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


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

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