The early 1980s were a time of rapid change and constant experimentation; synthesizers and drum machines were suddenly putting pop drummers and guitarists out of work, while the brash, angry punks of the late 70s started to grow out their short spiked hair and mohawks in favor of chaotic bird-nests and swooping, face-covering bangs – all dyed black, or bleached a yellowed tone of platinum. They discarded their ripped clothes, safety-pin piercings and jackboots for drab sweaters and black jumpsuits, tossed out their guitars, basses and drum kits – and along with all that, their sardonic angst and violent, antisocial rage – and started churning out morose, synth-driven New Wave. Digital watches, costly trinkets for millionaires in the 70s, went mainstream, and every nerd worth his sodium chloride was sporting a black plastic Casio calculator watch. The Star Wars movie franchise had ushered sci-fi imagery from fringe geek culture into the mainstream. It was a time of freaky fashion, technological progress that advanced in leaps and bounds, and insane hair styles – and in the world of motorcycles, things were no different.
The big Japanese Four, the Movers and Shakers of bikedom, were moving and shaking – indeed, they’d been doing so much of it in the final few years of the ’70s that the motorcycle world was feeling like one of James Bond’s preferred Martinis. Honda had come close to producing a true race rep with their CB1100R in 1981, while Suzuki had come out with their styling guns blazing with their futuristic-looking, love-it-or-hate-itthat same year. Yamaha were furthering development of their dynamite-in-a-small package RD350 and making two-strokes mainstream, while Kawasaki … well, after going all out with their monstrous liquid-cooled six cylinder Z1300, they were doing their thing and waiting in the wings to unleash something spectacular. Regardless, the pressure was on all four of them to produce something that was not only stronger! better! and faster! but also more technologically advanced than the competition. What to do, what to do? By this time, all of them had played around with various motor configurations and styling trends – so what was the next gimmick going to be, the next bunny they would pull out of their hats? Well, they had something, something untried and unique that they all thought was going to revolutionize street bikes. It started with a T and ended with an O…
That’s right: TURBO.
Just looking at that word makes your eyes read a little faster, doesn’t it? Those five letters, placed in that order, make your heart beat a little faster, get your blood racing through your veins, and if you close your eyes you can almost feel the wind on your face, right? As a kid of the ’80s, I remember “turbo” stickers on just about every little toy car or motorcycle I owned – always in a thick, ultra-futuristic digital-looking font, usually slanted in italics. Just seeing that word on your little toy bike or car made you feel like the freakin’ thing was so fast it could fly.
What exactly is a turbo, though? It’s a word that’s bandied about a lot, but one that perhaps few people actually understand.
Honda, being the trailblazers that they were, were the first to put out a mass-produced production turbo bike – the CX500 Turbo – and what a bike it was. In keeping with the cultural trends of the opening of the decade, it wasn’t just the turbo aspect that screamed out technology! Innovation! – no, there was plenty of cool stuff on this machine to wow even the most jaded old-school bike luddite. The motor itself wasn’t particularly revolutionary, although it was unusual – a longitudinal four-stroke 80° V-twin in the style of Moto-Guzzi motors – but what was revolutionary about it (for the time of course) was the fact that it had a turbocharger attached to the front of it, the first ever on a production motorcycle. With the aid of the forced induction, the 499cc longitudinal V-twin was able to crank out an impressive 82 horsepower at 8,000rpm. The motor was also liquid-cooled – totally standard for bikes in this day and age, but something of a rarity in 1982. Oh, and did I mention that the CX500 Turbo was the first production Honda to feature computer controlled fuel injection? It wasn’t the first production bike to swap out carbs for FI (that honor goes to Kawasaki’s 1980 Z1000 Classic) but hey, it was just one item of a number of very futuristic tech features boasted by the CX500 Turbo.
