Essays Honda CB550 Journal On motorcycles

Unearthing the history of a 1974 Honda CB550

Hints of the story behind a Honda CB550 that is what it shouldn’t be.

When I went to look at a cb550 after it caught my attention browsing through the classifieds, I saw a rugged, characterful and misused motor with some semblance of charm. It was icy outside, so after taking the bike indoors to let it thaw, I returned the following day to hear it run. With the tap of a button the engine roared to life. Within an instant a connection formed, almost like meeting an old friend after many years.

The year was 2019 and with 45 years under its belt, having been built in Japan and driven across North America, I knew it would have stories. If only it could speak.

Laden with dirt, grease and wax the bike looked worse for wear. Tom, the prior owner of the bike, mentioned to me that he had rented to it to a movie production and their costume and set team had had their way. I couldn’t wait to get a rag and some soap to it.

As the bike stood, February 13 2019

But that’s when hints of a story began to emerge.

I noticed that the badly painted gas tank (again thanks in part to the apparent movie set team) had bondo cracks. So I called Bill, a talented dent repair specialist, if he would be able to take a look at it. “Sure,” he said, being a fellow bike guy. But mentioned that gas tanks were anything but easy when it came to popping dents.

Well that night I began the arduous work of sanding the bondo from the tank and prepping it for Bill. Yet as I peeled away the layers of old repairs and paint, more and more dents appeared. Clearly this bike had seen adventure.

Bill’s face lit with amazement when I showed him the tank. But faithful to his word he did his best. I was blown away by the difference. The once brutally damaged tank was enhanced to a patina that matched its age. I could almost hear my new old friend smile.

Tom had mentioned the bike was running rich. So I carefully tore open the carburetors. Meticulously organizing as I went. Someone, long ago, had rebuilt these carburetors before me. And had used some sort of seal gasket glue on everything, filling critical pathways and even covering the holes of the drain screws – which had been glued closed. It was obvious that others had since tried loosening them. Fortunately I had this incredible cleaner on hand. It’s probably toxic and deadly but eats through anything, so I love it.

The tear down begins

I found the source of the fuel mixture issue. The number 4 gasket was missing the needle. That would do it. Clearly someone else had discovered this too. The piston in the same carburetor was dented and bent from what appears to have been the work of a nonsamurai master. Fortunately, a file and carb cleaner made short work of the worst of it and the piston was removed. After addressing any issues, fixing all bent components and bolting it back together the carburetor looked and functioned as good as new… almost. The number 4 exhaust was cold after firing up the engine. Fortunately I was able to quickly find a replacement piston on eBay and then the engine ran without fault.

I thought it odd that the inner workings of the engine seemed to be in better condition than the carburetor.

Later, I began the simple task of bleeding and rebuilding the front forks. I ran into my first snag. The fork screws were sealed with the same gasket glue as the carburetor. And then, to my surprise, the lower springs were missing. I quickly checked online to see if any CB550s came stock without lower springs in their forks. Sure enough the CB550f did. 

Earlier I had noticed the original color of the bike was said to be blue. According to insurance files it had always been blue. I searched online to see if any CB550fours were blue by stock. At first my search would turn up fruitless. 

The rear passenger frame mounts had long since been removed and I hadn’t checked the serial number of the bike. Suddenly I began to fear that my bike wasn’t what I thought it was. 

Grabbing my papers I ran to the garage and scanned the front of the bike. There it was, the number stamped into the front. But I couldn’t see the vin plate which concerned me. Turning the handlebars I saw thick black tape covering half of the front of the frame. More concerning still.

I pealed back the tape to reveal a shiny original vin plate matching the vin stamped on the frame and the vin of the papers. Anyone standing nearby would have heard an audible sigh of relief.

Now I began to wonder about the engine. Fortunately, I had noticed on the website of a European Honda parts supplier a document of all the frame and engine numbers. I compared the number of the engine with frame. The years matched. Then I noticed they also documented the carburetor number as well – which surprised me. 

