A Curious Case of Anglo-Japanese Collaboration: How the World’s Most Successful Motorcycle Maker Borrowed Design Ideas from a Small, Venerable, and Extinct British Bike Factory [1]

James J. Ward

I first laid eyes on one in 1996 or 1997 in an unlikely setting, at the AMA-sanctioned Freemansburg Hill Climb which takes place twice each year near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Tired of watching nitro-fueled hanger-framed machines trying to hurdle their way up a 500-foot incline, gouged with ruts and gulleys and lined by rocks and trees, I wandered into one of the fields used for spectators’ parking. A thousand or two bikes, most of them Harleys of one kind or another, were pastured in neat rows. Amidst acres of chrome and metalflake, a scattering of BSAs and Triumphs—of both Meriden and Hinckley origin—leavened the v-twin mix, and a couple of Norton Commandos rounded out the UK representation. At the far end of the field, where members of one of the tougher Philadelphia area motorcycle clubs were taking advantage of what little shade was available, I came across a machine that stopped me in my tracks. It was small and compact and had a lustrous black tank discreetly lined with gold pinstriping. As I kneeled down to examine the mechanicals, I realized that it was a Honda I had never heard of, a GB500 Tourist Trophy, the TT suffix according to the transfers on the side panels. The single-cylinder motor sported dual headers that blended neatly into an under-frame collector box and exited in a reverse-cone megaphone that recalled the so-called peashooters Norton had used on the Commando. A pair of braided stainless steel lines took care of the oil supply.

Photograph of a Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy motorcycle

Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy. [Fig.1]

The Honda was a handsome bike, from the large tank with generous knee cut-outs to the gracefully curved single seat with its quarter-oval bum stop. Twin chromed clocks, clip-ons, rear-sets, and spoked wheels added to its appeal. The more I inspected it, the little Honda brought to mind the AJS 7R, the 350cc single-cylinder “Boy’s Racer” that had fared well in clubman’s competitions in the 1950s and ‘60s and is still being campaigned successfully in vintage contests around the world. Admittedly, the Honda was a road bike and its engine shouted production line as compared to the 7R’s race-shop motor with its gold-painted magnesium alloy castings. Nor was the Honda’s Commando-like exhaust reminiscent of the huge megaphone used on the early 7Rs, in which a small child left to himself might easily disappear. Still, it was an eye-catcher and was unlike anything I was familiar with coming out of the world-beating Japanese motorcycle industry. My guess was that Honda’s design engineers had spent some time studying the classic British singles of the postwar era.[2]

I encountered the GB500 again at the following year’s annual British Motorcycle Day (later expanded to include European classics) held in Germantown, Maryland. This time there were two of them, parked side by side, both in perfect condition. Already I had surveyed the rows of BSAs, Triumphs, Nortons, Enfields, Vincents, and Velocettes on display so I had the British bike paradigm very much in mind. Once more I thought how “right” those Hondas looked, and I made a mental note that maybe I should think about acquiring one. At this point, full disclosure is in order. My early interest—that’s an understated way of putting it—in British motorcycles had coincided with the waning days of a once proud industry; within a few years the remaining companies would close and on the race tracks the Manxes, 7Rs, and G50s had clearly seen their best days—not just the future, but the present belonged to multi-cylinder exotics from Italy and Japan, and the giant mosquito sound of two-strokers was already being heard in the large displacement classes. None of this sat well with me, as my motorcycle education had come in the company of Trophies and Bonnevilles and Lightnings and Atlases. All of these went by the boards, and it was only with the growth of the classic bike scene in the 1980s that I began to pay attention to the meets, auctions, and magazines that attend to it. And so I came upon that little Honda which seemed so effectively to have captured the ethos of the bikes I had once so admired and wanted to own.[3]

Borrowing British

It had been done before, as anyone familiar with the history of the Japanese motorcycle industry knows. In 1953 the Meguro Manufacturing Company, which had produced motorcycles for the Japanese war effort, acquired license to build a copy of the BSA 500cc A7 twin for sale on the domestic market. Over the next several years the Meguro company, taking advantage of the government’s restrictive tariff policies, turned out a series of BSA-based parallel twins, the last of which effectively cloned the Birmingham company’s 650cc A10 model. In the early 1960s Kawasaki acquired control of Meguro, for a time producing several motorcycles under the combined name. In 1965 the Meguro brand was discontinued and Kawasaki introduced its own version of the 650cc parallel twin, designated the W1.[4] While the W1 appeared a close copy of BSA’s pre-unit twin, it differed it some significant ways, most notably its internal engine design where a shorter stroke allowed higher revs and, theoretically at least, greater power to the back wheel. Over the next ten years, the W1 went through several iterations before it was taken out of production in 1975. Twenty years later, Kawasaki returned to another British classic when it began design on a new “retro” model, released to the world market in 1999 as the W650. This time the inspiration was the Bonneville, which was immediately apparent in overall design, tank and seat styling, and badges and colors. The mechanicals were different, with an overhead cam eight-valve engine, Ducati-style bevel-gear drive at the top end, and electronic ignition. With the W650, Kawasaki managed to get its version of Triumph’s iconic twin into production two years before the reconstituted Triumph Company fielded the first of its “new” Bonnevilles. Sales in the US, however, proved disappointing, and the W650 was pulled from that all-important market after only two years. Still, the growing interest in “classic-styled” motorcycles was too strong for Kawasaki to ignore, and in 2011 the company premiered an updated 770cc version of the W650, to be sold as the W800. On its part, in 2016 Triumph introduced a five-model range of “second generation” Bonnevilles with 900cc or 1200cc water-cooled engines, with careful camouflaging to preserve as much as possible of the look of the 1960s original.[5]

