Long after thumpers ruled the racetracks, Honda built a modern electric-start street single, the FT500 Ascot.
1982 Honda FT500 Ascot
Engine: 498cc air-cooled OHC single, 89mm x 80mm bore and stroke, 8.6:1 compression ratio, 33hp @ 6,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 94mph (period test)
Carburetion: Single 35mm Keihin CV
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, electronic ignition
Suspension: Air-adjustable telescopic forks front, dual shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Single 11.6in (295mm) disc front, single 10.75in (273mm) disc rear
Tires: 3 x 21in front, 4 x 19in rear
Frame/wheelbase: Single downtube w/engine as stressed member/56.5in (1,435mm)
Weight (wet): 375lb (171kg)
Seat height: 31.5in (800mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.4gal (13ltr)/45-55mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $2,198 (1982)/$2,500-$4,500
Once upon a time, there was a breed of bike known as a Thumper. A thumper was a 4-stroke single, generally displacing between 350cc to 500cc, and it was known for its great sound, stump-pulling torque and simple maintenance. Some thumpers were slow and basic, but others — the Norton Manx, BSA Gold Star and Velocette Thruxton, for example — were some of the fastest bikes ever made.
As time went on, street bikes were increasingly powered by smoother twin, triple and 4-cylinder engines, but the virtues of the single were still evident offroad. Yamaha decided to try its hand at designing a thumper, introducing the XT500 in 1975. A hit with dirt enthusiasts and desert racers, its 500cc single-cylinder engine was repurposed to power the SR500 roadster, which is still being manufactured today in 400cc form. Available only in Japan for many years, it recently returned to Yamaha’s American lineup.
Possibly inspired by the success of the Yamaha single, Honda introduced the XR500 as an off-roader in 1979, and then used a similar engine to power the dual sport XL500. A popular bike, the XL500 was used by many riders as a sort of urban assault vehicle, and Honda noticed.
Honda also noticed that the SR500, although a best-seller in many countries, was not moving quickly off dealership floors in the U.S., due to the lack of two components: a counter balancer and an electric starter. The downside of thumpers was always hard starting and vibration, which on some bikes was so bad it would rattle the fillings in your teeth. The Yamaha design team was able to dampen the SR500’s vibration and used a sight glass for lining up top-dead-center combined with a decompression lever to ease the kickstart-only ignition. However, by 1982, most American riders expected an electric start, and the commuters who were the 500’s natural market just wanted to get to work in the morning without having to learn a complex starting ritual. At the end of 1981, Yamaha decided not to continue importing SR500s into the U.S., while at the same time Honda announced the FT500 Ascot.
The Ascot was a kinder, gentler thumper. Named after the now gone but not forgotten Ascot flat track near Los Angeles, California, the Ascot, besides having a vibration-quelling counter balancer and a reliable electric start, featured cast aluminum wheels, dual-piston disc brakes front and back, a 35mm constant-velocity carburetor with an accelerator pump, and air-assisted front forks. Even with all these niceties, the Ascot still weighed about the same as the SR500, coming in at 374 pounds with a half tank of fuel.
The single overhead cam 4-valve engine was slightly under-square, with a bore and stroke of 89mm x 90mm. Dual exhaust ports allowed for twin pipes to clear the central downtube and provided a nice vintage touch, twin-port exhaust being the rage in the 1930s. The rear shocks had five spring preload adjustments, but were not the high-tech units available at the time on other Hondas, leading some period testers to suggest that the rear shocks were not as good as they could have been.
Period testers were generally impressed with the bike, however, giving the Ascot high points for its smooth acceleration and crisp throttle response, and they liked the pulsating exhaust note, always a thumper selling point. The clutch was easy to operate, with a light grip, but unlike thumpers of yore, many of which would pull from idle and liked low revs, the Ascot really started to come on the cam around 3,000 rpm, with a smooth power curve up to its maximum claimed output of 33 horsepower at 6,500 rpm. A spin on Cycle magazine’s dyno for its June 1982 review returned a lower and likely more accurate 27.43 horsepower.
The lack of immediate bottom-end power was made up for by the Ascot’s other virtues. Honda had wanted the Ascot to appeal to sport riders as well as commuters, and although the bike was not really fast, its lack of top-end speed was compensated by excellent handling. The power curve was engineered for good mid-range and high torque at lower rpm, which, as Cycle reviewers noted, “explains why the FT is so easy to ride along twisty roads and around town. In these conditions you’re likely to run the bike in the mid-range, and that’s where the Honda excels.” Testers noted that the frame, which used the engine as a stressed member, was nice and stiff, the steering was light and responsive, cornering clearance was excellent, and the 37mm adjustable air-charged forks with mag wheels let the bike hug the road. The brakes were considered quite decent and the headlight was big and bright.
In applications where light weight and good ground clearance at extreme lean angles were required, the Ascot, aided by a front end with 29 degrees of rake and 4.7 inches of trail, shone. Period testers found that the Ascot excelled on mountain roads, with tight off-camber turns a specialty. However, the seating was not especially comfortable for taller riders and riding at freeway speeds for long stretches was tiring.
Between the counter balancer and the generous use of rubber in the footpegs and handlebar mountings, this thumper’s vibration varied from none to somewhat noticeable above 5,000rpm. The mirrors hardly ever blurred and the instruments were easy to read. One tester called the Ascot “a friendly motorcycle.”
Unfortunately, the Ascot appeared in the marketplace at a bad time. The U.S. economy was in the dumps and many Baby Boomers — the biggest audience for Honda and others — had stopped riding to have children of their own, most of whom were too young to buy motorcycles. To make matters worse, Honda and Yamaha had been engaged in a war for market share, and thousands of bikes were piling up in warehouses. Anything that was not an instant best-seller was discontinued.
