GP's Classic Steel #36 - 1983 CR480R.

For this week’s Greg Primm’s Classic Steel were are going to step into the way back machine for a look at one of Honda’s most loved open bikes, the 1983 CR480R.
By: Tony Blazier


If there has ever truly been a 500 that felt like a 250, this bike was it. With its slim layout, snappy motor and super light weight, (at 226lbs the CR actually did weight less than many 250’s) the CR480R felt half the size of traditional 500’s in ’83.

In the early eighties the motocross landscape looked very different than it does today. Although the tide was beginning to turn against the mega-motored beasts, open-classers still ruled the roost in ‘83. Their incredible sound, arm-jerking horsepower and unruly nature gave these ground pounding throwbacks an aura of manliness unmatched by their smaller siblings. In Europe, the 500’s were still the most prestigious class by a wide margin. Even though here in America, Supercross was shifting tastes toward the smaller 250’s, everyone still knew that the real men rode 500’s.

The 472cc mill that powered the CR480R was about as simple as a motor could get. It was a straightforward, reed-valve, air-cooled single, fed by a 38mm round slide Keihin carb. The motor lacked any sort of exhaust trickery or power valve, but had no trouble yanking your arms out by the sockets. Power was all low-to-mid with a healthy hit and quick turnover. Top-end power was completely non-existent, so short shifting was the best way to make the most of its potent delivery.

Honda had been late to the open-class game. In the seventies they had fielded several powerful Factory teams in the open-class, but had never produced a production version for the buying public. That changed in 1981, with the introduction of their highly anticipated CR450R. Unfortunately for Honda, the new big-bore CR turned out to be a complete mess. It was heavy, hard-to-ride and unreliable. With such a poor first outing, Honda would need to pull out all the stops for ’82.

Starting the big Honda was probably the hardest part of using the CR’s mill. The kickstarter was high and awkwardly placed, which made getting the big beast going no easy task (I actually snapped two of my CR480R kickstarters at the knuckle when the motor kicked back suddenly. This was a common problem on these stubborn old beasts and the hot set up was to run a steel kicker off the ’82 480R). Once running, the CR was fast and fun-to-ride. Even by today’s standards, these are powerful machines.

After the debacle of the ’81 CR450R, Honda went back to the drawing board for ‘82. They scrapped the undersized and unloved 431cc power plant in the 450R and went looking for more power the old fashioned way-with more cubic inches.  The ’82 CR480R got a bump up to 472cc’s and a huge injection of torque. Where the ’81 had lacked low-end and had been hard to ride, the new CR480 was a torquey tractor. The 480 was better in every way and took home the victory in the majority of 500 shootouts in ’82. With the help of Roger DeCoster, Honda had turned around their troubled motocross program virtually overnight. The question for ’83 would be, could Honda keep their hot streak going, or would they once again follow up a winner with a dud?

This hi-zoot aluminum silencer was totally sano in 1983 (If you don’t know what any of that means, you are probably not old enough to remember when people actually raced 500’s). At a time when most bikes came equipped with a steel boat anchor for a silencer, this aluminum piece of art looked to be stolen right off of Darrell Shultz’s #1 RC500. In terms of detailing, Honda was five years ahead of the competition in ’83.

 The all-new ’83 CR480R shared virtually nothing with the shootout winning ’82 design. While the motor retained the same displacement, nearly everything else was modified or replaced to improve performance. The bodywork was all-new, ultra-modern and looked fantastic (This is still my favorite color combo). Suspension was new front and rear, offering a much greater range of adjustability than ’82. Everything from the shifter to the spokes got the once over in ’83. No bolt was left unturned in the search for a lighter, faster and better handling racer.

Would you believe this Lazy-Boy was the state-of-the-art in ’83? The 480’s up-the-tank seat was actually considered the best perch in motocross at the time. When you sit on it now, it is incredible how big and soft the thing really is. I always figured they made these old seats so thick to take some of the bite out of that lousy early 80’s suspension

The ’83 CR480R’s motor was a refined version of the mill that had taken Honda to victory in ’82. For ’83, Honda added a fifth gear and a slightly heavier flywheel to their award winning power plant. Even with the added weight, the ’83 480 was still light-flywheeled for a traditional 500. It built revs very quickly and was extremely responsive to throttle input. Fed by a 38mm Keihin carb and six-pedal reed valve, the 472cc mill blasted out of the hole with a massive dose of low-end torque. This was followed by a thundering crescendo of mid-range power before the big 480 hit the wall on top end. Power was totally low-to-mid in nature, as the big motor would just not pull past the mid-range hit. If you tried to rev it out, the CR would blubber and sputter like there was a rag in the airbox. Since the 480 was an open bike, its lack of top-end was not as critical as it would be on a smaller machine (few mortals can actually hold a 500 2-stroke wide open long enough to use the top-end). It was best to keep the big Honda a gear high in most situations and use its abundant torque to pull you from turn to turn. With its new slick shifting five-speed transmission and excellent clutch, it was easy to keep the 480 in its sweet spot. With its quick revving power and snappy response, the CR480 felt more like a very-powerful 250 than a big thundering 500.

