Honda VT500E, Point Of Origin !

Forgotten, and few and far between, the Honda VT500E is an endangered species on the point of disappearing into the mists of time. A sad state of affairs for what was a hugely significant machine...

In the early 1980s Honda was on a mission, not a single-focused ultimate-truth type mission, instead one of increasing divergence and expanding imagination, creating multiple futures, each with a dazzling complexity possibly never before seen in motorcycling.

Honda upped its game in the 1980s, spending inestimable millions on R&D to create all manner of new engine configurations. While singles and twins would replace the smaller fours – clearly being more economic solutions for the performance parameters of the light-middleweight classes – for middleweight-to-large-capacity machines Honda adopted no end of new designs. However, it was the vee engine configuration that underscored most of these : V-twins of varying angle and capacities and V-fours, essentially 90º, from 400 to 1000cc. The vees powered everything from cruisers to supersports.

Honda VT500E : The V-Twin Engine

When Honda unveiled the VT500E in 1983 it was then part of that wave of new machinery that arrived so thick and fast we could barely keep pace. Only a year earlier Honda had given us the VT250F which had tried to compete with the 250cc two-strokes on the roads. It hadn’t succeeded, but as a 90º V-twin 250 it was still a gem of a machine, one that would bounce back in 2000 as the VTR250 (something of a mini-Monster, trellis frame and all). There’d also been the new CBX550F – perhaps to make sales to those who were still actually rather enjoying the inline four experience. Even in 1983 the VT500E had to share the limelight and was mostly overshadowed by the sporty new VF400F.

Honda was sub-compartmentalising the capacity categories perhaps as never before. Its middleweight offerings were becoming countless: CB400N, FT500, XL500R, XBR500, VF400F, CBX550, CX500E, VT500E... and more besides.

The VT500E was intended as a successor to the CX500. It sat in the same performance parameter, the CX having been quite sporty – despite appearances – producing 50 HP at 9.500 RPM, so the VT500E again produced 50 hp, but a little earlier, at 9.000 RPM. Both were capable of 110+mph – a match for Yamaha’s XJ550 and Kawasaki’s Z550 (both air-cooled eight-valve inline fours) and easily bettering European mid-size exotica like the Laverda 500SFC and Moto Morini 500 Sport.

But where the CX500 (Honda’s first V-twin) had been aesthetically challenging – especially that across the frame 80º V water-cooled motor – the fore-and-aft 52º water-cooled V-twin VT motor made for a more traditional, appealing, layout – one the American customers (who bought the VT as a Shadow custom or Ascot pseudo flat tracker) might liken to their own Harley-Davidson (which is a 45º vee), while us Europeans would most like compare it to a Moto-Morini (a 72º vee) or the Ducati Pantah (a 90º vee).

The VT’s stand-out technical feature – one that’s endured to the present day – was the design of the V-twin motor. While the vee angle was 52º, by offsetting the two crankpins by 76º (instead of setting both con rods on the one crankpin, as with the Ducati) Honda was able to effectively set up the firing strokes to mimic those of a 90º V-twin. This brought together the perfect primary balance that the 90º layout enjoys with the altogether more compact arrangement of the narrow-angle vee. It was by no means an original concept, but it was perfectly applied by Honda.

Unfortunately not everything about the VT500E was so perfect. The two Hy-Vo cam chains were held in check by automatic tensioners that often didn’t, leading to mechanical chaos and expensive warranty claims. And while the CX500 had featured fairly racy four-valve heads, Honda had reverted to a three-valve design for the VT requiring the complexity of two spark plugs per head to achieve a complete combustion.

And while the outward splay of the CX’s heads made home maintenance a doddle, the VT’s heads were buried under the steering head and under the seat making access for valve adjustment super-tight, with partial engine removal mentioned for reaching the rear cylinder head...

Honda VT500E Styling

Other matters were also compromised. With both exhaust ports exiting on the right hand side (such as with Harleys) this led to an impossible exhaust run for a sport bike, fixed by creating a bulky (and ultimately rot-prone) ‘pre-chamber’ under the frame, with two conical mufflers emerging, to create a sense of apparent harmony. However, Honda was at least able to match the motor with a suitably modern six-speed gearbox (the CX was a five-speed) and again a no-fuss shaft final drive.

