(This Retrospective article was published in the December 2006 issue of Rider Magazine.)
Nothing like taking an old engine design from the shelf, dusting it off, tweaking it a bit and then using it to power an entirely new motorcycle.
Of course, you’ve wrapped it in a brand-new chassis, and about the only things that connect it with the previous generation are the 52-degree angle between the V-twin’s cylinders and the three-valve heads. Welcome to Honda’s Hawk GT, alphanumerically coded NT650. Where Honda plucked that letter “N” from, nobody seems to know; it had been used to designate a whole series of 49cc two-stroke models, and here it was on a rorty, sporty bike. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.
Anyway, here it was 1988, with the Big Four preparing to battle it out in the 600/4 class, and Honda drops this midsized gem on the motorcycling world, a 650 twin with a very trick frame, a single-sided swingarm and the look of a serious go-fast machine. This was Honda’s midweight effort to break into the V-twin sport world, where the Italians were making money. Granted, this was a modest effort, but it had potential.
Back up a half-dozen years to when Honda introduced the VT500 Ascot (Retrospective, September 2006), with the half-liter twin tucked into an old-fashioned double-cradle frame made of tubular steel, six speeds in the gearbox and a shaft final drive. A sales flop, to put it kindly, and after two years the model was pulled.
The engine, 491cc with that 52-degree included angle, lived on until 1987 powering the Shadow 500, and then was retired, except the R&D crowd decided it might have a future. The internal volume was upped to 647cc, having been bored out to 79mm, stroked to 66mm. The three-valve heads stayed, as Honda claimed that the two intakes and one exhaust gave the engine more torque. It was not a real powerhouse, with the rear wheel showing only about 37 or 38 horsepower, and a shade over 31 lb-ft of torque. But whatever Honda made could be made a little more powerful. After all, Big Red was building not only to a price, but also to a reliability standard.
The first Hawks flew into the country in 1988 and the price tag was a $4,000 whack; that was not cheap, and while a few club racers saw that the bike had potential, the main market moved on to Honda’s CBR600 for just a few hundred bucks more. This GT was one of Honda’s efforts to find niche markets, and while there was a niche for a good handling, unfaired sporty bike which was not an in-line four, the Hawk did not seem to tickle the fancy of potential buyers. Niches, by the very definition of the word, are places that are difficult to get into, and Honda was having little success. The unconventional types loved it, as it was fun to beat more powerful bikes on the twisty roads of California’s Santa Monica Mountains or along Deal’s Gap in southeast Tennessee. It did most things commendably, and a skilled rider could show the end of the single fat muffler to much of the competition.
The chassis was great, with a twinspar frame made of aluminum giving it the look of a serious contender, flat-sided beams angling down from the steering head to where the swingarm attached. Even more impressive was that singlesided aluminum swingarm, the sort of thing that the Money Boys had on their RC-30 track machines. Swap that rear tire out in no time flat! Put the air-wrench on the axle nut and the wheel came off, leaving the chain and disc brake untouched. Honda called this the Pro-Arm, and it was connected with Pro-Link rear suspension. The bike came with a centerstand, a nice item to have as stock, rather than offering it as an optional accessory as is way too common these days.
The brakes, a single disc at each wheel with a twin-piston caliper squeezing the front, a single-piston at the back, were fine for the job, although anybody wanting to go seriously fast might think of upgrading. The weak point was undoubtedly the suspension. It was perfectly good for the average rider, but lacked sophistication. The fork had large 41mm tubes, but no adjustments. The DeCarbon-type shock offered preload adjustability…and that is all. However, both Honda and the aftermarket were quick to offer options.
The engine served as a stressed member, which—as well as being efficient—helped to keep the weight down. With three gallons of gas in the tank, the Hawk weighed in at a little over 400 pounds. And the wheelbase was 56 inches, more than 2 inches less than on the previous Ascot. With a rake of 27 degrees and trail of 4.4 inches, this was one flickable machine, helped along by the 110/80-17 front tire, 150/70-17 rear. The method of supplying the gas to the two 34mm Keihin vacuum carburetors showed the Honda engineering department was up to its old tricks, making something appear simple, but in truth it was complicated. The Aesthetics Department had a lot to do with this machine, and while the Utility Department demanded that the bike hold at least 3 gallons of fuel (the tank was rated at 3.1 gallons), there developed a small problem in getting fuel from the tank to the carbs. If one relied on gravity feed, half a gallon would remain behind. Solution? Put in a fuel pump.
Unless the owner actually poked around under the seat, he might not even be aware that the pump existed. Looking at the Hawk was a pleasure, as everything was viewable and pleasing to the eye. The radiator was discreet, and all the pieces of the motor were well polished. Nothing was hidden. From the rider’s viewpoint there was a thin gas tank, a polished triple clamp with a little bitty
handlebar on each side, and an analog speedo and tach as God had intended.
The 30-inch seat height, slightly rearset pegs and fully swivelable handlebars were a comfort for all but the tallest of riders. The first year out, the Hawk sold mildly well, and it was kept on the rolls for three more years…at the same price. Finally, though, there were too many of these birds stacked up in warehouses, even with the dealers trying to roll them out the door for less than their cost. The last year was 1991, but today, go on eBay and see that these Hawks still command a rather high price. Maybe they were a little ahead of their time.
The greatest bike in the known universe! Light, easy handling, comfortable, reliable as a doorstop, and damn beautiful … had 4 of them over 18 years and never tired of it for a moment. Put well over 500,000 thousand miles on them and never suffered a breakdown.
Some complained about the lack of power, but the torque curve was great, with roll-on power always there – and the upside was long, long tire and chain wear.
You could increase the power and still keep it reliable. The Erion brothers beat Ducati with it in 1988 as I recall.
As an economical commuter, it was perfect. As a scrapper, only a really talented rider could take you in the curves. As a tourer, you could get 125 MPG – so it did need a larger tank. But that was its only possible fault.
It stands as my best bike out of 18 different models over 50 years of riding… not only because of the assets described, but due to an irresistible panache.
Honda, by not punching the engine out to 800cc (it’s the same basic engine as the Shadow) and giving it a slightly bigger tank, really missed the boat! Right after the Hawk stopped production, Ducati introduced the Monster … the Hawk was a concept waiting to go ‘mainstream’ – it just needed a little tweak. Fine by me – I got mine – and if the world is too blind to know perfection, it just goes to show that quality is only recognized by the few!
I have an 88. My favorite bike ever. It’s true love. It really is beautiful and does not look dated at all.
I had one about 15 years ago and recently bought a mint ’88. Best handling bike I have ever ridden, including Ducati’s.
I’m looking at a couple power upgrades which might make it a perfect bike. Except for the small fuel tank.
A tribute: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/my-first-motorcycle-the-h_b_4257425
I just picked up a barn find California GT in Litchfield, CT, I got paid to get her running and he told me I needed to own it, now I do, she is amazingly beautiful, and a joy to ride, at 125 mph who cares the size of the tank, it snowed 10/30/20, I rode her today, happy Holloween everybody
I have a 89 for sale for $3500. Perfect ready to ride