In ’83, Honda bolted the most advanced forks in motocross on the front of the CR480R. The 43mm Showa’s offered a dizzying array of adjustments to go with its mediocre performance. Too soft for serious motocross, they needed serious stiffing up before attempting any “Magoo Doubles”.

While the big CR was roundly praised as having an excellent motor in ‘83, there were still some complaints. The same light flywheel that made the motor extremely responsive, led to easy stalling. This was compounded by the need to keep the CR a gear high in most situations. (Always keep that finger on the clutch!) Starting could also be a bear as the kickstarter was high, awkwardly placed and on the left side. There were also problems with ignition failures in ’83 that caused a miss at higher revs before going completely caput. Some really fast riders also lamented the Honda’s lack of top-end pull (This led to Honda going overboard the following year with their arm-stretching CR500R, a bike that no one but Magoo could handle). In truth, no bike was completely trouble free in this era, and even with these issues, the 480 was considered one of the best motors of ’83.

In the early eighties there was still a lot of experimenting going on in rear suspension design. Dog-bones, eccentric cams and all manner of levers and linkages were given a try in search of the perfect set up. In terms of performance, Suzuki’s Full-Floater was generally considered to be the best of the designs. It offered an excellent ride, but its complexity, cost and high center of gravity led to Suzuki dropping it for less costly set ups. Likewise, the early Yamaha Mono-Cross and Kawasaki Uni-Track systems mounted much of their hardwear up high on the bike where they had the most detremental effect on handling. As a result, by the late-eighties, all of the manufacturers had settled on using the basic Honda Pro-Link design (KTM’s 1st gen Pro-Lever was also very similar). It offered the least complexity and kept the weight of the linkage as low as possible on the chassis. This 30-year-old design is still the same basic architecture we use today.


Honda’s 1st attempt at their Pro-Link suspension had proved problematic. In ’81 and ’82, riders had complained about the sudden transition of the rear end from soft to hard and its propensity to fade away completely within a few laps. There were also quality issues, as many shocks failed completely or blew off their reservoir hoses after only a few hours of use. For ’83 Honda tried to correct these issues with a new more progressive linkage curve and better-built shock. The ’83 shock did work better than previous efforts. It was smoother in action than the ‘82 and offered a much wider range of adjustments. Overall, the ’83 Pro-Link was well liked for its smooth action and plush ride. It also suffered far less fade problems than in previous years. In MXA’s ’83 shootout, it lost out to only the excellent RM500’s Full–Floater for best rear suspension

In 1983 Showa did not enjoy the best reputation for fork performance, but ’83 turned out to be one of their better efforts. In truth, no open bike in ’83 had excellent forks, as MXA proclaimed no winner in the fork category in its 500 shootout, only 4 losers. Open bikes are hard on suspension and in ’83 suspension technology still had a long way to go. That said, the 43mm Showa’s on the 480 was actually not that bad. They featured 12 inches of travel and an astounding for the time 14 compression damping adjustments (the ’82 480 had featured only 4). They were plush in action and offered a compliant ride over rough terrain. Their only real fault was a lack of bottoming resistance, as hard hits would be greeted with a metal-to-metal THUD! With stiffer spring and some additional oil they were certainly race-able (with a set of Race Tech Cartridge Emulators they can actually be made to work great), but no one was going to confuse these with the incredible cartridge units Honda would introduce a few years later.

I’ve owned 2 ’83 CR480R’s and they are just awesome machines. As good as they are however, riding one back-to-back with a modern 450F is a truly eye opening experience. For starters the stock suspension on these bikes is incredibly soft by modern standards. Both the forks and shock basically feel like pogo sticks on the track. Once you install a custom Works Performance shock and have Race Tech dial in the forks, however, you can go surprisingly fast on these old beasts. Power is certainly not an issue, as the 480 still pumps out more juice than most sane people can handle. While you do feel a lot of flex in the chassis, turning is still excellent and the bike jumps quite well. The 480’s slim ergonomics and light weight actually make it feel closer to 20 pounds lighter than a newer CR500R on the track. My ’90 CR500R by comparison, felt like a tank.  For me, the major limiting factor on bikes like the 480 is its brakes. They are just not up to slowing down a 50hp open bike, and many times I found myself coming into a turn WAY too fast for their meager stopping power. Even so, these are really fun bikes to ride and make excellent classic racers.

