The Honda CB700SC Nighthawk S

An American Hot Rod
By Richard Backus
July/August 2008
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1984-1986 Honda CB700SC Nighthawk S.
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Honda CB700SC Nighthawk S
Years produced:
 1984-1986
Claimed power: 80hp @ 9,500rpm
Top speed: 120mph (est.)
Engine type: 696cc overhead cam, air-cooled inline four
Transmission: 6-speed
Weight: 516lb (wet)
MPG: 40-45
Price then: $3,398 (1984)
Price now: $1,200-$2,500

When the Honda CB700SC Nighthawk S was introduced in 1984, the words of praise from the motoring press were immediate and, in a surprise twist to the norm, unified. "Surprise: Custom now means California hot rod," announced Cycle. "The California hot rod: Honda’s fiddle-free speed shop special," said Rider. "An American-style, shaft-drive sport-custom that honors another American custom — hot rodding," quipped Cycle Guide. If the motoring press was any judge, Honda had struck a rich vein with its new Nighthawk S.

Like any good hot rod, the Nighthawk S had a purposeful, aggressive look. Paint was either two-tone black and blue or black and red, and just about everything else on the bike — save for the fake chromed velocity stacks on the outside carbs and the polished edges of the cylinder head fins — was matched in elegant, menacing black. Stylistically, the tank, seat and side panels mimicked the angle of the engine’s polished fins, and combined with the bike’s fab little bikini fairing, the 700 added up to a package that screamed "go fast" to riders looking for two-lane entertainment.

Powering this visual feast was an air-cooled, inline four. While visually similar to the engine introduced the year before in the CB650, the 700 was all new. Designed as a 750 (both Canada and Europe got a 750 version), for the U.S. market the engine was de-stroked 3.6mm to give a displacement of 696cc, letting the Nighthawk S just squeak under a newly enacted tariff on imported bikes of 700cc and above.

Since it retained its designed 750cc bore it could still breathe like a 750 through its 4-valve head, giving the new bike 67hp at the rear wheel and performance on par with and even exceeding other 750s. Cycle Guide recorded quarter-mile times of 12.048 seconds, putting the Nighthawk S ahead of Kawasaki’s GPz750 (12.167 seconds) and only slightly behind Suzuki’s GS750E (11.893 seconds). It was only a fraction slower than Honda’s liquid-cooled V4 sportbike, the VF750F Interceptor (11.963 seconds).

Further making the Nighthawk S stand out was its unique mix of old- and new-school bits. By 1984 (George Orwell, anyone?), new-school was in. Liquid cooling, V4 engines, anti-dive brakes, turbos, electronic fuel injection and ignition — anything that gave a performance or marketing edge was on the table. Yet here was the 700 Nighthawk, with a decidedly old-school, air-cooled mill, yet incorporating the latest mechanical advances.

Thanks to hydraulic lifters, valve adjustment was a thing of the past. A driveshaft dispensed with any worries about adjusting or replacing chains, ignition was electronic, an automatic adjuster kept the cam chain taut, and a spin-on, automotive-style oil filter (a first for a Honda inline four) meant easy oil changes. It also featured 16-inch wheels front and rear, plus there was Honda’s second-generation TRAC (Torque Reactive Anti-dive Control) helping keep the front end under control.

But the motorcycle press loved the bike for more than just its styling and specs. Cycle’s March 1984 review praised the engine for smoothness and lauded the chassis, saying "the 700 steers lightly and precisely. Hustling down mountain roads, the Honda responds immediately to steering inputs." Rider concurred, calling the Nighthawk "a joy to jam up a winding ribbon of asphalt. It steers quicker than a GPz, goes faster than an ES and feels a lot less cumbersome than an Interceptor on a tight road." Cycle Guide noted a tendency for front-end chatter in bumpy turns, yet said, "In fast, smooth corners, it’s virtually impossible to make the S misbehave."

