Retrospective: Honda VT500FT Ascot: 1983-1984

(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.

1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.
1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.

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.

1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.
1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.

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.

1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.
1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.

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.

1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.
1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.

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.

1983 Honda VT500FT Ascot.

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.


  1. I purchased a 1982 model new in 1982. So the 1983 start date is incorrect. I had ridden BMW’s and noticed the LACK of jacking when increasing/decreasing throttle in a turn (where old BMW’s really jacked). I never noticed any jacking, actually, and was on the lookout for it. The small tank was a pain. 31.5″ seat but also high pegs, so a 6′ guy’s legs were too bent. It HAS become a cult bike. I sold my in 2002 or 2003 with 4600 actual miles (it was mainly my wife’s bike and she did not ride it much) and a guy drove all the way from west Kentucky to eastern NC to get it….and it was his second. Check online, there is a following for both the VT and the FT.

    • Excuse me I am new to motorcycles my dream was to build a cafe racer I bought off a site called market place a bike the gentleman told me it was a 1997 vt when I called parts zilla they said it was a 1983 vt 500 F Ascot would you be alright if I asked you questions about the bike from time to time? I just need someone outside the box opinion

    • And the shadow version too. In the right color like the factory burgundy or whatever they called it, with all the details cared for they are elegant things.

  2. I find this bike very appealing. If offered (offers still today) amazing technology for the price. In 1983, water cooling, shaft drive and in my mind, beautiful styling. It might not excel at any one type of riding, but it works well as an everyday bike. Grocery getter, daily commuter, riding in the canyons, even fun on dirt, gravel logging roads. No it is not as good as a dual purpose bike off the pavement, but you can still enjoy a mountain ride. It is not a touring bike, but a 2 day 500 mile excursion is not out of the question. If one like to ride on many different types of roads and only wishes to own one bike, the VT500 Ascot could be the answer for you. To me is a classic cult bike.

  3. Deos anyone have an picture of the directional switch internal location of the contacts that slider is making contact with?

  4. Does anyone know of a Honda Year and model name speedo & tach that’s round in out side shape that can be switched straight onto a 83 VT 500 FT Ascot? I’m building a custom bike for my son and those square gauges are the ugliest thing I’ve ever cracked my eyeballs with !

  5. the author made one glaring error-Honda did make a transverse V-twin,but so did Moto Guzzi-transverse means the opposite of how the author used it-Harleys are NOT transverse,Moto Guzzis are

    • Transverse means the crankshaft is perpendicular to the centerline of the bike. Most are transverse. Moto Guzzis, the old Honda CX line, BMWs (2-cyl boxers and the 3 & 4 cyl flat motors), plus Gold Wings and a few others are longitudinal, with the crankshaft orientedted parallel to the centerline. My car, a VW Jetta, has a transverse 4-cyl engine, common in FWD cars.

      Incidentally, I have an ’83 VT500FT, have owned it since about 1987, just turned over 26K. Love it! Small improvements to carbs made it much less cold-blooded and more tractable at low revs. Larger jets, and custom-made shims to raise the main jet needles. Work done by in Belgium WI.

    • The other error was in regard to
      The wheels. They are NOT Comstar, which were composite. My Ascot
      Has CAST wheels. Strong and
      Beautiful JB in Denver

  6. I had an 83 i bought at bentincourt in west bridgewater mass. changed the carbs to 38 smooth bore Mikunis . with some welding from Charley ivaldie canton mass. intake and frame. kirker and super trap exhaust. 12.6 112mph 1/4 mile new England drag way eping new Hampshire.

    • Please elaborate on all the mods made to this bike to achieve the stated 1/4 mile times. Thanks as I am about to purchase an ’83 Ascot. Thanks!!

      • Buy one bro these bikes are very fun and fast it’s a vtwin motor with a 52 degree kick on the motor it’s was also modified to trick the bike into thinking it was one of the 90 degree don’t no much about bikes but I do know when they say it’s like a harley they mean it sounds like a dream I got one for sale 1800$ I’ma put my email down email me or facebook william forsythe I’ll send pictures and talk about bike

  7. I bought an ’84 VT500 in 2017 that had 4k original miles. I paid $2,800. I love this bike. ‘Have not noticed any jacking even when on a nose dive braking session, or any other time. The saddle is misery! I took the cover off mine and used an electric carving knife to cut a better bigger profile into the factory foam… much improved, and, kept the factory cover and just re-stretched it back onto the seat pan. Yes, the fuel tank is far too small. But the rest of the bike is great. And for a side discussion, I also own an FT500 single. No comparison. Odd that Honda would use the same name for two motorcycles that are so vastly different.

    • I had an ’84 in the late 80’s and sold it in the late 90’s. I wish I had it back! Shaft drive, liquid cooled, 6 speed. Any one who ever liked the Night Hawk would probably have loved this bike! I also had no jacking problems and no cornering problems. I could slide the rear end around a curve on pavement if I wanted, and I did many times, but then again, I weighed well under 200lbs then!

