Years produced: 1989-1990 (U.S. version)
Claimed power: 33hp @ 6,500rpm (measured, rear wheel)
Top speed: 108mph (period test)
Engine type: 498cc air-cooled SOHC 4-valve single
Weight: 390lb (wet)
Price then/now: $4,198/$4,000-$6,500
Rarely does the bamboo curtain part just enough for us to glimpse the domestic Japanese motorcycle scene. Gray market imports of the Honda VFR250R and Suzuki RG250 race replica offer clues. But in 1989, Honda listed two of its home market bikes for sale in the US: the 13,000rpm inline four, gear-cam drive 400cc Honda CB1; and the “Great British” Honda GB500 thumper. Neither was a big seller at the time, but both are fast becoming collectible classic Honda motorcycles.
Though sold as a 400 in Japan, the GB500 was given a full 500cc engine for the U.S. market, using a sleeved-down version of the SOHC radial four-valve (RFVC) engine from the XL600 dirt bike. But it was the GB’s old school styling that made the biggest impression.
Though not intending to reprise any specific British single from the golden era, Honda managed to capture the essence of the Norton Manx, the BSA Gold Star and the rest through subtle styling cues and period-replica components.
The gold pin striping on the swooping black gas tank echoed Velocette and Sunbeam practice of old, while the paired tachometer/speedometer sat in chrome binnacles above clip-on handlebars steering an aluminum-rimmed spoked front wheel. Visually, the single disc brake was the GB’s only necessary concession to modernity. Yet while many classic British bikes look like the assembly of disparate components they actually were, the GB500 is a stunning example of coordinated manufacturing bringing form and function together.
The dry sump 92mm x 75mm air-cooled engine drives a five-speed transmission via primary gears and a wet clutch. The oil tank lives behind the right side panel (thoughtfully stenciled “Tourist Trophy”) and the whole is wrapped in a single downtube dual-cradle steel frame. An aluminum box-section swingarm holds the spoked rear wheel with traditional dual shock suspension. Completing the period look are narrow 90/90 x 18in front and 110/90 x 18in rear tires.
The Honda GB500 is a compact motorcycle, and six-footers will find it cramped, even though the monoposto single seat measures 31in high. Accordingly, no passenger footpegs are fitted. The riding position is sportingly forward, with the rider’s footpegs sited rearwards.
Cycle magazine’s 1989 dyno test recorded 33 rear wheel horses, enough to hustle the 390 pound (wet) GB to a 14.13-second standing quarter at a shade under 90mph. They also recorded a 0-60mph time of 5.1 seconds. Handling was found to be stable and secure, though higher speeds on bumpy roads could show up the suspension’s stiff springing and relative under damping. The engine was tractable and smooth, and Cycle’s tester’s found no need to exploit the upper end of the rev range. It was, after all, never intended to be a true performance bike.
That said, if you wanted a little more oomph, there was some potential tied up in the Honda GB500, as Cycle World proved with a hot-rodded GB500 that would turn a 12.8 second quarter at 101mph and do 0-60mph in four seconds flat.
But the aspect of the GB that won admiration from riders — and envy from onlookers — was the way it delivered the classic motorcycle experience without the hassle. “Nostalgia minus the bump and grunt,” as Cycle’s Gordon Jennings put it — though for the true vintage enthusiast, Honda did fit a kicker as well as electric starting.
But to gauge the unique character of the Honda GB500, you have to ride one. Although the clip-on bars seem low, they’re easily reached because of the GB’s compact layout, and the riding position is surprisingly comfortable. Light weight and a low profile make the GB easy to ride at low speeds. The exhaust has a solid boom as befits a sporting single, yet the engine is uncannily smooth, thanks to a balance shaft.
Controls are light and responsive, the transmission sweet-shifting and the braking more than effective; Cycle recorded a 60mph-0mph braking distance of 128 feet. At speed, the GB feels rock steady perhaps because of its relatively lazy 30-degree rake, yet leaned over it is light, neutral and laser sharp.
The GB’s fittings and finish are mostly of exceptional quality — a factor reflected in its 1989 MSRP of $4,198, at a time when a Harley-Davidson 883cc Sportster could be had for $3,999. Yet it’s precisely that extra level of quality that gives the GB an edge in collectability, and it’s easy to own. “The GB500 delivers ... vintage style and vintage flavor to boot — and all without vintage grief,” Cycle said.
So can a tribute bike become an icon? Few GB500s seem to have ended up in wreckers’ yards, and most still on the road appear cherished and well preserved. Ducati, Triumph, Guzzi and others have enjoyed considerable success with repli-bikes in recent years, so maybe the Honda was just 10 years ahead of its time. “Simplicity and grace are never out of style,” wrote Peter Egan in Cycle World’s 1989 review of the GB500, “and the GB is a simple, handsome bike.”
Single-cylinder rivals to the Honda GB500
2010 Royal Enfield C5 Bullet
• 27hp @ 5,250rpm (claimed)
• 499cc air-cooled OHV single
• Disc brake front/SLS drum rear
• 412lb (wet)
• Price: $5,995 (G5 Classic)
The Bullet comfortably spans the eras of the original British big singles and the later Japanese pretenders. Manufactured in England until the early 1960s, it’s been produced exclusively in Chennai, India, ever since.
Though now sporting a new powertrain, it still makes a unique reference point for the GB and SR. While the frame design, cycle parts and suspension are pure 1950s, the new fuel injected, electric-start engine is built in-unit with the 5-speed transmission. The result: five more horses (27 versus 22), emissions compliance, parsimonious fuel consumption and better reliability.
But even with the redesign, the basic character of the slow-revving, long-stroke engine is retained, with its mountain-goat tractability and slogging torque. A low center of gravity and relatively light weight contribute to solid, steady handling — as befits a bike with a trials and military background
Indian-built Bullets have been of indifferent quality and questionable reliability in the past, but the new machines are made with better materials and to higher tolerances — and come with a two year, unlimited mileage warranty. Though not in the same performance or handling class, the C5 Bullet offers a glimpse at what Honda and Yamaha were trying to channel in the GB500 and SR500.
1978-1981 Yamaha SR500
• 33hp @ 6,500rpm (claimed)
• 499cc air-cooled SOHC single
• Disc brake front and rear
• 353lb (dry)
• Price now: $1,500-$3,000
When the offroad Yamaha TT500 and enduro XT500 landed in 1976, the clamor for a street version was instant; some even built their own. The factory Yamaha SR500 arrived in 1978 with a 33hp version of the 28-30hp TT/XT engine in a beefed-up frame with road equipment. And while the decade-later GB500 spoke to heritage, the SR500 styling was bang up to date, with alloy wheels and contemporary tinware. “Don’t let anybody tell you the SR500E is just a funky revival of England’s Grande Old Gold Star,” said Cycle magazine; added Cycle World, “It’s all of the Sport and none of the Suffering.”
Unfortunately, the SR’s street garb added almost 60lb compared with the XT, so the factory decided to forego another 25-30lb for an electric starter. Yet contemporary testers said the extra weight helped the bike, praising the SR’s handling as “flawless” although noting a certain amount of vibration from the engine. A standing quarter took 15.22 seconds at a terminal 82.49mph.
Kick starting the big thumper likely intimidated many a potential SR500 pilot, and must have affected sales. But the engine’s durability and tuning potential is revealed by how many SR500s are still being wrung out in vintage racing, making it a good bet for street longevity.