But as I checked the numbers, the carburetor matched a CB550f, like the forks. Another story emerged. Clearly the forks and carburetor were most likely from the same bike and for whatever reason had replaced the original ones on this bike.

That would explain why the motor seemed in better shape than the carbs. And why I couldn’t find any traces of that gasket glue anywhere else on the bike or engine.

But again I wondered about the color. I knew a CB550f came in blue. Perhaps that was the confusion. But no, the fuel tank was a different shape, rather than having the classic styling with the chrome lid, the CB550f was a more modern shape and had a hidden cap. Secondly, while the frame is nearly identical between the bikes, the mounting points are not. And the CB550f side panels didn’t fit the my frame.

Then by happenstance I stumbled upon a 7 year old video on Youtube of an original blue CB550. It appeared to be the same year as my own. Curious, I went back to the garage and examined my parts. The side cover was cracked and beneath layers of primer and repaints, there as clear as day was a metallic blue. I flipped over my fuel tank as well, and sure enough I could see metallic blue overspray. So definitely the original tank. I did also spot green overspray as well. Perhaps there was an option to custom paint the bike when purchasing it? Or possibly they swapped a cb500 tank and side panels when purchasing the bike? Perhaps someone reading this would know if that is something that was done in the 70s.  

The bike also had a blue face on the odometer gauge with miles matching the papers. Every reference of the bike I can find in bike reviews say the gauges were green. Now I know that my odometer could have easily been changed. So I did some more research on forums, classifieds and Youtube and have since found many 1974/75 cb550s with blue gauges. So again, an unlikely surprise, but it looks to be original to the bike. 

Remember how the tank was badly dented? Well, the story continues. Excited to get into things I immediately began giving the old beast a thorough cleaning. There was dirt everywhere with sand and grit found in every crevice of the engine body.

The bike had been given an intentionally “rustic” paint job for the movie. Where black was painted over silver and then sanded back to reveal the silver in spots. Again, apparently to serve the look of the film. But, despite soap being thrown in its direction the bike still looked dirty after each wash. So a quick trip to my local auto paints store and I returned with high quality black paint for rims. Something that would endure the elements until I would be able to powder coat it down the road.

Well, removing the gas tank revealed a very silver frame indeed. All the hardware such as the battery holder and metal clips were also painted in silver. And the quality was too good to fit the work of the movie look. This had been done before.

The more I investigated the frame and paint the more I was impressed with the workmanship. Someone at some point in its history cared for this bike.

But the cleaning revealed something else too. I noticed some dents on the side of the engine fins. But as the wax was removed the dents turned into chips and cracks. This engine had been through war. The majority of the wear was on the same side where the gas tank had most of its dents.

Had someone used this as an enduro bike? It’s possible.

In many ways, rediscovering an old bike is like unearthing an archeological site. One must rely on the remnants of clues to share the stories long forgotten or untold.

Yet it’s these discoveries that hint to the story and soul of the bike. The peculiarities of the engine. The way it sits on the road. And the charm of its character. Much like an old friend. Battered, bruised but no worse for wear.

And also, much like an old friend. Occasionally they share stories that almost seem too interesting to be true. Yet they are.

Many movies are filmed in the area I live. Mostly small production indie films. Some of my friends are filmmakers. So when Tom remarked that this bike was used on set it didn’t grab my attention. That is, until I began discovering more about the peculiar hints of history that this bike seemed to have. An unlikely original paint color. An unlikely pairing of forks and carburetor. An unlikely speedometer. And even an unlikely turn of events – from the pride of someone’s garage to become what appears to be an enduro to then appear on a film set. All of which was unlikely. But evidence suggested otherwise.

And like all nagging thoughts it asked to be investigated.

It turns out it was in a movie, titled Endless. The movie was released in 2020. And stared Nicholas Hamilton (from IT) Alexandra Shipp (Storm on X-Men).

