Honda CB500T – From Black Bomber to Brown Bomb?

1975 Honda CB500T - Vintage Motorcycle Tales
Designed to look classic from day one, the 1975 CB500T had a look that mimicked vintage Brit bikes. By 1977, it was gone from Honda’s line-up.

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.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. I bought an abused used CB500T when I was in the Army back in 1984. The bike was quite old by then but I mistakenly and foolishly regarded it as classic looking imitation British look alike and set about stripping it to literally the last nut bolt washer and shim. I rebuilt and chromed most of the engine covers caps and existing brightwork. It looked a million pounds worth of bike. I even fooled the stewards one year in Falmouth at a British bike show when I turned up and they missed the word HONDA on the tank and invited me to display it for the day.
    BUT, THE BIKE WAS A DOG. Despite reading all the past and present rose tinted reviews of classic Japanese bikes with this model included I dare anybody who owned one of these to fail to admit that it was an engineering cock up with the reliability and durability of a chocolate teapot.
    I learned the hard way. Then learned even more when I spent a year at Merton College in London on their motorcycle engineering course.
    Having been developed on from the earlier CB 450 the engine was merely re hashed and put into a different frame.
    The electrical system was weedy and weak, it could barely charge a petty criminal let alone its own battery.
    The ignition contact breaker plate only had individual adjustment on one set of contacts, the second set of contacts mounted directly on the back plate which when adjusted would then put the other set out of adjustment. Timing the ignition was a nightmare. I replaced the points with the Piranha optical system.
    However the engine vibration was too much and any bolts securing the timing set would always work loose despite locktite. The 4 diode bridge rectifier got mighty hot under the seat, I had to make a big heat sink for it.
    The 180 degree firing intervals made for that off beat uneven vibration, only in that frame at that capacity the firing order caused huge lumpy transmission through to the drive chain. IT GOBBLED through chains and sprockets.
    Oh, and that cam chain and tensioner set. good God what a mess. It might have been OK in a 450 cc engine with lower power output and compression forces. In the 500 T the standard cam chain was too frail at the huge length it had and the tensioner system of series of rubberised jockey wheels were manually adjusted to tension without any positive anti slip locking system. There was just the lock bolt on the tensioner plunger which also slipped back again in use either from the force of chain tension on the tensioner or from vibration. The standard cam chain dimensions meant it stretched and wore out at the same rate as the tyres. Upgrading the cam chain to a heavy duty one just put more strain on the tensioner.
    The result of that was the rubber jockey wheels in the tensioner guide system wore quicker, then one day a piece of that rubber broke off and got into the plunger oil pump blocking the already poor oil supply drillings. The engine seized. I rebuilt the thing but I hated the stupid bike with a vengeance all the time I persevered with it falsely hoping that the bike would settle down and run fault free eventually. Of course that was never going to happen. All the time I had the bike the starter clutch never worked properly on a regular basis. Even spending a fortune on brand new parts for ALL of the starter system the sprung roller sprag clutch would frequently slip so I would use the kick starter. At least that was the only thing that made it authentic as a British twin copy, kick starting it was hit and miss too.
    I tried desperately to overcome all the advice and stories from fellow bikers and trades people that this model was a load of garbage anyway and all told me I was deranged in buying it in the first place even if it had been new one.
    I gave in. One day I polished it up to look irresistible for the next idiot and that idiot turned out to be a well known big dealer in Plymouth who took it in part exchange for a Kawasaki GT 750. I don’t have any lingering fond memories of that moronic machine. Thats when my love affair with multi cylinder big capacity shaft drive motorcycles began. The Honda CB 500T should be wiped out of all history as if it never existed.

  2. I love your review–you should be writing for us, that was awesome. And you didn’t even get started on the handling! Honda and have made (and continue to make) some incredible machines; maybe this was one to show how good some of the others really are? LOL

  3. would this be a good beginner bike, or should I start on something else?

    I am new to riding, and my father got one for next to nothing that I may see about using to get my feet wet, so to speak. It doesn’t feel too bad, and the height is excellent, although it does feel slightly heavy.

  4. A bit heavy it is, but it is in general an easy bike to ride if all the settings (brakes, clutch and so on) are right. It is a forgiving old sort which does fine at a relaxed pace, but don’t try to push it too hard in the corners as clearance is not what it is on some newer bikes. Overall, it wouldn’t be a bad bike to start on.

  5. I had a 500T in San Francisco for 4-5 years from 2005-2010 – bought for $600 and sold eventually for $500. It was a sedate ride. I fell for the British styling and the flat pipes. Charlie’s Repair in SF tried to steer me away but I’d fallen under the spell of this quirky, classic bike. I needed to carry a spark plug wrench and spare plug everywhere because every 2 weeks or so, the left side plug would be fouled and the engine would get impossible to kick. 30 years old and it was suffering from rust, broken elec start, and no mirrors. I loved it all the more. It would backfire in the mornings while warming up (much to the neighbour’s horror) after sitting on the street in the foggy/damp air. Curious side note – yes, the ceramic on the fat spark plugs do make good crack pipes apparently – more than once, I had to pull the broken bottom of a plug out because someone had snapped off the ceramic. Urban myth confirmed I guess… or the neighbours hating on the backfires…
    The 500T was a great learner, although clumsy when doing slow maneuvers – especially on the California DMV ‘road test’ circles. Honda’s 70s era dip into the throbbing vibrating experience of a Twin satisfied my “old motorcycle” demands and it forced me to quickly understand some of the basics of motorcycle maintenance and repair. I just wish I’d had the ability to keep the bike, and store it as a future “Cafe conversion” project. Know what you are getting into with one of these… there’s a reason this model lasted only two years in production – it was not the greatest bike for handling, braking (damp drum = no stopping…) or reliability (never could balance the left and right sides), but what a fantastic looking bike – heaps of character and for someone willing to put up with the quirks – very satisfying ultimately.

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