Saturday, July 7, 2007

Peter Egan on the Honda 550

The Honda CB 550 was introduced in 1974 as the successor to the unsuccessful Model 500-four. The CB 550 had a bigger engine for more power, bigger tires for a better ride, and more weight for longer distance cruising.

The CB 550 is the ideal bike for people who like a sporty 4 cyclinder Honda without the weight and exceptional performance of the CB 750. The CB 550 is also a better bike for shorter people who may find the CB 750 too large and heavy.

The last CB 550 was produced in 1978 and sold for approximately $1895.00.



1974 Honda CB 550 Specifications

ENGINE - Air cooled, 4 stroke, 4 cyclinder. Compression ratio 9.0:1. Two valves per cylinder operated via rockers by a single overhead camshaft. 544cc. Electric start.

TRANSMISSION - Five speed gearbox. Chain drive.

FRAME - Duplex cradle.

SUSPENSION - Telescopic front forks, rear swing arm, twin shock.

BRAKES - Front - Single Honda disc. Rear - drum.

WEIGHT - 423 lbs.

PERFORMANCE - Maximum speed of 102 mph.

THE THREE HUNDRED DOLLAR JEWEL

Often Overlooked In Favor Of Its Bigger Brother, The Honda CB550 Four Was (And Is) A Minor Classic In Its Own Right

By Peter Egan

All right, I've wanted one of these bikes for a long time. The Honda 550 Four was a motorcycle I missed during my meteoric rise through the displacement ranks in the early Seventies, having gone straight from a Honda CB350 Twin to a Norton 850 Commando. Nevertheless, I almost bought a 550 instead of the Norton, and spent many hours at Honda shops regarding the middleweight Honda from as many angles as possible and snagging brochures which could be pored over at home.

Why this enthusiasm for the 550 when the larger, faster and more famous CB750 sat nearby on the showroom floor and could be had for just a few hundred dollars more?

The magic word was Balance.

You heard it repeated over and again, in the road tests of the time, in editorials, from the mouths of owners and in the small but expanding band of American riders tuned into the cult of the cafe-racer. The 550 was not too big, not too small, lower and narrower than the 750, nicely proportioned and it handled effortlessly. Both Cycle World and Cycle remarked that it was probably the best handling Japanese bike you could buy.

It's hard to fathom now, but there was a time when many of us thought the Honda 750 Four was just too big. I remember riding one in 1973 and being somewhat alarmed at its bulk and width. Compared with the light and narrow Twins to which I was accustomed, the 750 felt like an absolute refrigerator.

Climb on one now and you're amazed at how compact and diminutive it seems like a pinto pony among the current generation of tall, fast warhorses. But in the early Seventies, I had grave philosophical and aesthetic objections. It was the smaller Fours I admired.

Unveiled in 1971, two years after the 750, the mid-liter Four was originally introduced as a 500. Cycle magazine ran a wonderful cover shot of the bike, golden-green against a dark green background, a red-clad model with flowing blond hair sitting side-saddle against the bike. The photo seemed to glow from within. The cover blurb cried, "500 FOUR! THE HONDA MAGIC LANTERN LIGHTS AGAIN."

Years later, I was told by a former staffer that the cover model was a very sweet and polite young woman named Mary Kathleen Collins, who now goes by the name of Bo Derek. It doesn't quite look like her in the picture, but I'm certainly willing to buy into the legend.

In 1973, Honda made some improvements to the bike, widened the bore by a mere 2.5 millimeters for 544cc of displacement and called it a 550. Upgraded were the somewhat balky shift mechanism and the clutch, which could slip under hard use. The price was upgraded, too, from $1345 to $1600.

Except for the 550 Four logo on the sidecovers and subtle changes in paint colors and tank decals, there wasn't much, visually, to distinguish between the two. Performance didn't change a great deal, either. CW's quarter-mile run on the original 500 was 14.74 seconds at 88.23 mph, with an actual top speed of 98.46 mph. The newer, bigger 550 turned a 14.27 at 91.55 mph, and top speed (estimated, this time) was 105. Midrange torque was said to be slightly better.

Even at the time, this was not considered blindingly fast or quick, but the small Honda had a few other things going for it.