And surprise surprise, the bike is featured on the cover of the film. 

Alexandra Shipp, Nicholas Hamilton, and the Honda CB550 staring in Endless

Now I know that the bike was in a movie. I know that it was painted blue. I also know that it has a CB550f fork and carburetor. And I know that it was owned by a chef at some point. Tom told me. But I don’t know that it was used as a dirt tracker or that it was stored in a garage. I only have the clues. But isn’t that what great stories are. Just enough to guide you along and just enough to let your mind wonder.

My humble CB550 in a scene from Endless
Essays On motorcycles

Honda CB500/550 and the soul of Honda 1971-1978

Recently I’ve become fascinated by the story of Honda’s CB500 and CB550, having recently acquired one. Read reviews and road tests of either bike and you see a statements like Motorcycle Mechanics “one of the ‘show stealers'”, or Motorcyclist magazine’s “possibly the best all-around street bike on the market.”

CB500 four superbike

1975 Honda CB550 Four

Yet, while the story of the CB750 is well known, Honda’s 500cc series remains largely unassuming, almost exotic, except to motorcycling enthusiasts and those that remember it from the days of their youth.

Wipe away the dust and an intriguing past emerges.

The saga of this bike starts in the 1940s. An era whilst European motorcycles were leading the world when it came to performance. British and Italian bikes like Norton and Moto Guzzi were dominating The Isle of Man TT race, the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world [1]. The two American brands of the time, Indian and Harley Davidson, meanwhile were building the now iconic big engined and slow revving steads.

Then came the seventies. Marked by the quintessential sports cars, classic sport bikes, fast-living rock stars and legendary guitar solos. While rock’n roll was moving motorcycle innovation wasn’t. Fast forward half a century to modern days and it’s hard to imagine a time when companies weren’t innovating products at a relentless speed. We’re surrounded by tech centric companies. In the pre-personal computing age however, this was far from common.

When the young company Honda emerged in 1946 with the long and official name of Honda Technical Research Institute it was clear that engineering would be its DNA. Japan has a deep-rooted history of excellence in craftsmanship. Samurai swords like the fabled Katana blades were folded up to 10 times by smith workers removing impurities and forming thousands of layers of metal bonded together. In Japan there exists a culture that looks for perfection in the harmony of the parts that make up the whole. In other words, a machine must be designed to work in harmony with itself to perform most efficiently. And founder Soichiro Honda was gripped by this and desired to engineer the perfect machine.

And a Honda 500 series motorcycle engine seems to exemplify this.

“First, there was its bloodline. If you were a racing fan of – 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-litre displacement. Real GPs were 500s, and the displacement had a lean competition ring to it.”

~ Cycle World

Cycle World


Honda released the 500 in the early 1970s, “Injecting a massive dose of technical class and good motorcycling into a rather ordinary collection of mid­sized street bikes.” Exclaimed Cycle Magazine.

Almost as quickly as they left the factory floor in Japan the CB500s and 550s were being modified as cafe racers or gentleman’s expresses. Cycle World recorded that the, “Good looks and good handling made the 500s and 550s the darling of the cafe-racer crowd.” As if their real purpose, their calling, was competition. Fortunately, the engine was more than capable. The CB550 is easily modified to rev at 11000 plus RPM. “Several CB500 machines were entered in the Production TT races on the Isle of Man in the early 1970s.” Bill Smith road the CB500 to victory in 1973 – 8.2 seconds ahead of his rival. [1]

In 1974, Cycle World Senior Editor D. Randy Riggs prepares to launch the Honda CB550 at the now defunct Orange County International Speedway
In 1974, Cycle World Senior Editor D. Randy Riggs prepares to launch the Honda CB550 at the now defunct Orange County International Speedway

When the young company Honda emerged, the Isle of Man was clearly on everybody’s mind. Founded by Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa in the late 40s. Honda made its first appearance at the Isle of Man in 1959. Then in 1961, just over a decade since their formation, they won the first 5 positions in each of the 125cc and 250cc categories. An unprecedented rate of success and a sign of what was to come.

