From a time when the ‘Net was a fledging science experiment, cellphones were the size the bricks but the leader of the free world was still a Hollywood celebrity, across the lands, you could breathe in the premix of a fire-spitting 500cc two-stroke motocrosser, as it careened past you, swapping out all the way down the track with the goon twisting the throttle flapping off the rear fender. We bring you a test on three of those five-hunnies that separated the men from the boys.

Words & Photos: Chris Power

From a young age, I would see the old boy man-handling the mighty XR600 through the bush and doing a pretty handy job of it, so I’m no stranger to big bore bikes. At the age of 10, I used to ride the thing around the paddock, starting and stopping on a large crate, as I couldn’t touch the ground. Then, I’d yell out to Dad, since he had to help me get off the bike. Jeez, that thing was heavy and had copious amounts of power – well, I thought so back, then…

But, up until this test, I have never had the pleasure of riding a 500cc two-stroke moto. I had made it all the way to 300 cubes, but that upper echelon of cracking the half-litre smoker had eluded me the entire 30 years I’ve been riding.

Now, in truth, this story has been a long time coming.

It’s been rattling round in the brain for a few years, but the timing had eluded us, until now. It seems as the stars aligned, as the formula couldn’t have been any better, seeing us loading up and heading off to mix some gas and haul some ass!

Now, don’t mistake this for a shootout, even though I’ll be comparing the three bikes during this piece, if only to point out the differences. There is no winner or loser, as this is just one man’s opinion of some badass moto that sadly no longer see the production line.

This is history brought back to life.

THE LAST OF THE BIG BORES

When you think of five-hunnies, it’s hard not to bullseye yourself to the KX. Arguably the most recognisable and well known of the group, this 2004 KX500 is probably the most sought after, too, ‘cause you can still find many such green machines tearing up the dirt around the world.

From 2001, the CR500 is the middle child in this line up, being a lot rarer than the KX. At the time, the bog bore Honda was at the forefront of technology, which makes it just as coveted in the moto world.

Last but not least, we have the 1990 YZ490, the oldest bike in this stable – and also making it rarer than the rest. You can see its age in the styling and drum brakes, which were discarded for discs on the other two machines.
So, depsite all three bikes having the better part of two decades separating ‘em, these bikes represent each of the specific marque’s last roll out of a 500cc machine…

And with tales of endless power and stupidity, seeing mere mortals bowing down at the sight of them (and anticipation coming out my tail pipe), I put the uniform on, strapped up the helmet and prayed I wouldn’t meet my maker… just yet, anyway.

2001 HONDA CR500

I figured if I rode the most modern of the bunch first, I’d get a much more gentle introduction to five-hunnies, and be ready for the older ones as the day wore on, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The first CR500 throttle was twisted in 1984, being an air-cooled machine, before water-cooling was added in ’85. It had a lifespan of 16 years, before it was shelved in 2001, when the class was dwindling.
For the humble two-stroke, the writing was on the wall, with Honda stopping the production of two-strokes before the end of the decade.

Honestly, I thought I was ready for this day and that, within a few laps, I’d feel right at home on the big girls.

However, two-laps in and it was a different story indeed.

I knew there would be vibration, of course. I mean, you can feel that in droves right from when you swing a huge leg right through the stroke to fire ‘em up.

The CR chugs away in a high-pitched thunk that says “I’m here to party, but you won’t be needing any drugs”… with those two laps, my arms were killing me, which meant I had to have a quick breather and get things under control.
As it turns out, it wasn’t arm pump, but more like hand pump?

If I was going to get the hang of these beasts and last the day, I would have to be looser and chill the hell out.

What surprised me most was that the power wasn’t as killer as I thought it might have been – or told it would be like. If you mention riding a 500 to any moto dude, you’ll be received with notions of arm-ripping, unsurmountable horsepower launching you off the nearest berm and into the stratosphere.
As it turns out, it’s not like that at all, right across the board.

Yeah it was powerful, but not crazy.

I think we can also thank modern four-strokes for getting me semi-prepared for this day.

The difference the 500 is that it’s a lot more touchy and not as predictable. Right from idle, it was very strong and didn’t let off, which made it easier to use than an engine that is like a light switch.

