STUART FITTON’S PREVIOUSLY UNLOVED VF500 IS NOW A TASTY RACEBIKE, LOADED WITH NC30 INTERNALS AND CBR6/NC CYCLE PARTS. A BRILLIANT BLEND OF THE BEST OF HONDA
The racing bug is hard to shake. Stuart Fitton bought a ratty VF500 with the sole intention of building something interesting to campaign in the popular Endurance Legends series. “It was never going to be a road bike. I don’t really ride road bikes. The last time I rode on the road was at the Manx GP three years ago, simply because it’s the only way to get around the island when races are on.” But boy does he build bikes.
“I’ve got a 1982 XL500 Honda on the bench at the moment,” he says. It’s something for my son to get around on. Something where you can just stick an open face helmet on and nip about on.” He’s also just finished a Kawasaki ER-6 for Supertwin racing, he’s building an 1199cc Ducati Panigale, and the 52-year-old self storage baron has almost lost count of the number of NC30s and CBR600s he’s bolted together. So why a VF500?
“I was racing endurance nationals on a 675 Triumph and Endurance Legends came up, so I looked at all sorts of eligible things. Lots are big and heavy from the old era, so I wanted something from the newer end because I’d had 10 NC30s and liked a V4. This thing came up for sale in Peterborough for £350 and that’s what started the ball rolling.”
It was duly fetched down to Devon. “The bloke said the paint was dodgy, which it was, and that the carbs needed a clean. As is so often the way, it was much worse than that. It was a complete shed.” The stripdown revealed the engine to be full of petrol. “The tap diaphragm had split, like they do, and it was impossible to know if it had been run with the oil full of petrol for any length of time, so once I split the cases I decided to fully go for it.”
With a raft of NC30 bits lying around from his previous life, Stuart decided to recreate the VF lump with some NC internals. “The NC30 ’box is close ratio, so that went in,” he says. “But it’s not a straight swap. The shaft lengths are different, and I had to grind some of the gears down to fit, and make spacers for the end clearance. The selector drum is the same but works the other way around, with down for up, so that works well for a bike in race trim. The NC primaries are straight cut, which is good, and I also wanted the 10-plate clutch from the NC too.”
None of this was quite as straightforward as Stuart makes it sound. “To be honest, a lot of the engineering on it, I did with a file. If you’re careful it’s still an OK way of doing things. And I used chopped-up old feeler gauges as shims to take care of end float in some places. The gearbox was a bit of a challenge, and I didn’t want a hydraulic clutch with all those reservoirs and masters and slaves, so I cut up an NC clutch cover to be able to use a cable clutch. But Honda’s are reasonably compatible and it all went together OK.”
With all his spannering on CBR6s and NC30s Stuart plainly got a real feel of how Honda go about their engineering, and his instincts on how to select, repurpose and adapt their wares are on a high plane (whatever he says about his file). All new big-ends and mains went in, new slippers and tensioners for the camchains, plus all new exhaust valves. Stock cams are retained and the heads were cleaned-up and ported by Exeter-based Extra Engineering. So far so good.
STUART’S PEARLS OF WISDOM
1. WHEN YOU HIT A PROBLEM YOU CAN EITHER GIVE UP, OR THINK HARDER. THERE IS ALWAYS AN ENGINEERING SOLUTION. SO STICK AT IT. OR YOU’LL END UP TAKING THE EASY ROUTE – AND END UP WITH A BIKE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’S.
2. USE EXPERTS. WHEN A JOB IS CLEARLY BEYOND THE SCOPE OF YOUR TOOLS AND EXPERTISE, FIND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS BOTH BIKES AND THE FIELD YOU NEED GUIDANCE IN.
3. DON’T COMPROMISE. IF YOU TRY TO SAVE MONEY, OR SKIMP ON COMPONENTS YOU’LL GET CAUGHT OUT FURTHER DOWN THE LINE. AND YOU’LL KNOW YOU CUT A CORNER – NEVER A GOOD FEELING.
