The Future Motorcycle: 1985 Honda Nighthawk 650

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Dane Berens' 1985 Honda Nighthawk 650.
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Dane Berens' 1985 Honda Nighthawk 650.
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Dane Berens' 1985 Honda Nighthawk 650.
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Dane Berens' 1985 Honda Nighthawk 650.
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The 656cc air-cooled inline 4-cylinder has 16 valves with hydraulic valve adjusters and an automatic cam chain adjuster.
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The 656cc air-cooled inline 4-cylinder has 16 valves with hydraulic valve adjusters and an automatic cam chain adjuster.
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Proud owner Dane Berens aboard his sympathetically restored Nighthawk 650.
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The Nighthawk received new rider footpeg rubbers along with a host of other rubber bits, and the center baffle inside the mufflers was painted silver to highlight its unique design.
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Dane Berens' 1985 Honda Nighthawk 650.

1985 Honda Nighthawk
Engine: 656cc air-cooled DOHC inline four, 60mm x 58mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio, 72hp @ 9,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 119mph (period test)
Carburetion: Four 32mm CV Keihin
Transmission: 6-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, capacitor discharge ignition (CDI)
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle/57.5in (1,460.5mm)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front with TRAC anti-dive, dual shocks w/adjustable preload and damping rear
Brakes: Dual 10.75in (273mm) discs front, 6.3in (160mm) drum rear
Tires: 100/90 x 19in front, 130/90 x 16in rear
Weight (dry): 434lb (197kg)
Seat height: 31.1in (787mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.4gal (12.9ltr)/45-55mpg
Price then/now: $2,798 (1983)/$1,100-$3,500

“I have beat the hell out of my Nighthawk, crashed it twice, ran it harder than anyone should ever run a nearly 30-year-old bike and it’s never missed a beat. Over 15,000 miles, all I’ve done besides routine maintenance is replace a battery and rebuild the master cylinder.” — Nighthawk owner, posting in an online forum

Fifteen years after Honda quit making them, Nighthawks are such popular bikes that eBay posts a Buying Guide for the model. Bombproof and easy to ride, Nighthawks continue to be an excellent choice for a first bike that a rider won’t outgrow in four months.

Good for just about anything you would want to do with a street bike — getting to work, riding around town, going on trips and even doing a little canyon carving, what they aren’t good for is keeping mechanics in business, as they’re legendary for their reliability.

From CB750 to Nighthawk

The Nighthawk was an outgrowth of Honda’s classic CB750 Four. During the 1970s, the popularity of the CB750 led Honda to try several different engine sizes and a slew of different cycle parts. In the late 1970s, the chopper craze inspired the Honda CB650 Custom, a 627cc single-overhead cam version with a stepped seat, longer front forks, pullback bars and a fair amount of chrome. The Custom was sold between 1980 and 1981, but for 1982 Honda added some cosmetic changes and renamed the model the Nighthawk.

Although the 1983 650 Nighthawk was superficially similar to the Honda Nighthawk that preceded it, the bike was actually an entirely new bird. Starting from the top end, its all-new engine sported 16 valves, double overhead cams, hydraulic valve adjusters, an automatic cam chain tensioner, a hydraulic clutch operating the 6-speed transmission and solid state ignition. A driveshaft transmitted power to the rear end and twin discs with twin-piston calipers provided stopping power at the front. Honda marketed the new machine as powerful, sporty and maintenance-free, and the contemporary tests echoed its claims.

“Now picture THE FUTURE MOTORCYCLE,” shouted Cycle magazine. “Open your eyes and see that machine. No other motorcycle has incorporated all these no- and low-maintenance features.” Cycle was also impressed by the Nighthawk’s quarter-mile times, its smooth ride, seating comfort and cornering capability. “Something for everyone,” pronounced Cycle World. “That something includes a lot. Performance that puts it at the top of the 650 class, outshines most of the 750s, and even shoves aside two of the three factory turbocharged bikes.”

