Honda’s March to Perfect the 500 Twin

The recent buzz about new 500 cc bikes like the new Honda Rebel and CB500F got me thinking about the Honda 500s I’ve had owned over the years and the one I just acquired—a 1985 Honda VT500C Shadow.

In 1975 Honda took its decade-old 444cc CB450 and gave it a longer stroke and an aesthetic make-over to create the DOHC CB500T. The bike was good and durable, but basically obsolete from day one. At certain speeds, it still vibrated so bad that the mirrors could go out of adjustment.

Honda had already introduced the far smoother four-cylinder SOHC CB500 in 1971, and had retained the CB450 in the line-up, so the need for a 500cc twin that really offered nothing substantial over the 450 was always a question.

Honda’s March to Perfect the 500 Twin: 1975 CB500T
1975 CB500T
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Honda answered the question by making 1976 the last year for the CB500T and the year it bumped the CB500 four-cylinder up to a 550. For more on the CB500T, see: Honda CB500T—Black Bomber to Brown Bomb?

In 1978 when Honda introduced the CX500, the motorcycle world was, well, surprised. The 1977 year had been a year with Honda having no 500cc machine in its line-up to fill the gap between the CB400F and the CB550. The novel design of the CX500 proved that Honda had not been idling in neutral since the end of the CB500T.

The CX500 and the GL500 Silver Wing which joined it in Honda’s line in 1981 shared the same overall engine configuration—one that caught most observers off-guard. It was Honda’s first V-twin engine, but lest anyone accuse Honda of being inspired by Harley-Davidson or anyone else’s V-twin, it was completely original.

With liquid cooling and no fake cooling fins, the engine had its smooth barrels splayed out at an 80-degree  angle longitudinally, similar to a Moto Guzzi. But the standard Honda overhead cam configuration was gone—instead, pushrods activated four valves per cylinder.

Honda’s March to Perfect the 500 Twin: GL500 Silver Wing
1982 Honda GL500 Silver Wing

Both the CX and GL versions had five speed transmissions, light clutches, ComStar wheels and shaft drive. Other than fuel tank design, the most noticeable difference between the basic CX and GL 500 models was the twin rear shocks on the CX vs. the Pro-Link single shock rear suspension on the GL. The GL was available in an Interstate version with full touring fairing, hard bags and top box.

These 500s proved to be highly reliable performers with long service lives if provided regular maintenance. The only real knock on them were the fact that the non-traditional appearance of the engine took some getting used to and the lack of a six speed overdrive transmission, which would have cut highway speed vibration, improved fuel economy (though at 50+ mpg, it wasn’t bad) and dropped the engine speed from its buzzy 5,500 rpm at 60 mph.

For more on the GL500, see: Honda GL500 Silver Wing—Practical Radical.

In 1983 the CX and GL 500s were replaced by 650cc versions of each, and the VT500C Shadow and Ascot variants were introduced. The VT 500 models shared a 491 cc (30.0 cu in) SOHC three-valve (two intake, one exhaust), liquid cooled engine (this time with fake cooling fins on the barrels), shaft final drive, and six speed overdrive transmission.

Honda’s March to Perfect the 500 Twin: 1982 Honda CX500C
1982 Honda CX500C

The VT500 models appeared well-considered to answer those two primary drawbacks. The lumpy protuberances of the CX/GL engine were gone, replaced by a more traditional looking 52 degree in-line V-twin unit and the need for a six-speed overdrive transmission was addressed.

Moreover, the primary balance problems presented by V-twin engines with less than a 90 degree included angle between the barrels was addressed by Honda’s use of offset dual crankpins.

Styling took a major turn for the better with the VT500. The “factory custom” approach to aesthetics had taken hold and the Shadow’s lines reflected that.

The front fork was kicked out bearing an 18” tire on a cast alloy wheel dropping the old ComStar rim. Moderate-rise bars accentuate the low, deeply padded stepped saddle with a built-in padded backrest and the fuel tank had the same swoopy curves as that on the VF700 Magna. A tall, narrow radiator tucked unobtrusively on the front of the frame. The exhaust system is quiet but produces a mellow sound, even though the route from the heads to the mufflers is a little tortuous.

The rear treatment included a 16” tire and bobbed rear fender with a duck-tail edge and paint to match the rest of the bike.

Honda’s March to Perfect the 500 Twin: 1985 Honda VT500 Shadow
1985 Honda VT500 Shadow

The example shown here is one I acquired this spring up in Ironwood, Mich., at Back Street Cycle and Machine. It came equipped with Saddlemen bags, the rear turn signal lights relocated, engine guard with freeway pegs and a small mud flap had been added to the back edge of the front fender, but other than that, the bike was pretty much original with 28,000 miles on the clock.

The mudflap was a good idea on the part of the previous owner—for some reason, Honda equipped the bike with a front fender that allows mud, water, grit and rocks from the front tire to easily blast away at the radiator.

The bike is a dream to handle thanks to its relatively light weight of about 445 lbs. fully fueled and ready to go. The engine specifications promised about 50 horsepower at 9000 rpm—and the bike operates in that range comfortably. The offset dual crankpin crankshaft delivers on the goal of smooth operation; the only hint of vibration I encounter is with throttle roll-on in fifth gear from about 45 mph to 60 mph.

Handling is precise, if not overly quick, brakes (single disc up front, expanding drum rear) are up to the task for the type of riding this bike is going to see and comfort in the saddle is excellent.

How the VT500 Shadow compares to the latest crop of Honda’s 500s I can’t really say—and it probably doesn’t matter anyway. Each and all of them, from oldest to newest has their own character and attractions, as well as drawbacks.

To be sure, the vibration of the old CB500T is all but gone and the funky, lumpy engine of the CX/GL500 is gone. The VT500 Shadow has a cruiser-style appeal all its own. In a way, with today’s crop of 500s, Honda has come full circle back to a parallel twin engine configuration, but that’s about where the similarities to the old CB500T would end.

Having ridden all of these old Honda 500s, I can say this much—every day I spent cruising around on the back roads with any of them was a good day. Whether Honda ever has or ever will build the perfect 500 depends on each individual rider; one thing’s for sure—they sure have tried.