Living with the Honda VT500C Shadow – 35 Years Later

1985 Honda VT500 at Gile Flowage
As a styling exercise, the VT500 has flowing lines and a comfortable layout for upright riding position.

A narrow-angle V-twin without a counterbalancer that doesn’t shake like crazy? Yep.

Back in 2004, I bought a used 1998 Honda VT 1100C2 Shadow ACE (American Classic Edition). With its big 1100cc liquid-cooled V-twin, three valves per cylinder, dual spark plugs per cylinder ignition, shaft drive, dual staggered shotgun pipes and common crankpin a-la Harley, I envisioned a cruiser with the technical sophistication and smoothness of a Honda, with the throaty “thrumpty-thrump” sound of a Harley clone.

I should note that the VT1100C2 Shadow ACE and 1998-2000 VT1100C3 were the models with the common crankpin. The VT1100C, VT1100C2 Sabre, 2001 and 2002 VT1100C3 and VT1100T models had offset dual crankpins.

1998 Honda VT1100 Shadow ACE
The 1998 Honda VT1100C2 Shadow ACE was bigger than my ’85 Honda VT500, but surprisingly not much brawnier.

To be honest, it was not what I had hoped it would be. It was reasonably reliable and all that, but I soon found that its floorboards weren’t all-day comfy.

With their location rather far forward, the technique of standing on mid-ships footpegs I’d grown up using on all my other bikes for Wisconsin’s sometimes rough roads was not an option. That keeps you planted on that seat as long as you’re underway.

The seat was ok, but not exactly a dream comfort-wise. The wide bars made the bike have a ponderous, slow handling feel. The shotgun pipes made a nice enough sound, but not really very Harley-esque and the motor shook worse than any Honda mill I’d had with the exception of my 1975 Honda CB500T. The big twin didn’t come with a counterbalancer, but should have.

And, despite all those ccs, the thing seemed down on power—a shared impression with other ’98 model year VT1100 owners I met later. I even had the local Honda shop give the thing a once-over to see if anything was out of spec, but they found nothing wrong. After only three years in my inventory, I finally traded it in on a 2003 Triumph Bonneville America.

Fast forward to 2017 and the showroom of one of my favorite bike shops in the far north, Backstreet Cycle and Machine in Ironwood, Mich. On display was a 1985 Honda VT500C Shadow.

I didn’t know much about that model, but after I did some research online, I found they didn’t share the common crankpin layout of the newer but not impressive ’98 VT1100 Shadow I had.

1985 Honda VT 500 at Mt. Zion
Turn the calendar back 13 years from the ’98 VT1100 and there’s the 1985 Honda VT500C Shadow: quicker, lighter, smoother, more nimble and more comfortable than its much bigger descendant. A case of back to the future?

They use an offset dual crankpin to help damp down the vibration inherent in a narrow, 52° included angle V-twin. There is minor vibration with throttle roll-on in fifth gear from about 45 mph to 60 mph, but overall, it is amazingly smooth considering it doesn’t have a counterbalancer.

As it sat in Bill’s shop, it came equipped with Saddlemen rigid bags, the rear turn signals were relocated, an engine guard with freeway pegs was mounted and a small mud flap had been added to the back edge of the front fender.

Otherwise, the bike was pretty much original and had about 28,000 reportedly original miles. The only thing I really needed to add was a handlebar-mounted Slipstreamer Spitfire windscreen.

In my humble opinion, having been an owner of both models, I think Honda should have used the offset crankpin concept on the VT1100. I’m just sayin’. Now, I know owners of the Honda VT1100C2 of the same vintage of mine who are well satisfied with their bikes may be inclined to think I’m off base in my critique. Fair enough—I’m not saying the VT1100 is a terrible bike; it just wasn’t what I was hoping for.

I actually looked at the VT500 more than once before finally making a serious inquiry about it. Shop owner, master bike builder and an all-around good guy, Bill Penrose told me the bike was a consignment, and there was some flexibility on the asking price.

I looked it over in earnest when he said that. Bill worked with me on a deal that included his shop going through it bringing all the routine maintenance stuff up to date.

