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Honda CX500T : A Turbo Survivor

Honda CX500T – “One owner”. Two words that draw the eye while perusing bikes for sale. But “one owner” can have varying degrees of significance. One owner of a three, four, or even 10-year-old-bike is one thing and not unexpected. But as the years grow the significance of one-owner increases as it suggests care, continuity, maintenance and a verifiable history. This claim stopped me. The bike caught my eye but “one owner” made me want to know more. Was it a barn find without the barn?

HondaCX500T still picture side shot white with orange trimRon’s first road bike was a 1978 Honda CX500 Custom, an unusual machine. An early attempt by Honda to build a cruiser, the styling was conservative as the company took tentative steps easing away from the universal styling of the 1970s into what would become a string of successful cruisers such as the Shadow and the Magna of the eighties. 

The CX500, also available as a non-cruiser, did have an unusual engine: the horizontally opposed, liquid-cooled V-Twin that also resided in the Silver Wing. Ron’s appreciation for the engine he had come to know was further stoked when he read a 1979 magazine article claiming the engine was going to form the base of a Honda turbo platform. 

To Ron, this sounded like a great idea although when he discussed the development with a friend at a Montreal dealership he was assured it was never going to happen. Turbo charging was all the rage in cars at that point but in a motorcycle? Why? Never!

But Ron waited. Sure enough two years later he received a call from the same friend telling him the dealership had two brand new Honda CX500 Turbos. Did he want one? Obviously the answer was yes, two years had built a fount of anticipation. Ron, a police officer, was now posted to Fairview, Alberta but after somehow convincing a friend back east to plan his wedding around a bike pick-up, he went to Montreal, bought the bike, went to a wedding and rode back to Alberta. It has stayed with him ever since. The bike was eventually joined by a wife, who was advised in early courtship that motorcycles and he were inseparable. The family and the bike have been constant touchstones in his life ever since.

Thirty-eight years later the bike is a “survivor,” and given that few were brought into Canada, it’s a very rare machine. The 1982 Honda CX500T was replaced by the CX650T in 1983 and that bike too was only available for the single model year. Hen’s teeth and turbo machines from the 1980s… 

Other bikes in the CX line continued for several years but the opposed horizontal twin soon left the Honda lineup, replaced by V-4s, traditional V-Twins and more inline fours. 

HondaCX500T still picture fairing and headlightThe 81-hp turbocharged 500 was soon eclipsed by larger, more rideable powertrains without the potentially upsetting turbo lag that accompanied its extra power. Honda made adjustments to the CX650T to mitigate the transition in power from turbo engaged to disengaged but it was mostly for naught. As quickly as they appeared, turbo motorcycles became, if not obsolete, an expensive option for creating power.

It wasn’t an engineering flaw. The bike was after all a Honda. Ron’s CX500T has seen regular maintenance and the engine was overhauled after a gasket eventually let go but it has never been rebuilt. Beyond a clogged injector attributed by Ron to a lack of use (the classic “no time to ride and a family” situation) and a replaced stator, the bike has seen no major repairs over 38 years and 37,000 kilometres.  

The CX500T shows the subtle patina of age and wear: some paint has rubbed off, the fairing has minor stress cracks, and Ron points to some yellowing of the OEM white pearl paint. “Unrestored and original” rings true.  Beyond a windscreen that sits an inch or two higher but mimics the tint and shape of the original, the bike has never been modified or fitted with aftermarket accessories. 

The CX500T represented a culmination of Honda technology. It was a bike built to showcase the company’s engineering competence. It is an approach taken by Honda many times throughout the years.  Sometimes the effort resulted in phenomenal success such as the CB750 and sometimes became an interesting footnote in the history of motorcycles, i.e. the Honda Rune. 

HondaCX500T still picture dash and gaugesThe Honda CX500T and the follow-up CX650T were never big sellers. The CX650 in particular was slow to complete its yearly sales even though a very limited number were built. Ron paid $5,000 for his bike in 1982, which for the time was an expensive motorcycle but that is what you can do when you’re young and carefree. 

