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.