Bob Cummings and his wife, Paula, ride the roads of Fish Creek, Wisconsin, aboard a pair of 1978 Hawks, a CB400T Type II and a CB400A Hondamatic.
1978 Honda CB400TII and CB400A
Engine: 395cc air-cooled OHC parallel twin, 70.5mm x 50.6mm bore and stroke, 9.3:1 compression ratio, 35.58hp @ 9,500rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 100mph (T), 88mph (A)
Carburetion: Two 32mm Keihin CV (T), two 28mm Keihin CV (A)
Transmission: 5-speed (T), 2-speed automatic w/torque converter (A)/chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, CDI ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Single downtube pressed steel frame w/engine as stressed member/55.5in (1,410mm) (T), 55.7in (1,415mm) (A)
Suspension: Telescopic forks front, dual shock w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Single 10.8in (274mm) disc brake front, 6.51in (165mm) SLS drum rear
Tires: 3.6 x 19in front, 4.1 x 18in rear
Weight: 378lb (171.5kg) (T), 388lb (176kg) (A)
Seat height: 32.3in (820.4mm)
Fuel capacity: 3.4gal (13ltr)
Price then/now: $1,300 (T), $1,400 (A)/$700-$1,700 (T), $900-$2,000 (A)
Call it social media synchronicity, but just as I was getting ready to write this story I happened to check Paul d’Orleans’ “thevintagent” Instagram feed. What the heck?
Front and center is a photo of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss fame in all their outrageous rock ‘n’ roll glory posing with a 1979 Honda CB400 Hawk. Stanley is crouched on the seat and gas tank, one hand on the handlebar, the other giving a thumb’s up, while Simmons has one spiky boot up on the seat and the other planted on the ground, with his arms outstretched and batwings spread.
Paul d’Orleans’ comment under the photo is succinct: “Kissmobile! You will never forget this image. 1979: why oh why a Honda Hawk?” We may never know the whole story behind the Honda Kissmobile, but the good news is we do know why Bob and Paula Cummings own matching 1978 Honda CB400s, one a a CB400T Type II, and the other a CB400A Hondamatic.
In the late 1970s, Bob owned a Honda CB550. It was his daily transportation around his hometown of Greendale, Wisconsin, and he rode it to high school. Wanting a car and a motorcycle, he sold the CB550 and bought a 1974 Opel Manta. With the few dollars left over, he bought a 1978 Honda CB400T Type II Hawk. “I kept it for two years as I commuted to university,” Bob says. “I moved on to a CX500, and then a full-dress Gold Wing.”
Fast forward through family, kids and a divorce. The bikes were gone when Bob and Paula got together in 2001, but the pair had plenty of fun on a matched set of Honda CH80 Elite scooters they kept at their Fish Creek, Wisconsin, summer home. After moving to a different house in Fish Creek, however, there was no room to store toys like sports cars or motorcycles.
To keep their daily drivers out of the elements, Bob decided to build the largest garage he could without having to wait for permits, a 26-foot by 26-foot double garage. While there wasn’t room for the sports car he really wanted, there was space to store a couple of motorcycles. “That’s when we decided we could move up to machines that were slightly more powerful,” Bob says.
Reading the November/December 2015 issue of Motorcycle Classics, Bob was drawn to the story about Mark Orgel’s 1977 Honda CB550K. He was impressed with the beautifully restored CB550, with all the work done by Brady Ingelse and the team at Retrospeed in Belgium, Wisconsin.
“Paula had ridden motorcycles as a teenager, but we thought she should start on an automatic.” Bob says. “Originally I was thinking of CB750s — an auto for Paula and a standard for me. But then I remembered the CB400s, and contacted Brady to ask him a question.” Namely, would Brady search for and restore a matched set of CB400s?
“He didn’t want the motorcycles to look like they’d just left the showroom floor,” Brady says, picking up the story. “Bob wanted them to look good and be reliable runners, but they had to be 1978s; one a blue CB400T Type II and the other an orange CB400A — there could be no deviation from that requirement.”
Introduced in 1977, Honda’s 400cc Hawk came in three models: the “econo” CB400T Type I; the “sport” CB400T Type II; and the automatic CB400A Hondamatic. The 400s replaced Honda’s CB360, the successor to the 1968-1973 CB350 and in production from 1974 to 1976. Both Yamaha and Suzuki were building 400cc twins (the XS400 and GS400, respectively) that outpaced Honda’s CB360, so the CB400 was the answer.
In an attempt to expand Honda’s market, the Hondamatic version was developed with the aim of introducing the non-riding public to the joys of motorcycling. It didn’t happen, but Honda hoped it might have.
While there are differences between the three models, they all share the same pressed steel, open-cradle frame with a massive backbone and all Showa suspension components. The Type II and Automatic vary in the transmission and some engine details, with the auto having smaller carburetors, flat-top pistons, smaller inlet valves, a larger capacity oil pump and an external oil cooler — located down low in front of the Hondamatic’s engine case — to keep the torque converter happy.