Soichiro Honda was inspired by racing and passionate about engineering. Honda believed racing was the springboard to technological advancements [2]. He is cited as saying, “If Honda does not race, there is no Honda.” [3] In their formative year, Takeo Fujisawa joined Soichiro Honda, handling the companies business matters. Honda was able to spend his days in the factory and research laboratory.

Honda motorcycle research analysis of the 1970s

With race engineering driving their designs and finding their way into production, their engines became better and more reliable [4]. Honda’s began upsetting the status quo. “They were built like a fine watch. Incredibly durable, fun to ride.” Selling his Norton for a Honda, Peter Egan, Editor-at-Large of Cycle World shared, “When I got the Honda all of a sudden I felt I could look at the map of the United States and go anywhere.”

Brooklyn Dodgers manager Walter “Smokey” Alston road a Honda. As did Steve McQueen – a man known for his riding abilities.

Steve McQueen and Neile Adams with their Honda motorcycle
Steve McQueen and Neile Adams with their Honda motorcycle

“[Soichiro] Honda was the kind of guy where the engine was the heart of everything,” shared Thomas Elliot, then Executive Vice President of Honda U.S.

And Honda was winning races in the Grand Prix on an inline four 500cc engine. That was until the Grand Prix brought in new rules restricting all classes to six gears and most to two cylinders (four cylinders in the case of the 350 cc and 500 cc classes), Honda joined a mass walkout and didn’t enter the Grand Prix again for the next ten years.

Honda racing pre 1967Clearly, however it was Honda and they had plans of one day returning.

The 500cc engine was the king of the GP. And Honda, passionate about innovating a race machine, didn’t have a 500cc inline four engine to develop in their model range.

That was until 1971 when they released the CB500 Four and shortly after the updated CB550 Four in late 73.

Yoshimura an engineer, who lead Honda back to their return to the GP in 1979, was a staunch advocate of the four-cycle approach. “Four-stroke engines,” he said, “have distinctive mechanical processes. The (intake) valve closes tight, combustion occurs, the exhaust valve opens, and the exhaust is released. It’s a sequence of independent processes, each with a different function, working together to facilitate the engine’s entire operation. This is really fascinating, from an engineering standpoint. I believe this mechanism will be the basis of further advancement in engine technology.”

Yoshimura joined Honda in 1972 and was determined, “to create something that would represent the very best in technology. We were determined to create an engine to surprise the whole world.”

The CB500, with a top speed of 115 mph [6], was already a great bike and was well received by reviewers. Cycle Magazine called it, “The thinking man’s motorcycle.” So it was unexpected when in 1973 when Honda released the upgraded 550cc engine. It was the same frame with the same classic sport styling, same tank design, similar weight, same engine case, but with a larger displacement engine.

But the surprise was appreciated.

CB550 unquestionably the king of mid-sized superbikes

In a June ’74 road test, Cycle World praised Honda for making the best middleweight better [7].

But engine size wasn’t the only thing upgraded. Honda’s racing and engineering fingerprints were evident on the CB550. The front forks and hub were designed for bolt on dual discs, stock. Something early adopters of the CB550 made quick use of. And there were other, less evident, improvements as well. Such as an improved clutch and uprated rear suspension [5].

Peter Watson and Graham Sanderson of Bike Magazine wrote, “We believe the CB550 provides one of the finest balances between performance, economy, and handling quality in today’s motorcycling arena. That may sound like a tribute normally reserved for two-grand plus machines, but we thoroughly enjoyed the CB550 and consider it to be one of the better bikes to emerge from Honda’s design team in recent years.”

“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”
~ Cycle World in reference to the CB500 and CB550

CB550 four
1974 CB550 four

It’s interesting when you consider that the CB500-550 series lasted between 1971 to 1978. Ending the year before Honda returned to the Grand Prix circuit.