Now known for user-friendly reliability, the Nighthawk impressed contemporary magazines with its performance. Narrowing the wide Honda Four crankcase provided cornering clearance despite the low seat height. Six gears plus a relatively wide powerband made staying on the cam easy, and rubber mounting the engine stopped vibration.

The bike made a claimed 72 horsepower at 9,500rpm. Gas mileage was average for a 650, and the motorcycle started up reliably and warmed up quickly. Cycle World said that the brakes were “strong, reliable, with a nice reassuring feel at the controls” and testers noted that the headlight threw a nice wide beam. Faults noted were the somewhat clunky transmission and grabby clutch, along with slow steering at high speeds.

With 34 years of hindsight, owners and mechanics acknowledge that Nighthawks aren’t totally maintenance-free. Like most bikes of the era, oil and oil filters have to be changed every 2,000-4,000 miles. The alternator won’t charge the battery at low rpm, prompting owners who do a lot of stop-and-go riding to keep their bikes on a trickle charge. Some first-year bikes had problems with valve clatter, others had stator problems. Even so, while newer bikes may have more power and handle better on mountain roads, there are few bikes that can top the Nighthawk’s reputation for long-term reliability. Nighthawks that have turned over 100,000 miles are not rare.

Many sizes to fit all

Honda built Nighthawks in 250, 450, 550, 650, 700 and 750cc versions. The 750 was the longest-lasting Nighthawk, appearing on showroom floors through 2003. The 650 version with the new engine was sold in the U.S. between 1983 and 1985, and few changes were made during the model history — Honda got it right the first time and saw no reason to argue with success.

The demise of the 650 Nighthawk may have had nothing to do with its popularity — or whether or not it had become technologically obsolete. In the early 1980s, Honda and Yamaha were involved in a trade war, each fighting to be No. 1 in U.S. sales. Hoping the 1981-1982 recession was over, Honda introduced 16 new bikes (no, that is not a typo — 16) for the 1983 model year. Their tactics ticked off Harley-Davidson, which had just been spun off from AMC and was, frankly, floundering. Harley went to the U.S. Trade Commission, proved that the Japanese companies had been dumping bikes in the U.S. below cost, and had a tariff slapped on bikes over 700cc. In response, Honda cut down on the number of models exported to the United States and made its 750 into a 700 (actually, 696cc), the better to avoid tariffs: The 650 might have been too close to the 700cc tariff-evader.

Even so, many Nighthawk owners kept their machines, and those who didn’t found plenty of interest on the second-hand market. Nighthawks keep going with minimal maintenance, and put up with the sort of abuse typically meted out to used motorcycles. As a result, it is rare to find a low mileage Nighthawk, and most are very far from pristine.

Seen in that light, a very common bike known for its user-friendly nature might seem a bit odd for a collector to lust after, but Dane Berens is a collector, and he wanted a Nighthawk. “I have a friend who really wanted one back in the day, but they were sold out. Two years ago, my friend started looking for a Nighthawk again. He got me excited about Nighthawks and I found one. I was debating whether to tell him about it, but he emailed me to tell me he had found a Nighthawk, a 1983. Mine is the last year, a 1985,” Dane says.

Dane’s brother Marc, although not a bike guy, agreed to check out the project. “His involvement was enough to seal the deal for me and the seller. I immediately agreed to purchase the bike and arranged a marathon road trip. I drove several hundred miles, bought the bike, had dinner with my brother, and then drove a couple hundred more miles before stopping for the night. The next day I got up early to attend a swap meet and take in some vintage racing. I met with a mechanic and dropped off my Honda MT250 Elsinore engine to be rebuilt. I drove home that night with the Nighthawk, and the restoration process began soon after.”