The econo Type I model has the sportier Type II engine, but is bare bones, without an electric starter, centerstand or tachometer. It also features a slightly larger fuel tank, wire wheels and a drum brake up front instead of the single disc and ComStar wheels of the other two models.
The 395cc single overhead cam engine’s cylinder head features pentroof combustion chambers, allowing the spark plugs to be centrally located between the two inlet and single exhaust valves, giving a faster burn. The engine likes to rev, and the 70.5mm by 50.6mm over-square bore and stroke helps the twin produce 35.58 peak horsepower at 9,500rpm. The connecting rods are short, and the three-ring pistons are cut to clear the connecting rods and flywheels, almost like slipper racing pistons. On the CB400T engine, air and fuel mix in a pair of Keihin 32mm CV carbs (28mm on the Hondamatic) and exhaust is routed through the headers to a special crossover chamber mounted behind the engine, where it splits to the two mufflers.
Unlike the CB350 and 360, which both used a 180-degree firing interval, power pulses on the 400 occur every 360 degrees. The one-piece forged crankshaft turns in its three pressure-fed plain bearings and a pair of chain-driven balancers help quell vibrations. The 5-speed transmission of the Type I and Type II CB400Ts offered concern-free shifts: During 1,800 miles of riding by Cycle editors during a test late in 1977, not a single missed shift was reported.
Cycle magazine commented on the performance of the econo model, recording a quarter-mile time of 14.6 seconds. The Type II was just slightly slower, turning the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds. According to Cycle, those numbers matched or bettered any competing 400cc twin for quarter-mile elapsed times.
The Hondamatic, however, was simply slow at 17.59 seconds and a terminal speed of 75.88mph. The automatic is really only a semi-automatic, with a left-foot shift lever used to shift from low range (good for 0 to 50mph) to high range. The absence of a clutch marks the biggest difference between the Hondamatic and other machines, with most aspects of the riding ritual virtually the same as a standard multi-geared motorcycle.
By 1980, the Hondamatic Hawk was dropped from the range, and only the CB400T was available. To remain EPA compliant the 32mm carburetors were downsized to 30mm units, with accelerator pumps, and a new 6-speed close-ratio transmission helped keep the engine working higher in its powerband. The bike got a revised gas tank and tail section, with styling similar to its bigger sibling, the Honda CB750F.
The last year for the CB400T Hawk was 1981, when it was given another styling makeover, new air-assisted forks and variable hydraulic damping rear shocks. In its last year of production, the Hawk was available in black or silver paint, and it was touted as one of the best all-around “little sportbikes.”
Bob remembered his 1978 model as a good all-around motorcycle that did everything he asked of it without protest. He was feeling nostalgic for those college days, and was looking forward to riding another CB400T.
“I gave Brady carte blanche to find the best CB400s he could, and to make them safe and reliable,” Bob says, adding, “But I didn’t want either of them to be show bikes, I prefer some original patina to over-perfection.”
In the fall of 2015 Brady found the first of the two CB400s, the Hondamatic. It was for sale on Craigslist, and was located in Nebraska. “We were looking for low-mile bikes with no rust or other cosmetic issues,” Brady says. “It was easier to find an automatic than the 5-speed, and if I had to guess why, it would be because the automatics were purchased for inexperienced riders and they just didn’t see as much use. The CB400s weren’t bikes you had to fight for before you found one, and they seem to offer extreme value for the money — it was easy to pick and choose the projects,” Brady says.
The Hondamatic hadn’t run in years and was incredibly dirty, but Brady didn’t want the seller to start it or clean it, preferring to do that work himself.
With the Hondamatic in hand, Brady finally located a blue CB400T Type II in Kansas. It was a bit rougher in terms of cosmetics, but both were the ideal cores Brady was hoping to secure.
With the Hawks at Retrospeed headquarters, work began to sympathetically restore them. Mechanically, the Hawks were in fine condition, requiring fluid changes, filters and tune-up parts. The carburetors were cleaned and the timing checked before firing the engines back to life. Service parts like chains, sprockets, brake pads and shoes, fork seals and tires were replaced while the wiring harnesses were inspected for integrity and the contacts cleaned.
“The engine side covers on the blue Hawk were a bit corroded, but when you’re doing a sympathetic restoration it can be a bit tricky because you can’t just polish them up like mirrors,” Brady says. Alex Calles of Illinois took care of refinishing the engine side covers and fork lowers on the blue CB400TII, and the fork lowers on the Hondamatic, as well.
What transformed the Hawks into gleaming jewels was the detail job performed by Adam Stone of Concierge Motorwerks in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He meticulously cleaned each one, preserving some of the patina but ultimately making the motorcycles look like new.
Bob and Paula took delivery of their Hawks in April 2016. They put about 900 miles on them in their first season riding around their Fish Creek home, regularly stopping at the AC Tap in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin, for lunch.
“We park them and barely have our helmets off and people are already talking to us about these Hondas,” Bob says. “They want to know what year they are. Many of these people recognize the model and are really happy to see an unmodified old motorcycle on the road.”
And witnessing Bob and Paula putting them to use is a much prettier picture than the visual assault of an awkwardly posed Honda Hawk in an oddball Kiss poster. MC