For a company to make a splash in the motorcycle world, they either have to make a big claim or have a revolutionary new design.
Taking a place in the Honda lineup from 1978 to 1983, the Honda CX500 did a little of each. Rocking the nearly hyperbolic headline “First into the future”, they were actually pretty serious about having a new vision for what motorcycles should look like.
This article examines the history of the Honda CX500 from its development and initial reactions to its reception by motorcycle driving audiences.
Let’s take a look at how Honda really became “first into the future.”
Development and History
Prior to the 1970s, the depiction of American motorcycles could be sourced from the movie Easy Rider. The iconic film in which Peter Fonda and gang rode Harley Davidson “chopper” style motorcycles, that were tough and big. Real big.
Honda, ever the intrepid team, wanted to change the game. The experts at Honda entrusted the design of this game-changer to Shoichiro Irimajiri and Irimajiri pushed the first use of a water-cooled, shaft-driven V-twin on this new style of bike for Honda. To be clear, the idea of water cooling a motorcycle was not new but had never been applied to a V-twin.
Motorcycle buyers weren’t really impressed by the look of the pseudo cruiser CX500 right away, with media outlets like Cycle Guide initially stating that the CX500 looked like an air compressor. The difference in layout between cruiser predecessors certainly was fresh to both reviewers and motorcycle riders, though it would soon be popular amongst commuters and longer haul riders as well.
In its initial years, the CX500 received many upgrades and trim levels which included the addition of Custom and Deluxe trims. The Custom added a smaller, narrower tank in response to customer complaints about tank width. In addition, buckhorn handlebars, and turn signals were mounted to the fork tubes. The Deluxe was similar to the standard model with some changes to gauge a bit of extra trim. Honda later added Silver Wing editions with a rear-mounted accessory box as optional from the factory.
For durability and reliability, it’s always a good sign when you can still find a cheap motorcycle built in the later 1970s and early 1980s for sale with the primary concern being the title and not the reliability or durability of the bike. Luckily for motorcycle enthusiasts, you can find plenty of examples of the CX500 for sale all over the country, often in amazing condition.
For Honda, the single biggest development that came from the Honda CX500 is the inclusion of a pushrod engine instead of an overhead cam. Not only was the engine a pushrod V twin, but it was water-cooled and offered 4 valves per cylinder!
Yes, while a typical pushrod engine at the time featured 2 valves per cylinder, Honda included 4 in the CX500. This design made the CX500 a bit taller than most motorcycles and offered plenty of low-end torque, plus a unique sound. Problems were few with the CX500. Timing tensioners would develop issues but were readily replaceable and the valves also went out of adjustment over time but were also fixable. Some riders had small issues with the cooling and exhaust systems as well.
For maximum fun without pump penalty, the CX500’s 497cc engine could achieve 45 miles per gallon or more. The 1982 model also included Honda’s first motorcycle with a programmable fuel injection system and the unique bike became popular with mechanic’s courses at colleges because there were plenty out there and students could learn on them with ease.
Honda would later release a Honda CX500 Turbo which included a turbocharger that nearly doubled engine output, a revolution for the time. Honda increased compression on the CX500 turbo, which made for a nice, smooth ride with minimal turbo lag or lash. Even with the turbo, Honda CX500 engines were ultimately pretty reliable and many used models are still available today from loyal owners today. Parts are also easy to find and given the fairly open design, many drivers could work on them by themselves without much effort.
The chassis on the CX500 was different too and features thicker splines than most bikes at the time for support. This was in part because it was fairly heavy for a small motorcycle, at 441 pounds.
Earlier models featured hydraulic front shocks with the rear ride enhanced by a dual spring over telescopic shock absorbers. While riders were unlikely to brag about the comfort of the bike, the spring systems helped absorb the impacts of the roads, especially for city commuters, and made for a tight ride.
This made the CX500 well balanced, and super fun to drive. Cleverly designed, the 5-speed transmission rotated in the opposite direction of the engine to reduce the amount of “twisting” felt by CX500 riders. The engine was also mounted over the transmission, making the transmission unit shorter but also making the bike itself taller than average.
The CX500’s initial models were a single disc brake in front, with a drum brake in the rear. It was also the first production motorcycle with tubeless tires.
With the properly balance transmission gears and engine rotation, many riders liked how the CX500 rode. Honda enthusiasts said the drive felt fairly light for a tall bike too. The CX500's ride and handling also made it more appealing to younger audiences who liked the torque the bike produced, in addition to its overall comfortable feel.
All these features made for a super fun bike to ride in the spring and summer.
Impact on Motorcycle Culture
Wheels Australia made the CX500 their bike of the year in 1978 but in reality, a lot of people who initially rode cruiser style bikes didn’t like the CX500 at all. Some riders even called it a “plastic maggot.”
The term was both endearing and was representative of just how badly you could beat up the CX500 and its engine, yet, it would just keep going. While the CX500 wasn’t as fast as some big CC cruisers, it proved quite reliable and fairly cheap. In the world of motorcycles, a motorcycle that adds a new chapter to the genre while not needing constant work was certainly a welcome addition to the world of road bikes.
The Honda CX500 and its original designs live on today with used bikes still on the market and still a whole bunch of fun.