Do you fancy a cheap used bike, something reliable, easy to ride, and low on maintenance costs too?
You do, then rummage about in the classifieds and your local import dealer for a clean example of the Honda Nighthawk.
This basic, across-the-frame four cylinder standard machine was one of the most popular Honda models in the 1980s and early 90s in the USA. Decent 120mph performance, an engine lifted from the CBX750 series, plus a laid-back riding position, all combined to make it a winner.
If all you want is a simple, everyday motorbike, for around two grand, or just over – the Nighthawk needs to be near the top of your shopping list.
The early 90s retro-biking craze is in danger of getting out of hand. Kawasaki have come up with their Zephyrs; Suzuki their 400 Bandit and GSX1100; even Triumph are poised to unleash their new Trident to prove it’s not just the Japs who can build bikes with no fairings.
. With the country’s big-bike sales plummeting and home-town boys Harley-Davidson taking most of what’s left, Honda badly needed something to give them a lift – especially after the big bold Pacific Coast had turned into an expensive white elephant.
Enter the Nighthawk, with its back-to-basics spec and styling, its list of parts begged, borrowed and adapted from a long list of previous models, and one huge advantage over every other large-capacity motorcycle on the market: its price of just $3998, or about £2300 in real money.
That’s not quite as outrageously cheap as it sounds because bikes generally cost less in the States, where for one thing there’s not so much tax to be tacked-on. But it’s still $700 less than the cost of the 750 Zephyr, a dollar less expensive even than Kawasaki’s 550 version, and barely more than half the price of its $7000 Honda half-sister the VFR750.
If the Nighthawk is released over here next year at anything approaching a similar level – and Honda UK are `very much hoping to bring it in’, says sales manager Dave Hancock, who refuses to be drawn on a likely price – it will give rival importers plenty to think about.
Despite its twin-shock, air-cooled straight-four layout the Nighthawk is not really a retro-bike in the same way as the Zephyrs, which were originally created for the nostalgia- crazed Japanese market. The Honda was built specially for the Yanks as a `New American Standard’: shaped by extensive market-research, it was designed to offer base-model biking at the lowest possible price.
Any resemblance to ten-year- old models is due less to deliberately rad styling than to the simple fact that many of the Nighthawk’s components were designed ten years ago. Price considerations ruled out developing a new motor, so instead Honda turned to an old one. Remember the twin- headlamp CBX750 of 1984 – the last air-cooled straight-four Honda 750 to be sold in this country?
A variant was still being built for the Japanese home market so the twin-cam, 16-valve 747cc engine, with its hydraulic tappets and excellent reliability record (and with five gears instead of the original six) was commandeered to power the new challenger.
In its heyday the CBX was rated potent but peaky, so a few changes were made to soften its delivery. Intake ports and exhaust headers were shrunk in size; softer cams and smaller valves were thrown in. Honda are making no claims about maximum power but the figure is around 85bhp, produced at slightly lower revs than the original CBX’s peak of 91 horses at 9000rpm.
Though the new motor loses ground to its predecessor up top, it’s correspondingly stronger at lower engine speeds. Some of the chassis is also snitched from the CBX, including the section of steel frame around the swing-arm area. But much is new, including the spine-type top frame rail and twin downtubes.
Suspension is new, too, though it doesn’t look it. Forks are non-adjustable 41mm units, carrying an untrendy 18-inch wheel and kicked-out to give a conservative 29 degrees of rake and 117mm of trail (that’s three degrees and 17mm more than the VFR, for example). Shocks are a pair of old-style jobs adjustable only for preload.
Ancillary components have been borrowed from a wide variety of models of varying vintage. The front brake set-up is a single disc and twin-piston caliper (the rear’s a cheapo drum), both of which come from the ST1100. The airbox is another CBX hand-me-down, while the front mudguard comes from its American-market contemporary the Nighthawk S.
The back mudguard is from the NTV600 Revere (glad they didn’t use its motor) and the headlight and 140-section 18-inch rear Dunlop boot are from a US-only model, the 400cc CB-1.
This crazy cocktail comes together visually surprisingly well, thanks largely to clean, simple styling that doesn’t look modern but somehow doesn’t look old-fashioned either. The Nighthawk resembles no previous Honda model in particular but its sweeping lines and finned pots instill a distinct sense of déjà vu for those brought up on Universal Japanese Motorcycles – and the feeling is accentuated when you settle yourself in the broad seat, reach forward to the slightly-raised bars and hit the button to set the motor burbling in familiar fashion through its twin silencers.
MEAT AND TWO VEG
Straight-line performance is much as you might expect from the softly-tuned engine, which gives a pleasantly seamless stream of power without exactly threatening to inspire an adrenalin overdose. The Honda pulls pretty well from low- down, perks up a little at 5000rpm, delivers satisfyingly meaty midrange, and in the lower gears revs smoothly all the way to its nine-grand redline.
A maximum of 85 horses is never going to give shoulder-splitting performance to a bike that weighs 500lb with a full tank of gas, but the Nighthawk has enough zip to ensure that the sit-up-and-beg-for-a-fairing riding position is usually what limits its speed.
