Working on a friend’s recent “vintage” Japanese purchase got me wondering if “true” classics like the Norton Commando and Triumph Bonneville are easier to own than we acknowledge. No question they can have their share of mechanical gremlins and dodgy electrics, but compared to the array of more “advanced” machines that followed in their wake, mostly from Japan, they might just be the easiest classic bikes to keep on the road. Or at least to buy parts for.
The problem is, because of their value we tend to relegate them to weekend warrior status, prized jewels we haul out for group rides or a Sunday run to the local pub. If you’re new to the classic scene you might not be ready to pound down $7,500 to $10,000 — or more — to get one of these recognized classics, and then there’s that maintenance thing; they definitely ask more of the owner than the average Honda or BMW.
Regular readers might recall Jean Denney’s article back in the September/October 2019 issue recounting her experience as a new rider taking the basic rider’s course. With her license secured and following some real-world street time on my trusty ’76 Suzuki GT185, Denney, group editor of sister publications Mother Earth Living and Fermentation, made the plunge into motorcycle ownership. Immersed by association into the classic bike scene, she was looking for something with classic flair, but daily usability. If you’ve tried to navigate that same road you know that it’s easier said than done, so when Denney lucked onto a nicely preserved 1978 Honda CB400T Hawk, she jumped at it. An affordable, easy-to-ride standard, the Hawk is a great bike, and this one, garage-kept with just more than 6,300 miles on the clock and a $1,000 price tag, seemed like a bargain.
And it was. Cosmetically it’s maybe a 7 or 8, and mechanically it’s close to perfect. The engine lights up readily and spins freely, the 360-degree crank providing nice torque characteristics even if the little twin produces only something like 36 horsepower. The transmission is smooth and snatch free, the brakes are perfectly adequate, and the suspension, despite being short on travel and a bit soft — like just about every Japanese bike of the era — works well enough. It’s mostly a winning combination, and one that saw Honda produce tens of thousands of the little twins up through the early ’80s, by which time the 395cc twin was bored to 447cc for just a bit more oomph.
It’s pretty much an ideal everyday classic, except for a snag that makes finding parts for it, most recently a replacement exhaust cross-over pipe and mufflers, something of a challenge; the Hawk’s lack of enthusiast appeal.
A solid performer in the market, the Hawk wasn’t exactly an enthusiast’s machine. Its success turned on the fact that it was easy to buy and easy to own. It was a leisure machine for the leisurely owner, a commodity, something to be bought, used, and then replaced by the next shiny thing when its looks became dated. The result is that 40-odd years later, parts beyond basic wear items like wheel bearings and brake linings are hard to find.
Certainly, there are specialists who inventory some of the more arcane bits you might need, but if you stack up parts availability for the Hawk next to a Norton Commando or vintage Triumph Bonneville, it’s abundantly clear what enthusiasm means to model mortality. Norton made something like 70,000 or so Commandos. Honda never reported total production of the Hawk or its variants, but it was easily three times that. Yet try to find OEM-style replacement exhaust parts for a Hawk. Good luck. For a Commando? You have your pick of suppliers. Carburetors? Engine parts? Ditto. Everything you could ever need for your Commando is still available, and in fact still being made, much of it by Andover Norton, heirs to the Norton parts concession.
It’s all down to the simple fact that bikes like the Commando and Bonneville catered to the enthusiast. They inspired — and still inspire — enthusiastic and devoted ownership, which in turn inspires enthusiastic and devoted support, something that bikes like the Hawk didn’t do. That doesn’t mean the Hawk’s a bad bike. Emblematic of its time, it’s a well-engineered machine that will be coveted by some for personal reasons, but it will never achieve the level of passionate ownership of bikes like the Commando or Bonneville. Ride safe.
Richard Backus/Founding Editor