The 500 series soul is its engine. Its beauty is its classicism. Its charm is its faithfulness. And its legacy is its timelessness.

Honda’s spirit was in engineering and advancing the engine. The 500cc was the pinnacle of Grand Prix racing. Perhaps, without the rigorous racing of the GP, Honda needed another way to test and develop their 500cc “heart” that would eventually see them return to the Grand Prix and their roots.

The CB 500/550 series represents the very soul of Honda.

“A machine that has earned a reputation for sporty performance, precision handling and virtually faultless reliability.”


Essays On motorcycles

The 1970s Honda CB-550 sport bike and the surprising parallels with the Porsche 911

In the dead of winter I purchased a 45 year old motorcycle. My neighbour helped me pull it out of my snow shovelled trailer. An older gentleman, he seemed surprisingly at ease as he guided it down over the harden ice. He shared how seeing the motorcycle brought him back.

But the bike looked in rough shape. It had been used in a movie shoot and they had wanted the appearance of a worn bike. I fired it up for him so he could hear the engine roar and the look in eyes said it all. “I didn’t expect that,” was all he said.

A 45 year old motorcycle, that looked like it was 45 years old, that ran beautifully at the first start of a button. That’s good engineering. Honda has left its mark.

When I first heard Honda’s CB 550 sports bike engine compared to that of the Porsches 911 sports car I was skeptical. Being a longtime admirer of the 911 this suggestion remained on my mind. And I wondered if a motorcycle and a car had anything in common. When considered from the engines of its day perhaps the analogy could make sense.


It was a well received engine. At 423 lbs dry weight it was lighter than the bigger engined sports bikes of the time and with a reduced wheelbase it was reviewed to handle well. Bike magazine reckoned there were several reasons for preferring the 500 series: ‘For starters the 500 is a lighter machine with a shorter wheelbase. It therefore has a better power-to-weight ratio than its bigger brother and, significantly, it handles better through the curves. In fact, the 500 is faster up to 60mph in a straight line and its 80mph only a fraction of a second behind the 750.’

The CB-550, unlike the model it was to replace, the CB-500, wasn’t widely exported until later models. Being first introduced to the US in 1973 and then later to Europe as the F version in 1975. Brazilian test rider Marcos Pasini wrote, that while the CB 550 Four was not officially exported to their market, the CB 550F was well received and that the CB 550 Four would have been as well by fans of the 500.

Honda published that the CB 550 featured “A new clutch. Smoother shifting. Free-valve front forks. Hydraulic front disc brakes … and we’ve increased the final reduction ratio for greater acceleration.” Upping the engine capacity by 10 percent, the CB 550 offered the same blend of performance and civility when it first arrived in the USA in late 1973. Making it the ideal base for a lightweight racer that could do the Ton, stock. The CB 500/550 remained a bit of a secret gem, preferred by cafe racers and used as “gentleman’s express” as featured in the 1975 edition of Cycle magazine.


Today people continue to enhance the performance of these bikes. And lately there’s been a revival of interest in the middleweight champion in large part because of the engine, the lower center of gravity, and yes its good looks.

1978 CB-550A quick glance at some of the threads on the cafe builds and you will see exactly what I mean, “I think custom 550’s have the most beautiful proportions.”

“Interesting. Different. Nicely engineered. CB550 motor. Bloody brilliant.”

“That bike is sweet! My CB 500 is nice and safe in my shed and has been for years, I first customized it as a cafe racer in ’85 as a young man, maybe it’s time to give it a birthday, after seeing this awesome bike I certainly feel inspired.”

As a 1970s sports bike, the design epitomized the look and stance of the sport bikes of its day. Further the engine was shorter than the CB 750’s which meant the center of gravity was lowered – which for handling is a good thing. So the 1970s Honda CB 550 sports bike has three elements in its favour. An handsome appearance, a well engineered engine, and balanced cornering. Like the Triumphs of the 60s and the Nortons of the 50s the Honda CB 500 and CB 550 embodied the spirit of the era. Sporty performance and charming looks.