First, there was its bloodline. If you were a racing fan--and particularly a fan of Mike Hailwood and his screaming red-and-silver Honda GP bikes--there was a certain amount of magic in that half-liter displacement. Real GP bikes were 500s, and the displacement had a lean competition ring to it.

Okay, even if these bikes were barely related to anything Hailwood was riding, they had successfully appropriated some of the look, sound and aura. You had four (count 'em) separate pipes upswept from the side in a fanned emblematic tribute to the Honda wing, and the mufflers had a lovely shape to them, necked down and then flared open into small megaphones.

Those mufflers were relatively quiet, but what sound did come out of them was intriguing. The Honda 750 growled, but the smaller, short-stroke 500s and 550s positively whooped. And quickly, all the way to their 9200-rpm redlines. There was a muted electric fury to the sound that could hardly be lost on anyone who liked mechanical things.

There was also a glassy smoothness that implied--to us Britbike fans--a long engine life and a riding experience devoid of lost bolts, loose headpipes, fractured gas tanks and headlight filaments shaken to tungsten dust.

Also of interest and pleasure to those of us who used British motorcycles as a standard of aesthetics (if not smoothness) was the general shape and look of the 500 and 550. Hondas of this era looked less...well, Japanese, than they had earlier. They embraced a kind of architectural classicism that paid tribute to both British and Italian design, with just enough Honda thrown in to reassure those who hated walking.

From the side, the Honda, with its half-teardrop tank, flat saddle, rounded sidecovers and upright cylinders, almost looked like a Triumph 500, albeit with a few too many pipes. It also had a few un-Triumphantly raw welds and seams, but the overall effect was good. Journalist Rich Taylor described it as having "an ethereal appearance," and added, "It just might be the best looking Japanese bike in production."

Good looks and good handling made the 500s and 550s the darling of the cafe-racer crowd. Cycle World described the 550's handling as "positively inspired for a 458-pound pleasure cushion aimed at a conservative clientele." Many of the owners, however, turned out not to be so conservative. The college town where I lived had half a dozen of them running around with clip-on handlebars, rearsets, 4-into-1 exhaust systems, good shocks and the obligatory Dunlop TT100 K-81 tires.

The magazines also featured lovely cafe customs built around the CB500 and 550 with fanciful names such as "The Gentleman's Express," and "The Mantlepiece." If you were a true believer in the cult of knee-out cornering (a style of riding then just in its infancy), a middleweight Honda was the bike to have.

So, in one of the most extreme cases of delayed gratification in the history of the Western world, I finally decided to buy one, about two months ago.

My friend Bob Barr, the local Kawasaki/Ducati dealer, was having an autumn open house and Ducati Appreciation Day at his shop, so I rode my 900SS over for a visit.

In his lineup of used bikes was a 1975 CB550K, Candy Jade Green in color. It had a mere 10,000 miles on the clock, but looked a little rough around the edges: wrong-color sidecovers borrowed off an old CB500, cruddy 2-into-2 aftermarket exhaust system with bologna-shaped mufflers, old luggage rack, dirty engine and a little light rust around some of the bolts. Naturally, I was drawn right to it.

"You've been looking at that old thing all summer," Bob said. "Why don't you just buy it, so I don't have to store it all winter."

I looked at the price tag on the handlebars. It said $795.

"Too expensive," I explained.

"I'm just waiting for an offer I can't refuse," he said.

"What offers have you refused so far?"

"None."

"How about $300?"

"Sold."

Five minutes later, I was riding the bike, which started, idled, ran and stopped absolutely fine. It didn't even have the typical old Honda cam-chain noise from worn adjuster surfaces, which always sounds like an anchor chain being winched through a hawsepipe. Perfectly nice bike, just dirty and not quite correct. I wrote out a check, came back later and rode it home that afternoon. On a lonely stretch of country road, I managed to hit an indicated 98 mph.

Back in my own garage, I changed the oil and filter, and adjusted the chain, but there was very little mechanical fiddling needed. Bob had given me a shop manual and a batch of receipts that came with the bike, and I discovered the previous owner had spent about $500 at a local shop, one year earlier, on sticky brake hydraulics, tune-up, new chain and a few minor electrical repairs. So I turned my attention to the cosmetics.