The bike’s 16-inch wheels helped some, especially up front where a small wheel means quicker steering, but most of the bike’s cornering prowess was down to Honda’s clever positioning of the drivetrain. Compared to the CB650 Nighthawk (against which it was often compared but shared no parts), the CB700 carried its engine farther forward and lower, giving a lower center of gravity and allowing a longer swing arm, the latter effectively canceling any driveshaft-induced frame jacking as the rider twisted the throttle on and off.

Overall, complaints were almost non-existent. Mirrors were noted for getting fuzzy at high rpms and for not sticking out far enough, and some testers were less than thrilled with the TRAC system, but otherwise the 700 seemed the perfect middleweight.

Advertising manager Bob Legault, owner of our photo bike, says he loves the 700’s neutral, almost upright riding position, which lets the rider tuck in or hang off as needed, making the bike perfectly comfortable for in-town or highway duty. "I was raised on dirt and enduro bikes, and it feels light like that," Legault says, adding, "It’s quick, and the comfort part of it is big for me. It fits, and it feels good. You get on that baby and wrench back on it, and it’ll get up and go."

Legault snapped up his immaculate 1984 example when his brother found it for him two years ago, and for only $1,000. Since then, he’s put another 5,000 trouble-free miles on it, with maintenance limited to tires and oil changes.

So why didn’t the 700 last longer than three years? Blame it on timing and technology. Sales-wise, the mid-1980s were bad years for the motorcycle industry. After years of steady sales increases, the market went into a sudden dive, leaving new motorcycles collecting dust on showroom floors. Regardless of the CB700s technical capacity, it was an old-school oddity in a changing landscape, and Honda quietly dropped it after the 1986 model year.

The good news is there are plenty of survivors out there. Endowed with typical Honda reliability, engines appear to last forever. Paint suffers from exposure, of course, but the black chrome seems to weather better than much of Honda’s standard chrome from the same period. Since the frame holds most of the engine oil it’s good to stay away from examples that ever hand-grenaded their bottom ends, but otherwise these are great bikes that sell cheap and give excellent service. 

Kawasaki GPz750
- 80hp @ 9,500rpm  (claimed)
- Air-cooled,  four-stroke, I-4, DOHC
- Five-speed
- Twin disc front, single rear
- 521lbs (wet)
- 53 MPG (period test)
- $700-$2,000

Despite the 42cc advantage the GPz holds over the Nighthawk (738cc vs. 696cc) their performance numbers are nearly identical. Maintenance is less involved on the Honda thanks to self-adjusting valves and cam chain, and of course the bike’s shaft drive. Of course, there are some performance nuts who don’t believe in any drive that doesn’t involve a chain, so if you’re one of those, buy the GPz. If you’re not, buy whichever one is the best deal when it comes to price and condition. Although today the 1982 GPz does look a little more dated than the Honda, it also happily makes us think “Superbike” in a way the Nighthawk doesn’t. For 1983 the GPz got a sleeker, sharper fairing to update its looks — along with another 5hp — but that’s another story for another day.

Yamaha XJ650RJ Seca
- 48hp @ 9,000rpm/127mph
- Air-cooled, four-stroke, I-4, DOHC
- Five-speed
- Twin-disc front, drum rear
- 502lbs (wet)
- 47.5 MPG (period test)
- $800-$2,000

Though not the hot rod the Nighthawk was, the Yamaha XJ650RJ Seca was a well respected, capable bike in its day. Though it’s down more than 30hp (some sources claim output is actually closer to 70hp) when compared with the 700 Nighthawk, it’s still a fine performer today and is visually very similar to the ‘Hawk, though it’s a bit softer all around. The press praised its balance of power and handling back in the day, and also found it to be quite comfortable and capable as a tourer, considering it’s size. So what are you looking for? If it’s a competent bike for running around town and touring your favorite backroads on the weekends, either bike will work. But if you’re looking for something a little brash, a little loud and a lot more powerful than the “norm,” you’ll want a Nighthawk or GPz over the Seca. MC 

Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
- 1982 Yamaha XJ650RJ Seca 


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Post a comment below.