I’ve loved Porsches long before their sudden rise of popularity lead them to be the collectable they are today. To me they are the quintessential classic styling of the 60s and 70s. Beautiful, elegant, and minimalistic.

Much like, in fact, the minimally styled Japanese and European sports bikes of the 60s and 70s.

Porsche 911

Subtle cues such as the shape of their windows, the proportion of the rear spoiler, and the round lights work together to enhance the overall design. Porsche seemed to get the balance of chrome with the 911 just right as well, using it to guide the eye along edges and curves. It’s something you see too with the CB 550. It’s a very well considered design. And both the Porsche and CB550 have a community of builders dedicated to either customizing or restoring them. Singer and Magnus Walker come to mind.

CB 550 side view


The Porsche has an incredible racing heritage. Something Honda motorcycling shares. And like Porsche, private teams raced CB 550s and people continue to modify and race them in today’s vintage editions.

Until 1998, the 911 was an air-cooled sports car, modified by private teams for racing and rallying. Then by the mid 1970s it really came into its own. Winning the Targa Florio, 24 Hours of Daytona and then the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. But what really sets the 911 apart is the classic styling, beautiful silhouette, and the marmite-like polarizing love/hate relationship by car enthusiasts.

The 911 was developed as a larger more powerful replacement of the Porsche 356.

Porsche, like Honda, developed both racing and production models of their vehicles. And the 911, like the CB550, was in their sports model range. And while Porsche become iconic for the sports cars of the 1970s, Honda became iconic for the sports bikes of the same era.

The Porsche 911 and Honda CB 550 were both considered engineering marvels of their time. When compared with a Ferrari, the 911 had a smaller engine, with a 2.0L (1,991 cc) 6 cylinder flat engine, yet Porsche decided to buck the trend with their rear engined flat 6. Yet, despite all logic the rear mounted engine would continue to win races. Similarly, while others were making 2 stroke 500cc sport bikes, Honda chose to engineer a 544cc 4 cylinder. As a result both were anomalies, both were lighter with excellent handing, both generated higher than expected power to weight ratios, and both were well suited for the race track.

Yet, where the CB 550 really stands out is the displacement to power ratio (DTP). The more power an engine can generate for its size and weight the faster it can make you go. Hence, the reason engineers try to make engines with smaller DTP ratios.

The CB 550 develops 50 horse power (HP) at 8,500 RPM. In other words, it utilizes 10.88 cc to put out 1 HP. Giving it a DTP of 10.88.

The Ferrari Dino 246 GT (1968-1974) had a 2419 cc engine putting out 193 HP. A DTP of 12.5.

And the Porsche 911?

Well, that produced a DTP of 13.7 from 1973-1989.

Surprisingly it took Porsche another 40 years before they released the 911 Carrera with a DTP of 9.96.

Honda’s CB 550 engine really was an engineering marvel. Even BMWs highly desirable R90/6 with its 898 cc engine producing 67 HP didn’t come close with its DTP ratio of 13.4.

Personally, I like the 70s sporty aesthetic of the original Honda CB 550s and 500s. There’s a certain symmetry and charm to their stature. I also understand one’s desire to modify it. The CB 550 engine offers a surprising punch and with simple weight reduction and some changes to the gearing and foot positioning can be converted into a very formidable racing machine that harkens to the days gone by.

When I catch a glimpse of a Porsche 911 passing by I find I’m drawn to it. It has an appearance that sets it apart. Comparing a motorcycle of the 70s with a car that continues in production today is a far stretch to say the least. Yet, from a merely observational perspective, the parallels are undeniable. With engineering at the heart of both machines, both replacing outgoing models, both perhaps representing the best of the engineering of their times, and both classics are immediately recognizable and iconic of their era.