Top whack is about 120mph, though to get near it you have to tuck-in tight behind the chrome-plated tacho and speedometer. Most of the time it’s not worth the bother, so you stick to the 80mph-odd cruising speed dictated by an upright riding position that’s a shade roomier and more relaxed than the one set by the 750 Zephyr’s flat bars.
The taller-geared Honda loses out to the similarly powerful Kawasaki in roll- on acceleration but the Nighthawk’s long legs help fuel consumption, which could be persuaded over 40mpg to spin the four-gallon tank’s range to 140 miles.
Equally importantly, the big seat stays comfortable for that distance and more, making the Nighthawk a painless mile-eater provided you’re not in too much of a rush. Pillion accommodation, too, is good, though there’s no grab-rail. Presumably that, like the optional-extra centrestand, was left off to save a few bucks on the price.
Handling is another area that comes up to scratch provided you’re not expecting RC30-like levels of cornering power. With a near five-foot wheelbase the Nighthawk is long as well as quite heavy, and its laid-back steering geometry means you need to haul on those wide bars to make it change direction fast. But the Nighthawk will fly if it has to, and for a budget-bike with an old-style chassis it goes round corners remarkably well.
With no new-fangled damping dials to fiddle with, it’s just as well that the suspension at both ends gives a pretty good compromise between comfort and control. The 41mm forks are ace for such humble-looking tackle, and don’t lose their cool even when the adequately powerful single disc is grabbed in anger.
Even the shocks are pretty good, though if you hit a big enough bump in the middle of a fast corner the back end lurches and wallows in a way that brings to mind many an early-80s UJM.
As with all the current crop of unfaired bikes, in the end it comes down to what you expect from the Nighthawk – and to how and where you intend ride it. My week with the Honda began when I picked it up in Los Angeles, then pottered around Hollywood and Venice Beach for a couple of days before chucking on some throwover panniers and cruising up to the Laguna Seca GP along the winding, picturesque coast road.
For lounging around in LA the Honda was pretty near perfect, providing the laid-back riding position and cooling breeze that every other biker in the city seemed to be enjoying on a big Harley. (Amazing, innit? Who’d have thought the Softail would become the Universal non-Japanese Motorcycle of the ’90s?)
The Nighthawk was nimble in traffic, quick away from the lights, and only its imprecise gearbox – reminiscent of several Hondas of the CBX750 era – occasionally marred the ride.
As I headed north on the famous Highway 101 approaching Laguna Seca, the coast road began to get more and more twisty and a few sports bikes began to appear. That was predictable; less so was the fact that they appeared not fleetingly in the Nighthawk’s excellent mirrors before roaring past, but up ahead in the crosshairs.
Disappointingly, none of the Ninjas or GSX-Rs could be provoked into a scrap with the ’hawk, which picked them off like so many sparrows. That proved nothing, of course, except that all the speed and handling potential in the world is no use if you can’t be bothered to try.
The Honda’s real test came not then but on the day after the race, when I had to be almost 300 miles away near Los Angeles by ten o’clock in the morning, preferably in a fit state to do a day’s work. As I pulled away at 5am on a pitch-black and distinctly cold morning I would much rather have been hiding behind the fairing of an ST1100 or CBR.
Ideal the naked Honda was not, for I was shivering inside my unlined Rukka by the time the sun burst over the horizon an hour or so later. But the Nighthawk dismissed the first 50 miles of winding country road in good time thanks to its bright headlamp and surefooted handling, and even the unending miles of freeway that followed were not too bad.
Hunched into the wind at a more-or-less steady 90 per, I kept my head down, one eye on the mirrors, and my feet alternating between rider’s and pillion’s pegs to vary the load.
Despite a longish break to warm up at my second fuel stop, after 220 miles, the Nighthawk got me to LA on time. The unfaired bike’s long-distance failings would be even more obvious in a British winter, of course, but for such a basic, old-fashioned machine it handles such trips pretty well.
The Honda is a competent, unspectacular motorbike with one great asset: spectacular value for money. It has gone down a storm in the States, and if the Nighthawk comes to bankrupt Blighty next year it will probably take off here too – provided the price is still right.
Get Honda motorbike insurance for the honda cb750 nighthawk.
Engine……….Air-cooled DOHC 16-valve inline four
Claimed power (bhp)………67bhp at 8,000rpm
Transmission………5-speed, chain final drive
Carburatio………4 x 34mm Keihin CV
Frame………Twin-downtube steel frame; steel box-section swing-arm
Front suspension………41mm fork; 140mm travel
Rear suspension………Twin shocks with adjustable preload; 109mm travel
Brakes Single………316mm disc, twin-piston caliper (f), Sls drum (r)
Tyres………110/80 x 18 Dunlop K505F (f), 140/70 x 17 Dunlop K505 (r)
Seat height………785mm (30.9in)
Dry weight………210kg (463lb)
Top speed………120 mph
Fuel capacity………18 litres (4 gal)
Current price………$3998 (£2300 – 1992)