Off came the rusty luggage rack and the gnarly exhaust system. My friend David had an original set of pipes and mufflers left over from his own CB550, so I bought those for $150. (A new replacement set from Honda costs about $450.) One of the four pipes was rusty, so I ordered a new one from the dealer, for $112. The 550s were famous for rusting out low spots in the system because the four individual pipes seldom got hot enough to burn off condensation on short rides.

The old system fit perfectly, but the one new pipe from Honda was misformed, terminating a good half-inch from the cylinder head. I spent one long evening heating the pipe with a large rose tip on my welding torch, slowly bending it to fit and using up enough acetylene and oxygen to scrap out the carrier Lexington.

I also ordered new 550 Four badges and Candy Jade Green sidecovers from Honda for just over $100. The new sidecovers showed up painted an electric pea soup green that has never been seen on any known Honda, or in Nature, one hopes. I returned them for a refund and decided I will try to find the correct paint code and paint the old ones myself.

Until recently, one of the appealing aspects of restoring an old Honda was the factory's willingness to stock very old OEM parts and keep them on the books. My friendly parts man informs me however, that Honda is now farming many of these parts out to small independent suppliers, so quality has slipped. Too bad. Still, not many companies stock any parts at all for bikes that are 20 or 30 years old, as Honda does.

So, my $300 jewel is now a $600 bike--though I could easily have left it alone and ridden it just the way it was. But it looks correct now (except for the sidecovers) and is ready to ride.

And how is the CB550 to ride, here in modern times?

Surprisingly nice.

In handling and steering characteristics, it reminds me most of the two Triumph 500s I've had. Which is to say you can swoop down a twisty country road with very little conscious effort or even awareness of cornering technique. The wide handlebars and rational, relatively upright seating position provide a perfect, balanced platform for almost effortless steering. In many ways, the 550 handles almost like a modern dual-purpose bike, but with a slightly heavier lump of engine down there, and a much lower seat height. It feels compact, solid and secure.

Push a little harder, though, and you begin to scrape sidestand and pipes, and you can feel a little motion in the swingarm, probably from worn bushings. The old stock shocks are so ineffective as to seem absent. There were good reasons the cafe-racers-and roadracers-replaced the stock pipes and shocks and removed their stands. Still, if you don't get gymnastic, the bike can be ridden reasonably fast just as it is, with no great drama.

My 550 will just touch 100 mph on the speedometer, but its happiest cruising speed is about 70, at 5600 rpm. Try holding 80 and five minutes later you'll look at the speedo and find yourself at a serene 70 again, as though the twistgrip were spring loaded to return to that setting. Maybe it is.

The CB550 is neither terribly quick nor very torquey in the depths of its rev band, but in full acceleration it woofs through the gears in a series of smooth, euphonious lunges with enough spirit to be fun. Fuel mileage--never a strong point in the 500s and 550s--averages about 35 mpg. It was always worse than the 750 in this respect. Reserve is needed at around 100 miles, at which time you have about another 30 miles of fuel; only slightly better than a Sportster.

The wide, broad, flat seat is quite comfortable. The foam could be a little denser, but at least you can move around and change position. I'd have no hesitation at all in striking off on a long cross-country trip with this bike, as so many have. It's a pretty good all-day traveler.

Two of my friends took the 550 out for ride, and both of them came back to deliver almost exactly the same quote: "You know, most people really would never need any more bike than this. It does everything just fine."

Factor in that it's actually fun to ride, and it adds up to an awfully nice motorcycle, especially for a total investment of $600. I realize I got this bike at a friendly bargain price, but even pristine, low mileage 500s and 550s seldom seem to climb much past the $800-to-$1000 zone. Real rats can be had for almost nothing, and the world's most beautiful museum-worthy example might fetch $1200 or so.

Why so cheap?

Well, Honda made a lot of them. But then, too, you have to look at the chrome on the mufflers and fenders. We aren't talking Brough Superior here. These bikes were mass produced and made to a price, and that price did not include chrome plating for the ages, polished castings for the passenger footrests, headlight shells hand-hammered by Druidic artisans or hand-striping of the tank by someone who squints with one eye through cigarette smoke and wears his cap at a jaunty angle.

What the price did include was some very fine engineering, a jewel-like engine, long service life, beautiful shapes and a plethora of convenience features all wrapped up into a machine whose appearance and performance transcend its individual parts.

And you can still buy one, if not exactly for free, almost for a song."

