The Honda CB500 Four

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The 1974 Benelli Quattro.
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The 1977 Suzuki GS550.
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Advertisement for the Honda CB500 Four.

Honda CB500 Four
Years produced:
Claimed power: 50hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed: 100mph (est.)
Engine type: 498cc OHC, air-cooled inline four
Weight: 420lb (with half tank fuel)
MPG: 40-50
Price then / now: $1,460 (1972) / $1,000 – $2,500 

“The thinking man’s motorcycle.” That was Cycle magazine’s take on Honda’s half-liter four, the Honda CB500 Four. Smaller and lighter than its famous big brother, the trend-setting Honda CB750 Four, the new for 1971 Honda CB500 Four took all the 750’s fine attributes and focused them into a smaller, lighter bike that in many ways was better than its much-lauded forbearer.

Not that the 750 had many detractors. In its day, it was the undisputed king of big-bore bikes and was responsible for launching the Superbike category. Four cylinders, four pipes, electric start, no-fuss electrics and an imposing presence gave the CB750 Four a lead in the market that other manufacturers could only hope to match. But for all the good things the 750 was, it was one heavy machine. Tipping the scales at roughly 500 pounds all in, the 750 required a willing rider to wring the best from it. Ridden at five-tenths, it was serene, but at anything approaching attitude its slow steering, high center of gravity and ample weight combined to make it a bit of a handful.

Those issues disappeared with the Honda CB500 Four. Handling of the new “little” four was excellent, aided in no small part by an almost 80-pound advantage over the CB750 Four, the 500 weighing at a comparatively svelte 420 pounds. Additionally, the 500’s engine was significantly shorter than its big brother, thanks to its smaller displacement and over-square design (larger bore than stroke), which kept cylinder height down, giving a lower center of gravity. Where the 750 was often faulted for vague handling, the CB500 Four was lauded for being stable and predictable if perhaps still a bit slow-steering. Part of that stability was due to the 500’s frame, which drew heavily from the 750 but featured extra gusseting to tame frame flex. Honda’s excellent front forks helped keep the front wheel on the ground, but the rear shocks drew complaints, with one tester calling them “the weakest point about the 500,” noting the shocks on a test bike had failed after just 1,000 miles.

While top speed was lower than the 750 (100mph-plus versus approximately 125mph for the 750), it broke the “ton” with only two-thirds the 750’s capacity, and could post quarter-mile times a scant half-second slower than the 750. Cycle Guide recorded a best time of 14.13 seconds for the 500 versus 13.74 for the 750.

In many ways a scaled-down CB750 Four, the Honda CB500 Four engine did have some notable differences, including a Morse Hy-Vo chain to drive the transmission, and wet sump lubrication, eliminating the oil tank used on the dry sump 750. More than just simple specification differences, those changes made the 500 quieter and easier to service, qualities Honda knew its customers appreciated.

As seemingly perfect as the engine was, the transmission was a bit more problematic, suffering from false neutrals between second and third, and fourth and fifth, and generally stiff action that often got worse as the engine/transmission unit heated up. During one test, Cycle Guide testers got so frustrated they removed and modified a shift pawl to make theirs work better.

Brakes were a single-disc front apparently identical to the 750’s but actually 1.2 inches smaller (10.5 inches versus 11.7 on the 750), and a rear drum brake lifted directly from the Honda CB450 twin. And while testers raved about the 500’s front brake (Cycle World said the 500’s front disc supplied “the best stopping power in the motorcycle industry”), they also faulted the rear for being overly sensitive and prone to lockup.

Ergonomically, the Honda CB500 Four was considered a bit of a mixed bag. While the rise and pull of its handlebars were both appreciated by some and loathed by others, just about everyone hated the 500’s then-standard Honda ignition switch location of just under the gas tank on the left side, with the off position neither vertical nor horizontal, but right in-between. Testers also complained about a stiff throttle with long action, necessitating a re-grab of the twist grip to get full travel. Road Rider hated it so much they wrapped the grip with tape to fatten it up for better leverage.