1983 was the third year for Honda’s Pro-Link rear suspension design. In ’81 and ’82 riders had complained that the rising rate of the rear end was not progressive enough. It felt too soft initially, before suddenly becoming stiff in the mid-stroke. For ’83, Honda altered the rear linkage’s rate to be more progressive and bolted on an all-new Showa shock.  The new shock featured a remarkable 12 different compression setting and 20 selectable rebound settings (again far more than ’82). Performance was very good on the Showa shock, with a smooth action and a controlled ride. Rebound was a little slow and some people complained that it would pack down on successive hits. Fading was also a bit of an issue with the stock unit, but it was far better than the badly fade-prone ’81 and ’82 shocks had been. It was not as well liked as the Suzuki’s Full-Floater, but far better than previous Showa efforts.

The CR480R could carve circles around most other 500’s in ’83. Its short wheelbase, light weight, steep geometry and low center of gravity all combined to make the 480 the king of corners. Compared to the big, bulky liquid-cooled CR500’s that followed it, the CR480 practically felt like a 125.

For ’83 Honda came out with an all-new frame for the mighty 480. The new chrome-moly steel chassis was radically different from the ’82 CR480. It featured a relocated steering head, lowered backbone and a fully removable rear sub-frame (a first for Honda). Honda moved the steering head up 5 millimeters and back 10, and lowered the frame to allow the seat and tank to sit lower on the frame. These modifications and a new triple clamp added up to 26 degrees of rake and 3.9 inches of trail. This contrasted greatly with the 27.5-degrees/ 4.2 inch figures on the ’82 CR480R. In addition to having a more aggressive steering angle, the ’83 CR also featured a 0.8 inch shortened wheelbase. These changes resulted in a 500 machine that could literally turn under most 250’s. The new up-the-tank seat and super-slim layout also made it easy to get way forward on the bike for optimum cornering. That, combined with its lowered center of gravity and class leading 226-pound weight (a figure that embarrasses many bikes even today), gave the bike a flickable, airy feel completely unlike your traditional open bike. The big CR was a scalpel in the corners and a feather in the air, easily clearing tricky jumps with a flick of the wrist. High-speed stability was predictably wanting in light of its amazing cornering ability, but for hard-core motocross the 480 was king. To quote Motocross Action Magazine at the time, the CR480R is “the kind of machine that can turn on a dime and give you back 9 cents in change”.

Honda left no stone unturned in their quest for lighter weight on the CR480R. The excellent (for the time) brakes used magnesium backing plates and magnesium shoes front and rear. The kickstarter, shifter and rear brake pedal were all aluminum instead of steel. The hubs on the ’83 were shaved down to be narrower and lighter than the ’82 versions. Even the stock Bridgstone tires were selected because they were 8 ounces lighter than the year before.

A big reason the CR480R was so light was its extensive use of lightweight components throughout the machine. A full 6 pounds lighter than the ‘82 480, the new CR was light years ahead of the competition in ’83. Instead of heavy steel, the CR used aluminum for components like the brake pedal, shifter, kickstarter and silencer. Magnesium was used for the brake backing plates, brake shoes and engine cases.  The hubs were shaved down to save weight and make room for new straight pull spokes. Even the swingarm was formed out of thinner walled aluminum to save a few ounces. All this added up to a bike that was 8 pounds lighter than the KX500 and a full 25 pounds lighter than the Husky 500 in ’83!

The Honda CR480R hit the 500 sweet spot in ’83. It was light, flickable and fast -without being terrifying. It may have lacked the warp drive top speed of the KTM and Yamaha, but for motocross, its fast building power and snappy response gave it an advantage on the track. When you add in its fantastic good looks and well thought out design, it is not hard to see why the CR480R remains such a desirable classic racer to this very day.

The ’83 CR480R was a phenomenal machine. It was the lightest, best handling, best looking and quickest 500 you could buy in ’83. On a long strait, the big Yamaha 490 could run it down, but from corner-to-corner it was without equal. Its combination of fun, easy-to-use power and 250 handling would not be seen on another Honda open-bike for more than a decade. After the CR480R, Honda would ditch the torquey tractor power in favor of Saturn V rocket-boosters that would scare more than a fair share of riders out of the 500 class entirely. The light and easy CR480R would be transformed into the big and burly CR500R, a machine only the bravest and strongest could fully appreciate. The CR480R was an open bike that anyone could enjoy, it handled and felt like a fast 250 and made riding fun. Even today the CR480R is considered one of the premier mounts for EVO class racing. It was a great bike in ’83 and remains today, one of Honda’s best ever open class two-strokes.