  8. I got a ‘83 VT500 on eBay two years ago with 20,000 miles for $1000. Poorly represented by seller, bad starter clutch, dented header, welded muffler, leaking front seal. But what a great spirited ride! Had to have one after a friend lent me one for a month while my Moto Guzzi was in the shop. The harder you ride it, the better it performs. So light and nimble, surprisingly fast. But yeah, that seat, like made for a kid; not 6’ adult. Plan to add foam to make it level with the rear so not scrunched up to the tank.

  9. Interesting article, but one glaring miscue. The offset crank pins do not make the engine fire like a 90° v-twin. They make it fire like a verticle twin. Both pistons reach top dead center at the same time. The sound is the same as a 360 crank verticle twin.

  10. I bought mine new 83 still in the crate in 84 for $1400. There was another one there should of bought it also. Liked the looks of it . No chrome. Ken Iowa

  11. I think they launched in 82 as my buddy had one while I bought a silver KZ550. Lots of fun seeing who was faster in the mountains of SoCal back in the day. Also it had Keihin carbs and not Mikunis.

  12. This was my first MC in the late 80’s and sold it in the late 90’s. Always loved the Ride and feel of the bike .
    Fast forward to 2020. My three boys start looking at bikes so we all do the state MC class. We find a 13k mile Ascot for sale nearby in great condition and picked it up for $875 for the boys to learn on.
    Sure brings back some memories.

  13. I just bought an 83 twin for 400 bucks, it’s a lil rough but runs, I wonder if anybody can give me ideas I. How to get more power. Also interested to discuss building a cafe out of it , if anybody here has experience with that change over. I have a cbr 600 with blown motor I’m stealing many parts from

    Just looking for ideas ,band or suggestions .

  14. I got a 83 been garaged no pw guy who owned it died before he gave me pw so its been garaged but not 4 years im selling it any one interested ??

    • Where do you live? If you are close to California, I would be interested. I know this post is a few years old though.

  15. Edmond, it depends on where you and your 83 are. I am in central Texas with my 83 that I have had since 1993.
    It has been sitting for some time and I could use a parts bike to help get me back on the road. I enjoyed the article and comments.

  16. I have an ’83 purchased new in Dec. ’82. Loved this bike but suspension is definitely weak. (scraped the pegs a number of times). After 20K miles it sat a long time. Then about ten years ago I pulled the carbs hoping to rebuild them. No parts. The weird ass Diaphragm carbs needed new diaphragms. The shop said good luck! Couldn’t find anything online so disassembled and cleaned everything but used old gaskets etc.. Amazingly no leaks! I emptied the tank of old gas, put half a gallon of new and gave it a good shaking. Dumped that and filled with fresh. The thing ran like it used to for about ten miles but then began spitting and coughing like it was before pulling the carbs. Why didn’t I do a better job cleaning the tank! Parked it again but still have it. Would love to find a fuel injection for it or even a couple of carb kits. Get it running again. I just keep hitting a wall trying to find parts. Any suggestions see Glenn K. Windham on Facebook.

  17. Naw dog. Comstars are cast aluminum. All poop level Honda’s in the 80’s had them. Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder I suppose.

  18. I purchased a new 84 in 84 for $1850. It was a great first MC. Enough power to lift the front tire through intersections. The shaft was not as smooth as a chain, but it has 0 maintenance. I changed the tires to Michelin sport, this improved the ride. I could carve corners all day long and slide the back a little at the apex, but it was limited compared to the interceptor of the day. The 3 valves and 10.5:1 compression made for a powerful and efficient arrangement. I am surprised there are not more 3 valve motors. you can get more valve area in a cylinder with 3 rather than 2 or 4 valves. I was new to MC and I left the dealership at 6:00PM and was in the emergency room at 10:00PM (only stiches).

  19. I bought an 84’ vt500ft in 2022. Rode it home 10 miles and thought my butt was gonna fall off. It cost me $500 bucks, It was was run pretty hard before I got it. Maybe on a flat track. It runs well, cold blooded, even worse than my 86’ Shadow. It’s pretty stripped down, lots of dings and missing covers but I like well enough. I like the foam seat carving mentioned above, I may try that. It only had one key and I lost that on my mail route, so I had to take the fork lock in to have a new one cut. (Note to self, don’t do that again) The gas valve leaked so I drilled out the rivets and put in screws, I bought a new one too, but may leave the original, I’ve heard the after market may not allow enough fuel through. There was no ignition button when I bought it. They just touched two wires together. Sanding the tank I found a leak under a damaged area. I’ll have to coat the inside of it. I’m going to try some Red-kote fuel tank liner, I’ve heard good reports. All the best to ya. Ride on.


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