Classic rides of the Pre-Pensioner
Back with another series where Classic-Motorbikes.net looks at the machines once enjoyed by those of us now in our 50s. What made them memorable and why we loathed or lusted after them?
Its fair to say the motorcycle press were lost for words when the CX500 first arrived in 1978. Honda had recently progressed to no1 in the bike production league and were full of surprises during the era (CBX & CB400 twin automatic for example) but nothing split opinion more than the CX. The journo’s that didn’t ‘get it’ complained of over-weight and under-powered with little to applaud visually. They were given more ammunition when it became apparent the early CX500’s would suffer from both cam-chain tensioner and big end issues. The early teething problems were rectified by dealers and failed to deter those chasing a reliable middleweight from throwing their cash at the Honda salesman. One year after launch the CX500 Custom arrived on the scene and in 1981 the GL500 Silver Wing joined it, then in 1982 the much sought after 500 Turbo but this would be the last hurrah for the 497cc motor as the 650 hit the showrooms in 1983; the final year of the ‘CX’. Build numbers make impressive reading; 186K CX500’s / 30K GL500’s / 21K 650’s and over 7k Turbo’s in both 500 and 650 options plus an unknown number of home market 400 versions. It was only during later years and long after the factory had ceased production the CX500 became a true hero in the UK. The machine of choice for dispatch riders, Honda’s V twin proved unbreakable even in the hands of the ‘possessed’ couriers that criss-crossed the country in search of a larger pay day. Being one of that ‘motley crew’ I rode a GL500 or Silver Wing to 180,000 miles and it was still going strong before taking a CX 650 Eurosport around the clock and all through those years I never sought the refuge of a tow truck to get me home. 250 miles per day was the average, often in Central London enjoying every type of weather this country could throw our way; the only true constant was that Honda engine. Oil changes once a month, plugs every two and cheap Chinese tyres 3 times a year; transporting anything from body parts out of Heathrow to Central London hospitals and even a fish tank (empty) lashed to the back seat for a nice bloke in Guildford.
The designers in Japan certainly went their own way when looking to replace the aging CB500/4, CB550/4 and CB500T and early prototypes show a new 350 V twin shoved into a CB200 frame. Honda tasked Shoichiro Irimajiri, to create a new middle weight machine, the man responsible for the GL1000 and CBX. Under the banner ‘first to the future’ the design featured a series of ‘firsts’ including the companies first V twin plus their first water cooled road bike engine with the V configuration plus an electric fan. As the project developed the motor received shaft drive from the GL1000 and the model would also feature ‘Comstar’ style wheels which for the first time meant no inner tube would be required. It’s said the engine was originally developed for the typically Japanese ‘Kei’ car; adapting it for two wheels cylinders cast into the block at the initial
90-degree angle on the 350 was altered to 80-degrees and the heads twisted 22-degrees to avoid carbs hitting riders legs; with four valves per cylinder operated by push rods. From the original design a variety of capacities were produced then exported world-wide; a project with bold engineering that required plenty of thinking ‘outside the box’.
Honda UK realised the CX potential for distance riding on a midsize machine, the commuters need for a separate large touring bike at weekends could become a thing of the past and their advertising reflected this in August 79. CX500 – ‘the long and short of it’ was the headline ‘the classic tourer that will hush you there with power to spare’ telling bikers to take a long look at the CX because for the ultimate all-rounder the short answer was this new ‘long distance sprinter’. Another advert tried to counter the mixed opinions of some journalists saying ‘Whatever rave reviews you may have read, that is only half the story because the best way to feel it, is to try it’. The later custom version was sold under headings such as ‘Street bike named desire’ and ‘Escape first class’ but it goes without saying the marketing men at Chiswick had no idea the CX would write its own story around the roads of West London and Britain; for years to come.
