I shot this snow covered pair of 450 Hondas on my way to work. They are my daily reminder of my own introduction to the world of motorcycles.
To give you a bit of history on these, this engine and basic layout first appeared in 1978 as the Honda CB400T. As far as Universal Japanese Motorcycles go it was hardly exciting for a new Honda model, with a pressed steel backbone frame, three valve parallel twin engine and dated flat seat styling.
In 1982 some significant upgrades happened with an extra 50cc and overdrive 6th gear. They also added swoopy cruiser styling, gave it a cool name and sales took off. I don’t know how many they sold, but when I was in high school it seemed that Nighthawks were everywhere.
Back to our subject photo, the bike on the right is a CB450SC Nighthawk. The combination of a wide silver stripe on the side cover and one piece cast aluminum wheels mean this is probably a 1983 model. The one on the left is quite a rare bird, a CB450S, the final 86-88 model where that bulletproof engine was given a more rigid perimeter frame and some sportbike cachet. Bit of a pity they’ve been unattended outside for at least a year.
I had a poster on my bedroom wall of all the 1983 Honda models, but my parents’ legendary patience ended with motorcycles. They were forbidden so long as I lived under their roof and I accepted that. When I got my first professional job in 1992 I moved to a small town three hours away. I had both free time and extra cash, so I scoured the Bike Trader in search of the 450 Nighthawk I’d admired from my poster. I found an immaculate 1985 model with very low miles, and borrowed a pickup and my friend Bill to bring it home.
Bill was sufficiently intrigued by the Nighthawk to buy himself a 500 Shadow, and we rode everywhere together. We rode in the evenings just for the sheer joy of it. We did weekend motorcycle trips where the goal was to get as far from home as possible and back in time for work Monday morning. I did 25,000 km during my first year of Nighthawk ownership.
Reaction to my choice of motorcycle was mixed, some people snickered at my “beginner bike”. While touring the Blue Ridge Parkway we struck up a conversation with some guys riding big touring Harleys, and they were incredulous: “You rode THOSE bikes all the way HERE?” But the words from a long time Triumph Bonneville rider were; “These are great little bikes, you can do anything with these.” Indeed, the Nighthawk could pretty much do everything; light touring, Interstate speeds, twisty roads, two up. However it struggled when asked to do everything at the same time. Two up at speed on twisty roads was not happening, so when the future Mrs DougD began accompanying me on trips I built a wish list for my next bike. Liquid cooling, shaft drive, hard bags and more power, which is how I wound up with a GL500 SilverWing. I put an ad in the paper and sold the Nighthawk for a couple of hundred less than I paid for it, not bad for three years and almost 50,000 km. It still looked and ran like new as it disappeared around the corner.
Although my own experience with 450 Hondas was temporarily over, whenever anyone asked me about how to get into motorcycling my stock answer was “get a 450 Nighthawk for $1500, ride for a year, then sell it for $1400 and buy what you really want”. About 50% of the people who proceeded to buy a bike after this conversation actually took my advice. I even wound up buying another 450 when my wife started riding, and doing maintenance and repairs on friends and relatives’ 450s. Even Bill and his heated garage got roped into the action, when we prepped a 450 for James and Margot.
The 450 Honda was a great bike to start riding, and more importantly to keep riding. Those who started out on 450 Honda Twins learned to ride, figured out what to get next, and ride to this day. Notable examples include:
Super Dave the Harley Guy (Seen here on his Epic Lap of North America)
Margot and James (Blue Ridge Parkway)
Mrs DougD (Paris Ontario)
And of course, Me (PA on the way home from Deal’s Gap)
The other 50% followed their dream more directly, and bought a new Harley or big sportbike right off the bat. Interestingly this group generally did not stick with motorcycling; they either had some sort of incident or lost interest within a couple of years, usually selling their dream bike at a significant loss.
By the mid 2000’s I had to retire my stock answer, because although $1500 Honda 450 Nighthawks were still available (as they remain so today) they were now 20+ years old and getting a bit long in the tooth, too needy for newbie motorcyclists. There are better options available now, although they usually cost more than $1500.
So what’s the lesson? That it’s better to sneak up on your dream in stages rather than tackle it head on?
I’ll stick with this: The Honda 450 Nighthawk wasn’t the first bike. It wasn’t the best bike. But it surely was the best first bike.