The chassis was a similarly curious mix of new and not-so new technologies. The double cradle steel frame featured twin top tubes splayed so as to accommodate the two Keihin CV downdraft carbs and the awkwardly arranged airbox. The forks were 37mm telescopic units, air-assisted (by adding between 0 and 6psi as preload) but without the antidive systems seen on other sports models. Likewise, at a time when Pro-Link rear suspension was being found on other new models, here Honda adopted a conventional twin-shock set-up, with FVQ units, although at a rakish laid-down angle.

The shocks were inevitably criticised for a lack of damping, but with taper roller bearings to the swingarm there was integrity in the design. Honda was very excited by its new concept of the inboard ventilated disc brakes, but few shared its enthusiasm, recognising a solution to a problem that no longer existed, and a level of complexity that was sure to become a chore to maintain.

The styling followed the Honda’s new Eurosport vernacular as seen on the CX500E, with the latest boomerang Comstar wheels, neatly flowing and integrated bodywork and a new level of sophistication and unification in the instrumentation. It was slim and swoopy, only in a Japanese manner, not quite as classical as European examples at the time. The slim lines weren’t just styling, Honda’s last CX500 had weighed a hefty 207kg, but the new VT was a svelte 177kg, with a lower centre-of-gravity, too.

When launched the VT500E didn’t disappoint : only it didn’t exactly thrill either. Soon 600cc fours would be capable of 140 then 150mph, and so the mid-tune VT was quite simply consumed by the march of progress.

The VT500E was by no means a bad bike. It certainly handled well enough and it held on for a six-year production run, although never selling in huge numbers, before being superceded by the NTV600 (in sturdy Revere trim for the UK market). And ultimately this was to be the VT500E’s legacy – not so much a classic icon, but as the point of origin for a line of mid-performance V-twins that would last the next 30 years.

Honda VT500E Ride Test !

This VT500E is wearing the odd dent, scuff and knock, but in fact it’s looking remarkably fresh for its age. This isn’t a resto, either, but it has clearly been looked after all these decades, it still shines and – by appearances – sits keenly, waiting.

The beauty (or otherwise) of the aesthetics are debatable, but it is in essence a lean mean – if not quite fighting – machine. Certainly there’s no suggestion of excess with this model and if you were to be objective you’d say its proportions are long and slim. There’s a rakish handlebar fairing and the upswept conical exhausts are sporty and pleasingly symmetrical.

First initiation brings reflective thoughts: sometimes we forget just how quickly the Japanese improved motorcycle technology through the 1970s and 80s. Jump on an early 1970s machine and the experience is often quite wild and woolly. Carburettors gasp, suck, cough and spit. Cranks rumble lethargically, reluctantly taking the order for full speed ahead, head gaskets spray a fine mist of oil as the pressure within increases.

The frames flex, the suspension sags and bounces, the tyres simply skid over the road’s surface – and let’s not even talk about the brakes. All this was as good as banished by 1983.

Start the engine on the VT500E and it fires into life almost eagerly, the noise is muted on all counts, the water-cooled motor is Swiss-watch quiet while those exhausts are seriously muted. The ride position speaks of efficiency, the handlebars are narrow, modest in height, the seat is almost bucket type, but not wide like the CX500’s, and the foot pegs – clearly positioned with a nod to spirited cornering – are high and rear-set.

The shaft drive makes itself known as you select first gear – there’s a BMW-like clonk as first is selected – but after this the gearbox is entirely normal, quiet and unfussy in operation. The V-twin character also makes itself known straight away as the torque propels the VT500E swiftly, if not urgently, from quite modest revs. Where on a four you’ll be dialling in the revs, waiting for the engine to come onto cam, with the V-twin the action starts earlier and builds progressively. The performance is – and I’m sure Honda must have trademarked the word – linear.

There’s also an immediate affection formed for this bike, for a middleweight V-twin is surely a wellbalanced beast. Just as Ducati Pantah owners swear blind the 600cc belt drive L-twin is the consummate Ducati, just as R65 owners say the mini-boxer is the smoothest of all BMWs, so a VT500E owner will probably tell you just how beautifully balanced this motor is. It rides as easy as a smaller machine, requiring little in the way of input, but the performance is surprisingly ample and in the real world of British A and B roads it’s got the perfect cadence to make for swift and easy progress. You’re not left wanting for more.

