Words & pics: Guy Allen
You’ve got to love the roundabout way in which some bikes manage to slither their way into the fleet. A couple of months ago, a Honda XBR500 would have been close to last on my list of possible shed dwellers, but here we are with a 1986 example firmly ensconced in the line-up.
Here’s how it happened (I think): Spouse Ms M snr has decided our eldest unmarried, Ms M jnr, needs to exercise her largely unused motorcycle licence. According to the former, she might meet some ‘nice boys’ that way. This begs a few questions – such as which males Ms M snr has been riding with lately. If they’re ‘nice’, it’s clearly no-one I know.
Anyway, this raised the issue of a suitable motorcycle. A CB400F was high on the list. Whatever the choice, it had to be small and light and confidence-inspiring, while able to hold highway speeds with ease. That plan was thrown off course by a recent road trip.
Last long weekend, Ms M snr and I had a couple of social engagements on the Murray River – namely the annual rallies for the SR500 Club (www. sr500club.org) and the Iron Indian Riders Association (www.ironindian. com.au). I’m a member of both. This necessitated taking the ultimate odd-couple, Sonny the Yamaha SRX600 and Red the Indian Chief. To date we hadn’t used the Yam for a long trip, so it was a case of strapping on a sheepskin seat pad, throwing Ms M snr the keys, and hoping for the best.
The SRX, as I anticipated, had no trouble keeping up with the big Indian on the freeway and was perfectly capable of running rings around it once the road changed into sets of tight little curves. The single is too small for me to be comfortable on for any length of time but the rather more petite Ms M loved it. She agreed something like that would be perfect for eldest daughter, with one major difference – it must have an electric start, which the SRX doesn’t. It can be a bit of a bugger to get going.
Enter the natural enemy of the SRX when it was new: Honda’s XBR500. As a staffer on Australian Motorcycle News, I got to ride these things side by side when they were launched locally. The Yamaha was the better handling package and had more low-end grunt, while the Honda had the top-end legs and a significantly higher top speed at just over 160km/h. They claimed nearly identical dry weights and max power (155kg and 33.1kW/45hp, or thereabouts), though the Honda was taller and had one huge advantage over its rival – the electric start.
Honda has built a number of variants over the years including a GB series with wire wheels and more of a classic café racer look. The 500 powerplant was based loosely on the XR unit of the day but, in fact, went through a substantial re-engineering process, which means that few parts can be interchanged.
A cruise through the classifieds unearthed the example you see here. It was in very rough condition but salvageable at $2100. The poor thing had clearly been sitting out in the weather for a year or two, the tyres were shot, the fork seals gone, chain and sprockets past their prime and it generally needed a lot of care.
Its most obvious sin was the appalling home-made exhaust which the vendor optimistically referred to as “TT style”. I’ve seen some spectacularly unsuccessful attempts at barnyard engineering over the years but this was the biggest abomination to come up on the radar in a very long time. Adding injury to insult, the nitwit responsible cut one of the sidecovers in half to fit it and had the outlet so close to the tail that it melted a hole in it.
I was immediately on the internet, sourcing used parts. It’s interesting to note that Honda stocks an excellent range of new stuff right here and, if my intention had been to restore to original, that’s where I’d start. In this case, the bike is going to be a workhorse. Ms M jnr is concerned she’ll crash it, so there’s no point in scaring her further by making it pristine. When she isn’t using it to refamiliarise herself with the delights of motorcycling, I’ll make use of it as a commuter.
Maybe one day, when there’s the time and inclination, I’ll look at a resto. So, I bought a spare set of decals (which gives me the option of doing a respray at some stage) for $54 from the UK, a used sidecover ($60) from the Netherlands and a battle-scarred but serviceable original exhaust system($180) from Germany.
Stafford Motorcycles did the refresh for me – I just didn’t have time. Once we covered a service, battery, tyres, driveline and forks, the bill was pushing $1600. That includes a lot of consumables and I now have a mount that’s in good shape. At this stage, it’s only done a few test kays post-rebuild but indications are it’s exactly as I remember these bikes from 25 years ago: light, nimble and with more than enough urge to hold its own in traffic.
Given the recent revival in the popularity of single-cylinder road bikes, led by the now incredibly expensive SR500, I reckon we don’t have anything to lose with this motorcycle.
It’s a fun bit of kit to play with and it will serve a couple of useful functions. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll one day get enthusiastic enough to return this lovely single to its former glory.
– Light and easy to handle
– Good performance
– Roomier than an SRX
– Able commuter
– Not quite as sharp as an SRX in terms of handling
– Bigger than an SRX
MORE INFO, VICAR?
Thanks to its short lifespan on the market, there is remarkably little published info out there on the XBR.
You can however get a digitised (PDF) version of the factory service manual. I got mine online through www.bekmanuals.tradebit.com for $16. Beware the free download sites – they’re usually a scam.
The XBR’s later cousin, the GB500, has a few owner groups online – one of the more accessible ones is in the USA, via Yahoo groups (called Honda GB500 Owners & Enthusiasts). You might also find some joy with an international single-cylinder bike club at thumperclub.com.
Blue City Motorcycles (see www.bluecitymotorcycles.com.au) has a full Honda new parts listing on its website – a great resource.
1986 Honda XBR500
Type: Air-cooled, SOHC, fourstroke, four-valve single cylinder
Bore x Stroke: 92mm x 75mm
Compression Ratio: 8.9:1
Fuel System: 39mm CV carburettor
Type: Five-speed, constant mesh
Final Drive: Chain
CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame Type: Single downtube steel
Front Suspension: Conventional 35mm fork, nonadjustable
Rear Suspension: Twin shocks, adjustable for preload
Front Brakes: Single 276mm disc with twin-piston caliper
Rear Brake: 140mm drum
DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Dry Weight: 157kg
Seat Height: 787mm
Fuel Capacity: 19lt
Max Power: 33.1kW (44hp) at 7000rpm
Max Torque: 43.1Nm (31.8ft-lb) at 6000rpm
Price when new: $4250 (plus ORC)
Price now: $2000-$5000