Retrospective: 1988 Honda VT800C Shadow

1988 Honda VT800C Shadow
1988 Honda VT800C Shadow

It’s always fun to ponder the wisdom of motorcycle marketing types, and why various models appear, and sometimes disappear. Quickly. Here we have Honda’s one-year-only VT800C Shadow V-twin, the new larger size done on the cheap by stroking the cylinders of the original VT750C an additional 5.1 millimeters. And then Honda didn’t even write “800” large on the gas tank or side panels; it was seen only discreetly etched on the chromed air cleaner cover by the rider’s left knee. How was anybody to know this was a newish model?

This was the sixth year for Honda’s Shadow series, the company’s first effort to market a traditional V-twin. By traditional we mean one with the cylinders fore and aft, the crankshaft turning in the same direction as the rear axle. Here we will ignore the longitudinal V-twin that Honda had introduced in 1978 with the commendable CX series.

Honda, and the Japanese OEMs in general, seemed to have had a bias against the V-twin motor design, perhaps because they saw it as being a bit old-fashioned. As the motorcycle industry took off in the 1960s, the Rising Sun engineers kept away from the simplicity of a V-twin, preferring to build new and powerful engines like overhead-camshaft in-line fours, the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, or UJM…which kept the American motorcycling hordes entranced throughout the ’70s.

However, having conquered just about every aspect of the motorcycle market, from sport to touring to dirt, excepting a few purists who were partial to European bikes, the Japanese were left with one last segment: the cruiser, exemplified by the V-twin. Power, handling, these did not matter—it was all about style.

Yamaha was the first to tackle this niche in 1982, showing its air-cooled 750 and 920 Virago cruisers, with Honda’s 750cc Shadow appearing a few months later. While Harley was selling nostalgia with its rather antiquated 45-degree OHV engines, and Ducati was winning races with sophisticated OHC 90-degree twins, the Japanese were intent on redefining the cruiser concept. Their vision of the new American cruiser type was a rider who wanted turnkey simplicity, along with reliability and maintenance-free operation. And who could disagree after Honda sold 37,000 Shadows that first year?

The styling was a bit, shall we say, unorthodox, with that left-side exhaust header being not cool at all. Initially Honda was also a bit unclear on the concept that a cruiser needs to be comfortable, and the handlebar/seat/footpeg relationship on the Shadow did not add up to sitting in the saddle for long periods of time. But ergos are not set in stone, and over the next five years suitable adjustments were made. In 1986, the 750 version turned into a 700 to sidestep a new tariff, and remained clunky looking.

The 700/750 Shadow’s drivetrain was conventionally modern, with the water-cooled cylinders set at 45 degrees. Chain-driven overhead camshafts ran the three-valve heads, using hydraulic valve adjustment, avoiding that boring tappet-clearance check. All of this kept adequate power flowing, some 60 horses, with pleasant low-range grunt at 3,500 rpm. Carburetion was done via two 36mm Mikunis sitting right under the gas tank.

Straight-cut gears ran the power back to a 6-speed gearbox, and then shaft drive, so maintenance was minimal. Along with mag wheels and tubeless tires, initially the Shadows had twin discs on the front, but in ’86 they went to a single—which worked just as well. Wheelbase was an even 60 inches, with curb weight a little more than 500 pounds.

In 1985, the 1100cc version of the Shadow came to the fore, suffering from the same 750 styling, but having only five gears in the box. The 1100 enjoyed a considerable Harleyesque redesign two years later, and the gears went down to four. Some bright light figured that cruiser riders might not be too interested in shifting gears.

Move forward to 1988, and the original 750’s displacement was upped 50cc, with Honda optimistically claiming 74 horsepower at 7,500 rpm. The horsepower was undoubtedly rated at the top of the pistons, and anything over 5,000 revs was a bit shaky—in the literal sense. This was definitely seen as an urban machine.

What else had been changed? Lots. There was good deal more chrome, and 40 pounds more curb weight…must have been heavy chrome. The side panels, covering the battery on the left, plumbing on the right, were very shiny. The overall wheelbase was now at 63.5 inches, and the seat was lowered down to 27.5 inches, meaning that even the most inseam-challenged could get a foot on the ground. However, riders with blue jeans more than 32 inches in length were not terribly happy. The 800 was given a little more suspension travel in both the fork and shocks, with the only adjustment being shock preload, but the rider would still prefer to run on smooth roads.

The 800 had new spoked wheels that required tubes in the tires as opposed to the Comcast tubeless hoops of the 700/750. Tire sizes stayed at 100/90 19-inch front, fat 140/80 15-inch rear, with stopping power still a drum in the rear, single disc up front. However, when the ’89 model year rolled around, the only VT on the showroom floor was the 1100. Maybe it was the styling that killed the 800.

However, that 800cc engine could now be found in the new Pacific Coast, along with a fifth gear.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,
    I have honda shadow vt800c 1988 for repair i’m looking for spare parts 1) connecting rod bearing 2) overhaul gasket
    this 2 items so hard for me to find anyone can give me a big help where I can buy.

    Thanks
    Ely (philippines)

  2. I had the vt800c. Same motor as the Pacific Coast scooter type Honda. I ordered parts as if it was the Pacific Coast. That was quite long ago however it might help finding engine parts.

  3. I have an 1993 Honda Shadow VT 1100 that’s still running like a “BOSS” it’s been one of the best bike I’ve ever owned!!

    • I have the 98 vt750, I have no problem whatsoever. Finding parts at reasonable cost I’m looking to purchase 1100 and give this one to my wife.

  4. i JUST PURCHASED A 1988 SHADOW 800 FOR $50 ON C/L AND WAS TOLD IT WAS STARTED AND RAN A FEW MONTHS BACK ALTHOUGH THERE WAS NO GAS CAP WHEN i PICKED IT UP BUT HAS GOOD BATTERY AND WAS TABBED LAST IN 2017. AS FAR AS I CAN SEE IT WILL NEED GAS TANK RUST REFORMED, CARBS CLEANED, TYPICAL TUNE-UP, TWO SIDE COVERS, REAR SEAT UPHOLSTER, AND A LOT OF TLC.
    SO i AM LOOKING FOR TWO SIDE COVERS IF ANYONE IS AWARE OF AND PLEASE LET ME KNOW.
    THANKS, YOU ALL BE SAFE OUT THERE, PEOPLE ARE CRAZY AND DON’T SEE US BIKERS

    • I found side covers all chrome and after replacing the gas tank, fenders, rear seat, speedometer cable, turn signals, cleaned carbs, new plugs and ignition wires, and tune up. And not to forget I installed a new set of Cobra pipes which make it sound like a Harley. I am happy to say she looks great and runs awesome.
      I’m very satisfied with this rare and powerful bike. I’m really surprised they discontinued this Harley 883 competitor but the US was out to protect there US manufacturer Harley Davidson by putting limits on the import bike market from what I’ve learned.
      Happy riding everyone and stay safe

  5. I just bought a VT800 and it runs great! Looking for the chrome side covers but haven’t had any luck. This bike looks almost new. Lots of power!

  6. I just bought an 88-800 myself and everything is on it. I have a friend with a 3-D printer. Maybe he can make a project file and make the side cover.
    Text me sometime.
    7316611766

  7. Just bought a 1988 vt800c where I live in the mountains I spend allot of time in 2nd and 3rd gear but that’s cool love the way it handles

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