Honda’s quality is found in many a detail. There are no significant vibes, no jolts, no awkward protuberances. The mirrors stay clear at all revs, always giving a clear and full appraisal of the action in your wake. The handlebar controls obey your digital commands faultlessly, the instruments offer a clear and easily-read reference.

The much-maligned inboard disc brake does a fair job and the drum rear is competent in support. The forks are no-nonsense telescopic – free of the anti-dive nonsense of the era – and that’s a steady-away 18in front wheel so there’s no oddball front-end behaviour. The handling is as you’d expect, properly balanced, a little less than real sports, a little more than plain roadster.


The VT500E in fact has more personality than its looks suggest. It’s understated, almost unpromising, and so the ride is surprisingly captivating. Perhaps it’s not every rider’s cup of tea – our own Mark Haycock found little love for his VT500E project of a good few years back – but as an antidote to the usual mid-80s fare of YPVSs or 500-550cc fours it’s an interesting and practical alternative. When the ride is over I’m actually wanting for more – and that’s a positive indicator if there ever was one.

A more unloved model it’s hard to imagine. By any conventional measure this is not a classic, just a pile of aging rotting metal. And that is a shame because if for no other reason than pinpointing a moment in history, being able to say ‘it all began here’, this bike is relevant, significant even. Without the VT500E we wouldn’t have the Revere, the Deauville (some might say we’d be better off too), the Bros, the Hawk and we wouldn’t have the Transalp and XRV Africa Twin. The VT500E was the first time we saw the 52º V-twin with 76º offset crankpins and that this configuration has stayed with us to this day must say something.

Honda’s V-twin, brand new in 1983, was a decent machine and having created such a legacy should have creditability – heck, this motor (modified) even has four Dakar Rally wins to its name. And this machine here was the daddy, it all started with the VT500E. But do we care? Do we fu... er, flip.

Honda VT500E Timeline & Model Change :

1983 VT500ED

With 50hp and 177kg the VT has similar power to the outgoing CX500 but significantly less weight. Top speed is the same, but it flies up the quarter-mile over half a second faster (13.9s) – it’s a slightly sportier, slightly lighter middleweight. New slim swoopy styling is very 80s Honda. Boy racers prefer YPVSs, others are drawn by the latest tuned 550-fours so the VT500 finds the bulk of its sales with steady types and, conversely, mad-as despatch riders. Colours: red, white, or blue.

1986 VT500EF

The VT has suffered similar afflictions to other Hondas of the era, not least cam chain issues. The EF features a new design on the tensioner, but there are also updates to the heads, big ends, oil pipes, gearbox and shaft drive. Nothing massive, but careful updates. Externally virtually nothing changes except the go-faster stripe which now swoops over the Honda wing on the petrol tank. Colours: red, blue


It’s all over for the VT500E, seen off by the fancy-styled Revere – same motor, now taken out to 647cc having been bored and stroked.

Honda VT500E Specifications

Manufacturing: Honda Motor Co.

Model: VT500E

Year Built: 1983 - 1988

Engine: 4-Stroke, 52º V-Twin, SOHC 6-Valve, Liquid-Cooled

Bore x Stroke: 71 x 62 mm

Cylinder capacity: 491 cc

Fuel System : Keihin CV32

Compression ratio: 10.5: 1

Transmission: 6-Speed

Starter: Electric Starter

Max Power: 50 HP @ 9,000 RPM

Max Torque: 42 N.m @ 7,000 RPM

Top Speed: 110 MPH (182 Km / h)

Wheelbase: 1,480 mm

Seat height: 813 mm

Ground Clearance : 130 mm

Dry Weight: 177 kg

Fuel tank capacity: 18 Liter

Frame: Steel - Double Cradle

Front Suspension : Water-Assisted Telescopic Fork

Rear Suspension: Dual-Adjustable pivoted Shockbreaker

Front Brakes : Hydraulic disc, 2 piston calipers

Rear Brakes : Drum

Front Tyre: 100 / 90-18

Rear Tyre: 120 / 80-18