The modern café racer trend arguably got its start with the Ducati Sport 1000. But Honda actually beat the Italian motorcycle company to it by a few decades. And the Honda GB500 Tourist Trophy didn’t just ape the styling of the 50s and 60s racers. In some ways, it’s arguably a more-accurate throwback than anything outside of Janus.
How the 1989 Honda GB500 previewed the café racer trend
The ‘Tourist Trophy’ part of the Honda GB500 TT’s name comes from the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, Rider Magazine explains. The Isle of Man TT is still one of the most exciting and dangerous motorcycle races in the world. Both before and for some time after WWII, British bikes dominated the podium. Especially single-cylinder bikes, like Jay Leno’s Velocette Thruxton shown above.
Café racer bikes were based on and inspired by the bikes that ran in the TT. And it’s precisely these bikes that the 1989-1990 Honda GB500 draws inspiration from. Even down to having a single-cylinder engine.
To be sure, there are still several brand-new motorcycles that use single-cylinder engines. For example, most dual sports, the Royal Enfield Himalayan, Husqvarna’s café racer-style bikes, and the Honda Grom. It may seem odd, in light of Henderson’s four-cylinder bikes, and the 1966 Honda RC166’s 250cc six-cylinder, to race with single-cylinder bikes. However, such bikes had their advantages.
Single-cylinder engines were simpler to make and repair, Cycle World reports. Their smaller size was good for handling and made them easier to cool effectively. Remember, this is before the wide-spread adoption of water- or oil-cooling.
Additionally, single-cylinder engines make excellent torque, in part due to having a wider piston bore, Hagerty explains. Even into the 60s, British marques like Norton were winning races with single-cylinder bikes.
The Honda GB500 TT, though, isn’t really a racing bike. Then again, modern café racers aren’t really about doing ‘the ton’ on public roads, anyway. But that’s not to say the GB500 isn’t fun to ride.
What is it like to ride?
The Honda GB500 TT’s 498cc engine is based on the XL600 dirt bike’s engine, Motorcycle Classics reports. It only makes 33 hp, but the bike itself only weighs 390 pounds in riding condition. And with a little tweaking, Motorcycle Classics reports it’s possible to drop the 0-60 time from 5.1 to 4 seconds. But even stock, the Honda GB500 TT can do the ¼-mile faster than a new Harley-Davidson Street 750.
In addition to the engine, the GB500’s design drew inspiration from the TT and café racers. It has a solo seat, rear set foot controls, and clip-on handlebars, Bring a Trailer reports. There’s also a kick-starter, though that’s arguably more of a fashion accessory. The GB500 was made in 1989, after all, so it has an electric starter and a front disc brake.
You have to keep the revs high to make meaningful power, and the engine is smooth enough to make the process painless. But even at a more reasonable pace, the Honda GB500 TT is a very enjoyable motorcycle, Cycle World reports. For one, the clip-on bars don’t put pressure on your wrists. And despite the rear set controls, it’s actually fairly comfortable to sit on and ride for extended periods.
Combine that with the bike’s low weight and narrow width, and it makes for a great back road carver. At speed, it’s steady, and in the corners, it’s neutral and sharp.
Honda GB500 TT pricing and availability
The Honda GB500 TT was only sold in the US for the 1989 and 1990 model years. But despite its looks and smooth engine, only about 3500 were sold. That’s likely due to the fact that it cost when new, the equivalent of $8,680. A contemporary V-twin Harley Sportster was about $400 cheaper.
But more riders are starting to appreciate the GB500. A well-maintained example, Hagerty reports, can cost $6000-$10,000. Several have sold on BaT in the past for $7000-$9000. And as of this writing, there’s one listed at $4500 with 5 days to go on the auction.
So do what Mike Hailwood would’ve done, and bring on the single-cylinder thump.
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