I’d like you to play a little mind game with me.
Break out your mental ‘Etch-a-sketch’ and imagine a motorcycle.
First draw two circles, close to the same size, that describe the wheels. One rectangle towards the rear gives you a bench seat. A jellybean shape provides your fuel tank. A cylinder, maybe two. Give the rider some grips to grab onto, a headlight, and a pipe or two to get noise out of those cylinders, and there it is.
Unlike the ‘Famous Artist’s School’ Drawing lessons whose ads festooned a misspent youth’s worth of matchbooks and motorcycle magazines, 4 payments of $4.95 are not required – this drawing lesson is free.
What you’ve drawn looks just like a Honda CB360T. Or a Triumph Bonneville. Or a Norton International, Matchless G12 or a Royal Enfield Bullet.
Your mind’s eye has produced an iconic, simple, classic standard motorcycle.
And in your mind’s eye is likely where that classic motorcycle will stay, because almost no-one still manufactures a product that looks or functions like that.
Think about what motorcycles are out there in the marketplace, and which ones sell in substantial volumes. There are all manner of racetrack refugees – Yamaha YZF-R1s, Suzuki GSXR 1000s, BMW RR1000s, Kawasaki ZX-10s. Such motorcycles are extraordinary pieces of engineering, capable of blistering lap times and stunning top speeds that would have had them on the GP Podiums of 20 years ago.
Most of us, though, just want to get to work with our laptop and lunchbox, take a ride to the grocery store, or put our girlfriend (or boyfriend) on the back seat for a Sunday afternoon ride. Good luck transporting anything bigger than a granola bar, or any SO over 5 feet tall as a passenger on one of these machines.
Other specialized motorcycle designs abound. Heavy Tourers. Sport Tourers. Adventure Bikes. Cruisers. Baggers Bikes with more power, more mass, more suspension travel, more complexity, more function, but with more focus – being good at one thing at the expense of others. Good on the Interstate but a wrestling match in the city. Sweet on a single track but a tall mess on the pavement.
I’m as guilty as any rider of feeding the specialization beast. I have a vintage sport bike, racer boy bubble and all. I have a scrambler – which was riding dirt before anyone coined the term. I have a GT Bike – fairings, panniers and top case – complex adjustable fairings and artsy alternate suspension. It can carve twisty pavement with a week’s gear on board at 80 mph and can do it for weeks at a time. Its motor has a bigger displacement than half the cars in Italy.
My first street motorcycle was a 1973 CB750. It was bone stock – save for a universal chrome tube luggage rack, with a Green Spring Valley Dairy milkcrate bolted on.
Why does it feel like I’ve lost something?
My youngest son Finn is also a rider, and although he gets some, doesn’t really need any encouragement from me. As an Architect in Training, Finn has a developed design eye. When he first started looking at motorcycles, he was immediately drawn to one of those last few remaining classic motorcycles, the Royal Enfield. He intuitively understood the Bullet’s classic design language and intent. Had Finn had as much income as he had discerning taste, he’d have bought one, too.
His first few years in the saddle – using his bike for daily transportation – were spent aboard a Buell Blast single whose purchase was mostly based on the $900 it cost to buy. Being an Architect and not a mechanic, Finn found himself the recipient of increasingly frequent not quite social visits from me and from ever increasing percentages of my toolkit stuffed into the saddlebags of the aforementioned GT bike.
After the Blast’s engine fell out, it became clear, even to me, that some more material adjustments needed to be made to Finn’s riding life, and those adjustments were spelled H-O-N-D-A.
After about 639 phone calls to Baltimore’s Pete’s Cycle, my credit union and my Allstate agent, Finn had a brand new 2016 CB500F parked in my garage – at least until its permanent license plate showed up.
Two circles, one rectangle, one jellybean, some grips, two cylinders, a headlight and a pipe.
So it was with a light and expectant heart that I pulled on my leathers and my helmet, and rolled the CB out of my garage.
It’s not difficult to see the classic motorcycles of the past in the CB’s profile. Its parallel twin engine, sit up riding profile, and relaxed footpeg position carry obvious echos of the original CB450 Black Bomber, and the Triumph Bonneville that it was designed to vanquish. There are a few concessions to modernity – the bike’s 471 cc motor is liquid cooled, fuel injected, and has a double overhead cam, 4 valve cylinder head. Honda’s stylists did their best to pay homage to the tank shape and tailsection of Marc Marquez’ championship winning RC213V.
Fingering the starter yields immediate action – the bike’s exhaust note has a whistling quality which comes from the fuel injection pump and the operation of the injectors being the loudest sounds coming from the motor. The CB’s reaction to throttle is immediate – the engine’s square bore and stroke design has almost no flywheel.
On the road, the CB is a dream. The 6 speed transmission shifts positively – downshifts are a treat given the engine’s immediate response to a blips of the throttle. The quality of the engine’s power delivery is sneaky fast – there’s just enough communication to let you know that this is a twin, but the quality of the vibration is always pleasant – at higher RPMs and highway speeds the motor smooths out admirably. Above 6000 rpm that twin is ripping.
Cornering behavior is exemplary – the bike is narrow, weighs just over 400 lbs wet, cuts entries and changes direction like a scalpel and holds its cornering line securely even at extreme lean angles. Suspension is taut but comfortable. The bike’s 4 piston Nissin single rotor front brake is more than enough for the CB’s low mass.
I find myself seeking out tighter and more technical stretches of Frederick County pavement as the tires scrub in. I’m working the bike’s throttle, making full use of all 6 gears, and spending some quality time with the horizon anywhere but horizontal.
The CB500F has not been a sales leader for Honda. This bike was a leftover 2016 that was deeply discounted at the end of the 2017 sales year. On the West Coast, examples can be bought new for more than 35% off the current MSRP. Our American Riding Brothers and Sisters will tell you that its engine is “too small” and that it isn’t track ready, tour ready or adventure ready. All of that misses the point completely. Anywhere else in the world, where 2 wheeled transportation means a world of 125s, 350 Bullets, two strokers and motorscooters, the CB is an aspirational motorcycle – more attractive and better performing at a price that normal humans, and more importantly in the US, young riders, can afford.
Sitting in my driveway looking at the CB with Finn, it’s clear that we agree with those riders. Neither one of us ever gets tired of looking at the CB, and Finn’s opinion is “This is my new favorite thing in the entire world”.
Better still, is the CB is just grin-inducingly and totally fun to ride.
And isn’t that why we ride?
This story originally appeared in the January/February Issue of Motorcycle Times.