An American Hot Rod
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
Weight: 516lb (wet)
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.
- 80hp @ 9,500rpm (claimed)
- Air-cooled, four-stroke, I-4, DOHC
- Twin disc front, single rear
- 521lbs (wet)
- 53 MPG (period test)
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
- Twin-disc front, drum rear
- 502lbs (wet)
- 47.5 MPG (period test)
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