- Years produced 1984-1986
- Claimed power 53hp (rear wheel) @ 11,000rpm
- Top speed 132mph (1984 model)
- Engine 498cc (60mm x 44mm) liquid-cooled DOHC V4
- Transmission 6-speed
- Weight 419lb (dry)
- Price then/now $2,898 (1984)/$2,000-$5,000
To enter a new capacity class, is it better to scale up a smaller bike, downsize a bigger one, or start from scratch? Many bike makers over the years have “stretched” a smaller capacity engine to create a larger one. While that may offer the best return on investment, is it a sound idea?
In creating the engine for the VF500F of 1984, Honda went with scaling up. The new 500 was based on the Japanese/European market VF400F, but used cylinder dimensions and cylinder head design from the V-twin VT250. The result was effectively two side-by-side 90-degree 250s on a common crankcase, but with a strengthened bottom end. More on that later …
Inside the VF500F, duplex chains drove four overhead camshafts acting on 16 valves via finger-type followers with threaded adjusters. The hydraulically operated clutch was geared to the crankshaft and drove the 6-speed transmission. This featured planetary gears, which gave a “crisp feel” and “encourages a light touch on the shift lever,” said Cycle World. The 60mm x 44mm V4 screamed all the way to 12,000rpm, but yet had useful power all across the rev range that made for relaxed around-town riding.
But for the VF500F’s chassis, Honda effectively scaled downward. It shared almost all the sophistication of its bigger brother, the VF750F (including air-assist Pro-Link rear suspension and TRAC anti-dive fork) in a nimbler, more compact package.
Testers universally praised the VF’s quick steering, attributing much of that to the 16-inch front wheel; yet also admired its straight-line stability and powerful brakes. Said Cycle World, “…there’s nothing commonplace about the VF500F’s handling … the chassis lives to bend its way round corners. The bike really shines on twisty backroads,” they wrote, and “could very well be the quickest way to snake from Point A to Point B.” “The little Interceptor is one of the finest handling motorcycles around,” wrote Cycle Guide. “The 500 can be flicked through turns with almost no effort on virtually any line … that kind of performance pumps up your confidence and urges you to go faster. Nor was there any shortage of cornering clearance … the bike can be whipped over until the horizon approaches vertical, and still nothing drags on the pavement.”
However, that clearance and the VF’s compact dimensions affected its ergonomics: “A cramped riding position undercuts the 500’s versatility somewhat,” wrote Cycle Guide. “ … too much weight on wrists and hands for all day comfort, and doesn’t provide much leg room, especially for tall riders.”
In terms of performance, the Honda VF500F aced most comparos with other half-liter bikes, turning a 12.4-second standing quarter-mile at 107mph. Using all the VF500’s power, though, would push its fuel consumption well below 40mpg — and caused a problem with Cycle Guide’s test bike.
After a number of full-throttle drag starts, they took their bike to the dyno, where it developed an engine knock at 10,000rpm. The diagnosis: a spun rod bearing. Other bad news followed: customer reports of crankshaft failures. Honda identified a machining issue and initiated a major recall that involved replacing entire engines. This, combined with the well-known camshaft issues in the VF750F did nothing to help Honda’s prestige.
Though not all Interceptors were affected, Honda took the step of fitted milder cams and smaller carbs to 1986 VF500s. This moved the powerband down the rev range and trimmed a couple of ponies from its top-end, but added mid-range pull. It fixed the problem, and Cycle magazine concluded the changes made the Honda VF500F even better.
Concluded Cycle World in 1984, “ … for straightening out the kinks in a twisty piece of road, the 500 Interceptor is the best bike in its class. Or, for that matter, maybe even in any class.” MC
Yamaha XJ550 Seca
- 50.46hp (rear wheel) @ 10,000rpm (period test)/110mph
- 528cc air-cooled DOHC inline four
- 6-speed transmission
- 424lb (w/half-tank fuel)
- Price then/now: $2,529/$1,500-$3,500
Below Yamaha’s swirl-inducing YICS cylinder head design, the Seca’s 57mm pistons drove a 51.8mm stroke crankshaft and a hydraulically tensioned Hy-Vo chain to a jackshaft carrying the clutch and alternator. Gears connected the 6-speed transmission with a chain final drive. A conventional steel tube frame and swingarm ran on cast alloy wheels fitted with a single front disc brake and rear drum. A conventional non-adjustable front fork was matched to dual shocks (adjustable for preload) at the rear.
Period tests achieved standing quarter-mile times below 13 seconds and a top speed of 110mph. Power delivery was progressive, but with a real rush over 6,000rpm and with power peaking at 10,000rpm. The engine liked to be revved, but it was also reported as docile in traffic. The Seca was also well equipped, with self-canceling turn signals; a clutch/neutral electrical interlock, and adjustable front brake lever.
On the road, the Seca 550 was smooth in operation with a large, comfortable seat, light controls and the ability to spin along easily at highway speeds. It made a useful tourer, too: both the seat and the gas tank were good for at least 150 miles. That said, the suspension worked better for solo riding than two-up. Steering and handling were sporty rather than racy, but the undercarriage would ground well before tire traction ran out. The XJ550’s charm lay in its good-natured rideability and lively performance, said Rider, “The Seca 550 is an exciting motorcycle. It goes great, stops well, handles sensationally and is easy to live with day to day.”
- 54hp (rear wheel) @ 10,000rpm/116mph
- 553cc air-cooled DOHC inline four
- 6-speed transmission
- Dual disc brakes front, single disc rear
- 459lb (w/half-tank fuel)
- Price then/now: $2,500/$2,000-$5,000
The GPz was the bike to catch in the 550 class in the early Eighties. Introduced in 1981 with air-charged front forks and a conventional twin-shock rear suspension, the 1982 model featured Big Green’s single-shock Uni-Trak system, helping it win Cycle World’s Bike of the Year in the 451cc-650cc class.
Based on the 1980 KZ550, the Kawasaki GPz550 offered a lot more go. Period tests on the dyno showed a power boost from 43 horsepower to 54 horsepower (58 horsepower by 1984), accomplished by increasing compression from 9.5:1 to 10:1 and installing bigger valves and hotter cams. However, the engine needed to be revved above 7,000rpm to get that extra boost, resulting in just 45mpg (eight fewer than the Yamaha XJ550 Seca) when ridden hard. Powerful dual front discs replaced the KZ’s single stopper, which had been found lacking by testers. A single disc (8.9 inches, same as the front) took care of the rear.
A useful feature of the GPz, especially for newbies, was an interlock preventing the shifter moving from first to second with the bike at a standstill, making neutral selection a snap. In 1982, along with the Uni-Trak rear, the Kawasaki GPz550 gained an oil cooler, voltmeter and LCD gas gauge, while losing 5 pounds. In shootouts, the GPz usually came out tops in its class. That is, until Honda’s VF500F arrived in 1984 …