Road testers View
Stateside publication ‘Cycle’ carried out their long-term test in 1978 and concluded that after initially being baffled as to what Honda were trying to achieve with its ‘startling departure from tradition’ the ‘CX500 has an overall unavoidable appeal’. Meanwhile, Feb 79 issue of Cycle Guide was less impressed “Our first look at the machine was quite a let-down” and another publication compared the CX engine with a large air compressor but in time all detractors would reconsider their positions. Honda preferred to publicise Motor Cycle Weekly and their Chief Tester John Nutting who waxed lyrical about the new models potential. ‘Not only is the bike pace-setting in rider comfort, handling, performance and quietness but it manages to raise the ease of maintenance for a Japanese machine to a new high’ and Two Wheels in Australia made the CX500 Bike of the Year in 1978. When the turbo version arrived Motorcyclist magazine said, “The riding public anticipated motorcycles that had the weight and response of a middleweight with the power of a litre bike, at a price that was somewhere in between and there was a lot of excitement around them.” But the turbo lag that beset the era’s four wheel machines transferred to the CX making it something of a challenge through the twisties; this would become less of an issue with the 650 model although one road tester proclaimed “The power comes on so suddenly that you’d best be pointed in the desired direction, because that is where you’ll be heading with great alacrity.” Whilst Rider magazine in 1983 explained the performance as “off boost, the CX650T chuffs its way down the road like a mildly tuned 650 twin. On boost, it accelerates like an F-4 being blasted off the flight deck of the USS Enterprise by a steam catapult.” The fickle nature of bike mags seemed to bow to the weight of rider choice, the CX split opinions and over the years many verdicts altered from uncertain dislike to unending praise.
Looking Back – Riders View
70s tearaway Gary James, bike shop worker in-period, either owned, borrowed or blagged all of the era’s two wheelers…He always shares an opinion, whether we like it or not! He thinks .. the CX was the Frank Bruno of motorcycles it would always remain standing even under exceedingly tough and severe punishment; it wobbled and weaved with all the handling attributes of a 3-piece suite but dare I say more comfortable. Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s were built on this Honda .. virtually every package delivered during the decade and into the 90s came out of a bag that was ridden there on a CX … to all those heroes we salute you!
If ever a bike failed to go quietly the CX in all its guises must surely be at the front of the queue. Whilst the showrooms cleared the last of their stocks by 1984 a decade later, they seemed to be the only machine on London’s streets from Monday to Friday. The brilliant Turbo would still be available in small numbers until 86 by which time the VFR750 was on the scene followed by the CBR600. Neither offered the longevity or comfort of the CX but they enjoyed better handling, performance and everything else. The CX was perfect for its era, a light-weight touring bike that offered a reasonable turn of speed, did everything well but only one thing brilliantly; it just kept going.
In 1984 Motor Cycle News proclaimed the CX range had sold over 300k machines, it had earnt its status as one of the most popular bikes of all time. A marmite bike certainly, loved by those who had one and those who disliked it, didn’t have to ride over 1000 miles a week. Unique, most definitely … last in the line of odd ball designs where function trumped aesthetics. Pre-plastic wrapped sportsters and post-naked four-cylinder machines that made Honda’s reputation. Arriving on the scene in a hailstorm of head scratching and leaving it decades later with universal respect. Every biker of the pre-pensioner generation knows what a ‘plastic maggot’ was and has an opinion to share; not many bikes you can say that about.
Honda CX500 Technical Specification
- Engine – water-cooled, four-stroke, 80-degree pushrod V-twin
- Capacity – 497cc
- Bore & stroke – 78mm x 52mm
- Compression Ratio – 10.0:1
- Carburation – 35mm Keihin VB1AA-A
- Max Power – 50bhp @ 9000rpm
- Torque – 31 ft-lbs @ 7000rpm
- Starting – Electric
- Ignition – CDI
- Transmission – Five-speed, wet-clutch, shaft-final-drive
- Frame – pressed steel and tubular “diamond” construction
- Suspension – 37mm telescopic forks, air/oil damped, TRAC anti-dive braking system. Pro-link rising-rate, single-shock, rear
- Wheels – 100/90 x 18 120/80 x 18
- Brakes – 2 x 275mm disc, twin-piston, floating-caliper, left side activating the TRAC anti dive within the fork lower. Single 275mm disc twin-piston floating-caliper
- Wheelbase – 1495mm
- Weight – 208kgs
- Fuel capacity – 19 litres
- Fuel consumption – 43mpg
- Top speed – 112mph claimed 106mph in the real world…