The CB500 Four was another home run for Honda, which left it pretty much unchanged from its introduction through 1973, before bumping displacement to 550cc for 1974. The “new” 550 also received a reworked and improved transmission, plus a new clutch and several other minor modifications. The 550 stayed in Honda’s American lineup until 1977. By that time, the CB was decidedly old school, and Honda was readying its newest middleweight, the controversial shaft-driven, water-cooled Honda CX500 V-twin.

Survivors are plentiful and, until just recently, cheap. The Honda CB500 Four seems to be in the middle of rediscovery, a fact reflected in rapidly rising prices. Even so, they’re still a bargain, with usable examples readily available for $1,000-$1,500 and really nice bikes for $2,000-$2,500. Although body hardware is getting scarce and stock exhaust systems are becoming unobtainable, most other parts are easy to find. Light in weight, with a willing engine, good handling and Honda reliability, the 500 is a winner; like the boys at Cycle said, it’s a thinking man’s motorcycle.

Half-liter rivals to the Honda CB500 Four
1974 Benelli Quattro
45 hp @ 9,400rpm / 100mph (est.)
• Air-cooled, SOHC inline four 
• 5-speed 
• Drum front, drum rear
• 462lb (dry) 
• 40-50mpg 
• $3,000 – $5,000 

Talk about flattery. Introduced for the 1974 model year, the 498cc Benelli Quattro took imitation to new heights. Looking for all the world like a Honda 500 Four dressed in swanky Italian shoes, the Quattro featured a 498cc engine of 56mm x 50.6mm bore and stroke, exactly the same as the Honda. It also featured a Morse Hy-Vo primary chain, as did the Honda, and except for its bank of Del’Orto carbs replacing the Honda’s Keihins, it was a dead ringer for the CB500K mill: Rumors about parts interchangeability persist to this day.

The Seventies were tough times for the Italian motorcycle industry, thanks in no small part to the success of bikes like the CB500 Four pouring in from Japan. Benelli boss Alejandro De Tomaso was intent on turning the tide of the Japanese invasion. De Tomaso announced the Quattro in 1972, alongside its bigger, scene-stealing brother, the 6-cylinder, 750cc Sei (“six” in Italian). Unfortunately, De Tomaso had neither the marketing capacity nor the financial strength of his Japanese competition, and neither bike was ever a real success.

Quattros were available in the U.S. for a few brief periods in the mid-1970s, making them hard to find today. Production continued, albeit haltingly, until 1984.

1977 Suzuki GS550 
43hp @ 9,000rpm / 105mph (est.) 
• Air-cooled, SOHC inline four 
• 6-speed 
• Single disc front, drum rear 
• 443lb (dry) 
• 40-50mpg 
• $1,000 – $2,000 

Save for Benelli’s rip-off, until 1977 there was no half-liter, 4-cylinder competition to the Honda CB500 Four. That was the year Suzuki introduced the Suzuki GS550, its first line of 4-stroke models (prior to the GS line, all Suzukis had been 2-strokers).

By this time, Honda’s 500 was a 550, and Suzuki had the CB550 squarely in its sights with the GS550. Although the GS was some 20 pounds heavier than the Honda, both put out around 50hp, and both posted top speeds in excess of 100mph. What really separated the GS was its styling. Compared to the Honda (which hadn’t received much in the way of updates since its introduction) the GS was a breath of fresh air. Dual-overhead camshafts promised performance, and a flat seat with a hip tail fairing further bolstered the GS’s sporty appeal. Curiously, the motoring press didn’t seem completely wowed by the new middleweight, but even so the Suzuki sold out its first year.

Solid as the proverbial rock, the Suzuki GS550 is a good looking machine with solid handling. There’s still a reasonable supply of low-mileage originals out there, although rust-prone mufflers mean most have replacement 4-into-1 systems, like on the 1978 GS550E shown here. MC

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