A few weeks ago I obtained a sort of new-in-box antique: a 1996 Honda Nighthawk with only 1,200 miles on the odometer. That production year differed from the others before and after in the bike was painted taxicab yellow, a distinctive if not particularly subtle advertisement for the breed.
Which is interesting because the lure of the Nighthawk 750 is a subtle one; but then the bike is for subtle riders. Honda never made a less vicious bike--though many people turned them that way, just as people will whip a dog until it snaps at the mailman. The Nighthawk was from its inception profoundly powerful but exceptionally well-mannered; it didn't try to impress with its coarseness but with the ease in which it performed at and past the limits of expectation. If you want a bike to beat up, or one to beat you up, the Nighthawk isn't for you.
On a warm summer night you can take the Nighthawk on a freeway and hear practically nothing; the chain makes more noise than the engine and the exhaust note merely a long exhalation. The steering is dead neutral: it neither encourages acrobatics nor requires them. The rear drum and single disc brakes are every bit as inadequate as every other set of brakes on any motorcycle, which is to say that they will stop the wheels but not the bike at any highway speed: the intelligent rider knows that he can't rely upon them to get him out of a tight spot, and adjusts accordingly. [In the old days nobody ever counseled a rider to try to stop hard but to avoid.] The Nighthawk's brakes do not encourage foolish behavior. Stand on the rear pedal and you will simply feel the machine lose speed. Grab the front lever hard and the wheel will slow rapidly enough to make your next few moments memorable. Taken together the system was fine enough for its day and for any day that a reasonable person is riding the machine.
The Nighthawk is based on the original CB-750 and in that guise represents one of the too rare efforts by a motorcycle company to provide a machine without an overlay of racetrack or hoodlum overtones. Before the CB750 large-displacement motorcycles were for thugs, crank hobbyists and mechanics. The bike sold itself rather than a head-trip, and it sold well. The Honda 750s were mainstream; in fact they created the idea of the motorcycle as a mainstream, Main Street pastime rather than as an attribute of deviants. After the flush of CB success the world became accustomed to the idea that a motorcycle could be as forgettably reliable as the family sedan.
Even so, the Nighthawk is a motorcycle, which is to say, an engine between two wheels upon which the operator sits. Motorcycles mainly go fast because they have nothing much to carry but their riders, and the Nighthawk goes faster than most because it has a motor worthy of a small car. The adventurer can reach 125 miles per hour and the rational person can cruise at 85 with no sense that the engine is going to throw a piston past his trouser leg. The motor is in fact so smooth that the lack of a sixth gear is no handicap; one does not hear or feel the sort of mechanical complaining that indicates the need for an overdrive.
Honda produced what was essentially the same model from 1969 to 2003, and then let it go until 2013 when the company offered a CB-1100, a bike very much like the last models off the line except that it has modern electronics and of course, that larger engine. Why would any company discontinue a bike like the Nighthawk after so many good years?
The answers have less to do with failure than with success. Vehicle companies dislike having their brand associated with models that lack pizzazz, even if they sell—and those "dull" models take a sales toll on the other machines in the lineup. Honda wasn't going to push its Greatest Hits album when the firm felt it had a lot of new music to sell. And sell they did, with a nice big upward bump coming after the Nighthawk's last year—a bump that ended only with the late Recession, which after all ended a lot of motor-industry bumps. Some of us bought those newer Honda motorcycles: I had one with the same displacement as the Nighthawk but whose manners were on the rough side. I got too old (or perhaps too sensible) for motorized indiscretions and longed for a smoother vintage, but all the old bottles were in other cellars. Finally I found one, dusted her off and pulled the cork to my great satisfaction—yellow paint notwithstanding.
There are two types of Nighthawk riders: those who were around for the first revolution and those who weren't but who have discovered the virtues of a bike that is cheap, runs good, and doesn't break. The younger riders can still experience this because the Nighthawks and their CB precursors are still around in the thousands—some, like the taxi-yellow number I have, waiting patiently in somebody's garage for a new chance to glide with that deceptive power down a highway on a moonlit summer night.