The Ascot was an excellent bike for daily commuters and weekend warriors, but it simply didn’t have the straight-line speed that a lot of riders wanted. At a time when desperate American motorcycle dealers really needed something that would sell, Ascots weren’t jumping off the showroom floor. Honda discontinued the FT500 Ascot after the 1983 model year, replacing it with the V-twin version, the VT500. Yet the V-twin Ascot didn’t last long, either, disappearing from the U.S. lineup after 1984.
Ascot enthusiasts who enjoyed the virtues of the thumper either hung on to their bikes or bought used ones that came up for sale. Many joined the Four Stroke Singles National Owners Club, a thumper enthusiast organization. Single-cylinder Ascots never became cult objects like the SR500, but they maintained their value. One Honda dealer, the owner of Cycle Stop in the Central California town of Salinas, bought one new for his own use, riding it annually to the Laguna Seca races, commuting to and from work on it, and using it as an around-town cruiser. Some years ago, he loaned it to the Salinas Airshow, which used it in their “Wall of Fire” exhibition. However, the dealer eventually parked the bike, and it sat in his garage for a very long time, maintained in excellent condition, but gathering dust.
Dane Berens is one of the more active members of the Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club, a small but very enthusiastic group of people who ride and restore Hondas, Hodakas, Kawasakis, Suzukis and Yamahas. For Dane, it all started with gas rationing in the 1970s.
“I was 16 when I got a Honda street Elsinore,” Dane remembers. “I convinced my father to let me buy the motorcycle due to the gas crisis. I told him I needed the bike to get to school. All of my friends had bikes. Most areas around where I lived in the Seventies were open to riding, and we rode through orchards and hills and creek beds. When I started going to junior college, I used the Elsinore to commute during the week and for crazy trail-riding weekends. One trail at the old Clear Creek offroad area in Central California was on top of a ridge and 3 feet wide. I don’t know how I survived or the bike survived, but we both did. I still have that bike.”
Eventually, Dane decided to restore his Elsinore. In search of parts and information, he went to an International Motorcycle Show, where he first met members of the Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club. “The CMJC are some of the best people, ever! We go to swap meets and take road trips together. It’s been a really fun experience. One of the original club members tunes bikes and restores engines because he loves doing it. He’s not afraid to tackle anything. I’ve been learning more from him on how to work on bikes, but I’m still too intimidated to crack cases and take transmissions apart by myself,” Dane says.
With the encouragement of other members of the CJMC, Dane began collecting. Many people collect bikes that are familiar to them and Dane was used to single-cylinder motorcycles with a dirt-bike heritage, so that is what he started looking for in classic street bikes. He started with a 1980 Yamaha XT500 that wouldn’t run reliably when he bought it, but with advice and assistance from CJMC members he worked out its bugs, and it now runs well and pulls like the proverbial freight train.
One day Dane was in the Salinas area with another CJMC member, and the pair stopped in at Cycle Stop. Cycle Stop is still a full-service Honda dealership, but now has a major sideline supporting the local agricultural industry with ATVs, generators and other equipment. As it turned out, the owner had just made the tough decision to sell his cherished Ascot. “I was walking past the Ascot when my friend pointed it out. I stopped short. ‘Wow, it is beautiful,’ I thought. I was looking for that bike and I just stepped into it,” Dane says. When he learned the bike had been on the shop floor only a few days and was for sale, he immediately started negotiations, and he and the Cycle Stop owner worked out a deal. “I bought the Ascot because I wanted to have a big single. I thought it would be fun to have a 4-stroke single. The Yamaha XT wasn’t what I wanted. What I really wanted was a black Honda.”
When originally sold, Ascots were fitted with a thin head gasket that, in most cases, eventually seeped oil. Cycle Stop verified that the upgraded wafer-style head gasket had been installed, rebuilt the starter clutch (the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise very reliable motorcycle) and put on new tires, then handed the bike over to Dane. The front fender had earlier been repainted by the owner, and it was almost indistinguishable from the factory paint job.
The choke cable was broken when Dane bought the bike, but after some sleuthing he was able to buy a new-old-stock cable from Thumper Stuff, a Washington state-based company run by Mark Apland specializing in Honda and Yamaha single-cylinder motorcycles. Online Ascot enthusiasts provided encouragement and support, and among other things Dane learned that a right hand grab rail was a rare Honda factory accessory, not an aftermarket part, and he was able to purchase one to restore from a forum member who was parting out his bike.
Dane agrees that the Ascot is a friendly motorcycle. “After I re-jetted it, I can take off in 20-30 seconds after starting it. The Ascot needs very little warm-up. It is happy in the twisties; the engine wants to pull through corners and has great torque. Even though it is a single, it is pretty smooth. Vibration is relative, and this bike is relatively smooth. The brakes work great and it will run all day smoothly up to 70mph. Its only problem is the stepped stock seat; it’s hard to move on the seat, and after a while I feel trapped.” Yet that doesn’t dim his affection for the Ascot. “The looks make the bike for me,” Dane says. “Black paint and trim with tasteful black chrome, black wheels, plus the fuel tank’s orange and red stripes with the yellow Honda ‘wings’ logo — it’s right there for me. It has the look of the original Motard.
“This Ascot was in impeccable condition. I needed to rescue it from being modified or becoming a daily commuter. The poor thing was just sitting getting dusty. I wanted to show it and ride it and give it the respect it deserves.” Respect earned. MC