to be a cruiser with Honda DNA from Cycle World:
“Harley-Davidson and Indian were very popular for a long time,” says Kitagawa. “Honda came later to the U.S. market. Weq didn’t start making V-Twins until 1983, so it’s hard for us to have a very original position-an exclusive image-in the market. I wanted to design an original custom using Honda identity. The flat-Six engine is identified with Honda.”
Development on the Valkyrie saw Kitagawa and the team partnering up with the Honda Technical Research Institute in Japan and Honda Research & Development Americas. Along the way, the design evolved from being based on the VF750 Magna to borrowing the GL1500 Gold Wing as a donor. Kitagawa reportedly felt that the Valkyrie would be the perfect platform to showcase a beautiful engine that the Gold Wing had largely hidden. American Honda engineer and Gold Wing enthusiast Josef “Joe” Boyd championed the project so much he’s sometimes given credit as the “father of the GL1500C.”
The Valkyrie put out 104 HP, about 10 more than a regular Gold Wing, and Honda touted the bike as being able to pull harder than a CBR900RR. To further separate the Valkyrie from its Gold Wing origins, the engine’s redline was raised from 6,300 rpm to 7,300 rpm. The Valkyrie even weighed less than a Gold Wing, clocking in at 682 pounds dry, or a whopping 134 fewer pounds than a Gold Wing SE.
Honda introduced the Valkyrie in 1997 and production was relatively short for a motorcycle, lasting until just 2003. This motorcycle could be a grail of its own, but it’s what the Valkyrie evolved into that we’re looking at today.
The Honda Valkyrie Rune
In a press release, Honda said that the strong response and loyal following of the Valkyrie led the company to consider what else could be done with its flat-six engine. It didn’t take long for Honda to crank out different futurist takes on the ultimate cruiser.
Honda says that the Rune’s lineage technically goes back to before the Valkyrie. In 1995, Honda introduced the Zodia concept.
Unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show and predating the flat-six designs, this motorcycle wasn’t just a futuristic chopper, but also pretty weird. It sports a trailing link front suspension, a single-sided swingarm, and that 1500cc V-twin shot power to the rear wheel through Honda’s hydro-mechanical automatic transmission. This concept is notable as the suspension design would later translate to the production Rune.
In 1998, Honda kicked off what it calls the T-Series Concepts. These four concepts were built around the flat-six engine and the designers were challenged to push the boundaries of motorcycle design. Honda was so serious about this that it even tapped a master fabricator outside of the motorcycle world for a design.
The T1 came first in late 1998 and early 1999. This one was painted in a bright color to give it a sporty look and body parts were purposely abbreviated so that your eyes would naturally wander to the engine. The T1 was also given an exhaust inspired by sports cars and muscle cars. Of course, this one did not become the Rune, but Honda says the smooth transition between tank and seat made it onto the VTX, as did the grab rail.
Next came the T2, and it’s pretty obvious that this would be the concept chosen for the Rune. Honda describes the inspiration:
T2 blends together a neo/retro persona; retro with respect to the deep fenders and low-slung tank that are evocative of lowered and chopped roadsters from the 1940s and ’50s. Yet the T2 is cutting-edge with its use of a six-cylinder engine and aluminum twin-spar frame plus Pro Arm rear suspension.
Taking advantage of the right-side Pro Arm, the left rear quarter has been purposely left unencumbered to highlight the gorgeous rear wheel that is perfectly framed by the strong lines of the sweeping, flared rear fender. Notice the clean and functional look provided by the knock-off wheel hub.
The bold, massive look to the radical two-shock trailing- link front end lends a strong mechanical presence, further feeding the neo/retro presence.
The unique dual-bulb headlight treatment includes a projector beam in the bottom portion, which gives the headlight a very different face. Note the painted headlight shell with the chromed cap.
With the instruments packaged into the wing-shaped handlebar cover in futuristic style, plus the flush-mounted LED taillight/turn signals, the T2 offers a distinctly neo look from head to toe.
Third was the T3, and Honda says that the drag strip was the inspiration for this one. It features hand-formed aluminum body pieces, giant air scoops, a tubular steel frame, and minimal bodywork. The concept bike was given an imposing front end, drag bars, and minimal fenders. Notable is the six-into-six exhaust, which gives a killer look.