The Honda Turbos along with those from Yamaha and Suzuki likely cost far more to develop than they reaped in profits but they should not be considered mistakes. Motorcycle riders have always asked for more horsepower, it is an easy number to quantify. Turbo charging, considering the success in cars, seemed like a logical solution and it certainly provided the power boost asked for, but ultimately potential buyers wanted it for far less money even though Honda packed other modern engineering into the bike beyond fuel injection with computer control. Dual discs up front and a disc in the year replaced the drum on other CX models. The bike was simply the wrong answer.

The Honda CX500T has aged well, and this can be attributed to Honda’s conservative styling of the bike. The lines are smooth and nicely rounded, the proportions correct and the colours mostly muted beyond the splash of neon orange. Honda chose modern but not futuristic for the styling. The most popular of the other Japanese turbo machines, the Yamaha Seca 650, was far more aggressively styled with a touch of disco-era excess. It was a look much harder to carry through the years. The 1983 Suzuki XN85 was a cleaner, sportier design with hints of the old and new Katana, but Suzuki had the benefit of seeing what came before. 

His CX500 Turbo wasn’t the only bike Ron bought sight unseen. He fell for the tantalizing Kawasaki H2 and shelled out the deposit for the right to buy the rest of the bike some six months later. The force-feeding of air through supercharging? There seems to be a theme here. 

When I asked Ron what attracted him to the CX500T he didn’t go straight to the performance numbers and stats but rather to the fact the bike was different. While all the Japanese manufacturers would bring out a turbo model in the early 1980s, Honda was first with a relatively unique platform as the 1982 Yamaha Seca 650 relied heavily on additions made to the existing Seca bike. 

The Honda motor may have been one he knew well from the CX500 Custom but the turbo charging aspect was something beyond the realm of the then-fading UJMs. While he has owned sportbikes since he didn’t consider others at the time and wasn’t enticed by the Interceptors, GSX-Rs and Ninjas that would soon redefine the sportbike category and its capabilities. 

For many years, the properly ridden Honda CX500T could keep up with newer competition. Upon retirement Ron attended track days, the California Superbike School and become an instructor for novice, advanced and enduro riding as well as police motorcycle training. He continually strove to increase both his riding skills and those of others and yet the CX500T remained.

But wasn’t the thrill of more power enticing? The Kawasaki H2 seemed to simply come and then go through his garage. Did riding the CX500T still quicken the pulse? When the turbo kicks in at around 4,800 rpm it most definitely still does, says Ron. So dramatic was the introduction of the extra power that a helping mid-corner could still lead to trouble. Surprisingly Ron feels the CX500T is more tractable on tight twisty roads than the H2 with its myriad rider aids and safety features.

Ron showed remarkable foresight when he agreed to purchase the CX500T 38 years ago, sight unseen. He collected, and still has, the original showroom brochure, and copies of motorcycle magazines that featured the CX500T on their covers. He has framed the original dealer showroom poster from 1982. He has never used the original key with the Honda logo in colour. 

HondaCX500T still picture close=up exhaust logoBut the true pride in the accessories he has for the bike is found in a set of leathers he had custom made from scratch in the 1980s. On alternating arms and legs are the words CX500T and Turbo. We both chuckled at the light weight of the leathers, which were made before armour and padding were considered a necessity. He no longer fits into those leathers but not keeping them wasn’t an option. 

Why now? I asked. Why sell the bike that obviously meant so much to you and your riding history? Many riders today might pine for the bike they had in their youth. The bike that defined what motorcycling meant to them. The epitome of the experience. Ron still has that very bike. 

It was a bittersweet decision to sell the CX500T but it was time, he said, to let someone else enjoy the bike. While he’ll be sad to see the Honda CX500T go, he is in no rush to sell—why would he be at this point? Ron has priced the bike at a figure he considers fair, and if it sells, great. If he holds onto it for a few more years? Great. 

He told me of another fellow who had two Turbos for sale, but both were dismantled. Ron needed a new piece, perhaps to replace the cracked front indicator, but the other guy wasn’t going to part out his bikes. He wanted them put back together.  

While one cannot dictate the terms of sale, and the CX motors have proven popular with customizers building cafe racers, I believe Ron would want to see his dream bike go to someone who will keep it as is or restore it to “as-new” condition. It is what dreambikes deserve.

by John Molony Canadian Biker #349

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HondaCX500T still picture far away side angle country lane

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