Behind the Iron Curtain: 1958 Jawa 500 Overhead Cam Twin

The 1958 Jawa 500 was a luxury 500cc double overhead cam twin from the land of the proletariat.

| November/December 2014

  • 1958 Jawa 500 Overhead Cam Twin
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • The single Jikov carburetor made tuning easy and helped give the Jawa good low-end pulling power.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • 1958 Jawa 500 Overhead Cam Twin
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • 1958 Jawa 500 Overhead Cam Twin
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • The Jawa 250 featured unit construction, an automatic clutch, a plunger rear suspension and a telescopic fork, making it one of the most technically advanced motorcycles of its day and earning it the nickname "Perak," or spring.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • The 500's ingenuity of design, quality of finish, and attention to detail was on par with BMW.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • The air filter for the single carb is integrated into the oil tank, a nice touch that helps give the Jawa an uncluttered look.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • Low and lean, the Jawa was among the best looking bikes of its day, a surprise given its proletarian origins.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • Low and lean, the Jawa was among the best looking bikes of its day, a surprise given its proletarian origins.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • Single overhead cam is driven by a shaft and bevel gears on the engine's right side.
    Photo by Robert Smith
  • The overall feel is one of quality, reflecting a Jawa tradition that even their communist overlords couldn't suppress.
    Photo by Robert Smith

1958 Jawa 500 15/02
Claimed power: 28hp @ 5,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 91mph (claimed)
Engine: 488cc air-cooled OHC parallel twin, 65mm x 73.6mm bore and stroke, 7.0:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 370lb (168kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.2gal (16ltr)/45-55mpg (est.)

In 1960s Britain, motorcycles were still pretty much the number one commuter choice for Joe Public. And no, your average factory grunt wasn’t rolling to work on a Vincent or Velocette.

Even after the Honda Cub came on the scene, some of the most popular commuter bikes in England were small 2-strokes from Jawa and its sister company, CZ. A big part of their appeal was their low price: To garner “hard” currencies, the Soviet bloc flogged them off at budget prices. In 1965, London dealer Pride & Clarke advertised the twin-port Jawa 250cc Favorit for £120 ($335.50) including tax, while a 250cc BSA C15 cost almost £200 ($559)!

As working machines, most of these bikes were literally ridden hard and put away wet — if they were put away at all. Yet in spite of scant maintenance and chronic abuse, they just kept going. They were rugged and reliable, if also a little spartan, so it would come as a surprise to the average British biker to learn Jawa also built one of the most elegant, advanced and technically sophisticated motorcycles of the early post-World War II period. Yet the truth is, the 500cc Jawa overhead cam twin featured here was more in line with the company’s history of innovation and advanced engineering than their stodgy Soviet-era commuter machines.



The back story

Born in 1878, Frantisek Janecek worked for Czech armaments manufacturer Kolben until 1909, when he opened his own arms plant in Prague. With declining demand for weaponry in the 1920s following World War I, Janecek turned to making motorcycles powered by a 500cc 4-stroke single from German manufacturer Wanderer.

Although the new Jawa — a contraction of Janecek and Wanderer — sold well, Janecek saw the potential for smaller, simpler machines in the straitened economy of the 1930s. To this end, he hired British engineer George Patchett, who introduced him to the 175cc Villiers 2-stroke. Janecek designed a simple bolt-up, pressed-steel triangular frame with a rigid rear and pressed steel “girder” fork with friction damping. Though inexpensive (less than two-thirds the price of a typical 500cc machine), the Jawa 175 was durable, well-made and economical — perfect for the times. And like all pre-World War II Jawas, it was painted red!



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