 

Mark Mavracic Sr.
1/13/2013 2:51:20 PM
I owned one of these 700 Nighthawk S and it was an amazing bike. Was a joy to have, very little maintenance and it was no bullet but it was fast enough. Handling was also great, the bike also seemed lighter than it was. Was not the handling king that my FZR1000 was but not to shabby. Mine was the red/white that not too many liked but I just found it different. Thanks for bringing this as the memories were great.

cam ritson
9/12/2009 8:16:50 AM
had my import 700snighthawk since 95 never had to lay a spanner on it love the handling. was mint till some bimbo doing her hair had me off.in need of a screen blade just cant get one from anywhere. anyone with any idea,s be mucho greatful.

Sterling Snowden
7/25/2009 4:41:22 AM
"...Given this advice and my bike having a blown engine, what should I look for to correct any issues? Are there known issues with the frame oil causing catastrophic engine failures?" No, the issue is that you may pick up grenaded engine fragments from the oil in the frame which would make quick work of your shiny rebuilt engine. Just make sure you KNOW that ALL the oil channels are spic N span. BTW, a great nighthawks resource with history, reviews, & lots of specs is hondanighthawks.net !

SGT Wait, Michael
7/19/2009 4:11:32 AM
I have owned two Highthawks! One Blue and one Red I never could quite stomach the red white and blue. But I digress, I loved both bike I lost both of them due to the number 3 connecting rod parting ways through the block. Not a happy camper in either situation but had a lot of great miles on both. Now I own a V-max and love the power but I miss the height (as I am 6'2") and Agility of the Honda Bird. On a more posative note my little brother has entered the world of street bikes on his Red '84 700S. So it lives on. Wish Honda would have kept after it I would love to see the blood line today as it was with new technology and less Crotch rocketness! ~MLW

Lee Founds
5/3/2009 6:15:34 PM
I bought my 1984 Nighthawk 700, black'n blue, in 2006 from a mechanic that had taken very good care of it and only 21,000 miles. I love the looks the bike gets....not the usual crotch rocket nor the street cruiser, great all around bike. I mostly commute with it and just an occasional longer jaunt, hope to do more of the longer trips this year. Love the way it handles and the comfortable ride, added some nice Kuryakyn hi-way pegs to give the knees a break, that was the frosting on the cake. Outstanding bike!

Patrick_2
4/23/2009 4:20:37 PM
This article took me back. I owned an '85 Nighthawk 700 SC for about 12 years. I bought it in '89 when it had about 4000 miles on it. The guy selling it was scared of it. I heard that low growl and felt the smooth acceleration and was immediately in love with it. I could stay close to my friends on Hurricanes, or be just as comfortable as my Goldwing friends. I remember the ignition giving me fits and the tank rusting from the inside. Valve cover gaskets were an easy fix. Other than that, it was oil changes and shaft oil changes only. What a great bike. I miss it badly. I hope to afford a look-alike soon - maybe a ZREX! No shaft-drive, but it sure brings back the same emotions with its similar styling.

Randy Shepherd
2/11/2009 7:03:42 PM
I enjoyed reading this article and agree with the praise of the Nighthawk S. I am restoring a 1984 model now blue / black in color and purchased this unit with a blown engine. It seems weird that a Honda engine is defective but I don't know the history and for all I know, there could have been no oil in it. The engine failed due to the #2 connecting rod blew through the lower part of the engine. This article states "stay away from examples that ever hand-grenaded their bottom ends" due to the frame holding most of the oil. Given this advice and my bike having a blown engine, what should I look for to correct any issues? Are there known issues with the frame oil causing catastrophic engine failures?

V8 Cat
10/17/2008 10:36:28 AM
I have owned a 1985 Honda Nighthawk 700S for decades. Bought it new in 1985. It is a great bike with a lot of performance and low maintenance plus a lot of features like the hydraulic clutch, 6-speed transmission, dual exhausts, 16 valve engine, hydraulic lifters, and shaft drive. Many people have wanted to buy it from me over the years as it is a pristine example with 6000 miles, always garaged, and ready to go. The styling has held-up so it still looks good.








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