THE BIKES THAT MADE US HONDA CB500 ‘I had a one-off CB500 race. That was the turning point’ Leon Haslam
Most great motorcycles are good at just one thing, whether that’s a superbike winning track days, an adventure machine proving perfect for taking you around the world or a BMW R1200RT being the ideal canvas on which to paint police livery…
So machines that are more than capable at TWO things are rare indeed. But Honda’s humble mid-1990s commuter twin, the CB500, is just such a bike. On one hand it was a superlative around town roadster. On the other, and somewhat surprisingly, it also proved a brilliant introduction to racing, mainly through the hugely successful, onemake Honda CB500 Cup series. And it helped launch the career of none other than BSB star Leon Haslam.
“In 1997 I had just turned 14 when I had the chance to race in that oneoff CB500 race at the British GP,” the current Team Green rider said. “That was the turning point. It was a big deal and I got lots of publicity out of it. Beating Toseland didn’t do me any harm either…”
The 'Toseland' Haslam refers to is James Toseland who at 16, after cutting his teeth in Superteens, won the very first UK Honda CB500 Cup series in 1997. As a reward he got a Castrol Honda ride in European Supersport and went on, famously, to two World Superbike championships. But he started on a CB500.
In truth, of course, the CB500’S beginnings were far more humble. Conceived as an affordable, robust, simple all-rounder aimed at new licence-holders, the new Honda’s ambitions may have been modest, but its execution was exemplary.
As a clean-sheet design the CB benefitted in the first place by having a brilliant four-stroke, twin cylinder engine – something which, after all, four-stroke specialists Honda have had plenty of experience at perfecting over the years.
Liquid-cooling and a purpose-built design (rather than being a variant of a previous model) meant it was compact. Four-valves-per-cylinder and a gear driven counter-balancer also meant it was decently perky (producing a peak of 58bhp) and yet surprisingly smooth.
And although the straightforward steel cradle chassis may have lacked frills (braking was by a single, two-pot front disc, forks were non-adjustable and the rear was old school twin shocks) it was well developed and refined. Enough to handle sweetly and yet provide brilliant, fuss-free transport all at the same time.
Best of all, though, the CB500 was a HONDA with all the overtures for quality, refinement, durability and refinement that comes with it. So, no, the CB500 certainly is no technical marvel – in fact there’s no sophisticated technology on it whatsoever. Nor is it glamorously good-looking (although despite its classic mid-’90s garish paintjob it is quietly handsome). What it is, however, is impressively able, decent fun and reliably durable and rideable which, all together, makes the sweet Honda something of a class act compared to more hum-drum rivals like Suzuki’s GS500 or Kawasaki’s ER-5.
All of which was enough to not just make the CB500 a winner on the street among new riders but as a high-mileage workhorse among despatchers (with whom it became an instant hit) as well.
One of the former is MCN reader Max Rossi. “I own a 36k-mile CB500,” he told MCN. “I do everything on it: commute, tour, the shopping run and even go round the outside of superbikes on track. It’s taught me many things about riding a motorcycle but the most important thing is that you don’t need a big budget to enjoy riding. What a machine.”
And the cherry on top? Yes, that slightly unexpected, perhaps left-field even, track pedigree. OK, the CB’S no true racer (even if Messrs Haslam and Toseland may disagree) but the little Honda twin is still good enough to be great fun on track, as many budgetstrapped track-dayers will attest to this day. Try one for under a grand and you’ll almost certainly agree…
‘It taught me many things, the most important that you don’t need a big budget to enjoy riding’ MAX ROSSI, MCN READER
Gonzalez wanted cheap speed – he got that when he bought a CB500
A fresh-faced Leon Haslam on a CB500