Honda CB500T

The Honda CB500T is Seventies twin with character: throwback flavor, classic styling, retro engine

| January/February 2006

  • Honda aimed the CB500T at a refined crowd that presumably would appreciate a bike with throwback — some would say outdated — engineering
    Bad to the Bone it wasn’t: Honda aimed the CB500T at a refined crowd that presumably would appreciate a bike with throwback — some would say outdated — engineering.
  • 1976 Yamaha XS500
    1976 Yamaha XS500
  • 1977 Suzuki GS550
    1977 Suzuki GS550

  • Honda aimed the CB500T at a refined crowd that presumably would appreciate a bike with throwback — some would say outdated — engineering
  • 1976 Yamaha XS500
  • 1977 Suzuki GS550

Honda CB500T

Years produced: 1975-76
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 34bhp @ 8,500rpm
Top speed: 101mph
Engine type: Parallel twin
Weight (dry): 193kg (425lb)
Price then: $1,545
Price now: $800-$1,800

OK, let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: Yes, we do know the difference between the Honda CB500T and the Honda GB500.

The GB500, Honda’s single-cylinder retro-classic of the late Eighties, is already an acknowledged classic. And yes, we do consider the CB500T an Under the Radar classic.

Could the CB500T, a Seventies twin, hold a candle to the GB500 from a performance standpoint? No. Did it generate as many words of praise as the GB? Not even close. If you set the two beside each other, would you pick the CB over its updated offspring? Probably not, unless you’d also choose Janet Reno over Janet Jackson.

So why are we spotlighting the old twin, a bike that drew comparisons to the bland-as-paste Ford Granada?

We like bikes with character, that’s why, and the CB500T has it. A Granada? Let’s just say you won’t find one on anybody’s list of classic cars.

Born in 1975 as an upgraded version of the CB450, which was getting long in the tooth from a technological standpoint, the T offered classic styling and a uniquely retro engine.

Its main calling card was a brown seat with a grab strap between the rider and passenger. Some would call the seat the bike’s only calling card — which is basically what Cycle World did in a 1975 test.

"Unusual in that it is brown in color, it is long enough to carry a briefcase or passenger without crowding the rider. And the padding is soft enough for comfort. Believe us, without this seat you couldn’t ride a 500T very far and get off smiling," the magazine said.

That was a reference to the 500T’s vibration, which was universally described as miserable and unnecessary considering that the multi-cylinder bikes of the era — including Honda’s own four-cylinder CB550F — offered infinitely smoother rides.

Vibration wasn’t the only area where the motorcycling press jumped on the T with both feet buzzing. Writers panned its cornering clearance, brakes and overall power.

"The 500 is a cosmetic masterpiece; the T-bike is lovingly painted, plated, styled, trimmed and striped," Cycle said. "Its appearance is its message; once you plunk your buns on the saddle and fire up the engine, it’s all downhill."

Newer, bigger

The T’s lineage begins in 1965 when the CB450 was introduced to the United States. An upgrade was due by the mid-Seventies, so Honda lengthened the stroke from 57.8mm to 64.8mm and got 50cc more displacement to create the 500T.

Among other changes, the roller main bearings were changed to ball bearings and the compression ratio was reduced from 9:1 to 8.5:1. Hairpin valve springs gave the engine a decidedly throwback flavor. Like the 450, the 500 was oiltight and offered reliable electrics and starting.

But its engineering wasn’t exactly as with-it as the kite-sized ties and Dingo boots of the era. Other bikes offered much better technology, and at least one of the T’s concessions to modernity, a front disc brake, wasn’t universally considered an improvement: Several critics said the disc had a tendency to lock.

The CB500T took another shot in the ribs when it finished last or next to last in virtually every area of a 1976 test of seven middleweight bikes by Cycle.

"Had Honda clung to the 450 as we knew it then and simply dragged it forward year after year with no significant changes, chances are that, in the face of giant strides made by Honda’s now-plentiful competitors, the bike would not have fared well," the magazine said. "But it would have done better than the current 500T, because the old 450 was a better motorcycle." Ouch, babe.

Thirty years later

Without question, Honda got the half-liter, British-inspired bike right with its 1989 GB500. The newer bike’s performance is sharp, its appearance is traditional and not too retro, and the overall package has made it a modern classic.

