The New CB500s | Half-Liter Hondas

The New CB500s Carry On a Rich Tradition

By Mitch Boehm, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives, Moto Retro Archives, Roland Brown

You see the new Honda CB500’s swoopy bodywork, liquid-cooled engine, and functional running gear and you think modern technology all the way. You do not think of the Black Bomber, the nickname for Honda’s original CB450 from 1965. You do not think air-cooled vertical-twin with torsion-bar valve springs. You do not think twin shocks, spoke wheels, drum brakes, or a kick-starter. You do not pass go. You do not collect $200.

But there are several reasons you should recall the venerable ‘Bomber, or at least the more handsome and functionally superior 1968 CB450K1. Honda’s all-new 500s are direct descendants of those early twins not only in model designation, but also in certain physical attributes, and especially in the way they’re designed to attract new riders with performance and value. These latest CBs, then, are really just the latest in a long line of legendary half-liter Hondas.

The original CB450 isn’t what many would consider a major offensive in Honda’s war to win over the world’s big-bike enthusiasts. Yes, its vertical-twin was highly advanced, with dual overhead cams (just like the RC racers!), 43 horsepower from just 444cc, and electric start. But it was homely in the extreme, the bulbous and humpbacked tank doing the most aesthetic damage. The engine’s vibration and balky, four-speed transmission didn’t help matters, backing up the impression that big bikes—or at least what passed for a big bike in the ‘60s—were out of Honda’s reach.

Unlike British and American bike makers, Honda saw huge potential for smaller, friendlier motorcycles as baby boomers approached riding age. While many dismissed that first 450 as a flawed experiment, Honda doubled down on the original concept with two new 450s in ‘68—the faster, sleeker, 5-speed CB450 and the Scrambler-ized CL450. Between the new 450s and the insane excitement surrounding the mighty CB750 Four’s launch later that year, doubters on all continents realized much too late that everything had changed.

This sea change—for larger Japanese bikes in general, and for Soichiro’s company in particular—was no accident for a company as savvy as Honda. It was a perfect plan, combining great engineering and product planning with a two-pronged marketing strategy appealing to both enthusiasts and mainstream non-riders. The “You Meet The Nicest People” ad campaign meshed perfectly with the adventure-seeking boomer generation, the first wave of whom turned 20 in 1965.

Honda was keen to provide adventure, with bigger, more powerful, and more exciting bikes like the CB450 providing the initial boost toward up-market Japanese machinery. Honda felt reasonably confident that boomers would power a dramatic rise in U.S. bike sales during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and comprised its lineup of small, mid-sized, and, soon, large-displacement bikes, to accommodate every type of rider. We know now how brilliantly that scenario played out.

Honda drove a third nail in the British coffin in 1971 when it launched the CB500F—the F standing for four-cylinder (unlike today). The 500 Four was basically a 2⁄3-scale CB750, and a machine many owners and magazine editors felt was a more balanced overall package than the heavy, wide-bodied 750.

The jewel-like 500 was 15-18 bhp less powerful than the 750, but it was lighter, smoother, less expensive, and better handling, traits that made it a favorite of sport riders everywhere. You had to ride the 500 a little more aggressively to get the most from its higher-revving engine, but the rewards, as Cycle eloquently explained, were more than worth the effort.

“Face it,” wrote the editors. “The 750 is too much motorcycle for a lot of folks—too fast, too heavy, too expensive, maybe demanding of too much ego involvement. The 500 isn’t. The CB500F is so good,” Cycle summed up, “it’s scary.”

Motorcyclist, comparing all three Honda fours in its August ‘72 edition, wrote this: “The 500 is the sweetheart of the trio, manageable, smooth, powerful enough, and a dreamy handler. It makes more sense than the less-powerful 350 and more bulky 750—a perfect compromise.”

Perfect compromise, indeed. Just like today, back then you had riders and non-riders looking for do-it-all bikes offering style, reliability, performance, and value. They found them in the Honda CB450 and CB500F, along with a host of other 450s, 500s, and 550s during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s no stretch to think Honda would love some of that market-capturing magic to reappear alongside these new-generation CB500s and today’s new crop of entry-level—and re-entry—motorcyclists. With its smooth and sporty trio of new 500s, Honda is certainly hoping history will repeat itself.

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