For some time Kawaski’s W650 has enjoyed favorable attention from the classic bike magazines and on the related web sites, and the inevitable comparisons with both the “old” and the “new” Bonneville have resulted either in a draw or with a slight edge given to the Japanese look-alike.[6] Predictably, interest in the W650 is overshadowed by that directed to the “modern” vertical twins from Japan, the bikes that helped hasten the decline of the British motorcycle industry in the late 1960s s and themselves now enjoy “classic” status. Overhead cam engines, six-speed transmissions, disc brakes up front, electric start, and oil-tight running were a hard combination to beat; plus the Honda CB450 (the Black Bomber) and the Yamaha XS650 looked so good.[7]

The fraught subject of the demise of the British bike industry and the part played by the Japanese competition often goes back to the famous visit to Japan in 1960 made by Edward Turner, at the time Managing Director of the BSA-Triumph group.[8] As recounted by Steve Koerner, Turner toured the Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha factories and was impressed by the automation and efficiency of their production lines as compared to those of their British counterparts, where nineteenth-century technology and its equivalent work methods were still much in evidence. At Honda, Turner saw a factory that could turn out 30,000 vehicles a month, more than Triumph’s annual production at its Meriden works. But because over half of Honda’s output were 50cc Super Cubs, introduced two years earlier and burgeoning in sales worldwide, Turner was confident that Britain’s lead in the market for large-displacement, performance-oriented motorcycles was secure. Brilliant in other aspects of motorcycle design and marketing, Turner completely misjudged both the capabilities and the intentions of his Japanese hosts.[9]

In the late 1970s, having conquered just about everything else, the Japanese companies turned to breathe some life into the road-going 500cc single sector, British makes like AJS, Matchless, and Velocette all having given up the ghost (the Indian-made Enfield Bullet was still in production but had little appeal in Europe and the US). Honda and Yamaha had engines available from the trail bikes they had been building for some time, which although not in the same league as Maicos and Husqvarnas performed adequately for amateur purposes. Converting these engines for road use was relatively simple in technical terms, but putting them into a package that would prove attractive to buyers outside Japan proved more challenging. Honda got off on the wrong foot with the FT500 Ascot—named for the California flat track—by adding electric start to its off-road XR engine and surrounding it with flashy bodywork. The result was a heavier, slower motorcycle that literally cried out for speciality tuning; a friend in the Boston area “Velo-ized” his with a black-and-gold tank, Velocette transfers, and a fishtail silencer. The Ascot sold in the US for two years only (1982 and 1983) and was replaced with the equally short-lived twin-cylinder VT500. Yamaha did better with the single-lung SR500, derived from the successful XT500 off-roader, one of the company’s first excursions into four-stroke territory. First marketed in 1978, the SR500 won praise for the simplicity of its design, its reliability, and its competitive performance thanks to its high-reving engine and low weight. The SR remained in production until 1990—it is still being made in the 400cc guise—and continues to enjoy respect in the classic bike scene today.[10]

In 1985 Honda made another try at the road-going big single market with the XBR500, putting an oversquare (92mm x 75mm) version of the XR engine into a new frame and dressing it in contemporary café racer styling. With a four-valve head and an 8.9 to 1 compression ratio, the XBR was rated at 40 or so horsepower, although a good bit was lost at the rear wheel. Still, it was appreciably more than the ill-fated Ascot had offered. The short stroke and the radial four valve (RFVC) head allowed the XBR to rev freely, with maximum torque and horsepower coming on between 6000 and 7000 rpm. Dry sumping gave the RFVC engine a relatively low profile, and a front-mounted balance shaft kept vibrations at a tolerable level. A five-speed box and a dry weight of just under 400 pounds meant that the XBR was no slouch on the road and if pushed could top the ton, something the Ascot, at least in stock form, never achieved. All in all, the XBR was an attractive package, and it may have won over some big single enthusiasts who otherwise would have opted for Yamaha’s SR.[11] Sales, however, were not up to Honda’s targets, with fewer than 2000 being sold in the UK—presumably sales in the US were better, yet lagged behind projections—and after a couple of years Honda’s design wizards were sent back to the drafting table to decide what to do next.

Honda Looks to the Isle of Man, and Not Just to Win Races

What they came up with was the GB500, sent to Europe and the US while Japan and other Pacific markets got a trimmed down 400cc version; New Zealand received a lot of the smaller bikes. The UK seems to have received neither, although a sizable number of 400 and 500cc models have now found their way into the hands of British enthusiasts. While the GB500 retained the XBR’s basic architecture—frame, running gear, geometry—it came with the striking new bodywork described above, spoked wheels, a peashooter exhaust, and the rest. For the US, the lustrous paint on the tank and side panels was coded as black/green, although some spec sheets had it as black/olive. The effect, in bright sunlight, was a black with gold pinstriping combination that recalled the signature colors of Sunbeam, Rudge, Velocette, and of course the AJS 7R. The response by American partisans of these hallowed makes was, not surprisingly, strongly favorable. Writing in Cycle World, veteran sportscar and motorcycle journalist Peter Egan gave the GB500 an all-around thumbs-up. Fighting to keep nostalgia in check, Egan waxed eloquent about the Honda’s fidelity to the classic racers that had dominated at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Thruxton, and the Isle of Man. Was it as “classic” as a Velocette Clubman, Egan asked. Of course not, he wrote, answering his own question. Nor would it ever command the value of one of those much-loved Hall Green singles, nor of a Gold Star or of a one-lung racer that came out of the AMC race shop in South London. But it had the “right” proportions, it had steel panels rather than plastic ones, its engine looked honest and was only marred by the mandatory emission gear on the off-side, and the exhaust note was satisfactorily sporting while remaining within legal limits.[12]

