Almost from birth, Hondas XBR500 was the victim of its own publicity.
Honda themselves were partly to blame. It was to be, in its first year of
production, 1985, the 'Sports Single'; the bike to re-capture the spirit of
sporting singles past: the Velocette, the BSA and Matchless were names that came
to moisten-eyed road testers.
The bike's reception was only a little less 'classic'. While Classic Bore
went the whole hog and tested it directly against a BSA Gold Star (other than
the obvious differences in manners and gearing, they weren't worlds apart), one
J Ryder took the bike to the National Motorcycle Museum reflecting on the
Japanese industry's 'latest attempt to capture the mystique of the British
single.' As he accurately said, however, 'no-one can tell Honda exactly what it
is they're supposed to be copying.'
When it came to the engineering, they took the wise course and built on their
own not inconsiderable heritage of single-cylinder technology. To be fair to the
Brits, though, credit must go to Rudge who were the first to develop a radial
four-valve head between the wars. Honda's heritage was the FT500 road bike and
the radial four-valve head first seen in '84 on the XL250R. In case you don't
already know, the radial four-valve head consists of four valves arranged so
that they sit flush with the hemispherical surface of the combustion chamber.
Thus, with this so-called 'shallow' combustion chamber, a high compression ratio
can be used (8.9:1 on the XBR) along with a large valve area; two factors
otherwise mutually exclusive due to the valves hitting the piston.
The result of this was a reasonable 35hp at the back wheel of the XBR made at
6500rpm. Torque trails off earlier, which means the 29.1ftlb available could be
used nice an early. So, although distinctly un-startling performance was the
order of the day, the top speed of 108mph stressed the frame and running parts a
tad, but anyway the XBR never promised more than back road fun in a bike of
So, Ryder got on with the bike pretty well.
The quality of finish was good for the most part, only the front parts of the
frame -headstock, tubes - can suffer with crud thrown up from the skinny front
mudguard. The suspension told a similar story. Honda compromised for most part
between hi-tech gadgetry and traditional looks; the two rear shocks had remote
reservoirs but only spring pre-load adjustment leaving the damping wanting on
fast, bumpy bends. The box-section swingarm stays well-hidden behind the long
twin silencers (expected life about three years)while the forks came unadorned with antidive or variable damping. They did their job well however and at
least adjustment for passenger carrying was nothing more than a C-spanner job.
This, however, took some fiddling with the instrument to get past the footrest
hanger and chainguard.
The traditional appearance was definitely no accident: check the seat and
tank lines. The latter's 4.2 gallons would keep the bike going for over 200
miles due to the very economical 50mpg returned and the shape, attractive to
most eyes, borrowed much from the sporting singles of yesteryear. The seat won
awards for its comfort factor and with the snug fitting pillion squab attached
the XBR came across as almost aggressive.
Atop the forks sat a rev counter and speedo, both minimalist and the usual
neat Honda fare. Two 18-inch Comstar wheels aided the traditional feel, if not
looks of the XBR and, rear damping problems notwithstanding, the bike would hold
its line very well. OE tyres were usually Bridgestones, but many owners now fit
either Metzelers or Avons; the German tyre doesn't last as long, though.
If the press reception was largley favourable the sales figures started off
well, but tapered off drastically towards the end. A total of 1819 units came
into the UK in all, the boom years being '85 and '86 when 689 and 704 were sold,
respectively. The next year, however, only 123 were unloaded and from then it
was downhill for the model. Various opinions were voiced on why the sales seemed
to fall down after only a couple of years. Surely such a simple, middle-of-the road tool should appeal for longer than any hyper-tech sports bike? Honda UK
maintain that the model, towards the end, had only a limited appeal and an
importer needs to shift more than the hundred or so being punted out in the
XBR'S last year, '89.
Whatever, the often voiced request for a simple, easily maintained single got
its answer in the form of the XBR500. One fortunate outcome of this early
demise, and low sales figures, however is that there are some good, low mileage
examples about for very little money. But is the thumping single worth it?
