Forgotten Middleweight: 1988-1991 Honda NT650 Hawk GT

Best bets on tomorrow’s classics: 1988-1991 Honda NT650 Hawk GT.

1988-1991 Honda NT650 Hawk GT

As Honda’s radically inclined 2-cylinder NC700 demonstrates (the 670cc parallel twin is tilted 62 degrees forward), Honda has never shrunk from innovation as a way to kickstart sales. So it was during Big Red’s late 1980s doldrums that four mold-breaking bikes arrived in the U.S.: the screaming gear-drive double overhead cam 400cc CB-1 four; the practical but unlovely 800cc liquid-cooled PC800 Pacific Coast V-twin; the charming retro GB500 air/oil-cooled single; and the revolutionary liquid-cooled 650cc V-twin Hawk GT.

Image courtesy Honda

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As Honda’s current NC700 demonstrates — the NC700’s radically inclined liquid-cooled 670cc parallel twin is tilted 62 degrees forward — Honda has never shrunk from innovation as a way to kickstart sales. So it was during Big Red’s late 1980s doldrums that four mold-breaking bikes arrived in the U.S.: the screaming gear-drive double overhead cam 400cc CB-1 four; the practical but unlovely 800cc liquid-cooled PC800 Pacific Coast V-twin; the charming retro GB500 air/oil-cooled single; and the revolutionary liquid-cooled 650cc V-twin Hawk GT. But was the Hawk any good, or was it just originality for its own sake?

As a midsize V-twin naked sport-standard, the Hawk anticipated Ducati’s M900 by seven years and Suzuki’s SV650 by a decade. It incorporated a range of techie features like the RC30-style Pro-Am single-sided swingarm, Pro-Link single rear shock, cast alloy twin-beam chassis and stout (for the time) 41mm front forks with alloy triple trees.

Somewhat at odds with this racy specification was the engine, a bored-and-stroked version of the mild-mannered 1983 VT500 Ascot mill. This was a 52-degree, 3-valve, liquid-cooled V-twin with offset crankpins, a straight-cut gear primary and 5-speed transmission — though the Hawk used chain final drive instead of the Ascot’s shaft. Also new for the Hawk was digital ignition and dual-plug cylinder heads. But producing just 37.5 horsepower and 31ft/lb of torque at the rear wheel on Cycle magazine’s dyno, was the Hawk’s hi-tech spec wasted on a weedy powerplant?

Not so, said Cycle World, finding the Hawk’s powerplant very satisfying “if you like riding a bike with immediate throttle response…if you want a 650 that pulls from low rpm like a 750.” Cycle agreed: “The torquey, flat power spread of this engine coupled with a slick-shifting gearbox and light clutch makes the Hawk a cinch to ride...a crack of the throttle will zap highway traffic.” Cycle also recorded an impressive sub-13-second standing quarter at almost 100mph, thanks in part to the Hawk’s full-tank curb weight of just 411 pounds.

Cycle also liked the Hawk’s handling: “... the 650 GT has those qualities that encourage a brisk riding pace: light weight, nimble neutral steering, unshakable stability, lots of corner clearance ... balanced, responsive suspension and accessible power.” Cycle World praised the Hawk’s handling, too, noting that “with quick geometry and fat tires on wide 17-inch wheels, it responds immediately and positively to the rider’s every input.”

It seems what Honda had actually produced was an outstanding all-around motorcycle “that is as much at home on city streets as it is on back roads,” Cycle World said, noting a few negatives like a slightly short fuel range, a thinly padded seat and heat from the headers, all of which compromised its long-haul touring capability. Another area where Honda had perhaps cut corners was in the suspension. The front fork was non-adjustable, and Cycle World said it was “a little soft, diving under braking.” Likewise, the rear suspension — adjustable for spring preload only — “tends to feel mushy at speed,” Cycle World’s editor’s opined. Cycle’s tester also found the Hawk’s riding position “rather cramped” and the entire motorcycle “small and better suited for smaller riders.” On the plus side, Cycle World appreciated the inclusion of a centerstand and thoughtfully positioned bungee cord hooks for occasional luggage.