Finally, we have the T4, which Honda describes as a “technical material study-an internal showpiece that is a rolling exercise in construction techniques.” This is the concept that was built by the aforementioned master fabricator. Mike McCluskey usually restored Ford Cobras and vintage airplanes, so a motorcycle was outside of his wheelhouse. Yet, look at it!
Honda built these concepts and watched for the public response. As it turned out, people adored the T2 Concept so much that Honda decided to put it into production while changing as little as possible. The result was one of those rare instances when a manufacturer takes a concept dream and makes it a reality. In 2003, the Honda Valkyrie Rune hit the road, stunning the press and riders alike.
As Ryan from the excellent motorcycle channel FortNine explains, project leader Masanari Aoki described the Rune with “no performance goals, no distinct function, purchase price not a consideration.”
This is backed up by an archived interview that was once hosted on Honda’s press site, from Aoki:
Since there were no distinct function or performance goals that had to be met, we were free to focus on capturing the styling and design from the mock-up. That included all elements such as the location of the front and rear tires, and the location, position and dimension of the engine.
In other words, the Rune was an art project that you could buy. Honda’s only goals were to make the concept real and road legal. And it was wild. As Ryan describes, the headlight is a foot long and the tank stretches another 32 inches forward from where you’re sitting. That headlight might as well be in another county!
In creating a concept bike for the road, Honda went wonderfully overboard. In the aforementioned interview with Honda, Masanori Aoki described how the exhaust was made:
Our understanding is that the Rune exhaust system was one of the more difficult challenges to overcome. Why was this so, and how did you solve the challenge?
The styling design had already been decided, and the short length posed a potential problem with exhaust pipe volume.
Also, we wanted the Rune to have a distinctive exhaust sound that was a reflection of the bike’s visual image. So we had to design a unique silencer, and we changed things in the exhaust collector.
Also, to achieve the complex shape of the muffler end cap, we employed the lost-wax casting technique, a manufacturing method typically not used in the motorcycle industry.
Lost-wax casting is a 6,000-year-old technique where a sacrificial wax model is used to create a singular metal piece. The wax mold is used just once to create one object, making for a lossy process. The advantage is being able to make an object with precision and accuracy.
Out of the other end of Rune development, riders got to pay $26,000 for a motorcycle not seen before or since.
An Expensive Art Project
Aside from the 1,832cc flat-six, the Rune was largely bespoke. And that engine wasn’t much more powerful than a regular Valkyrie. The Rune punched out 118 HP and 120.9 lb-ft torque. Of course, speed wasn’t the point, and neither was giving the bike ideal touring gear. Instead, it was made just to look awesome. Despite the lack of any real practicality, reviewers note that the Rune is very stable and quite comfortable. The seat height is even a low 27 inches. But make no mistake, it weighs in at 878 pounds, or two more pounds than a loaded Gold Wing.
Honda has never released production numbers for the Rune, but it’s reported that Honda spent about $100,000 to make each one. Bespoke parts don’t come cheap, after all. You don’t need to pass a math class to know that $26,000 is much less than $100,000. It’s also been reported that Honda likely lost about $225 million on building these. Throw the numbers into a blender and you get production of around 3,000 units built before the model died after 2005. I reached out to Honda to see if we could get any hard numbers.
No matter which way you slice it, the Rune was an expensive project. I’m not sure I’d go as far as FortNine to say that it was a mistake. The financial side of the Rune has never been explained by Honda, so those intentions have never been revealed. But, it’s also not outrageous for something like this to exist. The Smart Crossblade was a concept turned into the real deal, as was the Isuzu VehiCROSS.
If you want your own Rune, you can find some for sale but expect asking prices to be just a couple of grand less than new. It seems these hold their value well. Though, that’s not surprising. The Honda Valkyrie Rune is another example of Honda’s willingness to defy conventions and then put a crazy idea into production. It’s probably not the best motorcycle by any measure, but that’s not the point. This is something you buy when you want to ride rolling art, and for that, I love it.
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