The beginning of the nearly no-maintenance motorcycle
Released to an eager press in 1983, the Honda Ascot VT500 rolled into showrooms alongside a plethora of different motorcycles from the Japanese manufacturer. Inline 4-cylinder sportbikes, V-four cruisers and sportbikes, and V-twin cruisers, as well as a number of single-cylinder dirt bikes, made for an impressive and interesting lineup and marked the beginning for one of the most popular classic Honda motorcycles.
In an era bristling with new technology, it was an exciting time to be in the motorcycle business. “High tech pizzazz,” wrote one wide-eyed journalist. “Techno trickery,” wrote another, and while you could be forgiven for thinking these were reactions to the 1,098cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve Magna V65 bruiser cruiser, they were actually commenting on the Honda Ascot, a bike we now look at as a simple naked standard.
Modeled after the flat track Honda racing bikes the company was racing at famous tracks like Ascot in California, the 491cc V-twin was never intended as a race bike. It shared engine technology with Honda’s VT cruiser lineup and was fielded as a middleweight sport mount. Surviving only two model production years, 1983 and 1984, it was not a big seller and soon disappeared into obscurity like so many smaller capacity motorcycles introduced by Japanese manufacturers over the years.
I remember first riding one in the 1980s, and while it was no powerhouse, I still have vivid memories of a tight handling, urgent machine with seamless power and acceleration. Equipped with a pair of Keihin constant-velocity carburetors (some mags cited Mikunis as standard equipment), it’s amazing to think we still have modern fuel injected bikes that can’t match the Honda Ascot’s perfect fueling.
Taking a finely blended gas cocktail into its combustion chambers through a pair of 26mm intake valves, the VT500’s burned gases were released through a single 33mm exhaust valve, opened and closed by a single overhead camshaft. The Ascot’s pistons ran a 10.5:1 compression ratio and had connecting rods attached to an offset, dual-pin crankshaft, which achieved perfect primary balance. Although testers of the day commented on some minor vibes at higher rpm, with a redline of 9,500rpm, this doesn’t seem to be unreasonable.
Using solid-state ignition, an automatic cam chain adjuster and hydraulic valve adjusters, the Honda Ascot VT500 was xtremely sophisticated for its size. Water-cooled but with faux finning on the cylinders to give it an air-cooled look, this style detail was probably more important on the Shadow range of cruisers that used essentially the same engine. There were some differences here, with the Ascot and Shadow 500 using a 52-degree V compared to the Shadow 750’s 45 degrees, but most everything else was similar or the same.
Delivering its power to the rear wheel through a 6-speed transmission, the Honda Ascot further lived up to its nearly maintenance-free title by using shaft drive. A pair of skinny 18-inch wheels (a 4.25-inch rear and 3.5-inch front) came from the factory wrapped in Bridgestone Mag Mopus tires. These were quickly branded “Mag Hopeless” by a friend who believed they were secretly commissioned by the manufacturers to ensure success of the replacement part industry!
Suspension was fairly unremarkable, with the VT’s rear wheel suspended by a pair of twin shocks. Considering that mono shock suspension was all the rage, Honda missed the boat a little here. The motoring press singled out the VT’s shocks for being hopelessly over sprung and under damped, with only minor adjustment for preload available. Matched to a pair of air-assisted 37mm front forks, the ride was comfortable if you didn’t push too hard.
Tipping the scales at almost 430 pounds full of gas, the VT500 was a reasonably light machine. Flat bars, a neutral riding position and a small, easy-to-read instrument cluster were all typical Honda. The single disc front brake with its twin-piston caliper doesn’t look too tough these days, but one star struck tester felt differently, saying it “stops with demonic forcefulness.” One can only assume he rode a bike with drum brakes to work that day. A single-leading-shoe drum took care of the rear.
With a small 2.5-gallon fuel tank and no wind protection to speak of, the VT was touted as a “short hop” machine. It was capable of topping 100mph if needed and could make it down the drag strip in less than 14 seconds, making it an excellent general-purpose machine. Mimicking the style of the single-cylinder FT500 Ascot introduced in 1982, the VT retailed for $2,298. Best available figures show fewer than 10,000 VT500s sold in the U.S., with more in Europe where the Ascot and its derivatives enjoyed a longer run. MC
“Excellent cornering clearance and agile handling encourage sporting romps down your favorite winding roads.”
— Cycle, January 1983
“The handling is crisp, the controls delightful and the engine responsive beyond its numbers. The Ascot is quick and sure and rewarding.”
— Cycle World, August 1983
“The Ascot shines on twisty roads, easily keeping up the pace of bikes twice its size.”
— Rider, August 1983
“The Ascot isn’t confined to life in the fast lane or to patrolling the boulevards. It’s a motorcycle you can live with, rather than live for.”
— Cycle Guide, October 1983