In a companion article, Jon Thompson put Egan’s assessment of the GB500 to the test, comparing the riding experience on the new Honda with that of the Velocette Clubman and for good measure a Norton International. Both were road bikes rather than out-and-out racers, even if the Norton used a de-tuned Manx engine and the Clubman had earned plenty of chops on English circuits in the 1960s. Thompson’s two test riders agreed on the same conclusion: “It feels like you’re a piece of the motorcycle. It feels like a knife. You could slice right through traffic with it. The way it goes around corners is just amazing…The British never made things no nicely. Their stuff is all terribly difficult to operate; you need two hands to work most British clutches. On this, the clutch and shift levers are so light—on [the] Norton the shift lever is so heavy you feel like you’re using it to stir a bucket of bolts.”[13]

For all his praise, Peter Egan was realistic about the GB500’s prospects in Honda dealerships across America. The bike used quality components, and they did not come cheap. The list price for 1989 was just over $4200, which put it on the high end of sport bikes for everyday use. That, along with such archaic features as spoked wheels and rubber suspension gaiters, meant that its primary appeal would be to the “niche” rider—someone who appreciated its classic looks, its indebtedness to the great British singles of the past, and its obvious ability to stand out among the performance-oriented, plastic-clad look-alike roadsters that crowded the mid-size market. Then there was the matter of performance. The GB500 went well enough, but it would be left behind by the crotch rockets of the day. The absence of a sixth gear, the smog controls, and the off-the-showroom-floor tires all contributed to the Honda’s middling performance figures—14.5 seconds to make the quarter-mile, and a shade over 90 mph at the marker; the magazines at the time recorded a top speed around 108-109 mph.[14]

It did not take long for aftermarket specialists to address the GB500’s perceived limitations. As reported in Cycle World, California’s White Brothers turned their expertise with upgrading Honda’s off-road bikes—from which the GB’s engine was derived—to benefit the new road-going single. The stock 500cc engine was de-sleeved to give just over 600cc, a higher-compression piston was fitted, the valve springs were hardened, and a larger version of the standard Mikuni carburetor was installed. The Whites also removed the emission controls that stifled the engine, changed the drive sprocket to increase the top speed, and—in a move that became commonplace among GB owners—junked the factory-issue silencer in favor of a louder, faster Supertrapp unit. The results were impressive. Quarter-mile time dropped by a second-and-a-half, and speed at the end of the quarter nipped up by ten mph. The bike’s top speed jumped to 117 mph, and the Whites claimed that a few more modifications could easily take it to 125 mph. Suspension improvements enhanced the GB 500’s already excellent roadholding capabilities, while a pair of premium Metzler tires added more adhesion in the corners. As the Cycle World editors concluded, the transformation produced an outstanding motorcycle, one “that pays homage to the classic British singles, yet has the best of Japanese technology and a healthy dose of American hot-rodding know-how.”[15]

Another California hot-rodder had already taken his turn at the GB500. As reported in Motorcyclist, famed flat track, drag strip, and speedway bike tuner Rob Muzzy worked his magic on a customer’s GB, employing much of the same strategy that would go into the Cycle World project bike. The engine was taken out to 600cc, a high-performance cam was installed, the Mikuni was sized up, and a free-flow exhaust replaced the stock unit. These internal and external mods pared nearly fifty pounds from the GB’s weight, full up with gas. The performance gains were similar to those the White Brothers would achieve, and the cost of the conversion was comparable. The bike even got a custom paint job, which gave it a unique look while retaining its classic British aesthetics.[16]

Quite a few GB500 owners evidently followed the same route, at least judging by the traffic on online discussion boards that specialize in single-cylinder motorcycles. Favorite mods were the bigger cylinder, more generous breathing, the Supertrapp exhaust, and—in the US—junking the emission apparatus, if for no other reason than cleaner looks.[17] But even with the aftermarket assistance, US sales of the GB were anemic. For 1990, Honda dropped the price by $500. Sales continued to lag. As the bikes piled up in dealerships, prices had to be discounted even more; according to one report, as many as a thousand GBs were rounded up and shipped to Germany where, desmogged, they were sold on the European market. In his history of Honda motorcycles, Aaron Frank attributes the GB500’s low sales figures to an unfavorable dollar-to-yen exchange rate and to the desire of US riders for more power and more cylinders; Frank places the GB among Honda’s “lost generation” of niche bikes made in the 1980s.[18] In 1991 the GB500 was dropped from Honda’s American catalogue, although the backlog of unsold bikes meant that they remained available—at steep discounts—for the next several years. In the European market and in the Far East, the GB was still sold in the 400 and 500cc variations, and the DIY practice of swapping in 600 and even 650cc engines from trail bikes continued apace. In the US, real bargains could be had well into the 1990s; low-mileage bikes that had been traded in for other Honda models were selling in the $2000 to $2500 range, not much more than half the original list price.[19]

Not One, But Two Velocette Thruxtons, and a Honda Connection

In 2011 I read a posting to an online Norton owners’ site that mentioned the GB500. The author recalled a Honda/Norton dealer in upstate New York who had loaned his Velocette Thruxton to American Honda Motors during the development process for the GB500. I realized at once that the dealer with the Thruxton was a college friend of mine who, after completing his military service, had opened a dealership selling Hondas and Nortons. In 1971 or 1972, a couple of years after starting the business, Bill bought his first Thruxton (VMT 1086) from Dave McCready Motors, a Velocette dealership in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Bill’s Thruxton was one of the last, if not the last, Velocettes to be imported into the US. As a 1970 model, the silver and blue Thruxton was equipped with coil ignition and alternator, rather than magneto, electrics; on his part, Bill swapped the iconic fishtail exhaust for a megaphone because, as he later told me, he was “into megaphones at the time.”[20]

Why have one Thruxton, however, when you could have two? In the fall of 1979 I sold Bill my 1968 Thruxton (VMT 583), which I had purchased ten years before, with 2500 miles on the clock, from a bike dealer on the far end of Long Island in New York. My Thruxton was one of a small number that were finished in deep blue with gold pinstriping rather than the usual silver or black. It was fully up to factory specifications for the year of its manufacture with the single exception that it was fitted with a Clubman-style gearshift lever instead of the Thruxton’s reverse-linkage mechanism. When I sold the bike to Bill, I had not put many miles on it although I had kept up the maintenance schedule. Knowing Bill, I was confident that the Thruxton was going to enjoy a sporting life rather than simply sitting in a garage next to its new stablemate, VMT 1086.

The post I read on the Norton site raised the obvious question—which Thruxton had American Honda Motors borrowed from my friend, and for what purpose? Could my former bike, VMT 583, have played some part, however small, in the development of the GB500? Recently I was able to re-establish contact with Bill and learn the answers. While never a large-volume dealership, Bill’s shop was successful, and he earned a considerable measure of credibility in the hierarchy of Honda’s motorcycle division in the US.[21] His co-owner, in the first years, also had a Thruxton that he raced in regional competitions, and there was another friend who had a fourth Thruxton, creating—in relative terms—an impressive concentration of these high-camshaft production racers in a small corner of upstate New York. In the mid-1980s, Honda’s regional sale representative visited Bill’s shop several times, taking a particular interest in his two Thruxtons (Bill’s partner, with the third Thruxton, had by then left the business). By this time development of the GB500 was underway, and Bill agreed to “lend” the silver Thruxton to the small branch office of American Honda’s California-based research and development center that had recently opened in Ohio. VMT 1086 was accordingly trailered away, to be measured, calibrated, and photographed, with the results to be shared with the engineering and design higher-ups back in Japan.[22] Since the mechanicals were being carried over from the XBR500, what the Honda team was after was really a matter of style, getting the classic “look” and “feel” right. The basic masses of the motor, tank, and rear bodywork had to be balanced, the proportions tweaked, the fork and shock angles adjusted, and lots of small details worked out.

The GB500, Bill later explained to me, was not going to be about speed and performance; it was a matter of “cool,” something the British sporting singles of the 1950s and 1960s had possessed in spades.

It’s been impossible to discover how much input the US team that borrowed Bill’s Thruxton may have had on the final phases of product development for the GB500. The usual procedure was for representatives of sales and marketing in the US to visit Japan on a semi-regular basis for demonstrations of new models as they were about to come off the production line. It would not likely have been standard practice for design details to move in the other direction, although this was apparently what happened in the case of the GB500. While it was not “my” Thruxton that went off to be studied, it is gratifying to know that it almost served that purpose and that the handsome proportions of the Birmingham factory’s performance star found their echo in the GB500’s attractive appearance. As Bill told me, the GB500 had that ineffable element of “cool” which, however hard their designers may have tried, very few current classic- or retro-styled motorcycles have achieved.

Unfortunately, the marketplace felt otherwise. As already noted, American buyers of sports performance bikes wanted speed and more speed. Style, craftsmanship, high-quality components, enthusiasm on the part of those who built them were all fine; but if a motorcycle costing $4000 could not top 120 mph in a quarter mile or leave a thick cloud of tire smoke behind as soon as the traffic light changed, the would-be buyer was going somewhere else. Bill remembers selling a couple of GB500s in his shop, and he bought one for himself which from time to time he displayed in the showroom alongside one of his Thruxtons, to leave little question about where the little Honda’s inspiration had come from. Both Thruxtons eventually went to other Velocette enthusiasts, and Bill sold the dealership. Still, when I paid him a visit not that long ago, it was a pleasure to see a large framed photograph of VMT 583 hanging over his desk.

The Allure of Big Singles, from England, Japan, and Both

Along with the Gold Star, the Velocette Thruxton ranks as the premier example of the postwar British 500cc single, ready for road or race depending on the owner’s predilections and the modifications he chose to make—which usually did not have to be too many. The late Mick Walker, who knew his bikes as well as anyone, wrote that no less than the Gold Star the Thruxton ranks as “the greatest super sports British single-cylinder motorcycle of the postwar era.”[23] While friendlier for road use than the Gold Star, the Thruxton was even more difficult to start unless its rider had learned the secrets of “the routine” (which required two pages in the owner’s manual). Equally mysterious skills were also needed to keep the clutch in adjustment and to avoid burning it out while holding the bike in gear at a stoplight. Still, this final evolution of the Hall Green high-camshaft engine, whose origins went back to the pre-World War II days, more than justifies its status as a legend and, accordingly, the prices genuine examples realize on the auction market.[24] As “the last great British single”—the last of approximately 1100 of them left the factory gates in 1971, literally as the company was being liquidated—the Velocette is still earning respect where it matters most; in March 2016 marque enthusiast Stuart Hooper set another new world record for a single-cylinder motorcycle with his 650cc supercharged Venom-based streamliner at Australia’s Lake Gairdner Speed Week, running a five-mile straight at 193 mph.[25]

The Velocette Venom, and especially the top-end Thruxton, has never had to fight for classic status, and the days when you could pick one up—as I did—for what by today’s values was less than pocket change are long since gone. In July 2016 H&H auctioneers offered a 1966 Thruxton at its Donington Park sale at an estimate of £10-12000 or around $16000. Unused since the 1970s, the bike had spent most of its life under a tarpaulin and was presented in “as is” condition; it would require a complete reconditioning. The Thruxton sold for just under £20000, approximately $26000, exceeding its estimate by nearly half and setting a record price for an unrestored example.[26]  The top-name UK dealerships have been asking £25000 for near perfect Thruxtons for some time, putting them at $33-35000 on this side of the pond. That’s better than all but the best Gold Stars.

While far removed from these sobriety-inducing heights, the GB500 has been acquiring momentum, going by recent sales results and by what might be called a “maybe-we-missed-something” attitude we’re seeing in the classic bike magazines. In the early 2000s, prices being asked for top-condition GBs, on eBay for example, still languished around $2500 to $3500, this at a time when “new” examples still in the dealerships were already more than ten years old. One outlier, advertised on eBay in April 2001 by a Washington, DC area seller, listed a reserve of $7800, on the basis that the bike had never been titled and, presumably, never used. A handful of other eBay listings had little-used GBs at $4000 to $5000, that is, at or slightly above the original list price. The real jump in the GB’s value came in 2011, when Walneck’s Classic Cycle Trader advertised a zero-mileage 1990 GB500 in Pennsylvania for $10500. Within a couple of years, the GB was making regular appearances on the auction circuit, especially at the annual January Las Vegas sales. Mid-America was offering one or two each year; in 2013 the company sold a 1989 example with 1,300 miles on the clock for $11000.

Proof that things had changed came a year later, when high-end auctioneer Bonhams announced that its Las Vegas sale would include a brand-new GB500 still in its packing crate, recalling the apocryphal stories that had circulated a few years before of the “Gold Star in a Box,” causing enthusiasts everywhere to salivate.[27] Originally sold by a Maryland dealer in 1992, the GB had evidently never left its crate; the front wheel was still disassembled, and the rear end was shrouded in plastic wrapping. Bonhams sold the bike for $13800.[28] A few miles away, Mecum had no fewer than three GB500s on offer, including one with a rare fly screen that had been owned by an American Honda vice-president; that one netted $10000, and the other two realized $6000 and $8000. At the Las Vegas sales in January 2016, three GBs were on the block. Mecum sold two of them for $9000 and $12000, the latter a 1500 mile example that captured some attention.[29] On its end, Bonhams sold a 1989 example with a few thousand “carefully maintained” miles on the clock for $7100.

At about the same time as values for the GB500 began to climb, the classic bike magazines decided to get onboard. For its January/February 2011 issue, Motorcycle Classics published a profile of the GB in its “Best Bets” series, stating that Honda’s nod to the honored past of its British forebears had “managed to capture the essence of the Norton Manx, the BSA Gold Star, and the rest through subtle styling cues and period-replica components.”[30] A year and a half later, Classic Bike Guide paid the GB500 the ultimate compliment by putting it into a competitive comparison with a Venom Clubman and a Gold Star. Not surprisingly, the GB fared well against these two icons of Britain’s two-wheeled past, although it has to be noted that the Mortons Media Group sweetened the pot for subscribers by including a raffle opportunity for its “lovingly restored” 1986 example of “the coolest of the Japanese big singles.”[31] Mortons even posted a twenty-minute video clip on YouTube hosted by Classic Bike Guide editor Nigel Clark comparing the GB’s ease of starting, running habits, and all-around user friendliness with its more temperamental British predecessors.[32]

In 2015 the online site RideApart took a 1989 US-issue GB500, with 8300 miles on the clock, for a ride and was duly impressed. The author clearly knew the GB’s history, writing that “this was an excellent bike that went right over the head of Americans who were only interested in cruisers and big-bore sportbikes.” Honda had not gotten it wrong, the author continued, as became evident as the model was snapped up in Japan and in Europe, where they remain prized by a “rabid enthusiast community.” But US riders, not yet ready for a “retro” bike that was in so many ways better than the anachronistic originals it was meant to recall, missed their chance.  The author’s conclusion: “It’s no stretch to imagine that if Honda were to bring this bike back today, with almost no changes, they would sell better than they did when new.”[33] Just half a year later, the British magazine Motorcycle Sport & Leisure printed an article on two examples of Honda’s current range of 500cc bikes, the general purpose CB500F and the sport performance CB500R, both employing the liquid-cooled eight-valve 471cc parallel twin that can also be found on the off-road CB500Y. The author reported that in the mid-size category, Honda has just about covered “every genre that is cool at the moment, apart from a retro bike, although having asked about it from those in the know it sounds like this could be on its way.”[34] A “new” GB500, except with a twin-cylinder motor?


Whether it’s the Greeks with their notion of eternal recurrence or Karl Marx with his own ideas about how history repeats itself, in June 2016 the AJS Motorcycle Company, located in Andover, England and a direct if distant descendant of the original Wolverhampton firm, announced its release of a 125cc overhead-cam single-cylinder road bike designated the Cadwell, after the popular British race circuit. Like all other post-1980s AJS motorcycles, the Cadwell is made in China and, with a quoted top speed of 60 mph, is targeted at the learner’s market and at those who are just getting back into motorcycling after many years away.[35] What is most striking, despite the differential in capacity and performance, is the nearly identical appearance of this latest AJS and the twenty-five-year-old GB500. With its black-and-gold finish—a silver-and-black option is available, taking us back into Thruxton territory—the AJS Cadwell could be mistaken for a junior version of the GB500, just as the GB borrowed so heavily from the AJS 7R in its looks. Apparently a hit at least in terms of appearance, the Cadwell is already being pressed for a displacement increase on the British bike forums.[36] As one British road tester observes, “That lovely tank in black/gold or silver/black; the solo seat with racing up; twin analogue clocks (though no fuel gauge, tripmeter or timepiece), spoked wheels on alloy rims…the list goes on. And it works because everything is in proportion, so the Cadwell doesn’t look like a genuine café racer that’s had a tiny engine plonked into the frame. Squint a bit…from a distance…and it could be the real thing.”[37] Change that reference to “a tiny engine” and…where have we read this before?


[1] In September 2014 Honda produced its 300 millionth motorcycle, appropriately one of the Fortieth Anniversary editions of its flagship Gold Wing model. See Dennis Chung, “Honda Produces 300 Millionth Motorcycle,” Motorcycle.com, November 25, 2014, at http://blog.motorcycle.com/2014/11/25/manufacturers/honda/honda-produces-300-millionth-motorcycle.

[2] This impression has recently been reinforced by an entry on the GB500 on a technology-oriented blog, identifying the AJS 7R as its design inspiration (along with, inevitably, the Norton Manx).  See Mickey Cheatham, “Clubman,” on STEAMD for December 27, 2014, at http://mickey-cheatham.blogspot.com/2014/12/clubman.html.

[3] That “ethos” is well captured by Bob Guntrip in Racing Line: British Motorcycle Racing in the Golden Age of the Big Single (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing PLC, 2015).

[4] For a historical overview of the Meguro machines, see Jeffrey W. Alexander, Japan’s Motorcycle Wars: An Industry History (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008), pp. 62-64. See also Mick Walker’s Japanese Production Racing Motorcycles (Tyne on Wear: Redline Books, 2004), pp. 96-97.

[5] For a comparison of the W650 and the W800, see the blog post by Matthew Bishop (November 2011) at http://contemplativemotorcycling.blogspot.com/2011/11/kawasaki-w650-review.html. There’s a comparison test of the W800 and the Hinckley-issue Bonneville by More Bikes (October 2014), at http://www.morebikes.co.uk/2011-kawasaki-w800-vs-triumph-bonneville-group-test-review.

[6] For a retrospective on the W650, see the Real Classic owner’s report by John Moulton (no date) at http://www.realclassic.co.uk/kawasakiw650.html and the Motorcycle Classics review (January/February 2013), at http://www.motorcycleclassics.com/classic-japanese-motorcycles/kawasaki-w650-zmmz13jfzbea.aspx. For a comparison of the W650 and the Hinckley-produced Bonneville, see Brad Davis’s report for Real Classic at http://www.realclassic.co.uk/triumph04032200.html. See also the W650-Bonneville comparison at Motorcyclist Online (February 2009), at http://www.motorcyclistonline.com/kawasaki-w650-and-triumph-bonneville.

[7] See, e,g., Gerard Kane, “The Perfect British Twin,” Classic Bike, May 2012, pp. 71-76, on the XS650.

[8] For a view on the subject from someone who saw it at first hand in South London, see Dave Ramsey, “The Decline of Matchless/AJS Motorcycles and the Rise of Honda,” October 6, 2010, at http://greenwichindustrialhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/decline-of-matchlessajs-motorcycles-and.html.

[9] Steve Koerner, The Strange Death of the British Motor Cycle Industry (Lancaster: Crucible Books, 2012), pp. 223-26.

[10] Steve Cooper, “Still Running, Still Riding: Yamaha SR500/SR400,” Classic Bike Guide, February 2016, pp. 88-95. The FT500 Ascot gets something of a reprieve in Margie Siegal, “The Thumper,” Motorcycle Classics, September/October 2016, pp. 26-30.

[11] For an appreciation of the XBR500, see Alan Cole’s write-up for Real Classic (October 2010), at http://www.realclassic.co.uk/honda_xbr_500_single.html.

[12] Peter Egan, “Time Machine: Honda GB500,” Cycle World, March 1989, pp. 31-33. Twenty-five years later, Cycle World reprinted Egan’s article on its web site with the tag “Is This Honda a Gold Star 30 Years On?” The reprint is available at http://www.cycleworld.com/2014/03/17/1989-honda-gb500-riding-impression-by-peter-egan.

[13] Jon F. Thompson, “The Purists’ Point of View,” Cycle World, March 1989, pp. 34-36.

[14] See, e.g., the unsigned report “Honda GB500” in Motorcyclist, March 1989, pp. 84-87.

[15] “CW Project: Singular Sensation,” Cycle World,  February 1990, pp. 65-67. This article is reposted in Champ’s Cycle Collection, at http://www.champsclock.com/gb500hu.htm.

[16] Nick Ienatsch, “Heavy Artillery: The Single Solution,” Motorcyclist, November 1989, pp. 40-43.

[17] E.g., the robust discussion logs on Alan Fleming’s “Honda GB500 FAQ,” on the now defunct Thumper Page.

[18] Aaron P. Frank, Honda Motorcycles (St. Paul: Motorbooks International, 2003), p. 157.

[19] Personal observations at a couple of Philadelphia-area Honda dealerships, circa 1998-1999. In 1999 the AMA’s Official Motorcycle Value Guide priced little-used, top-condition GB500s at around $3500, according to postings on The Thumper Page.

[20] The last Thruxton manufactured at the Birmingham works was VMT 1208, which was finished toward the end of 1970 and sold as the factory was heading into receivership at the beginning of 1971. In 1969 and 1970 Velocette built 337 Thruxtons, well more than half its total production for those two years; most of the rest of the bikes were Venoms, many in Clubman’s trim. In 1969 around 120 Venom and Thruxton engines were sold to American publisher and motorcycle entrepreneur Floyd Clymer, to be fitted into Italian-made frames and marketed as Indian Velocettes. Only fifty or so such machines were sold before Clymer’s death in January 1970. The remaining hybrid bikes—now highly sought after—were bought by Velocette specialist Geoff Dodkin to be sold to customers in the UK. Production figures from Rod Burris, Velocette Motorcycles—MSS to Thruxton (Dorchester: Veloce Publishing PLC, 2000), pp. 153-54. For a recent appreciation of the Indian Velocettes, see Gez Lane, “Velo Set,” Classic Bike, August 2016, pp. 50-58.

[21] Bill was a founding member and later president of the Dealers Advisory Council that American Honda Motors set up to provide input on market trends and customer feedback in the US.

[22] Honda Research of America, Inc. (HRA) was established at company headquarters in Torrance, California in 1984 (although a research and development office had been operating there since 1975). In 1993 both motorcycle and automobile product development were merged in Honda R&D Americas, with facilities in California, Ohio, and South Carolina. HRA’s remit, according to its web site, is “complete product creation” starting with market research, then engineering and design, through prototype fabrication and testing, with everything culminating in the introduction of a new model. See http://www.hondaresearch.com/story.php.

[23] Mick Walker, Velocette Production Motorcycles (Ramsbury: The Crowood Press, 2006), 194. For a comparison test of the Thruxton and the Gold Star, see Mick Duckworth, “Singles to Get Used To,” Walneck’s Classic Cycle Trader, May 2007, pp. 90-95 (reprinted from Classic Bike, July 1990).

[24] For a detailed evaluation of the Thruxton, its virtues and its vices, see the “Velocette Thruxton Buyer’s Guide,” at http://sump-publishing.co.uk/velocette%20thruxton.htm. Thruxtons make regular appearances at the high-end auction sales, a measure of their desirability, and in the pages of the classic bike magazines. See, for example, the CBG Super Profile “Velocette’s Pièce de Résistance,” Classic Bike Guide, October 2010, pp. 29-38 and Steve Wilson, “Excellent Anachronism,” The Classic Motorcycle, September 2015, pp. 32-39.

[25] Paul d’Orléans (The Vintagent), “The World’s Fastest…Single!” quoting an e-mail from Stuart Hooper, March 5, 2016, at http://thevintagent.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-world-fastestsingle.html.

[26] H&H Auctioneers, “Rare 50-Year-Old Velocette Thruxton on Sale,” online post, July 20, 2016, at http://www.handh.co.uk/about/news/2016/07/20/the-1966-velocette-thruxton-on-sale; Mark Hincliffe, “Velocette Thruxton Sets Auction Record,” MotorbikeWriter, July 30, 2016, at http://motorbikewriter.com/velocette-thruxton-auction-record.

[27] The Gold Star story remains apocryphal, although some accounts have British Only in Michigan as the purveyors of the actual bike. A close story, with a little if at all all used Gold Star, was posted online in 2013 on the Brit Bike Forum at http://www.britbike.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=518788.

[28] The “GB in a crate” can be glimpsed in the background of Paul d’Orléans’ photo of one of the two BMW RS54 Rennsports for sale at the January 2014 Bonhams’ sale, at http://thevintagent.blogspot.com/2014/01/las-vegas-2014-recap.html.

[29] “1989 Honda GB500 Sold for $12000 at the 2016 Mecum Las Vegas Motorcyle Auction,” OldMotoDude blog, January 29, 2016, at  http://oldmotodude.blogspot.com/2016/01/1989-honda-gb500-sold-for-12000-at-2016.html.

[30] Richard Backus, “The Honda GB500,” Motorcycle Classics, January/February 2011, at http://www.motorcycleclassics.com/classic-japanese-motorcycles/honda-gb500.aspx.

[31] Steve Rose, James Robinson, Bruce Wilson, and Nigel Clark, “Singles Club,” Classic Bike Guide, June 2012, pp.  46-55; Steve Rose, “TT Tribute,” Classic Motorcycle Mechanics, June 2012, pp. 37-40.

[32]Classic Bike Guide Singles Club,” posted May 22, 2012, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99n94C76tXM.

[33] Bryan Wood, “Before ‘Before It Was Cool’ Was Cool,” RideApart, November 11, 2015, at https://rideapart.com/articles/honda-gb500-cafe-racer-cool-online-find-panjo-edition. Offered on Panjo, this GB sold for $8000.

[34] Mikko Nieminen, “Middleweight Champs,” Motorcycle Sport & Leisure, May 2016, pp. 40-44.

[35] Advertising copy at http://www.ajsmotorcycles.co.uk/cadwell125. See also “A Brief Chat with Nick Brown,” The Classic Motorcycle, September 2016, pp. 72-73. Nick Brown is the owner of AJS Motorcycles and the son of Fluff Brown, who kept the brand alive after the collapse of AMC with the Villiers-engined two-stroke Stormer motocross bike and then by importing Chinese-made small-displacement off-road bikes until his death in 2013.

[36] See. e.g., “New AJS Cadwell,” June 2016 at http://www.bikechatforums.com/viewtopic.php?t=313320. See also the unsigned report by MoreBikes (June 14, 2016) that Kawasaki, having discontinued the W800, is in negotiations to supply half that engine, as a 400cc single-cylinder motor, to power the next generation of the AJS Cadwell, at http://www.morebikes.co.uk/400cc-kawasaki-powered-ajs-cadwell-on-the-way-according-to-factory-sources.

[37] Unsigned, “AJS Cadwell: First Ride,” Bennetts Bike Social Reviews, August 22, 2016, at https://www.bennetts.co.uk/bikesocial/reviews/bikes/ajs/cadwell-125.

Image Attributions
[Fig.1] Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy by Ulf Potschien (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. NB Original image has been colour adjusted, cropped and resized by Tim Fransen, IJMS.

James J. Ward is Professor of History at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His degrees are from Middlebury College and New York University. His enthusiasm for British motorcycles began when he over-wintered in a fraternity house room with a DBD34 Gold Star and became permanent with the subsequent acquisition of a Velocette Thruxton (in the days when British singles were being given away). Both were relinquished many years ago, at prices that are painful to contemplate given what these classics now command in the marketplace. The old adage once more, “if I only knew then…”

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  1. Author’s Addenda:

    Three items of possible interest. First, my friend Bill’s Thruxton was not VMT 1086. A 1970 Thruxton, engine no. VMT 1086, with virtually no mileage on the clock, was sold at auction in Massachusetts in August 2016. Bill evidently got the number of his Thruxton wrong.

    Second, Thruxtons have been much in evidence on the auction block in the last several weeks, and prices have continued to surge. At Mecum’s Las Vegas sale in January 2017, a 1966 Thruxton sold for $26,500. At the Bonhams Las Vegas sale, a 1969 Thruxton (VMT 1084) sold for $28,750, and a 1969 Thruxton (VMT 573) sold for $33,350, the highest price recorded–I believe–for a Thruxton to date. At the H&H auction at Donington Park in February 2017, a 1968 Thruxton (VMT 756) made L24,295 or $30,370. With Thruxtons now commanding $30K plus, they’re well ahead of best-condition Gold Stars, their perennial rival.

    Last, the upward trend also continues in the case of the GB500, although at less breathtaking levels. At its Las Vegas sale, Bonhams realized $10,925 for a 1990 GB500,”in showroom condition.” Also in Las Vegas, Mecum bested that number easily, selling another 1990 GB500 with no miles for $14,000, having advertised it as a “cult bike star.”

    • Sorry, VMT 573 at Bonhams in January was a 1967. My Thruxton, VMT 583, was registered in the US as a 1968 model, but was manufactured at Hall Green in the previous year.

  2. Nice details about most successful bikes and it’s designed ideas is very interesting to read. Thanks

  3. Hi
    What a great read 🙂
    I have a gb400tt in mint condition, it is a great sounding fun bike, here in the UK we got the XBR500 which was not as pretty but still a lot of fun.

    Great article. Thanks

  4. Engaging and well-written story about the GB500. My only comment would be the questionable statement in regards to the XBR500: “Sales, however, were not up to Honda’s targets, with fewer than 2000 being sold in the UK—presumably sales in the US were better, yet lagged behind projections—and after a couple of years Honda’s design wizards were sent back to the drafting table to decide what to do next.”
    The XBR was never sold in the US at all…..

    • Thanks, Bill, for the correction. It was my supposition, without checking relevant sales information.

      Stay tuned for an update on the Mecum January sale in Las Vegas, where no fewer than seven (!) GB500s are on the docket. Plus a Thruxton, one serial number away from “my” VMT 583.

  5. In last month’s Las Vegas sales, Mecum had seven GB500s on offer. The best of the lot, with 9K miles on the clock, got $13,000. Two others were in the $11K range. The remaining four went for $5K to $7.5K. Looks like prices may have leveled off for the moment. The 1968 Thruxton, VMT 581, restored with 13K on the meter, sold for $35K, possibly a record for a Thruxton and almost certainly for a non-original example. Not yet Vincent territory–see the Bonhams results for Las Vegas–but inching (sic) up there.

  6. Exceptionally well researched and presented. Great read. Thanks

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