1979 Honda XL500S

1979 Honda XL500S

While scooters are what I generally like to work on and ride, I have had a number of different bikes over the years.

One of my favorites was a 1979 Honda XL500s. It was one of those dual purpose bikes that you used on the road but could also take to a gravel pit or try your luck through some forestry tracks and trails. While not quite the same bike as its enduro counterpart of the time, the XR500, it was quite an under rated machine. The XR’s became the bike to have at that time and have maintained almost a cult following to the present day and totally restored ones can go for dumb money. A pristine original condition example was recently listed on Trade Me for 30K???

1979 Honda XL500S

Image 1 of 5

One of the few things I like about Facebook are the local selling groups, where you can get access to all sorts of things for sale. One day I saw an advert for an XR500. It was a disassembled “project” bike that someone had got off a mate and it had sat in his shed for a few years waiting to be restored – sounds just like a lot of scooters out there. The bike was local so I went round to have a look. The engine was complete but after a quick serial number check it turned out not to be an XR but an XL. The XR engine serial numbers started with PE01E while this engine and frame had serial numbers starting with PD01E. It was missing some hard to get parts and some impossible to find ones as well but the frame looked good and hadn’t been altered and was rust free. Someone previously had painted the engine and frame but hadn’t done a great job of cleaning either first. I made an offer, took it home and put it on the list of projects to do when I could find some of the parts it needed. It sat on a pallet in my shed for 2 years before we moved house and with space being at a premium at the new place, some of the projects needed to be re-assessed and either sold or stored somewhere else for a bit.

One of the biggest issues I had with the project was making up my mind what to do with it. I didn’t really want to restore it as I had already owned one and I had recently seen some interesting cafe racer type projects whilst hunting the internet and local auction sites for parts. I found some forums that showed some XL bikes that had been turned into cafe racers, trackers and street fighters. After looking through as many forums as I could and gathering heaps of information off the internet, I decided that this might be a better route for me to take as the missing original parts were proving not only quite hard to find, but hideously expensive when you could find them. Honda had actually made a cafe style 500 single called the FT500 from 1982-1983 and was sold in the US as the Ascot.

Another possible issue was whether the engine would run or not. It had good compression, it needed a new kick start lever and the gearbox seemed to work but the wiring loom was shot and had been butchered quite badly by someone.

1989 Honda CBR600

Image 1 of 6

A few months later, on the same selling group as the XL was originally advertised on, a 1989 CBR600 engine was advertised for sale in a small town 65 kms away. It was being sold as just an engine but was still in a de-registered rolling frame that was missing a few bits, mainly fairing parts. The brakes weren’t working and it had no lights, but it was rideable and started and ran fine. It was too good a price to turn down, so it found its way into the new shed as a donor bike and the plan started to form.

I stripped off the whole front end, rear wheel and brakes, clipons and chain and quite a few brackets and nuts and bolts that weren’t required to keep the engine running. I had read on an online forum that someone had used the CBR wheels and forks in a similar conversion. The bottom part of the CBR triple tree fitted into the XL head stock fine with the original bearing but the top part just wasn’t going to work with the factory bearings as it was too small. After scouring the internet for the same size triple tree, I found that the Honda FT500 had close to the right sized bearing assembly and the stem of the triple tree was only about 30mm longer than the XL one.

I also found that a company called All Balls Racing in the US, sold complete roller bearing kits to replace the factory XL ones and had a very handy chart for fork conversions, here – fork conversion. I had measured up everything and thought that I would be able to combine the CBR and FT parts to make a triple tree that would fit plus adding new roller bearings at the same time just made sense. I took my parts to a local engineer, Barry Leitch who owns Leitch Motorsport, and he said it should work fine and that we wouldn’t have to weld anything. He had to do some lathe work to get everything to line up, trim the end of the stem and install the new bearings. 

Changing the forks was going to affect the rake and trail of the XL and some forums were very helpful explaining what both terms were and how it would affect the handling of the bike. After finding the original swingarm had a twist in it, which I could have got fixed, but decided to replace it with the longer swingarm off an FT500. This would fit into the XL frame with just a bit of adjustment and also being from a disc braked model bike was an obvious choice. I couldn’t find any FT500 parts locally at the time and my only option was Ebay where the FT was sold as the Honda Ascot. I managed to find a forum about the Ascot and discovered the FT400 was basically the same bike but with a smaller capacity engine and as it turned out there were some 1982 FT400 parts on trade me that would do the job nicely.

The goal is to get a rolling frame, install the engine and then try to get it going.