Honda CB 450SC Nighthawk
Road Test Cycle Magazine of 1986
Witness the American Gothic of motorcycles: Many of the values reflected in Grant Wood's portrait of the thin-lipped farming couple—hard-working, modest, capable, and utterly without glamour—apply directly to Honda's workhorse Nighthawk.
In 1977, when Honda brought out the 450's parent bike, the CB400 Hawk, it was a revolutionary machine. The original Hawk showcased a number of innovations—a stressed-member frame, three-valve cylinder heads, dual chain-driven counterbalancers, composite wheels using tubeless tires. Within months of the Hawk's introduction came even greater technological accomplishments from Honda: the amazing six-cylinder/24-valve CBX, the radical liquid-cooled, shaft-driven CX500, and a new generation of inline fours highlighted by the twin-cam CB750. The Hawk's modest achievements got lost in an avalanche of new technology.
Three of those machines are long since gone, but the Hawk, with relatively minor updates, runs on far into the 1980s. Its modest price has always tagged it as an economy bike, and its unassuming styling has kept the Nighthawk a "standard." With few inexpensive motorcycles on the market today and even fewer standards, the enduring CB becomes all the more noteworthy.
The Nighthawk's engine is built around a surprisingly oversquare 70.5 by 50.6mm, 447cc engine. The bike's dual counterbalancers—a technology which was in its infancy when this engine was first built—allow the CB to use a light, single-downtube frame and mount the engine solidly as a stressed member. A six-speed gearbox (introduced in 1980) lets the bike perform yeoman duty as everything from mini-tourer to novice peg scratcher. Years ago, the original's assembled ComStar wheels became the cast pieces we see today, as much for cosmetic as functional reasons.
In 1982 Honda gave the bike its biggest change, a bore job bumping the engine to present spec, along with stronger rod bolts and crank bearings to cope with the added power and heavier pistons. The integrated, crankcase-mount oil cooler remained, but Honda upgraded the twin's suspension and brakes to current specs.
From our point of view, the Nighthawk's greatest attribute is something that hasn't changed: its seating position and chassis setup. In Honda's CMX450 Rebel we see a machine with fundamentally the same engine as the CB-SC (the Rebel uses a different crankcase for cosmetic reasons, has carburetors two millimeters smaller, and different transmission and final-drive ratios), yet a substantially different chassis layout and ergonomics, clearly in the name of style. With the 650 Savage, a completely new bike selling for the same price as the CB, Suzuki put its R&D money into styling as well, utilizing a new engine neither as sophisticated nor as flexible as the Nighthawk's "old" powerplant. Kawasaki's 454 LTD got a hot twin-cam water-cooled engine, but with that comes a $300 price bump along with cruiser ergonomics.
Not that the Nighthawk suffers in performance: it zips through the quarter mile in 14.55 seconds, nearly half a second faster than the 650 Savage. Surprisingly, the Rebel does even better by 0.07 second and 4.7 miles per hour, most likely due to its gearing. Still, of the two Hondas, we choose the Nighthawk.
Why? No spec chart can indicate the Nighthawk's genuine advantage. The CB450 lets its rider sit upright, providing enough room for even six-footers to stretch out and move around. The Rebel, 454, and Savage all position their riders in a feet-up, hands-high riding position, fine for the boulevard but fatiguing during any forays away from the stoplights. Conversely, the Nighthawk's medium-rise bar and rearward-set pegs lean its rider slightly into the wind, and that position, along with the bike's wide, generously padded seat and freeway-compliant suspension, allows the CB-SC rider to comfortably drain the bike's fuel tank—about 160 miles—without ever requiring a rest stop. For passenger duty as well, the Nighthawk bests any of the three cruiser bikes.
