HONDA CB500T

Scoop re-sam­ples Honda’s mi­cro sports twin – the CB500T and asks is this a tan­ger­ine dream, or just a lemon?

Classic Motorcycle Mechanics - - CONTENTS - WORDS: STEVE COOPER

Steve Cooper on whether this or­ange is a lemon.

Honda CB500TS and I have a sur­real his­tory go­ing back to 1976. I was ‘gifted’ the keys of a brown ex­am­ple by our lo­cal plumber. His son’s moped had gone bang big time and hav­ing dropped it off at the dealer the lad needed a lift. “He’s talk­ing to the me­chanic in the work­shop,” said Mr New­man the plumber, “just ask for him at the show­room.” Few peo­ple have ever rocked up to a large, multi-fran­chise, dealer on a Satur­day morn­ing rid­ing a Honda CB500T and naively an­nounced: “I’ve come to col­lect Paul New­man.” I can still hear the laugh­ter now! Few ex­pe­ri­ences were ever more likely to prej­u­dice you against a bike. And yet here I am once more with the Honda CB500T… quite pos­si­bly the most ma­ligned, stig­ma­tised and ridiculed Ja­panese bike of the 1970s. The butt of many a joke, it was ham­strung from the day of its launch thanks to a brown vinyl seat cover and decked out in ei­ther com­post bin brown or vir­u­lent atomic tan­ger­ine pan­els. Many ques­tioned what on earth Honda was think­ing of at the time. The truth was Honda had been think­ing about cars and how to break into the four-wheeled world. They’d achieved their aim but at the cost of con­tin­ued mo­tor­cy­cle de­vel­op­ment which had pretty much stag­nated by the early part of the 1970s. The 350/4 and 500/5 were the last of the ‘new’ bikes to be launched and col­lec­tively the com­pany be­lieved it had cre­ated it­self a breath­ing space. This al­lowed the com­pe­ti­tion to up their game and steal sig­nif­i­cant mar­ket share: Honda’s knee jerk re­ac­tion to was re­hash pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful models with new names and colour schemes, thereby ex­pect­ing the pub­lic to be knock­ing down the doors of their lo­cal deal­er­ships. The CB500T was, in re­al­ity, lit­tle more than a CB450 with a disc brake, a stroked mo­tor and a sub­tly mod­i­fied frame. In fact it wasn’t even that, given that the last CB450S had come equipped with the very same front an­chor. In­side, the mo­tor had had its com­pres­sion ra­tio dropped from 9.5:1 to 8.5:1 while the roller bear­ing mains of the 450 were swapped for balls races. A quick cos­metic re­fresh, a hugely vis­i­ble chrome bal­ancer ex­haust box in front of the pots and a splash or two of bling com­pleted the job. From the off, the press

slated its lack-lus­tre per­for­mance, its styling, the du­bi­ous colour schemes and it so-so han­dling. State­side Cy­cle mag­a­zine reck­oned an up­dated CB450 would have been bet­ter than the CB500T, oth­ers were less flat­ter­ing! In­tro­duced in 1975, the bike qui­etly fell off the sales brochures be­fore 1977 even be­gan. So, a sad and damn­ing in­dict­ment for an also-ran mo­tor­cy­cle: just how well does this grand old dame stand up to scru­tiny? In the flesh the 500T’s looks have ac­tu­ally aged rather well and a brave man might even go so far to say it looks rather hand­some now. Our test ex­am­ple, cour­tesy of owner Karl Chad­wick, even runs a re­man­u­fac­tured seat cover which mir­rors the paint. That once re­viled or­ange paint now doesn’t look so gar­ish, the un­usual shaped si­lencers lend the bike a distin­guished air and the gen­eral lines aren’t re­ally ei­ther out­landish or ugly. Only the slop­ing lower edge of the seat and the cor­re­spond­ing lines of the side-pan­els look a lit­tle odd. The styling and lay­out are pre­cisely mid-1970s Honda and redo­lent of any other ori­en­tal bike of the pe­riod. The ca­pa­cious chrome guards cover much of the pe­riod sized rub­ber so the rider and bike don’t get too mucky in the wet weather and there’s a de­cent chain-guard in place to serve a sim­i­lar pur­pose. Up at the bars it’s all stan­dard fare and if you’d just stepped off pretty much any­thing else from the same man­u­fac­turer you’d feel in­stantly at home. Ditto the seat, the foot pegs, sad­dle etc. ev­ery­thing feels in­stinc­tively ‘just-so’… and then the penny drops, this is en­tirely what the CB500T was ac­tu­ally about. The CB500T’S sole pur­pose was to pro­vide good hon­est old-fash­ioned mid­dleweight trans­port al­lied to in­nate re­li­a­bil­ity. These are the facts that the pe­riod road testers chose to con­ve­niently ig­nore. The only real ques­tion hang­ing in the air here is did it meet that one re­mit? Throw­ing a leg over the twin you im­me­di­ately no­tice the seat is on the low side of nor­mal. The for­ward mounted pegs and the high-ish han­dle­bars sit you in that clas­sic sit-up-and-beg rid­ing po­si­tion but in all honesty it’s nowhere near the strange rid­ing stances en­forced upon fans of the early Ja­panese fac­tory cus­tom ma­chines. The half-litre mo­tor fires up on the but­ton and im­me­di­ately those uniquely styled si­lencers emit a pur­pose­ful bark. Ig­nore them and lis­ten to the engine; it rus­tles away like only an air-cooled dou­ble over­head cam mo­tor can. Know­ing that the top-end runs an ex­clu­sive modus operandi for clos­ing valves gives bike and rider a unique brag­ging right; noth­ing else other than the CB450 runs tor­sion bar valve springs. But then again coil springs do a de­cent enough job on ev­ery other engine so the ques­tion has to be why? And the an­swer is of course Honda demon­strat­ing its en­gi­neer­ing prow­ess. Into gear and away, the mo­tor has a sur­pris­ing amount of grunt which doubt­less comes, in part at least, from the stroked mo­tor. Hav­ing rid­den the ear­lier Black Bomber I can’t re­call it hav­ing so much low down in­stant urge. On the road this trans­lates into hav­ing a mo­tor be­neath that doesn’t need to be worked too hard in or­der to main­tain de­cent progress. On mod­ern, cross coun­try, roads there’s enough power to more than keep up with the traf­fic but there’s a price to be paid on oc­ca­sion. If that traf­fic

