Awhile ago I stumbled upon the story and pictures from Joe Nelson. Great look back at the time and adventures of someone who was one of the first to ride the new 500 Four! So I contacted Joe and asked if I could post his story on this website and he happily agreed. Thank you Joe!
Here is the story and the amazing pictures from a (then) brand-new CB500 Four (K0)!
It was 1971 and I was a young Marine stationed at a tiny Naval communications outpost in beautiful central Morocco. Although an avowed car guy, the 4-wheelers available to us enlisted types ran along the lines of Simcas, Siats, and Citroen 2-CVs, and those simply weren't going to cut it for a bored 20 year-old facing an 18-month duty and a whole country to explore. No, I would need a motorbike.
Fortunately, the nearby town of Kenitra was home to a used car dealer. Now, imagine your stereotypical third-world used car salesmen, and then picture the shadiest one of the bunch. His name escapes me, but our dealings never will. And, true to his profession (a present-day camel trader) he had what I needed—a connection with a Spanish Honda dealer.
Just a few short years earlier Honda had hatched upon the public the single most influential motorcycle since...well, since forever: The Honda CB750. This amazing new-age machine had not gone unnoticed by me, and the rumors of a smaller, lighter sibling had me sifting through the pages of Cycle each month. In 1971 it happened - Honda announced the CB500. It was all there: In-line high-revving four cylinder, 5-speed, four chrome exhaust pipes, fit & finish of a swiss watch in a world of Timex's, and in colors never before glimpsed in the formerly staid motorcycle universe. I got a green one, my buddy got a gold one. And others followed. Within a few months our little 75-man barracks had some five CB500s, a Honda 450 twin, two CB750s, a couple Triumphs and a pair of Norton Commandos (oh, yeah!).
And we rode. Morocco is blessed with a year-round riding climate (only the southern-most section is sandy desert), plains, forests, long, deserted beaches and the Atlas mountain range. The roads weren't numerous, but they were in good condition, lightly traveled, and devoid of any speed measuring technology (the few highway police rode old and slow BMW /2s). We rode to Marrakech, Fes, Tanger, Rabat, Casablanca and many places without names. The main north-south highway spanning the country boasted an interesting design feature—a middle lane which we came to call "no-mans land." It was used for turning and passing, in both directions! This made for interesting and sometimes terrifying traffic situations, but also gave us an unforeseen advantage. As it turned out, only the police and our U.S-spec bikes sported white headlights—the general populous' were yellow-colored. As a result we were able to take the center lane (appearing as a formidable police contingent) and part the vehicular seas, as it were. This was endlessly entertaining to a bunch of arrogant Marines on fast, shiny motorbikes. There were some crashes (two for me!) but none of us got too hurt, and I sure learned a lot about defensive driving, which serves me well to this day.
This was a fine motorcycle and an important one. All the present day 600-class hyper-bikes can trace their genealogy to this model, in my opinion. That evolution has, however, advanced the breed in every area. My CB had the revs, but not the power. On paper the 0-60 times were a hair faster than the Norton 750, a fact I tended to flaunt in the face of one of the Norton riders, right up till the day he soundly trounced me in a drag race leaving the base main gate. Lesson learned - there's no substitute for cubic centimeters. No, this engine required rpm to get along, and even then it sort of ran out of steam a few thousand shy of redline. I'm sure it would have benefited from opening the intake and exhaust, but I had neither the parts nor the inclination to strip off those gleaming pipes. A '60s Triumph Bonneville may possess the quintessential "correct" motorcycle proportions, but this bike is certainly a contender. It looked right to me the day I picked it up (whereupon my friendly dealer padded the price an extra $100 to $1150) and it looks right today - sure, I'm biased, but....
This was my first bike and my only new bike, and it turned out to be the most unreliable. Due to an engine block casting flaw, the transmission was doomed to repeated failure. Catastrophic failure. On a trip to (or more correctly, toward) England my transmission failed loudly and thoroughly shortly after crossing the French border. With much miscommunication, hand waving and gesturing a Honda dealer was located in Bayonne, and a generally enjoyable four days were had by myself and my riding partner in the resort town of Biarritz while the bike was being repaired (there's more stories to be had here, but will require a completely different type of web site). It cost me a total of $8. In an amazing turn of fortune, the bike's speedometer cable had broken weeks before just shy of 6000 miles - the warranty limit. We never made England, the delay forced us to turn back. Some months later, my friendly dealer would buy the bike back from me. He gave me $1000 for what remained of the once-gleaming jewel. Crashed both sides, iffy front brake, no speedo, tires shot, shocks weakened and the now-returned transmission rumble signaling another impending failure.
But it will forever be my first motorcycle. In the span of only six months, that Honda pretty much gave it’s all to teach me all it could. I learned how to crash, and how never to crash since. It taught me how to ride a motorcycle and, I hope, how to ride one well. It carried me to places most only dream of riding.
I couldn't have asked for anything more.
(Also check out Joe’s website: www.v4Dreams.com)