Don’t get too comfortable, though, as it will quickly spit you off if you aren’t paying attention.

The power quickly builds and will light up when you find a slick patch of track. You have to be extra smooth on the throttle, but you can get away with riding a gear higher. That’s where I was most comfortable, too, edging in and out of the peak power area.

For such a big looking bike, it didn’t feel too wide through the knees, which was also surprising – it was actually pretty comfortable to ride. The only letdown was the seat that was slippery as oil. The stock seat covers had no grippy patterns and were basically just plain vinyl. And with that amount of power I had to use my arms to stay on the seat… that only adds to the pump!

A gripper seat would have done wonders, but that just wasn’t of the era. The brakes worked fine, but nothing quite like today’s standard, which was evident when braking late. Basically, you don’t brake late. You brake really early, otherwise you might as well not brake at all!

The suspension was plush… real plush.

But considering the speeds I wasn’t going, it handled the terrain pretty well. But give me a few months on the CR and I think it would need better valving to cope with the faster riding.
Although, like I said, the speeds I was able to get to it was just fine.

Being a Honda guy, it felt really cool to have the CR take my virginity. But due to the struggles I had to get used to on the said beast, I was worried what was in store for me with the next bike, Kawasaki’s KX500.

2004 KAWASAKI KX500

The KX500 is the quintessential 500 that made five-hunnies en vogue again. But, as it happen, it still is. The first KX500 came to be in 1983, but it had a few changes over it’s 21 years of production, but has essentially looked pretty much the same. The rear fender is a dead giveaway of the big-bore KX era, being as eye-catching and identifiable as the fender of a VW. But, while it was quite ugly for the era, it’s reverted back to being cool – or maybe it’s now only just cool?

How different is it to ride these bikes?
It’s quite a bit different.

It was obvious from the first disengagement of the clutch and roll on of the throttle that the KX500’s engine package was much better. Being equipped with a power valve gave the bottom end of the engine so much more versatility and usability. It was a lot smoother off idle and had a decent transition into a very strong power band. The bonus was that you had a little warning when the bike was going to really come to life and show you what it has, unlike the CR that didn’t have a power valve (and would come on at any time without much warning).

The KX’s peak power felt a little stronger than the CR, but that might be deceptive due to the power valve. Although, it was definitely easier to use and I could roll on out of corners with less chance of wheel spin. I say “less chance”, as with these five-hundies, you can’t get away from wheel spin. Really, they were kind of made for it.

But don’t be fooled by that smoother transition in the engine, ‘cause it will happily chew you up and spit you down the track if you fool around with that engine.

When it came to the chassis, it definitely felt wider than the CR, but it still had that same plush suspension that worked well at the time. And, just like the CR, it would need improving as you got better on the bike.

The setup between the pegs and ‘bars felt a little off – for me, anyway – and the seat is designed to make it feel like you sit in the bike and not on it, whereas the CR felt like it has more room and better control. But, with time and some tweaking, you could get a pretty happy medium. Conversely, that sit-in feeling helped with not sliding back on the bike seat under acceleration.

I felt I could manoeuvre the CR better and dive in corners, where I had more ability to power out of corners and throttle round slick turns on the KX. Back to back, I would take that KX500 engine and slide it into the CR frame and, I think, we would have the best of both worlds in one killer package. The KX power valve making the engine far easier to ride, while that CR chassis seemed to fit my measurements well.

The final challenge was going to be the even older Yamaha YZ490. I had saved the worst for last… or so I had thought.

1990 YAMAHA YZ490

The YZ490 was first produced in 1982 and had a short but healthy life span of only 8 years. Apparently, none of the 1990 models were officially imported to New Zealand, so these are few and far between in our lands (and making parts for it even more expensive).

Being the oldest of the three bikes, the YZ490 was an instant underdog and it wasn’t hard to see why. First off, it still used an air-cooled engine and was 11 years older than the CR500. That alone should have taken it out of contention… not that this is a shootout, mind you.

Secondly, it still sported drum brakes on the rear.

Last, it was a sumbitch to start. You had to have “the knack” and it really made you work for it.