dis­si­pates and the temp­ta­tion to open the throt­tle takes hold, the old girl will pick up her skirts and get a wig­gle on but she can also vi­brate more than you might ex­pect. The CB450 did the same at higher rpm and the ac­knowl­edged cure was to re­move the up­per engine mounts at the top of the cam box. Given the fact that the 500 runs a longer stroke and thereby higher pis­ton speeds it’s only to be ex­pected that there’s go­ing to be more vi­bra­tion. That aside the mo­tor does ex­actly what’s in­tended of it. As might be ex­pected, the bike’s han­dling is very much in the made-for-com­fort-not-for-speed cat­e­gory and al­though the frame ex­hibits no ob­vi­ous vices you’ll not be ear-hol­ing this par­tic­u­lar Honda hard through the bends ei­ther. The sus­pen­sion is on the plush side of soft yet this isn’t an overt crit­i­cism of the ma­chine. Hus­tle the 500 through the bends hard and it all feels just a lit­tle bit woolly, yet re­peat the ex­er­cise at a less fre­netic pace and it all rather strangely starts to make sense. The front brake is of the pe­riod and nei­ther bet­ter nor worse than any other disc brake fit­ted to the sharp end of any ma­chine bear­ing the winged badge em­blem. The rear drum is ac­tu­ally rather good with de­cent bite and lev­els of feel. Born into an age of ni­hilis­tic he­do­nism, the CB500T made about as much sense as billing Bing Crosby as the open­ing act of a punk rock con­cert. The bike was es­sen­tially old be­fore its time and it’s a supreme irony then that had the likes of BSA,

Tri­umph et al of­fered ma­chines like this in the early 1960s com­pa­nies such as Honda might have strug­gled to get a foot in the door. Which is al­most a back handed com­ple­ment to this bike. It’s a fine ma­chine in iso­la­tion but set against its peers it will for­ever be per­ceived as too lit­tle, too late. And yet this all seems des­per­ately un­fair be­cause the bike has no ob­vi­ous glar­ing faults. It runs re­ally well, car­bu­rates beau­ti­fully on those pe­riod con­stant ve­loc­ity (CV) carbs, holds a de­cent line through bends if it’s not pushed too hard, ac­tu­ally sounds like a ‘real mo­tor­cy­cle’ and re­mains doggedly re­li­able. The more I rode the bike the more I ac­tu­ally liked it; it has char­ac­ter (de­spite be­ing a Honda some might say), of­fers de­cent lev­els of com­fort, never mis­be­haves or gets out of hand and sim­ply gets on with the job it’s been as­signed to. In a world where any­thing Ja­panese and over a quar­ter of cen­tury old is var­i­ously an es­tab­lished icon, sound in­vest­ment or emerg­ing clas­sic, the Honda CB500T be­gins to make a lot more sense. As­sum­ing you won’t be rac­ing against a scream­ing 350/400 stro­ker, don’t have any fi­nan­cial or spec­u­la­tory ex­pec­ta­tions or an un­con­trol­lable ego then the bike ac­tu­ally makes a whole lot of sense. What’s more it’s a bike with the po­ten­tial to un­der­take sub­stan­tially more miles than many much more col­lectable bikes will ever ex­pe­ri­ence. As a low bud­get clas­sic tourer the hum­ble Honda twin ac­tu­ally makes sense, ditto us­ing it one as a fair-weather daily com­muter. The CB500T has gone down in the an­nals of mo­tor­cy­cling his­tory as a lemon of fairly epic pro­por­tions which, at the time of its launch, it gen­uinely was. Four decades on it’s a quaint old Ja­panese twin that hap­pens to come with an odd coloured seat, a rea­son­able turn of speed and a sur­pris­ingly de­cent level of com­fort. Look be­yond the rep, see past the strange colours and there in front of you is a bar­gain clas­sic for stupidly lit­tle money. For less than the cost of a re­stored 250 Su­per­dream you can have a full half litre Honda twin. Re­li­able clas­sic mo­tor­cy­cling re­ally doesn’t come much cheaper than that!

“Look be­yond the rep­u­ta­tion, see past the strange colours and there in front of you is a bar­gain clas­sic for stupidly lit­tle money. Re­sult!”

PHO­TOS: GARY D CHAP­MAN

RIGHT: Tech­ni­cal tour de force – a decade too late.

Don’t hus­tle the Honda!

ABOVE: Generic gauges and dash.

ABOVE: In­fin­itely bet­ter than bar­room brag­garts would have you be­lieve.

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