As with any big single, lubrication is crucial for a long life. The Honda's
dry sump arrangement (a further echo of singles past) meant the engine needed
generous warming before oil topping/changing and some owners have been known to
skimp on this. Watch out: a good oil feed to the busy top of the Honda is
essential so do all you can to check that any owner has been fastidious with the
Another fault, one which it's been difficult to get much information about,
is an occasional tendency to jump out of second gear under hard acceleration.
Only a couple of people have complained of this to us, so it's not a widespread
problem, but watch for it. Some vibration will evidence itself on the XBR, but
it should be uniform and not over alarming. Honda's intricate counter-rotating
balance shaft sits at the front of the engine and does its job well.
One major weakness found commonly with the XBR was the sprag clutch in the
starter motor; this was known to fail on the early (F) models almost without
exception but most will have had this fixed by now. The major area of attention
for both the owner and buyer, however, is the oil. Change it regularly and check
it regularly. The spark plug need checking too; this little bugger is buried
deep in the head and, like the frame at the front, collects dirt. A good tip is,
first, to carry a plug spanner long enough to retrieve the plug, and second, keep it covered in Coppaslip to ease removal. The gap
needs watching too.
Several mods had to be done to the carb, too. Due to strict emission laws the
39mm CV Keihin ran pretty lean so, under warranty, both jets were re-sized and
in some instances the valve cleances were widened. As a last resort the seats of
the valves were re-cut to effect proper running. Again, quiz the owner/dealer
about all this but you'll be unlucky to get caught at this stage of the game. Yi is nol urtonown either lor the CV diapragm to split, a replacement
for which will set you back over £40. In all, the carburation and hot weather
running are not perfect and if a model does stall occasionally, don't worry
unduly. They all do that Sir.
The brakes, a single disc up front with double piston caliper and a drum at
the back, need watching. The front should be looked after well and cleaned
regularly; again, quiz the owner about this if you're buying. The rear will, to
quote one long time XBR-er, eat brake shoes' so this should come as no surprise.
Their performance won praise at the time of the bike's introduction so, with
proper loving care and attention, they should still be up to scratch.
The XBR is a robust motorcycle. Several reports of bad knocks suggest the
handlebars and footrests take much of the strain and the lack of expensive
fibreglass makes it a good bike for town work. Indeed this, and bimbling along
the country lanes below 90mph, is where the XBR represents both tun and value tor money. Prices are variable, but you can expect to pay
around £1500 for a reasonable to good example, and less if there's any damage or
very high mileage. As usual watch for the ones that have been dispatched
although the type of rider the XBR attracts usually guarantees freedom from the
worst abuse. Powerbronze make a nice faring for the bike which keeps the trad
looks and some rain off you, but compromises something in traffic
The XBR seems a forgotten idea now. No-one is producing a no-nonsense road
going single; the engine configuration has been confined, somewhat unfairly, to
the trail bike sector. Perhaps the best contemporary comparison is Suzuki's
versatile GS500E which, like the XBR, is simple, easy to ride and fun. It lacks
the classic looks of the Honda though and, for the seriously retro, the last
couple of hundred Honda brought-in featured spoked wheels and hinted at what was
to come: the GB500. This, an out an out Vetocette copy selling well in Japan and the US. is where many would have
wished Honda UK to go after supplies of the XBR dried up They're still thinking
about it. we are told.
In the meantime there are quite a few XBRs up for grabs and a friend even got
one new early this year for a very low price - the dealer just couldn't shift it
It represents a type of biking that keeps raising its ugly head but never quite
keeps it above water a mixture of simplicity and tradition, modern technology
and reliability. Whether the GB500 makes it onto these shores remains to be seen
Honda could certainly do with something new at the moment In the meantime I'll
leave you with this: in a comparison test a couple of years ago with Yamaha's
flawed SRX600, one T Isitt lapped the Isle of Man TT Circuit at an average of
77mph on a XRR500 That's the fastest he's managed yet quicker than various Jotas
and one Transalp.
Source Motorcycle International 1990