MENTIONED IN DESPATCHES
Honda’s 1978 CX500 became the courier’s favourite tool. And it was a bike that dared to be different. Forty years on, has Honda’s ugly duckling finally come of age?
Honda’s CX500: the plastic maggot, hack for a generation of two-wheeled couriers. And, actually, something of a revolution...
Thumbing the starter button, I’m instantly back in the mid-’80s. Back then, with a new house to finance, I’d hit on the notion of spending a year grafting on the despatch circuit to set me up – and my machine of choice was a 1981 CX500B from HGB Motorcycles in Ruislip. With a fairing already fitted and less than 10,000 miles on the clock, the black and red V-twin cost me £995 I think (on the knock, naturally). A year and 48,000 miles later, the Honda had done its job magnificently. I’d paid the first year of my mortgage with relative ease and even got a few quid put by. It might not have been the bike I really wanted, but it was certainly the bike I needed.
Effective, efficient and practical the 497cc V-twin most definitely is. I’ll bet that more than a few other ex-couriers or long-distance commuters will be eyeing this bike up with a measure of fondness, too. However, the CX500 deserves viewing with more than misty-eyed affection – this all-new V-twin was at the cutting edge in 1978 and loaded with innovation. The CX continued the advance of water-cooling pioneered on the 1976 GL1000. It had tubeless tyres, a first on production motorcycle (along with the CBX1000 launched the same year), plus electronic ignition, shaft drive, CV carburettors and even a cassettetype gearbox. This was located below and slightly to the side of the crank, rather than behind the engine, rotating in the opposite direction to cancel some of the sideways torque reaction generated from the crank being mounted along the bike’s axis.
After years of punting out sophisticated overhead-cam engines, the V-twin reverted to pushrod valve actuation – but even this was for good reason. In order to give a little more room for the rider’s knees, Honda hit on the idea of cunningly twisting the cylinder heads round by 22°, so the carbs were tucked in more. This put the heads in a different plane to the rotation of the crank, and because camchains aren’t very happy being twisted it meant using short pushrods to control the valves. Honda also opted for an 80° angle between the cylinders – it meant that they didn’t get the perfect primary balance of a 90˚ V-twin, but it reduced engine width (a heavy alternator flywheel was employed to dampen vibration).
You could instantly recognise this unusual and clever engine by its distinct sound, and now, over 30 years after I had my CX, the memories instantly flood back as I fire up this well-preserved and highly original first-year CX500Z at Hunts Motorcycles in Manchester. There’s the familiar off-beat exhaust burble, the subtle hint of a rattle from the
‘AS WELL AS BEING EFFECTIVE, EFFICIENT AND PRACTICAL, BACK IN 1978 THE CX500 WAS AT THE CUTTING EDGE’
valvegear and the twitch to the side as I blip the throttle. High, wide-set footrests dig almost reassuringly into my calves and that huge day-bed of a seat has to be one of the most comfortable perches to be found on any motorcycle.
Pulling away into the city’s morning rush, the apparent bulk of the CX500 seems to melt away. It’s surprisingly light and easy to handle for such an imposing chunk of metal once on the move. The big 4.5-gallon tank and thickly-padded seat create the impression of a high centre of gravity, but the low-slung crank running longitudinally along the bike’s centre line and the driveshaft running at the height of the rear wheel spindle concentrate the mass down low. It’s remarkably easy to trickle the bike along at slow-march pace in heavy city traffic.
One of the lightest cable-operated clutch actions to be found on any bike combined with a slick, positive gearchange makes keeping the CX in the right gear for constant filtering almost pleasurable. Now I remember why the CX500 always was an excellent city bike. The only downside to its innovative design is that I’m getting the hair-drier treatment from the radiator and cooling fan combination. But the engine keeps its cool on this hot, humid day, even if I’m starting to overheat a little.
UK and European models like this one got the benefit of double discs at the front (US riders had to put up with a single front stopper) but age has caught up with the brakes on our test bike. A change of fluid and maybe hoses would doubtless have them back at their best. In any case, the rear drum is usefully efficient and, at urban speeds, a good heave on the front brake lever and a dab on the rear is enough to keep me out of trouble as I head out of the city to explore the other side of the CX500’S character.