But if you want a truly unusual piece of Honda history, the CB500T is worth considering. They still pop up on the resale market, and are cheaper than their better-known four-cylinder cousins.

A survivor in excellent shape is worth $1,800, while a four-cylinder CB550 goes for about $200 more.

Will the T leave you breathless? Maybe not like a pair of those bitchin’ Dingos, but we think it’s a safe bet it’ll do more for you than a Granada.

Half-liter rivals to the Honda CB500T

1977 Suzuki GS550

- 49bhp, 110mph
- 549cc
- Air-cooled
- Five-speed
- Single disc front, drum in rear
Seventies middleweights don’t get much more reliable than the GS550: Some argue that the bike’s power plant is the strongest engine Suzuki ever produced. 

The bike was introduced in 1977 as the heir apparent to Suzuki’s three-cylinder GT550 Indy, which had drawn strong reviews in a production run that began in 1972. 

The new bike featured an  in-line, eight-valve four-cylinder producing a claimed 49bhp at 9,000rpm. 

That was a big boost over the GT550’s output, but the power gains were partially offset by the new bike’s 431lb dry weight. 

After selling both the GT and GS in ‘77, Suzuki dropped the three-cylinder model in ‘78 and offered two versions of the GS — one with dual discs up front. In August of 1978, the company replaced the GS with the GS500E, which boasted alloy wheels and triple disc brakes. The standard model of the 500E continued through the 1981 year, when it became the GS550M Katana.
Today, surviving Seventies versions of the bike go from $900 to $2,200.

1976 Yamaha XS500

- 48bhp, 110mph
- 498cc
- Air-cooled
- Five-speed
- Double discs front, single disc rear

Unlike its bigger brother, the legendary XS650, the two-cylinder XS500 never caught on. 

Why? For starters, it’s developed a reputation as being wildly unreliable, with reports of a balancer and cam chain arrangement that needs constant attention and heat dissipation issues that cause valves to burn up and cylinder heads to crack. 

The vertical twin’s performance didn’t make many hearts flutter when it was introduced, either, as the bike posted below-average quarter-mile speeds in its class and reviewers noted problems with  drive-train backlash and dodgy throttle response. 

On the plus side, the bike boasts many of the features that made classics of the XS650 and the three-cylinder XS750. Its combination of a 180-degree crank, electric start and twin carbs makes for a smooth ride, and its styling lines are clean and were quite fashionable in the day. 

Yamaha logged the complaints about the 500, made refinements and continued to produce it until 1979. Today, a good example sells for $800 to $1,900. 

Dave Mac
8/1/2013 9:38:38 PM

I was working at a Honda dealership when the 500T was produced. The first and maybe only 500T that was on our showroom floor viberated its speedo needle off the first time the bike was test ridden. I was dismayed that Honda hadn't done a better job of increasing the cc without letting the engine shake excessivly.

Tim Kern
7/23/2013 2:45:37 AM

OK, so you hate the CB500T. But you can't just make stuff up. It didn't have 34 hp; even the first CB450 had 43, for pete's sake. It didn't have a "retro" engine -- it was only 10 years old in 1975, and its torsion bar (not "hairpin") valve springs were as-yet unmatched. Further, if the CB500T's front brake was such a dog, why did it work on the CB350-4, CB400SS, CB450, CB500-F, CB550, and CB750? True, it has a particular spot where vibration is awful (on mine, it was right about 55mph); but at other speeds, it showed smooth mirrors (and on mine, that happened, for one example, at a steady 80). I also had a 1967 Black Bomber, and I preferred the later version's 5-speed. Just get the facts right, and write whatever you want; opinions are personal. But facts are facts.

mick bates
12/6/2012 11:10:54 AM

The 500t was not a bike that was produced to set the world on fire, it was a bike that had class and was a touring bike, a physically large bike that was produced at about the same time as the 400-4, This bike was probably regarded as the best handling Honda had ever produced. I was and still am very proud of my 500t. Nearly every motorcycle magazine that reported on the 500t dismissed it as a bad bike, but like todays bike journalists that are only interested in speed and having all bikes looking similar with racing bike performances and looks. This may not have been a popular bike but of all the people who actually owned one, rather than the journalists who rode them once, they were much loved bikes and many would still own one today, Unfortunately they are nearly three times the price today that i paid in 1976. Remember that summer.

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