Steve Cooper from the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club picks out another great example of classic oriental metal
There was a time when a 500cc parallel twin was the zenith of motorcycle desirability, but then the motors grew to 650, and the Japanese came along and rewrote the rule books. Japan’s relationship with big twins has always been an on/off affair but it’s arguably Honda that redefined the genre.
Back in 1993 Honda caused ripples by reinventing a concept most had given up on. The press initially sneered, until seeing the interest from the public. Suddenly here was a viable replacement for the venerable Kawasaki GPZ500. Almost overnight the bike found legions of fans who wanted power without being frightened, quality and reliability without excessive price, and a return to no-frills motorcycling. Know that Honda don’t normally perpetuate dogs, and be reassured by a ten-year model run that was only brought to a halt by Euro 2 emission regulations.
So what’s so special about a CB500? Ease of access, comfort, practicality, usable power and decent fuel economy for a start. Any motorcycle beloved by training schools couriers, and even track-day instructors has to be substantially better than average. A French magazine used a CB500 for 50,000 km/31,000 miles and then took it apart only to find it was in pristine condition. More than double that mileage later only the pistons/rings and cam chain were replaced, and then only because the motor was apart; it would happily have kept running on its original components.
Here in the UK the bike was a popular way in to road-racing via the Honda CB500 Cup race series, and forty examples were used in a Le Mans 24 Hour race in which not one machine experienced a single mechanical issue.
The riding experiences fed back to the pilot from a CB500 are perplexingly greater than the sum of their combined sensory contributions. You know exactly what’s happening yet there are no sudden inputs, no unexpected changes of chassis geometry and no bottoming out of suspension. Honda is sometimes accused of sanitizing the motorcycle yet this misses the point; what you have in a CB500 is a willing and involving bike that’s somehow viceless.
There’s even a very useful storage compartment under the seat that will happily accommodate more than just the thinnest over-suit, and add in the half fairing from the later CB500S and it’d be hard to find a more comfortable ride. If you thought the bike was dull, try winding one up beyond 8000 rpm and feel it pick up. The cam-driven, eight-valve head and the down-draught carbs that owe more than a nod to the Fireblade’s inlet system all work together to bring a smile to your face.
The fact that Honda has reintroduced 500cc parallel twins last year can hardly be coincidence. The biking world is now far more focussed on efficiency than speed. You could, of course, spend significant money on a new half-litre Honda twin. Alternatively you could throw substantially less than two grand at a CB500, get cheap insurance as it’s a classic, and luxuriate in the knowledge that you’re riding one of Japan’s most overlooked modern classics.
It’s funny how bikes go in and out of favour. The Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club was formed at a time when a 500 was a do-anything-go-anywhere machine, but within a few years the half litre concept was almost a sleepy, forgotten, backwater. There’s a world of fun out there though – Torquey two-stroke Suzuki T500 Titans, sublime Honda CB500/4s, mad Yamaha XT500 trail irons and banzai Kawasaki H1 triples we have in spades. Or how about Yamaha’s quirky XS/TX 500 twin, Honda’s Ascot FT500 flat tracker, the scare-you-witless Suzuki RG500 or the super rare Kawasaki Z500 four. If you fancy a UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) the club probably has more examples than you could imagine. If you fancy any of the above you could do a lot worse than tap us up for the inside-line on what are possibly the most overlooked bikes out there.
The VJMC; run by motorcyclists for motorcyclists www.vjmc.com
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