03 May On Yer Bike: 1983 Honda XL500s
‘Well, Rhonda you caught my eye,
And I gave you lotsa reasons why…’
Two lines from the Beach Boys 1965 hit song sum up this month’s featured bike that takes FMM Curator Wayne back in time…
In December 2021 the museum was honoured by a wonderful and most generous donation of a 1983 Honda XL500s. Barry and Delicia Sayer of Cape Town had owned and lovingly cared for this remarkable and totally original machine, which they loving christened Rhonda the Honda. Wishing that Rhonda would be preserved for others to see and enjoy, they decided to donate the motorcycle to FMM. I could hardly believe my eyes when I went to collect the bike from the Sayer home. Other than a gummed up carburettor and a flat battery, Rhonda was in perfect health and fired up without too much fuss and ran like a dream.
For readers who follow this column, you may well remember the piece I wrote on the Honda CRF 250 in September 2019. In that write-up I focused on Honda introducing the small capacity XL motorcycles and that around the same time, in response to Yamaha’s very successful XT500, Honda also introduced the XL and XR 500cc on/off road motorcycles to its range. The XL was a dual purpose and more street-focused machine, whereas the XR was a very capable off-roader, both powered by Honda’s remarkable and almost bullet-proof 500cc engine. As with the Yamaha, it didn’t take the world long to fall in love with the Honda, and soon it was a common sight on many roads and tracks around the world.
The big-bore single ‘thumper’ was very much alive again in the 1980s and had similar appeal to a big American V8 engine. It didn’t take long before Honda would be winning events like the Dakar and Baja with the introduction of pro-link rear suspension on the XR and an ultra reliable multi-valve cylinder head. In the late ’70s and ’80, the single-cylinder dual-purpose motorcycle market in South Africa was primarily dominated by Honda and Yamaha, and almost everyone who wanted a street scrambler at one point considered a Honda XL or XR, if they would admit it or not…
So, getting back on a XL500 was to me like putting on my favourite pair of jeans, adding to which was that unforgettable thumper sound and familiar ride and handling characteristics of a 1980s street scrambler. The simple art of kick-starting the 497cc single-cylinder air-cooled engine is still exactly the same. The 32 hp (23 kW) engine still pulls extremely well considering its vintage, with plenty of torque in every gear. The one-down and four-up gear pattern also dates the bike, but the gear change is still very crisp and precise, again exactly like I remember it from some 35 years ago.
The fact that everything still works is testament to Honda’s build quality and Barry’s love and caring for Rhonda over the years he owned her. The motorcycle is still very solid and the handling is what you would expect on a 1983 street scrambler, nothing remarkable or unpredictable, with every noise and vibration of the classic 23-inch front and 18-inch rear knobbly tyres again being oh so familiar. I also enjoyed the riding position: the comfortable thick-foam seat is 870 mm from the ground so I wasn’t up on my toes all the time. These classic bikes are just a pleasure to ride in traffic as they are narrow and light, making them super manoeuvrable in tight traffic conditions. Even the front and rear drum brakes are more than enough to slow down and safely stop the 140 kg (excluding the rider that is!) bike.
The museum currently has a DeLorean on display and even if we could get the Back To The Future’s 1,21 gigawatts of power I doubt that it would ever transport me back in time as quickly as Rhonda the Honda did. Riding a bike like this Honda XL500s just reminds me why I still enjoy motorcycling so much.
Rhonda the Honda is currently on display in Hall D