Indeed, the CX500 Turbo came from a line of envelope-pushers; its older sibling (the non-turbo CX500, which first rolled out of the Honda factory in the late ‘70s) was the first production bike to use tubeless tires, and the first Honda to feature their “comstar” wheels, which were later used on almost all their street-going bikes. The CX500 Turbo featured upgraded comstar wheels (painted gold, which was a thing Honda really got into for about three or four years in the early ‘80s), TRAC (Torque Reactive Anti-dive Control) forks, twin-piston brake callipers, and shaft drive for a silky-smooth ride. At a time when most streetbikes had twin shocks at the back, the CX500 had a monoshock, courtesy of Honda’s pro-link system. There was also a large dashboard with an extensive array of gauges, including a fuel system diagnostics light, as well as what may well have been the first instance of a digital clock being featured on a motorcycle dash. Regardless of whatever criticisms anyone might have wanted to lob at the CX 500 Turbo, nobody could deny that it was a technological pioneer.
Despite the boldly-emblazoned TURBO stickers all over the CX500T (including a huge one on each of the bike’s twin exhausts), with the concomitant promise of godlike speed, the CX wasn’t designed as a sportbike. It was far too lardy, at 485lb (220kg) dry to be a racer (and race reps hadn’t quite become a thing just yet anyway … that would only happen later in the decade) but too sleek, with its huge plastic fairing and futuristic-style bodywork, to be a cruiser or standard street bike … so what exactly was it?
I’m not sure that Honda themselves really knew; more than anything, it seemed that the CX500T was perhaps little more than an exercise in pushing the technological envelope, and then seeing what the market would make of their groundbreaking offering. For all the excitement around the release of this technological marvel, sales didn’t exactly take off, and while the motorcycle press generally praised the CX500T’s smooth handling and tech wizardry, many reviewers felt perhaps a little underwhelmed. For all the excitement over the bike’s turbocharger, its top speed was only around 125mph – which isn’t bad by any means, but you kinda expect a machine that screams TURBO at you to be a little quicker than that.
Feeling somewhat left out after Honda had pipped them to the post, the other three Japanese manufacturers all introduced their own turbocharged bikes in the next few years – Yamaha had their weirdly-styled XJ650 L Seca, Suzuki produced their XN85 (an aircooled 650 in-line 4) in very limited numbers, while Kawasaki, after holding out a little while, eventually took the cake with the fastest turbo of them all – the ZX750 Turbo (also called the GPz750 Turbo, depending on what country you live in).
Few of these bikes lived up to the hype, though. Aside from the ZX750, none really offered the liter-bike-power-out-of-a-much-smaller-motor performance the marketing men at the Big Four promised – and almost all of them had problems with turbo lag, making them sluggish when ridden below the turbo threshold.
Honda tried to up the turbo game in 1983, increasing the size of the CX500 Turbo’s motor by 150 cubic centimeters, along with a host of other improvements. The new bike was called the CX650 Turbo, and according to Honda, it delivered in every area in which its predecessor had been lacking. The bigger motor was good for a genuine 100 horsepower and a top end of 140mph (225km/h), and the acceleration was more thrilling than that of the CX500T. Handling was also more refined, as were the bike’s aerodynamics, making it a fantastic middleweight mile-muncher. Turbo lag had been addressed, to a degree, but it still wasn’t perfect. However, the price tag had also gone up, and this made what had already been a very expensive motorcycle even more out of reach for the average buyer. In the end, as lovely a machine as it was, the CX650 Turbo – fewer than 2,000 of which ever rolled out of the Honda factory – effectively priced itself out of the market.
Furthermore, despite Honda’s efforts with the CX650 Turbo, Kawasaki happened to snatch the “fastest” crown with their incredibly impressive ZX750 Turbo, a machine that almost lived up to all of the early ‘80s TURBO! hype … but then, like New Wave in the musical world, after a somewhat intriguing and promising start, it was all over. An interesting flash in the pan it had been, to be sure, but ultimately, that’s all the whole production turbo thing really was – a flame that burned too bright, for too short a time. Forced induction would disappear from the motorcycling world for the next few decades, until it reared its head once again many years later, in a bike that not only lived up to, but surpassed anything (speed and power wise) any production motorcycle could have aspired to … but the tale of Kawasaki’s monster Ninja H2R of 2014 is a story for another day…
Honda CX500 1992 Advert