Honda CB500T – Vintage Motorcycle Tales
Nearly 40 years later, is Honda’s 1975 CB500T an elegant exclamation point or ill-conceived end point in an iconic line of bikes?
Sequels to a great movie are often berated in comparison to the original. Who even remembers that there was a sequel to the Blues Brothers? When Honda rolled out the now classic CB500T in 1975, it was something like that.
A decade earlier, Honda introduced the CB450, with performance and technology that trumped everything Honda had done before, it made the brand a contender for the bucks of serious motorcyclists world-wide.
The “Black Bomber,” as it came to be known, was the first street bike with an engine to feature double overhead cams; the kind of sophistication that prior to 1965 was the stuff of racing engines only.
Though the bike was on the heavy side at 450 lbs. ready to roll, the engine could rev unlike most of its push-rod rivals, producing peak power between 8500 and 9000 RPM. Despite early cam-chain tensioner problems and some tepid early reviews, the CB450 stayed in the product line for nearly 10 years, with refinements every year. Today, the CB450 variants are regarded as classics in their own right.
By 1975, the Honda line-up included a 350cc parallel twin, two 360cc parallel twins, a 400cc in-line four, and a 550cc in-line four. The need for the aging DOHC twin to continue in the mid-range of the line-up was a real question.
But, rather than drop the model, Honda decided to increase the stroke by 7mm, pumping the displacement up from the CB450’s 444cc to 498, and give it an unusual aesthetic make-over.
Those who anticipated a little more soup with the additional displacement would be disappointed – as would those who anticipated less vibration due to the taller gearing in the transmission.
The taller gearing reduced low-end punch and did little to tone down vibration in the grips and footpegs. What the model needed was a six speed and counterbalancer, but that would have taken major investment in engineering and re-tooling costs that would take time to recover; time Honda clearly knew the model didn’t have.
Those who expected the final edition of the venerable old twin to compete overall with much more recent designs and multi-cylinder bikes were the most disappointed of all.
On the other hand, maybe it was their expectations that missed the mark. For example, Cycle magazine, in it’s August 1976 issue threw the CB500T into a seven bike comparison with the likes of Honda’s own four cylinder CB550F, Kawasaki’s two-stroke triple KH 400, two Suzuki two-stoke triples — the 380 and 550 — Yamaha’s Harley-humbling RD400 two-stroke twin and the Yamaha XS500C twin.
Predictably, the CB500T got trounced like a pacifist in an extreme cage fight. Of all the bikes in that test, the only fair fight the 500T had was the Yamaha XS500C. In the seven bike comparison, the CB500T came in dead last.
Ironically, there actually was a head-to-head comparison done between the two—in the June, 1975 issue of Cycle World magazine. In that contest, it was the Honda that came out on top, beating the Yam in quarter mile time (both plodded through at over 14 seconds and under 90 mph) and in passing times. The two tied in top speed at 103 mph, but the Honda was rated as more comfortable and serviceable.
If the performance of the CB500T didn’t set it apart from the old 450, its appearance certainly did. At a time when café racer and multi-cylinder mania gripped the motorcycle-buying public, Honda wrapped the CB500T in conservative vintage Brit-bike brown, with gold pinstriping and a brown seat.
Pipes shaped along Triumph T-100 lines that led to big mufflers vaguely resembling the old “pea-shooter” silencers complete the war surplus late-forties look. Those big mufflers muzzle the Honda’s high-RPM snarl down to a barely audible 75 dbA, adding to the bike’s understated personality.
The same year Honda’s other bikes came in dazzling colors like Antares red and shocking lemon yellow, the 500T was available in a dour brown. The color scheme didn’t seem to make sense.
The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the 500T was substantial. It’s overall design was well-proven, the engine, transmission and electrics were all generally bullet-proof. If you could leave aside poor cornering clearance, ho-hum engine performance, fair-to-middlin’ brakes, and stogy presentation in favor of a bike that reliably starts and runs when you need it, the CB500T could be the bike for you.
Forty years later, how well does the bike actually hold up? As predicted back in the day: very well, thank you. Unlike many older bikes that tend to be cold-blooded, the 500T will even start in Wisconsin’s winter cold.
The bike’s short comings fade from view when the ride plays to the bike’s strengths, like a leisurely day-trip along the shore of Lake Superior. Up there, rugged country and magnetic iron ore deposits create dead zones where your cell phone won’t work in the event of a breakdown, so the old Honda’s faultless reliability makes the lower quarter-mile E.T.s of less staid machines unimportant.
The CB500T’s place among classic and vintage motorcycles may be coming into clearer, fairer view theses days. It is being viewed more as a great vintage bike, even as a worthy collectible to some buyers.
Does that put the CB500T in the same class with the Black Bomber? Maybe not, but at least it keeps it from being known as the “Brown Bomb.”