The good and the bad

“The bike I found had been listed as a mechanic’s special on Craigslist,” Dane explains. “It had a stripped oil drain plug, badly faded plastics, and a gooped-up tank and carburetors. But the Midnight Blue paint was good, the seat was recovered and the chrome was perfect.” Experienced restorers look for a project with easily obtainable parts. It doesn’t matter if the engine needs rebuilding, if all engine parts are obtainable. But if, for example, the mufflers are rusted out and replacements aren’t available, the restoration is doomed. Dane notes that mufflers with good chrome are hard to find, and chrome plating is expensive. Early Eighties Honda seats do not last, and good originals or reproductions are now impossible to find. Dane says the seat on his bike was recovered, but the cover is durable and very close to the original.

Dane planned on what he calls a sympathetic restoration — keeping as much as possible of the original components and the original paint, focusing on servicing and repairing the engine and cleaning and detailing parts, only repainting bits as necessary. “I painted the center of the mufflers. I wanted to highlight their unique design.”

Even with the least obtainable parts needing no restoration, sourcing all the parts he wanted and rebuilding damaged components took Dane over a year. “I kept running into things. I was working on the bike one day, and I realized that the forks looked bent.”

There aren’t many suppliers for Eighties Honda parts, and new-old-stock can be hard to find as Honda bought back parts at that time, giving dealers few reasons to keep old parts on their shelves. Honda had also started making some components out of plastic, which, while light and durable, doesn’t last like metal does. And unlike metal, plastic can’t be rebuilt, so it was off to swap meets and eBay to locate originals in good shape or true-to-form reproductions.

David Silver Spares has some parts and Greg Clauss in Southern California makes rubber and plastic parts from his own molds. “Still,” Dane says, “It’s tough finding parts and tough finding craftsmen to build parts that Honda no longer carries. I did locate a supplier who makes billet turn signal mounts to replace the ever-sagging and cracked factory rubber mounts. I also found a supplier to make custom decals that match the factory informational decals that had faded to near nothing on top of the fuel tank.”

A sympathetic restoration, while perhaps faster and less expensive than a full-on nut-and-bolt, is still a lot of work. “I refinished the wheels, installed new Shinko R230 tires, drilled and tapped a new drain plug into the stripped-out oil pan, and repainted the oil pan, oil filter housing and oil cooler. I replaced a snapped off header stud and installed new cap nuts as needed. I rebuilt both front brake calipers, resurfaced the disc and replaced the brake pads. I resurfaced the rear shoes and drum, rebuilt the clutch slave unit and replaced the sight glasses in the brake and clutch master cylinders. I sourced the correct original mirrors to replace the faded plastic aftermarket units that were on the bike when I purchased it. I repaired and repainted the cracked headlight shell and installed a new chrome bezel. I also rebuilt the combination speedo/tach unit,” Dane says.

Cycle parts needed attention as well. “I had the fork tubes straightened, refinished the fork lowers, refurbished the anti-dive system, and installed new fork seals, new rider footpeg rubbers, shifter rubber, and shift linkage dust covers,” Dane says. “I had paintless dent removal performed on the fuel tank, flushed it, touched up the nicks, and buffed the paint. I cleaned and synched the four carbs, but rejetted them with larger pilot and main jets. Re-jetting the carburetors allowed the bike to start easier and warm up faster.”

The former Craigslist parts bike was now ready to go. Where? Just about anywhere. “I’ve taken this bike on a Death Valley ride, some other club rides, local trips and going to work,” Dane says. “When I went to Death Valley, it kept up well with the other bikes on the trip.” Dane says since the rebuild was finished, he has had no problems with the bike. “It does just about anything well. You can tootle around or keep up with the big boys. One thing it really is not great at is going fast on twisty roads. The road holding on faster paced roads isn’t the best. The longer forks make it difficult to flick the bike, but if you take it slow, it’s no problem.

“The 650 Nighthawk is a stylish, fast, fun, reliable and nimble bike,” Dane says. “It has a lot of character and sounds great. The low seat height makes it easy to ride. It’s happy running at 1,500rpm, and it’s happy running at 7,500 rpm. It’s just a happy bike — and it makes me happy.” And in the end, isn’t that the whole point of owning and riding motorcycles? MC

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