15 comments:

J said...

Good Information I am currently working on a 1973 cb500 four k2. Got her in real bad shape she looks much better and is now running and coming together. not making mine stock got alot of after market parts but its still a CB500. Kinda a ebay jcwhitney special. It cost pretty penny to do complete restore. I just wanted something to tinker with and ride around when I get done.

rodolfo_goncalves said...

Nice article, it just made me decide on buying a 1976 CB550.

jim911 said...

anyone have any 550f sidecovers laying around?

jim911 said...

newbie! looking for 550f side covers.

dck said...

Really enjoyed the article, especially because I own a 1971 CB500Four. However, anyone interested in this CB500Four... domestic Japanese model. Purchased in Japan slightly used, toured around for a month and brought it home. I loved riding it and it served me well as an occasional rider until I bought a used CBX. Parked in the garage the last 15 years. 35,000km. Good-fair condition externally... dreams of restoration are fading due to oldness and decrepitivity... on my part, not the bike's. Figure I should divest before I die and the wife takes it to the junkyard. (New, unused Kerker pipe and headers are optional.)

Also, CBX sold... but still holding used OEM pipes and a set of carbs for the '72 CBX although I think the carbs are actually from a '69-71 model.

Located in Hawaii. For more info, e-mail me at:
hotdiggittydog2010@live.com

Also, got here by looking for an article on the CB500F "Gentlemen's Express" published in a cycle magazine... "Cycle" I believe. Missed the publication and never got to read it. Anyone have it? Thanks for the memories...

J said...

There is on the sohc.net forum , a scan of the "Mantel Piece" article from Cycle Nov 1975
http://forums.sohc4.net/index.php?topic=20392.0

Hood River Bishops said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kunal said...

Delhi,India based Supplier of Bike/Motorcycle seat covers and other two wheeler accessories, provides various quality seat covers at cheap price and deal in leather seat covers, foam seat covers. Whole sale supply in Honda seat covers, Suzuki, Yamaha et. In Delhi/NCR (Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Gurgaon), India.

Kunal said...

Delhi,India based Supplier of Bike/Motorcycle seat covers and other two wheeler accessories, provides various quality seat covers at cheap price and deal in leather seat covers, foam seat covers. Whole sale supply in Honda seat covers, Suzuki, Yamaha et. In Delhi/NCR (Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Gurgaon), India.

dck said...

Sold my CB500 to a local guy (Honolulu). He took it home and got it running in short order. After sitting in the garage for 25 years or so, I was surprised that he got it running without an engine overhaul. He said he changed the spark plugs and wires and cleaned up the carbs and gas tank. Can't beat that for Honda quality!

Steve Cote said...

I had a 75 that I bought in 1980, put in a Yosh cam, Kerker 4 into one, KN's filters and super bike bars, and Muholand shocks. Fun bike.

Hairy Larry said...

Got here looking for an article or piece that was in one of the major mags about a Japanese man who rode a Honda 350 around the world in the '70's. So far have found a mention by a man who met him at a Rally back then (Aegir Rally).Any one remember about that?
I bought a 77 CB 550 about four years ago for $200. Had to replace tank and pipes, and battery. Found an RC Engineerig pipe and a tank for $100. (friends at a wreckers...).Stole the electronic ignition from my 750. 25,000 + miles. Runs like a champ.Reliving my youth. Had a "71 Cb 500 that I cafed in the seventies. Worked at a wreckers then, so upgraded with 550 parts. Put a sectioned seat off of a 750 F...Hooker Header, good shocks, swing arm bushings etc. Anyway, check out my blog...will be posting about that bike and others here in the future.

Hairy Larry said...

I agree with most of what Peter says about the 500-550's.I still have an old Honda 750 that I lowered an inch front and rear per an article in Cycle magazine I believe. It transformed the handling of the bike.It had the stock pipes and had no issues with cornering clearances, once I sectioned the centerstand kickdown protrusion.Something I started doing on all of my bikes.A little harder to manipulate after that, but at least you don't ground down at that point anymore. Just remembered that I put a ported and polished 550 head on my old 500. In drag races with 750's and built 500's, I'd usually get them up to about 90. Probably that Hooker Header with all the other mods...miss that bike. Don't know if 550 heads had bigger inlet valves...?

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