1. That HRC Fred Merkel, Bubba Shobert vibe is all over this way less celebrated/far less maligned 500cc version from Honda’s V4 back catalogue
2. Bodywork was cut around new radiator and cooling plumbing cut and shut from a big box of silicon and stainless steel odd ends – the result looks very factory
3. Pipework is a thing of great beauty and quite some efficiency too – with no significant breathing work, ie no hot cams, stock carbs, the engine knocks out 68.5bhp at the rear wheel
4. Rear shock mounts had to be rearranged to accomodate CBR600 rear wheel and linkage at the correct ratio. Stock VF500 swingarm looks the part too in rough cast ally
SPECIFICATION HONDA VF500 RACER
ENGINE: 498CC, DOHC, 16V V4, NC30 PRIMARY DRIVE, GEARBOX AND CLUTCH, SUZUKI GSX-R600 ALTERNATOR, STAINLESS STEEL EXHAUST AND ALLOY CANS BY PGW ENGINEERING (07518 023911)
CHASSIS: VF500 FRAME AND SWINGARM, MODIFIED CBR600/NC30 FORKS, NC30 BRAKES, CBR600 REAR WHEEL, NC30 FRONT WHEEL, METZELER RACETEC RR 160/70 REAR, 120/70 FRONT, TRIUMPH 675 BELLYPAN
Stuart grafted a GSX-R600 alternator on using, you’ve guessed it, an adapted NC30 cover. “I had to weld a couple of bosses on it, but the weight saving over the VF item was well worth it – 700g against 2.5kg. That’s one of the reasons it revs like a modern 600, really quick and eager. “Carbs were a major issue,” says Stuart, a man not prone to exaggeration. “For a start two are sidedraught, the other two are downdraught. So nothing else is going to fit. I cleaned them and cleaned them and ultrasonically cleaned them, and by the time we came to dyno the bike and set it up on Harry Buckle’s dyno (who really does need a big thank you, please), we ended up machining new needles. There are no reference points for this bike. If it’s a CBR600 you know roughly where to start. This was all new territory.” It made 68.5bhp.
“Much of that was down to the handmade exhaust by Pete Weller of PGW Engineering. He spent a week on it and it’s a work of art in stainless steel. It has to be a four-into-two to work properly, and he took two goes at getting the header pipes all 26-inches exactly. If you’re in the South West and need an exhaust he’s your man.” The engine, clearly, has been lavished with due care and attention. Same for the cycle parts. Stuart’s treasure trove of NC30 and CBR bits meant it was something of a no-brainer as to what would find its way onto the VF. Rear wheel is CBR6, front NC30: “The rear wheel was a hard job,” says Stuart. “I ended up emailing a lot of people and most said yes it was a hard job. It wasn’t helped by the linkage being seized solid either. I’m rarely beaten by seized stuff, but I had to give up with this one, it was so rotten. I ended up having to weld new shock mounts to the frame to get the ratio right.”
Forks are bastardized NC/CBR with CBR damper rods and NC30 cartridges, with NC30 brakes doing the necessary. Rearsets again NC30 brackets. “I made the brackets with a file at first. Then got some machined up with optional mounting points so I can vary the position if needed.” Bodywork was hacked about to clear the Chinese-copy rad and cooling work was performed like so: “I went out and bought a load of silicon hose, stainless steel pipes and elbows, and just hacked it about until it all fitted.”
Bellypan is Triumph 675. “We just cut the front off, glassed it up and then painted it – and it looks like it was made to fit.” Every build deserves at least one result like that. The whole plot was then painted up by Gareth. “He’s an aircraft painter for a living and he does things so properly,” says Stuart. “There are no transfers, it’s all paint; basically an AMA Superbike VFR scheme. But I didn’t want it to be a straight AMA replica, I wanted it to be more an echo of it.” Which it now is.
The project began at the end of 2016 and was on the dyno by 2017. With between two and three grand spent. That’s a fantastic return from a modest financial outlay. Yes, Stuart put in the hours to make it happen, and more importantly thought hard about making good use of what was lying around. The VF project was a most natural means of employing decent quality Honda hardware to best (and most economical) effect.
“It went off my radar for a year,” says Stuart. “And when I got it out and cleaned the dust off, I thought it’s actually a nice bike. Still a VF500, but it’s racebike, and they’re always a little different. They tend to look clean and right, not cobbled together. And if it never gets raced, it’ll make really nice track day bike. These VFs got a reputation they didn’t really deserve because of the early Honda V4 troubles, which is a shame. That first VF750S really does have a lot to answer for.”