Straight away, I knew this was the bike for me…

When you compare it to both the KX and CR, the 490 feels like an 85. It’s super thin through the knees and a bike you can physically throw around without much trouble. The power was strong and grunty. Even though it’s the only air-cooled bike, it didn’t matter one little bit. It wasn’t as snappy, either, feeling more like a four-stroke than either the KX or CR – the power range was broad and extremely useable. There were no hits or nasties to come from the 490’s powerplant, which is why I could quickly come to terms with what I was dealing with much easier than the other two 500s.

But, like the KX and CR, don’t be lured into a false sense of security – these bikes deserve the utmost respect. The 490 will also put you on your ass if you don’t respect her. I got pretty comfortable pretty fast, but I was still allowing her to show me who was boss.

Even though it was noticeably smaller overall, the YZ felt like it had a better chassis than both the KX and CR. I was quickly hitting berms, powering round corners and jumping further than the other bikes, all in a matter of laps. I had much less discomfort through my hands, too, even though the vibrations were still pretty high. I can only attribute that to feeling comfortable straight away and not holding on for grim death right from the get-go.

It was also clearly the lightest bike and that probably helped the suspension perform pretty darn well ‘round the choppy track. The brakes were the only let-down on the YZ. Given its age, the suspension was definitely showing its age, so I had to be mindful of my breaking points. Over and over again, this bike impressed me – I just couldn’t get enough of it. I rode double the amount of laps on the 490 and felt better for it.

Damn, Yamaha just had it right all that time ago. But that’s not entirely surprising, as Yamaha are known to build excellent machinery that has always been innovative.

STILL ALIVE

You know, people used to race these in premier race series from the States and across Europe, which makes you wonder, just how in the hell did they punt these 500s around like toys?

I found these bikes were so tricky to ride fast and deserve some real respect. Not only that, they quite taxing on the body, too. You have to give it up to guys like Rick Johnson, Jeff Ward and our very own Darryl King who could do 40-minutes-plus-two on a beaten up track with 40 other nutters.

Without exaggeration, if you had of told me that at the start of the day that I would be going home loving the YZ over the KX and CR, I’d have said you were nuts, but that’s where we ended up.

I really enjoyed each bike for it’s own merits. The CR handled well and I felt comfortable on it, but the engine was a little scary and unpredictable. The KX engine was a peach, being smooth off the bottom and with a nice rise through the revs to a dangerous top end that needs to be respected. The chassis was tougher to get my head round, too. But the YZ ticked both boxes, which was the biggest surprise of the day. Of the three, I would take home the YZ every day and twice on Sundays. But, with a bike like that, it’s a good idea to have some spare parts laying around.

I made it home alive and, well, to ride another bike, to tell another tale. Hopefully, I get ride these things again in the future – and, yeah, I got dibs on the 490.

2004 HONDA CR500


Price (when new): $5899.00

Engine Type: 491cc liquid-cooled two-stroke

Bore x Stroke: 89 x 79mm

Compression Ratio: 6.7:1

Forks: cartridge with 310mm of travel

Shock: mono shock with Pro-Link and 320mm of travel

Transmission: five-speed gearbox

Wheelbase: 1486mm

Ground Clearance: 328mm

Seat Height: 937mm

Dry Weight: 100.5kg

Fuel Capacity: 10.5L

2004 KAWASAKI KX500

Price (when new): USD4999.00

Engine Type: 499cc liquid-cooled two-stroke

Bore x Stroke: 86 x 76mm

Compression Ratio: 8.4:1

Forks: upside-down cartridge forks with 300mm of travel
Shock: mono shock with Uni-Trak and 330mm of travel

Transmission: five-speed gearbox

Wheelbase: 1490mm

Ground Clearance: 371mm

Seat Height: 950mm

Dry Weight: 100kg

Fuel Capacity: 10.8L

 1990 YAMAHA YZ490

Price (when new): USD3000.00

Engine Type: 487cc air-cooled two-stroke

Bore x Stroke: 87 x 82 mm

Compression Ratio: N/A

Forks: upside-down cartridge forks with 300mm of travel
Shock: mono shock with Uni-Trak and 330mm of travel

Transmission: five-speed gearbox

Wheelbase: N/A

Ground Clearance: N/A

Seat Height: N/A

Dry Weight: 107kg

Fuel Capacity: 10.8L