Honda Helix CN250
"95% of the things in here are just pure fantasy" he said waving his arm around the hall. The speaker was an older gentleman manning one of the club stands at this years NEC Motorcycle Show. This year's bike show was pretty upbeat, there was a definite feel-good factor about, the sure acid test being the number of scantily clad Page 3 girls about. It was like the 70's all over again. Bike sales are rising again and the manufacturers are feeling bullish, but the trouble is that most of them are simply purveying ever faster, glitzier, costlier versions of the same old hyperbikes. Honda's 190 mph Super Blackbird? Solid contribution to Britain's transport needs of the 90's, or pure fantasy? No, you decide!
What was notably short at the show was real innovation. The only area where I detected some real forward thinking relevant to todays gridlock streets was in the scooter stands. Messrs Peugeot, Piaggio, Italjet, Aprilia et al were showing some truly tasty machines, and actually useful too in urban traffic. Scooter sales are booming even in drizzly old Britain, albeit we will never have the climate of Barcelona to really capitalise on them. What we need is someone to take all the lightweight benefits of these chic little scooters, and add enough real world performance to make a good all-purpose bike.
It pains me then to tell you that just such a bike exists, or rather did, as for the last six years Honda has been selling the amazing CN250 Helix to a totally unappreciative audience. This year they have lost heart and dropped it from their catalogue in the UK, albeit it is still on sale elsewhere. I had gone to Andrew Hart Ltd in Dundee to discuss borrowing one of the new Vespa scooters for a future road test when I noticed this pristine second hand example for sale, and at the drop of a hat Andrew was kind enough to lend it to me for evaluation. As these bikes are as rare as hens teeth, and I had never ridden one, I did not need a second invitation. Beam me up Scotty!
What we have here is a genuine hybrid between urban scooter and mid size touring bike, and believe me it works better than you could ever imagine from its rather Star Trek appearance. It has a rear mounted 250 cc single cylinder engine which gives 17 bhp, driven through a fully automatic gearbox, so your only controls are a hand throttle and brakes. Conventional instruments are replaced by a colour LCD panel, and there is a substantial boot at the back. The driving position seems weird at first, but you soon get used to it, so used to it in fact that your own bike will feel very odd when you get back on it. It is known as FF, or feet forward, and although it is sneered at by most bikers, the concept is gaining ground amongst dedicated cyclists where it known as the recumbent position. Whatever you call it is very comfy, and with a light agile chassis, and a very low seating position, it takes all of 200 yards to feel confident about the bike. The only immediate downside to this low position is that it makes you less visible in traffic. Recumbent cyclists usually have a flagpole and pennant to make themselves visible, perhaps this little Honda should have one too.
The auto box is superb, a flick of the throttle and it just whizzes off, and around town you can concentrate on the traffic rather than all that tedious gearchanging. Admittedly most scooters are autos, but where the Helix scores is that with its bigger engine and excellent aerodynamics, it is completely at home on the open road too. I don't know its maximum speed, but I do know that on a short motorway stretch I saw an indicated 70mph. Not bad for a scooter, eh? The long wheelbase and little wheels give the handling a very curious feel at first, but again it only takes a few miles to realise that it is astonishingly good, as it corners and stops with real confidence. The low frontal area and good clever fairing give excellent weather protection too.
This is a delightful and eminently usable little bike, yet Honda could hardly give them away. At approximately £4,000 they were considered wildly expensive. By comparison, the best selling bike in the country is Honda's Fireblade, a beast of such potency that no one will ever be able to use its abilities on the road, at least not legally, and they are twice the price. To add insult to injury, just as soon as Honda drops the Helix, Yamaha launches an almost identical product called the Majesty, and it has proven to be a runaway sales success, so much so that there is now a waiting list for them. Does any of this make sense to you? It doesn't to me. Perhaps the gent at the Bike Show was right after all. This isn't about motorbikes after all ... it's all about fantasy!