Backroad riding further underscores the advantage of the Nighthawk's ergonomics. In the cruisers, manufacturers want a low seat height, and the pegs move forward and un to comply. On the standard Nighthawk, however, a high seat lets the pegs fall in a less-compromising position. Also, the Nighthawk has a far shorter wheelbase than its cousin the Rebel, 57.2 inches compared with 60.2. Steering geometry is closer—both bikes have 30 degrees of rake, but the Nighthawk has a bit less trail (5.1 inches; 5.3 for the Rebel) for slightly quicker handling. Here's a curiosity, though: even though the CMX and the Night-hawk have near-identical front suspension travel, the Rebel has a substantially stouter fork than the CB, using 37mm tubes while the Nighthawk makes do with 33mm stanchions. Rear suspension figures are close too, but you'd never guess that from the ride. Over bumps, the Nighthawk rider, sitting upright and able to use his legs for support, receives a far less severe jolt through his spine than does the more passively positioned Rebel pilot.
But the Nighthawk's ergonomics—especially its seat—won't suit everyone. We put two novice riders on the CB: one hated the bike and the other loved it. The difference? Their inseams: the tallish seat can be intimidating for a beginner with short legs, especially around town. Although the bike's engine and controls are entirely unthreatening, that seat height will put off a lot of initiates; for them, a custom-made saddle or a cruiser seating position like the Rebel's (28.5 inches as opposed to 31.0 inches) is the only solution.
For years the Honda 450 twin has earned high marks in handling, and the Nighthawk furthers that tradition. With light, neutral steering, a stable chassis, responsive suspension, good brakes, excellent tires and generous cornering clearance, the CB performs well on back roads. At 426 pounds the Nighthawk weighs more than the Rebel (412 pounds) and the Savage (377 pounds), but feels lighter than either thanks to its rider positioning, steering leverage and chassis. The CB-SC's skinny rear shocks—adjustable only for spring preload—appear to barely hold enough oil to keep them from squeaking, yet they offer a remarkably plush and responsive ride. Likewise the air-adjustable fork: despite its soft springing, the Nighthawk rarely bottoms on the backroads. We ran the fork at atmospheric pressure and the shocks at their softest setting for solo work. Two-up riding means more preload and more air depending on passenger weight and pilot aggressiveness.
Racetrack-bred riders will uncover a number of Nighthawk shortcomings, but only at a more frenzied level than we'd like to experience on any of the cruiser bikes. Neither the CB's front nor rear suspension have enough rebound damping for true go-fast work (like the engine, that hasn't changed much in the last nine years either), and cranking up preload only aggravates the problem. The Nighthawk never wobbles or feels untrustworthy, but its fork exhibits some lateral flex under heavy braking; a fork brace or heavier tubes should solve this. The brakes, both single-caliper, twin-piston front disc and rod-actuated singleleading-shoe rear, offer excellent feedback and adequate results, but all riders from racer to beginner could use more stopping power: the CB took five and a half more feet to stop from 60 miles per hour than the Rebel, five feet more than the Savage.
Nothing, however, in the CB450's price range works as well for all-around riding. That kind of versatility is rare in today's market, rarer still in a modestly priced bike. Technology has boosted the sport-bike experience to higher road speeds, and cruisers have elevated posturing to high art, yet such machines do so at a premium price and at the expense of versatility.
The Nighthawk, by virtue of its price and displacement, invites classifications like beginner bike or economy/ commuter motorcycle. Its closest competition isn't a 450 twin at all, but Yamaha's four-cylinder, 600cc Radian, another do-everything machine in a specialized world. The Radian costs 25 percent more than the CB, and in some ways is a more intimidating motorcycle, yet add $500 to the price tag of either bike and they'd still seem like a steal. And, indeed, $500 more is about what the Honda is worth: Even though its 1977 price of $1298 (for the premium model), adjusted for inflation, comes out to $2500, the CB costs just $1998 in 1986 dollars.
The CB450SC Nighthawk should convince anyone that a good motorcycle is really a timeless thing. From the beginning, the Hawk was a curiosity, a twin in a time of inline fours. The curiosities today are the specialized bikes which surround it. If there is a secret to the Nighthawk's success it is mirrored in the expressions of Grant Wood's farmers: simple, strong, reliable as spring rain in the country
Source Cycle Magazine of 1986