With all its good press and excellent attributes, you’d think the Hawk GT would have hit a home run in sales, but it didn’t. After just three model years, it was dropped. For all its good points, on paper the Hawk just didn’t stack up: at $3,995 for an optimistic output of 58 horsepower, it paled against Honda’s own new 85 horsepower CBR600F, which came in at just $400 more. Buyers simply did the math — which is a shame, because if they had ridden the Hawk, they would have been surprised at its understated performance and value, even though it perhaps lacked outright horsepower. Intriguingly, of the foursome cited in the first paragraph — the Pacific Coast, CB-1, GB500 and NT650 — the ungainly Pacific Coast proved to be the longest lived, lasting from 1989-1998. Summing up, Cycle World called the Hawk GT “a mix of old and new, a bike with one wheel planted firmly in the traditions of yesterday and the other rolling boldly into the technology of tomorrow.” It’s a concept that’s perhaps better appreciated 26 years on.

Contenders: Two-cylinder rivals to Honda’s NT650

1985-1987 Cagiva Alazzurra
Claimed Power:
55hp @ 8,500rpm
Top Speed:
Engine: 650cc air-cooled SOHC V-twin; 5-speed, chain final drive
Weight: 421lb (dry)
Fuel Capacity/MPG: 41-47mpg
Price then/now: $3,750/$1,500-$3,500

By 1985, Cagiva’s canny Castiglioni brothers had bought Ducati’s engine division and designed a range of motorcycles around a 650cc version of Taglioni’s Pantah V-twin: the dual-sport Elefant, custom Indiana and street bike Alazzurra. The engine, forerunner of all 2-valve belt-drive Ducatis, was an air-cooled 90-degree V-twin with single overhead cams and desmodromic valve operation, fed by dual 36mm Dell’Orto carbs and fired by Bosch electronic ignition. Helical primary gears drove a wet multiplate clutch and 5-speed transmission with chain final drive.

The powertrain was suspended from a “closed double cradle” tubular steel frame with the swingarm mounted in bushings in the rear of the engine cases. Campagnolo cast wheels carried non-adjustable Marzocchi front forks and piggyback rear shocks adjustable for preload and damping. Braking was by triple-disc Brembos, but period testers found them weak and prone to fade. Other gripes included lean-mixture surging at midrange revs, cold-blooded starting and a painful, board-like seat.

While down on power against its competition from Japan, the Alazzurra worked well in the twisties. Road Rider praised its cornering as “an effortless and confidence-inspiring pastime.” The Alazzurra proved to be a sporty package with a strong, torquey engine in a fine- handling chassis, well-equipped and finished. It was, Cycle said, “sinewy, poised, predacious in an off-hand, casual way.” Very Italian, then!

1983-1985 BMW R65LS
Claimed Power:
50hp @ 7,250rpm
Top Speed:
Engine: 650cc air-cooled OHV flat twin; 5-speed, shaft final drive
Weight: 417lb (dry)
Fuel Capacity/MPG: 45-60mpg
Price then/now: $3,995/$2,500-$5,500

The R65LS arrived in 1983 as a hopped-up version of BMW’s entry-level R65. The short-stroke flat-twin engine featured larger valves, Nikasil cylinders, a lighter clutch and flywheel, a larger sump and Bosch electronic ignition. Horsepower was up from 45 to 50. Hans Muth (fresh from sculpting Suzuki’s Katana) molded the futuristic mini-fairing/instrument panel, gas tank and seat/tail unit (with glove box): Like many ‘80s fashions, it didn’t age well. The standard R65 frame ran on new, lighter alloy wheels with dual Brembo front disc brakes, but retained the rear drum. Final drive was by shaft.

Like the Alazzurra and the Hawk, the LS wasn’t for those wanting outright performance. But it redeemed itself with a flexible powertrain, friendly ergonomics and nimble handling. Cycle magazine liked the firmer-than-usual-BMW suspension, which reduced driveshaft reaction and improved cornering clearance. “Steering is terrific,” Cycle said, making the LS “a delight on curvy roads or around town,” also noting, “It’s hard to imagine how the brakes could be better.” But like the Hawk and Alazzurra, long stints in the saddle were uncomfortable, especially in the neck and shoulders: Cycle blamed a too-low handlebar.

Perhaps the R65LS’s biggest problem was the badge on the tank: BMW traditionalists didn’t warm to it, and other motorcyclists didn’t see the value. Just 6,389 R65LS’s were built over three model years. Perhaps the R65 line’s greatest contribution was in lending its chassis to the 1981 R80G/S. MC