(This Retrospective article was published in the September 2006 issue of Rider.)
Story and Photography by Clement Salvadori
As has been said many times before, there are only three basic ways of arranging two cylinders side by side, as in the Triumph Bonneville, opposed, as in the BMW boxer, or any of the 179 degrees between these two, as in a V-twin.
Most V-twins fall somewhere between Harley’s 45-degree included angle and Ducati’s 90 degrees. And in 1983 Honda’s R&D shop slipped a little 491cc 52-degree V-twin into this mix, calling it the VT500 Ascot.
Mr. Honda had not shown much interest in V-twins until 1978 when he introduced the utilitarian CX500 (Retrospective, December 1991), with an 80-degree V-twin mounted longitudinally in the chassis, and shaft final drive, a Japanese version of the Moto Guzzi.
Vees, depending on that included angle and the crankshaft design, have certain advantages, notably in being torquey little monsters when accelerating, and reasonably smooth when primary balancing is taken into consideration. For anyone not entirely clear on the subject of primary balancing, like myself, I can only suggest that if a V-twin is duped into thinking that the cylinder bores are 90 degrees apart by fiddling the crankshaft it becomes primarily balanced, but then one has to deal with the secondary imbalance, and that is way too much for this feeble mind.
Honda tried this crankshaft-engineering legerdemain on the VT500 Ascot, an attempt to build a mildly sporty transverse V-twin back in 1980. He could have shifted the longitudinal vee of the CX500 90 degrees and gone from there, but that was not his way of doing things. Start from the crankshaft and work up.
Honda’s decision to enter the cruiser market saw the release of the VT750C Shadow for the 1983 model year, with a Harleyesque 45-degree included angle. For the companion VT500C Shadow, someone came up with the idea for a 52-degree twin, with the crankpin offset 76 degrees to make the motor think it was one of those 90-degree builds, reducing much of the vibration. And since all that work had gone into developing the 491cc engine, why not use it in another model—a very different, sporty sort of machine, the VT500FT Ascot.
The oversquare VT500 engine had a bore of 71mm, a stroke of 62mm, and chain-driven overhead camshafts operating the valve train. Curiously, the heads had three valves apiece, two intake, one large exhaust, a design that engineers claimed increased torque. A pair of 34mm downdraft Mikunis fed the fuel into combustion chambers where the squish factor was 10.5:1. The whole affair was liquid-cooled, like the CX500, but more important on the Ascot as the rear cylinders on transverse V-twins tend to get a little more heat than is healthy.
The Ascot’s engine spun to a 9,500-rpm redline, getting a little buzzy between 5,000 and 7,000, but quite acceptable. I can’t find any dyno testing of the VT500, but it could run the quarter-mile in under 14 seconds at close to 100 mph. Not bad for a 30-incher.
Primary drive was by gear, a wet clutch feeding a six-speed transmission, followed by a shaft drive—quite an elaborate arrangement as this required two right-angle connections, out of the gearbox and into the hub. Obviously this was not intended as a seriously sporting machine, as this shaft both robbed power from the small motor and did not enhance the handling, as it had a minor jacking effect.
The engine was bolted into a full cradle frame, which was considered an old-fashioned design in those years. It had a box-section swingarm and a pair of VHD shocks at the back, with five-way preload adjustment. The leading-axle front fork had 37mm tubes and air-adjustability. Overall this was a rather lightweight suspension, as a 200-pound rider could pretty much overwhelm the springs. With a rake of 31 degrees, trail of 5.7 inches and a lengthy 58-inch wheelbase, it was not the quickest-turning bike on the block.
Comstar wheels were running tubeless tires, a 3.50 x 18 on the front, 4.25 x 18 at the back. A single disc was on the front, with a twin-piston caliper, a single-leading-shoe drum on the rear. With the tank full with 2.5 gallons of gas, the wet weight ran 425 pounds. The rider very much sat on top of this motorcycle, with the seat height over 31 inches. The footpegs also appeared to be placed a little higher than normal, and nothing scraped in spirited cornering.
American motorcycle testers could not figure out what the intended market was for this bike. It was competing head-on with the previous Ascot, the single-cylinder FT500 (Retrospective, February 2001), and the two were actually advertised side by side. On what was a buyer supposed to decide his or her purchase? The VT500 Ascot appeared to be the result of some marketing types putting together all their questionable ideas. With the shaft drive it lacked true sportiness, and the weak suspension made expensive upgrades a necessity if anyone wanted to really lean seriously into the corners.
Touring? That small gas tank and little space to sling saddlebags or mount a tankbag put paid to the notion. Was it supposed to replace the CX500 as the essential utilitarian two-wheeler? Price was appropriately low, at $2,300 it undercut the CX500 by 10 percent, but it lacked…what did it lack?
Some people thought it might become a cult bike, but that never happened. If you wanted a seductively sporty 500cc V-twin, you could always drop $3,500 for the Moto Morini 500 Sport. The new Honda never caught the public’s eye, and sat on the showroom floors, unwanted, unloved, unbought.
Then that all became academic as the motorcycle market collapsed in 1983, and cheap everything was the order of the retailing day. Already in the pipeline, the crates with the ’84 V-twin Ascots began stacking up behind the dealers’ fences. Honda bit the bullet, figured it had to get rid of these non-currents and dropped the price to less than dealer cost, and VT500FTs gradually merged with the motorized world.
Before its second year was done, the model was axed, though the Shadow version lasted through 1986. But that engine would live to fight another day, and it would be somewhat more successful the second time around in the 650cc Hawk GT.