Every rider is convinced that there is one magical motorcycle in this world that will bring ultimate satisfaction. And it’s usually just outside of our reach—too rare, too expensive, or too dangerous to actually own. But we keep our eyes peeled, scanning the classifieds, searching the Internet, peering into open garages, just in case. What if the perfect example should suddenly appear, with an owner who doesn’t really know how much it’s worth despite its superb stock condition? It is our eternal hope.
My quest began in 1990 when I met my dream bike on the showroom floor at Honda of Santa Monica. I had just been hired as a shop assistant—which mostly meant sweeping the floors. As a struggling writer, this was fine with me; when you get rejected for every job you think you’re good at, finding one (no matter what it is) in a place you like is a lifesaver. I had just sold my Suzuki Intruder (with the stock drag bars) for rent money, so being in a motorcycle shop at least meant that I could be around bikes.
After a month or so, I was able to work my way up the corporate ladder to become a salesman. I had never sold a vehicle before in my life. And, at the time, Japanese motorcycle sales pretty much sucked.
In 1988, Honda had indulged its designers to go somewhat bonkers, fashioning jewel-like motorcycles that could not possibly sell in the American market. By 1990, they were still there on dealers’ floors, cloaking their magnificence with layers of dust. First, there was the CB1, a naked 400cc four-cylinder with a perimeter tube frame and a bright blue gas tank. Perfection. But what boy-racer would be caught dead on a 400 with no fairing? Second, we had the GB500 Clubman TT, a Brit-bike replica before anyone knew they wanted a Brit-bike replica. With its solo seat, four-valve single, megaphone exhaust, fork gaiters (fork gaiters!), clip-ons, and voluptuous pin-striped gas tank, it looked like a modern-age Norton Manx or AJS 7R. Simply gorgeous. But what he-man would be caught dead on a single? Third, there was the Super Magna, a V-4 cruiser with four upswept pipes and a distinctive design completely unlike a Harley. Need I say more?
But eclipsing them all in quirky design—and pure sales failure—was the NT650 Hawk GT, aka RC-31. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was The One.
The Hawk was an odd mix of cutting-edge racing chassis technology, old-school V-twin power (which is to say, not much), and clean styling that combined to form an indefinable niche bike. Was it a standard, or a sport bike? Probably neither. And it only cost about as much as a CBR 600 Hurricane, the ultimate street sport bike of its time, at $3995.
Doomed. I sold one in an entire year (to a teenager who wrecked it a week later). Yet, when I sat on this mystery bike in the showroom, it fit me perfectly. And everything about it was utterly trick for 1988:
• An ELF-designed single-sided swing arm, originally meant for racing
• An aluminum dual-spar frame that looked like it was lifted from a Honda GP racer
• A center-hub rear disc brake
• A stubby side exhaust and enclosed tail light
• A 52 degree V-twin handed down from the VT500 Ascot—but with three valves per cylinder and twin sparkplugs
And it was naked. This was the era of fully enclosed race replicas bearing yards of streamlined plastic. Yet, Honda decided to let a designer by the name of Toshiaki Kishi spec out a high-priced, fairing-free bike with a low-power V-twin. No doubt, they thought it would succeed—that’s what they’re in the business of doing, selling motorcycles—but it was a major miscalculation. I believe they were blinded by their love of pure engineering and its allure, as evidenced by all the gems in their showrooms that American riders couldn’t appreciate.
Each of those aforementioned bikes were decades ahead of their time—or maybe the American market took 10 or 20 years to catch up with the tastes of Japanese and European riders. Nowadays, we love our retro bikes, V-4 cruisers, and naked V-twins. (But, ah, 400 cc mini-racers still have a ways to go.) And while the Hawk GT no doubt inspired Ducati’s Monster, Suzuki’s SV650, KTM’s Duke, and Aprilia’s Shiver—and is surpassed by their newer technology—I still find the Hawk to be the best of its breed. And it only took me 20 years to buy one.
First, I could never afford it. New or used, didn’t matter—I’ve never had a surplus of funds to purchase a Hawk, or any modern bike. (But I did manage to buy a ’73 Honda CB500/4 for $100—my best vehicular deal ever.) Second, it’s increasingly difficult to find them in stock condition. In the ’90s, Hawks became a popular bike among racers, who modded the hell out of them. Third, Honda only imported them here for four years, so there aren’t a lot of them to be found in the first place. And fourth, as the Hawk won races, its legend grew until it became a genuine cult bike—driving prices to nearly its original MSRP.
So I gave up. Yet I still kept my eyes peeled.
Finally, wheezing my way into middle-age with a few dollars in the bank, I saw an ’89 on Craigslist last winter. Totally stock. Knowing that one was available locally was almost too much to bear, so I had to see it. I took a wobbily ride in the cold rain while a dog chased me, and felt a small ray of distant Los Angeles sunshine. So, I bought it from the kindly British couple (who, I suspect, moved here for the riding), paying a bit more than I should have. Despite its sun-faded plastic and road muck and assorted spots of corrosion, it’s a beauty.
I hadn’t been riding in several years, and was mostly familiar with primitive machines from the ’70s, yet the Hawk GT immediately felt right. I’m not what you’d call a canyon carver (though I have cut my way through Topanga and Malibu Canyons, and yes, they’re pretty nice). But the Hawk inspires confidence. At less than 400 pounds, it feels light and nimble, with a seating position that’s just sporty enough to make you feel like you’re not an old man. The engine emits a throaty blat (aided by a small hole drilled into the shorty exhaust), and its low-end torque pulls you through tight corners without need of quick down-shifts.
The Hawk GT is a bike with soul, and to be honest, I find that there aren’t that many Japanese bikes left these days with that quality. Honda’s class of ’88 has officially attained collector status, and I’m happy to finally ride its valedictorian.
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