Heading into Cheshire countryside, I can delve into the upper reaches of the five-speed gearbox and sample the full spread of the 48bhp available. The power is useful rather than earth-shattering, just as I remember it from my courier days. On motorways and dual carriageways, I’d ideally want a little more midrange stomp for overtaking, but this is only a 500 after all. With a bike as technically accomplished as the CX, maybe the temptation to load it up with unreasonable expectations becomes irresistible.
That said, the CX is certainly no slouch. It’ll batter along at 80-90mph for miles without complaint – as I know from previous experience. And at the legal limit on a single-carriageway road, it’s burbling away quietly at a relative handful of revs. Period road tests managed to squeeze anything from 106-112mph from the bike.
But it’s this Honda’s ability to maintain a more than impressive average for miles on end that is its real strength – and what made it such an excellent choice for the longdistance courier and all-round rider alike. A supremely comfortable riding position allows the rider to enjoy,
rather than just endure, those high-mile days. It might not enjoy perfect balance, but the 80˚ V-twin’s hefty flywheel is an effective compromise and smoothes out pulses effectively. And fuel consumption rarely dipped below 50mpg for me on despatch duty. That sort of thing really mattered back then – and it’s just as welcome today. Handling is better than it has any right to be for a near450lb, shaft-drive all-rounder. Steering is light and neutral, and the suspension copes well with all but the worst of road conditions. The torque reaction from the longitudinal crank alignment is only really apparent at a standstill and there’s still little backlash apparent in the drivetrain on our test bike (a 30,000-mile example), save for a slight slackness at very low speeds in first gear. Get the motor spinning and into the top three ratios, though, and I can forget about it. I’d stop short of calling the handling sporty, but it’s certainly very capable. From what I’ve said so far, it sounds as though the technically-advanced CX500 should have been an enormous success – and it was. Over 185,000 (plus 650s and GL models) were built in various guises. The basic Z model evolved into the A (flyscreen, revised camchain tensioner mechanism and polished radiator shrouds) in 1979, followed by the B (black ‘reverse’ Comstar wheels, new brake master cylinder, improved crankcase breather). The CX500C custom, CX500E sports and and GL500 tourer versions followed, before the CX grew into the CX650 – and there were turbocharged versions of both capacity, with the CX500T and CX650T. The V-twin was one of Honda’s most successful bikes. But the CX had a flaw – and I’m not talking about the troublesome Z-model camchain tensioner, fixed with a recall and rectified on later models. It was the look of the bike that prevented it from becoming an even bigger hit. Almost as soon as it hit the streets the CX was dubbed the ‘plastic maggot’, a moniker it struggles to shake off even today. It would be hard to describe the V-twin as a looker, but the CX500 is probably one of few Hondas where form followed function. It has a sort of brutal, industrial look, with its oddly asymmetrical lower crankcase, pipes and brackets stuck everywhere, and a huge slab of radiator dominating the front. A CBX it ain’t, yet with all its clever design and the benefit of a hefty dose of nostalgia the 500 develops a kind of rough-hewn attraction... if I squint. Get past the looks and there’s a lot to admire about the CX. As well as being effective, friendly and comfortable, it’s a proven proposition for higher-mileage riders when it comes to reliability (camchain tensioner aside, though all surviving bikes should have been done). The mechanical seal on the water pump eventually fails, and is easier to replace with the engine out of the frame. Rebores mean a complete engine strip as the barrels are cast integrally with the upper crankcases, and alternator stators fail at high mileages – another engine out job. The upside is that these are usually jobs that only need doing at serious miles. And access for basic maintenance is excellent – I used to service my CX in the ‘allocated parking space’ of my house and could do it in about an hour, including valve clearances. The oil filter is handily at the front of the engine, it’s quick and easy to drop out the rear wheel for tyre changes, ignition is a maintenance-free CDI system, and there’s plenty of room to slide a washingup bowl under the sump with the bike on its centrestand. All good stuff for the working courier – or those of us who want maximum time riding and minimum fettling. If that’s you – or you’ve got fond memories of your CX workhorse from back in the day – maybe a CX500 still makes a lot of sense. Beauty is only skin deep, after all...
RIGHT: In a flashback to his courier days, Gez heads towards WC2 for a pick-up BELOW: Unlike many, this CX500 has had an easy life, only racking up 30,000 miles
Rear wheel is easy to drop out, which is handy for quick tyre changes
TOP: Don the rose-tinted specs of nostalgia and the ‘plastic maggot’ is fanciable... if you squint
ABOVE: A view thousands of black cab drivers from the ’70s were familiar with