(With Yamaha’s new SR400 grabbing lots of attention these days, we’ve decided to look back at another air-cooled single that made a splash: the Honda GB500, a model that stole our hearts 25 years ago with bold, British-influenced styling. In this story, from our March 1989 issue, author Peter Egan asks, “Will owners prize this bike 20 years from now, as Velocette or Gold Star owners currently care for their old Singles?” Before telling us what you think, take a few minutes to read the story. It’s classic Egan.)
“Jeez, that’s really a good-looking motorcycle,” the man with BMW R100RT said, standing back to take it all in. He puffed on a cigarette and sipped his coffee, not taking his eyes off the bike. “Seems like Honda can build anything they want. I mean, they decide to do a classic British 500 Single and, bang, there it is.”
It was a blue-cold Sunday morning on the mountain road, and I was parked at a place called the Lookout Roadhouse, a gathering spot for the weekend-ride crowd. Despite the winter chill, a dozen or more of the faithful had made the early-morning run. When I rode in with the new Honda GB500, they gathered around, magnetically drawn to the new motorcycle. Some were going over the Honda, item by item, looking for false notes and un-British touches, while others preferred to bask in the overall effect. Both sides seemed to be reaching a consensus that what we had here, essentially, was a pretty neat bike.
I warmed my frozen hands on a cup of coffee and gazed at the bike myself, thinking about the BMW rider’s comment. Could Honda really build anything they wanted to?
There’s always an element of danger in re-creating history. At worst, it comes off as a cheap trick, like a fiberglass Bugatti with fake exhaust pipes: At best, it makes the real pleasures of another age available to a whole new generation of people. Risky business. Try to summon up the British past and you might produce another Stratford-on-Avon, or you could end up with a perfectly good replica of the H. Salt Fish & Chips store at the corner shopping center. The only difference is detail. Lots of detail, and the traditional sense of craft from which detail derives, that inner guiding light we call Soul. It’s the place in the mind where we decide to Go For It or cheap out.
In building the GB500, fortunately, Honda seems to have chosen mostly to go for it. Let’s look at few of those details.
First the paint. Black Green, Honda calls it. It’s a lovely, diamond-hard color, more black than green, that both captures and reflects light like the water in a deep granite quarry. (If you didn't grow up near one of these, take my word for it. The Lady of the Lake is down there.) The front fork tubes, headlight brackets, handlebars, levers and triangulated footpeg brackets are all forged or spun, polished and beautifully crafted. D.I.D. alloy rims, which have always been up to the best world standards, remain so on this bike, and the conical hubs are equally pleasing.
Sidecovers are real steel (the tiny front fender is plastic, but it’s a good use for plastic), the racing saddle is neatly upholstered, even under the removable rear cover, and there are dozens of other nice touches—classically round instruments with matte silver faces, turn signals that look as if they might have come off Morgan fenders, nice fork gaiters, brushed aluminum brake master, etc.
On the down side, there’s a cheap plastic Honda emblem across the fork tubes, and though racers found the external steel-braided oil lines high-tech, the average bystander remarked that they were low-tack, along with the crimped fittings they rode in on. One also might wish that the exhaust plumbing were a little prettier or that the California-version air pump was not bolted to the side of the engine. But in the end, you find yourself amazed that they were able to meet all the crazy, mixed-up modern emissions, safety and noise laws while keeping the bike looking so clean and lean.
The engine? Nothing too elegant about the shape of the fins or cases. It’ll never be presented on a pedestal as fine sculpture at the Guggenheim, but at least it blends in nicely with the shapes around it, which is more than you can say for the Guggenheim.
But enough of this aesthetic nitpicking. How does the bike work?
Very well, for my peculiar tastes. There’s a firm but velvety feel to all the controls, and the shifting is the nicest of any Honda I’ve ridden. Most of my Honda 500 Single experience has been on XLs and XRs, which have a rather loose, good-enough-for-dirt set of mechanical clearances in their moving parts (or maybe my bikes are just worn out.) The GB500, by comparison, feels closely machined and well-oiled. Everything clicks and slides with precision. Also, despite current noise regulations, the engine manages to sound much less like a Lawn-Boy than previous Honda Singles or Yamaha’s old SR500. There's a nice hard-hitting clout to the exhaust note at speed, a sound that makes you think of light aircraft, like the prop on a 65-horse Continental slapping against the air.
On the road, the GB feels light, quick and agile, yet dead stable at the indicated 100-plus mph it achieves quite easily. The engine is remarkably smooth and relaxed, turning only 6500 of its redlined 8500 rpm at the magical Ton. Snick into top gear, and it’s absolutely loafing at any legal highway speed. In the curves, it’s a wish-fulfillment bike: Think of where you want to be on the road, and you will be there. When you ride a bike this light, narrow and low, physics and Mother Nature are on your side. In this respect, the GB is a pleasant re-affirmation of the useful physical limits of the sport motorcycle, of the fine margins that separate fun from intimidation.
So. Has Honda done the impossible and built a bike that actually combines all the advantages of modern Japanese engineering with the tactile and visual appeal of the traditional British Singles? Well, yes and no. The engineering is there, no doubt about it. Functionally, there's nothing antique, clunky or deliberately retrograde about this motorcycle. Everything works in the best contemporary fashion. But it feels British only in respect to the simplicity and dimensional logic of the classic 500 Singles. What it mostly feels is good.
Will owners prize this bike 20 years from now, as Velocette or Gold Star owners currently care for their old Singles? Hard to say, but I suspect not. The depth of finish is still not there. A few small compromises and a shortage of classical elegance in the proportions of the engine, I think, will separate this bike from the great Singles. But I also don’t think you’ll find one a decade from now for $600 with a torn seat and pitted chrome. At $4200, the GB500 will sell in limited quantities to a small number of people who must have one, and be passed along to others who Understand.
“When you re-create the past, you run the risk of competing against it, and the GB500 is up against some heavy-hitters and powerful ghosts.
Is the GB500 a $4200 motorcycle by today’s standards? Hmmm… That price makes it several hundred dollars more expensive than the basic Harley 883 Sportster and puts it in direct competition with some of the more nicely restored Velocette, AJS, Matchless and BSA classic Singles, which will probably be worth more in five years than they are now. When you re-create the past, you run the risk of competing against it, and the Honda is up against some heavy-hitters and powerful ghosts.
But the GB500 is neither a Sportster nor an old British Single. The Honda thumper is its own bike, and the more you ride it, the easier it is to imagine a place for it in your own garage. It‘s the perfect sportbike for someone who wants to enjoy the sensations of a traditional road-going Single without a heavy maintenance schedule or an advanced degree in Machine Shop.
Riding an older British motorcycle can be, at times, somewhat like going dancing with your great aunt. You have to take it just a little slow, show some respect and hope to God she remembered her heart pills. The GB500, on the other hand, takes you backward in time, to when your great aunt was young and beautiful and could go all night and drink you under the table. In other words, it’s a new motorcycle and you can ride the hell out of it.
I like the GB500 a lot. I’m not offended by its Boy Racer replica styling. The British motorcycle industry had a long time to develop those proportions, just as the Greeks had a long time to refine the shape and spacing of pillars and lintels in their architecture, and I think it’s a look that bears reinterpretation. Simplicity and grace are never out of style, and the GB is a simple, handsome bike.
It’s not a Velocette Venom Clubman, but I don’t care. We already have Venom Clubmen if we want them. This is a new motorcycle that looks good and is fun to ride, and there are never enough of those.