A Truly Legendary Bike – The History of the Honda GB500

This is a guest post from an anonymous pal on the Honda GB500.  Big thanks for this contribution!

In the modern age, Yamaha’s new SR400 continues to demand media attention around the globe.  This should come as no surprise, as this bike is notorious for combining retro styling with tremendous performance and efficiency.  It really is a dream bike for motorcycle owners looking to combine those things.

And for good reason.

The SR400 is scarcely the first, air-cooled single engine bike to make a splash in the marketplace.  However, and in many ways, it is simply following a trail blazed by Honda’s legendary GB500 model back in 1989.

Make no mistake; this bike stole the hearts of bikers and is considered by many to be a classic motorcycle, while it helped to establish Honda as a genuine leader in the market.

In the post below, we’re going to talk about things like:

  • A brief history of the Honda GB500.
  • The specs of the bike.
  • And the overall impact this iconic bike had on the market.

If you’ve ever tried a Honda GB500, you know what all the fuss is about.  It really is a special bike that everyone should try at least once in their life.

An Overview of the Honda GB500 – Spec and Origins

The GB500 ‘Tourist Trophy’ (or TT to you and me) is an air-cooled, single cylinder racing motorcycle that was first marketed in Japan back in 1985.  The initial release saw two 400cc and one 500cc version designed, and the success of these models saw Honda introduce a 500cc version in the American market in 1989.

With further designs also being launched throughout Asia, it was at this time that the bike became a true icon and earned popularity across the globe.  At the heart of this was its unique design and mechanical configuration, which harked back to the iconic British 500cc singles of the 1950s.  Boasting retro styling and intricate features such as a pinstriped TT tank, it quickly earned a cult following in various locations throughout the world.

Interestingly, the inclusion of ‘TT’ in the name was derived from a classic 37-mile road circuit on the Isle of Man, and this tapped into the sporty design of the model and its core appeal among race enthusiasts.

The model’s specification also supports this assertion, with the 500cc iteration featuring an air-cooled, RFVC 4-valve engine and a top speed of around 174km/h.  With 33hp, 6,500 rpm, and a five-speed transmission, the bike is tailor-made for racers and riders who boasted an innate sense of adventure.

According to a comprehensive review in Cycle Magazine (which was published in 1989), the U.S. model also produced a 14.13-second standing quarter at a shade under 140km/h.  Similarly, this version also recorded a 0-60mph time of just 5.1 seconds, which further underlined the sporty nature of the design and offered an insight into its core appeal.

This review also revealed the secure and smooth handling associated with the bike, which quickly emerged as another key selling point in both Asia and North America.

Another key feature of Honda’s GB500 is its 20-litre fuel capacity, which is extremely competitive and also underpins efficiencies for riders.  This is just one of many ways in which the GB500 has surprised and delighted customers through the years, and this of course is part of its legend in the modern age.

When you consider its origins, design, and core specification, it’s easy to see why the GB500 has sustained such tremendous appeal in the marketplace.  The fact that it retains iconic status today is a testament to the Honda brand, while it should also serve as an inspiration to any bike manufacturers making motorcycles today.

The History of the Honda GB500 – Where Did It All Start?

In terms of the bike’s origin, the engine of the GB500 was derived from the Honda XL600, which had been initially designed as a dry-sump four-stroke dirt bike and was also launched on the global market in 1985.

Around this capacious, four-valve single-cylinder engine, Honda then built the classic and retro design that we know and love today, complete with a tubular frame, wire-spoked wheels, and striking alloy rims.  Then came the aforementioned pin-striped fuel tank and delightful clip-on handlebars, which completed a unique look in the contemporary market that successfully resembled prominent 50s models such as the Manx Newton and the BSA Gold Star.

Interestingly, the integration of relatively low clip-on handlebars also offered a practical advantage to users thanks to the compact layout of the GB500, as it provided a comfortable riding position that really delivered value on longer journeys.

During the initial design stage, Honda also strived to create a bike that offered excellent handling and a smooth riding experience, which they believed would help to catapult a traditional design into the modern age.  This was certainly a wise and ultimately successful move, not least because it expanded the potential customer base for the model and offered a significant improvement on the handling of the similar XBR500.

Despite being a sibling to the GB500, this model had a wheelbase that was 10mm shorter and contributed to difficult and uneven steering, and Honda definitely wanted to correct this fault with their 1985 model.

Initial Sales Fell Flat

When it was initially launched in Japan, sales were initially sluggish, but this may have had something to do with the uniqueness of the design and the difficulties that Honda had in marketing these to modern customers.

This model was certainly striking, however, and gradually saw improved figures as people began to appreciate its style and superb performance.  The coloring of the initial Japanese iteration also became iconic over time, with a dark maroon tank and side panels really catching the eye.  The inclusion of clip-on handlebars also captured the imagination of riders, while the classic combination of black background and white lettering undoubtedly appealed to the mass market.

By 1989, Honda was confident enough to release a 500cc model on the U.S. market, with this iteration sold in 1989 and 1990 featuring black and green coloring with gold pin-stripping and lettering.  These models also featured chrome wire wheels, which made for an interesting addition and certainly complemented the 18-inch wheels with tube-type tires.

Sales in the U.S. were steady and it was through its exposure to this huge marketplace that the GB500 became a true household name.  As a result, Honda also saw demand for the vehicle grow exponentially across the globe, which in turn saw the model sold to a number of countries through the grey market.

Just three years after the U.S. launch in 1992, a third-party distributor (in agreement with Honda) exported an estimated 1,000 unsold GB500 iterations from North America to Germany.  These were shipped overseas as grey import vehicles, and this type of initiative enabled Honda to boost sales and capitalize on the popularity of the design without dramatically increasing their own cost-base.

Subsequently, we saw both the 400cc and the 500cc versions imported and sold directly by Honda in New Zealand, although the brand was required to make a handful of design alterations to help woo this nation’s customers.  More specifically, the GB came in three specific models here, including the dual seat iteration, the Mk2 with single seat cowling, and a further design with no fairing and a single seat.

Appraising the Legacy of the Honda GB500

Considering that the iconic GB500 was only produced and sold between 1985 and 1990, there’s no doubt that it managed to have a huge impact on the marketplace, while it also established a template for a host of similar, air-cooled single engine bikes that have been released since.

Of course, the model is not immune from criticism, particularly given that the 1000 models exported into Germany in 1992 essentially represented unsold stock from North America.  This simply reflected the undisputed fact that the GB500 model was not fully appreciated during its time, as while sales accelerated towards the end of its manufacturing phase, they never quite realized their full potential.

This is typical of iconic and classic designs, as they tend to age well and gradually gain a cult status once manufacturers have ceased to produce them.

It’s also fair to surmise that we live in an age where retro styling and iconic design (particularly from the 1980s) have become increasingly popular.  This, combined with the advanced mechanical configuration and specification of the 400cc and 500cc iterations, created a proposition that was largely ahead of its time and one that has really captured the imagination of motorcycle enthusiasts in the years since.

In this respect, Honda’s GB500 has created quite a legacy, while continuing to grow in popularity in various locations across the globe.  It’s certainly an inspiration for contemporary air-cooled, single engine designs, and this trend shows no sign of slowing any time soon.

One final note.

If you own a Honda GB500 that needs repairs, you should check out the rest of HappyWrench.com, including the motorcycle repair link database.  You can also reach out to us via the contact page.  A special bike like the GB500 deserves to be road worthy and our site is loaded with useful content that will help you restore, fix, and get that bike back on the road.

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