Bill and his guys came through for me and had the bike ready to roll when we made a trip north in May of 2017 and the thing has been cruising trouble-free ever since.

Though the VT500 Shadow predates the VT1100 Shadow ACE I had by 13 years, to be honest, the little 500 seems to me to be more advanced.

The VT 1100 produced a claimed 50 hp @ 4500 RPM and 65 lb./ft. of torque at 2500 RPM, fueled by two 36 mm Keihin carburetors. In stock trim, it weighed in at a claimed 615 pounds.

The VT500 produced a claimed 47.5 horsepower at 9,000 RPM and 31 ft/lbs of torque at 7,000 RPM, fueled by two 32 mm Keihin carburetors, weighing in at a claimed 443 lb. If those numbers are anywhere near true, it explains, at least in part, why my VT500 feels a lot more energetic than the later VT1100.

The Shadow ACE was much bigger, but not necessarily brawnier. That doesn’t make the VT500 a track day bike, but it does explain why the little 500 feels like it has more motor than it does, at least in my comparative memory.

1985 Honda VT500 at Gile Flowage
As a styling exercise, the VT500 has flowing lines and a comfortable layout for upright riding position.

The VT500 engine is an OHC, three-valves per cylinder, liquid-cooled four-stroke, with twin spark plugs per cylinder, dual exhausts and shaft drive in common with the VT1100, but it boasts a six-speed vs the five-speed on the VT1100.

The VT500 has a deep, comfy, stepped one-piece saddle with included backrest. The VT1100 saddle was a two-piece affair that was broad for the driver, but not so much for the pillion and each was a little too hard for all-day comfort.

The VT1100 had traditional spoked rims, while the VT500 came with ten-spoke cast rims. The VT500 came with tach and speedometer; the VT1100 only had a speedometer. The look of the VT1100’s staggered shotgun pipes I did like, especially in comparison to the contorted 2-1-2 setup on the VT500.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the lightweight, midships footpeg placement, deep seat and narrower, moderate rise buckhorn bars actually give a better ride, quicker, more nimble handling and the ability to change position once in a while—even standing on the pegs when necessary—making it a better all-day rider than the VT1100C2. At least based on my years riding each.

Admittedly, the VT1100C2 was intended as a much more direct attempt at some of Harley-Davidson’s North American cruiser/touring space in the market than the VT500 was. As a result, its design criteria were more about the Interstate and open road sweepers than sprinting through the twisties.

Having said that, the VT500 compares surprisingly well with the 1000cc shovelhead Sportster of about the same age in a lot of ways with similar horsepower output, seating position, ride and handling—all with less vibration.

Out on the road, the Honda VT500C Shadow is easy to ride and steers with precision. It starts reliably and runs smoothly with the original equipment mufflers still in place and doing the job as quietly as new.

The cable-activated clutch is light and the single-disc twin-piston brake up front is progressive and predictable. The rear rod-activated mechanical drum brake is old-school but works well, though like the similar unit on the VF700, it is prone to locking up in a hard stop situation.

1985 Honda VT500 at Stormy Kromer
These days, a 500cc bike tends not to be regarded as a long-range road bike, but with a set of bags, a windshield, liquid-cooling, shaft drive, comfy seating and very low vibes, this 35 year-old VT500 has proven able to take me all over the see the sights.

At a quick glance, the styling of the ’85 Honda VT500C Shadow looks very much like the ’85 VF700 Magna we told you about last month. Honda and a number of other manufacturers were heavily into the “factory custom” look of the day that tended to include kicked out forks, higher handlebars, fuel tanks with sweeping, sculpted lines, stepped saddles, padded sissy bars and bobbed-look fenders.

After 35 years, the VT500C Shadow that I have ridden now for nearly three years has lived up to the reputation Honda has established for innovative design, durability and reliability. All these years later, the Shadow is still smooth, quiet, competent and, at least in my opinion, more of what I had in mind than a much later and bigger V-twin turned out to be.

For a look back at a couple of other Hondas that made it to 35 years and are still on the road, see: