It’s hard to overstate the CB750’s impact on the motorcycle world. When it launched in 1969, its affordable performance and technology helped coin the term ‘superbike.’ It also launched the Universal Japanese Motorcycle segment, and inspired rivals like the BMW R90S. But the CB750’s status can overshadow some of the other contemporary Honda four-cylinder bikes—including ones that share some of its tech. Even if, in the case of the Honda CB550, they’re arguably better in some ways.
The 1974 Honda CB550 Four fixed its predecessor’s flaws
After Honda released the 1969 CB750, the Japanese company decided to make smaller-capacity versions of its superbike. At the extreme end was the 1972-1975 CB350 Four, with its 347cc air-cooled four-cylinder engine. And just before that came the 1971-1973 Honda CB500 Four.
The Honda CB500 Four is less powerful than the CB750, due to its 50-hp 498cc air-cooled four-cylinder engine, Motorcycle Classics reports. However, not only does the CB500 have a reinforced version of the CB750’s frame, but it’s also about 80 pounds lighter, BikeBound reports. That meant it was almost as fast but with noticeably better handling. Plus, like the CB750, it has an electric starter and a front disc brake.
However, it had some faults. The CB500 Four’s 5-speed transmission shifted poorly, and the rear suspension was prone to failure. Plus, as its rear drum brake came from the smaller-capacity CB450, it locked up somewhat easily, Motorcycle Classics reports.
That’s where the 1974-1977 Honda CB550 Four comes in. It has the same frame, but with a larger 544cc air-cooled four-cylinder engine. On paper, it makes the same 50 hp as the CB500, Silodrome reports. However, the CB550 makes more mid-range power, ClassicBikeGuide reports, and has the same top speed.
But the engine wasn’t the biggest change. The Honda CB550 Four has a significantly better 5-speed transmission than the CB500, Motorcycle Classics reports. It also has a better clutch, upgraded front fork valves, and “uprated rear suspension,” Machiine reports. Plus, unlike its predecessor, the CB550 is designed to accommodate dual front discs, though a single disc was standard.
Between the CB750 and CB350, the Honda CB550 Four is the “’ Goldilocks bike’”, Silodrome says
There was one more thing the Honda CB550 Four retained from its predecessor, though: its middle-child status. However, as before, this is a good thing.
To quote Machiine, upon the CB550 Four’s release, “Cycle World praised Honda for making the best middleweight better.” It has more power than the CB350 Four, but it’s not as heavy as the larger CB750. BikeBound describes it as “the perfect café racer candidate,” with “crisp” handling and a “gusty” engine. As such, if you’re looking to ride a classic motorcycle regularly, it might be a better choice than the CB750. ADV Rider calls it “one of the most sensible mid-70s bikes you can get.”
Plus, it has the same features as the CB750, right down to the gauges, Motorcycle Classics reports. Honda even offered it with audible warnings to cancel the turn signals, though some owners removed this feature.
Compared to its better-known brethren, it’s a bargain
Honda offered the CB550 Four in two different trims, SOHC4.com reports. The CB550K has a 4-into-4 exhaust, as well as higher handlebars, and slightly different gauge and fuel tank colors. In contrast, the CB550F has a 4-into-1 exhaust and less chrome. The CB550F’s lower handlebars make for a more forward riding position that’s better for highway riding, Silodrome reports, though the exhaust hangs slightly lower.
The best Honda CB550 Fours are the later ones, Hagerty reports. Pre-1976 models’ rocker arms can wear, which can result in camshaft damage. And pre-1977 bikes’ alternators only charge the battery above 3500 RPM, but the upgraded part can be installed fairly easily. Plus, if you want to ride it regularly, you may want to consider upgrading to a modern ignition system. And swapping the solid single front disc for slotted dual discs.
The good news is that, compared to the CB350 and CB750, the CB550 is still fairly affordable. A good- to excellent-condition example typically goes for $2000-$4000, Hagerty reports. And prices on Bring a Trailer rarely exceed $6000, with $3000 being the typical price. As of this writing, there’s a 1976 example listed at $2600.
Considering you can get a bike that out-handles a classic superbike, that’s a pretty good deal.
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