Retro review: 1983 Honda Nighthawk CB550

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What makes a bike memorable?Nighthawk 2

That it’s fast? Maybe – but not necessarily. A buddy of mine owned a first-year Honda Interceptor VFR1000. The whir of gear driven cams – and 125 hp (in ’84).

Very memorable. I’ll never forget that one.

Modern stuff? Not so much. Not so far, anyhow.

For me.

Maybe because I’m older now – and more jaded than I was back in ’84. 180 hp (and 180 MPH) hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. It seems everyone’s got one.

Timing is most definitely a factor.

Good or bad, most of us remember our first bike – just as we remember our first car.

And, of course, other first things.Nighthawk ad

Still, some bikes stand out – regardless of the moment in time they came into our lives. Whether they were particularly fast – or not.

If they had character. If they were likeable.

For me, one such bike was the ’83 Honda Nighthawk CB550 I owned just after college, in the early ’90s

It was a One Year Only Special (I attract such bikes, for whatever weird karmic kismet reason) that appeared – and then just as quickly, disappeared. At least in the United Sates. Honda offered the CB550 for another year… in Canada as the CB550 SC.

When new, the bike slotted in between its bigger brother, the Nighthawk 650 (which eventually spawned the bikini-faired 700S sport bike) and the entry-level, twin-cylinder Nighthawk 450.  '83 CBB50 front pic

Honda had made 550 cc machines before, but the ’83 was the first with dual rather than single overhead cams. The 550 SC also broke new ground by combining styling and functional elements of a cruiser and a middleweight sport bike in one bike.This made it stand out against more category-conventional rivals such as the Suzuki GS550 (a typical UJM “naked/standard” bike) and the Kaw GPZ550 (a bikini-faired sport bike).

On the one hand, you had Sons of Anarchy posture. The bike’s 29 degrees of front end rake feeding out to a 19 inch slim-line tire was almost chopper-ish. There were buckhorn bars and and a cushy, double-hump seat. Fatty 16 inch Dunlop tire out back; belligerent angle-cut 4-2 megaphone pipes on either side of you. Chrome and polished or brushed metal everywhere.'83 CB550 SOA

But if you did encounter the real Sons of Anarchy, the CB550 had what it took to break contact: 75 hp erupted out of that little DOHC four when aroused – spiked by cams from the larger (and longer stroke) 650 cc Nighthawk. Power peak at 9,500 RPM – redline somewhere past ten five. Stuffed in a bike that only weighed 440 pounds.

Bye-bye One Percenters.

The 550 (actually, a 572) posted some pretty big numbers: 12.64 at 102.7 MPH through the quarter-mile.

Well, for the early ’80s they were big numbers.

For some sense of scale, the big fish superbike of the ’70s – Kawasaki’s Z1900 (disclosure: I own one of these) made a claimed 82 hp out of 900 CCs and ran just slightly quicker. In part because it was much heavier (510 pounds). nighthawk ad 3

Also unlike my 900 Kaw, the Honda was an almost zero-maintenance machine. No valve clearance checks – ever. It had a self-adjusting valvetrain with hydraulic lash adjusters that had the additional benefit of pumping down if you over-revved the engine, a fail safe against bending valves. No chain, no sprockets. No mess. No hassles. Shaft drive. Change out the fluid once every couple of years. Hydraulic clutch. No cables to break, no adjustments to make.

Just ride. Whenever, wherever. Forever.

That bike was always ready to go. And would go and go and go. It never let me down. Its only deficit – as far as I was concerned – was its tiny (3.2 gallon) tank, but this was compensated for to some extent by the overdriven six-speed transmission, which made it possible to get 50-plus MPGs out of the thing if ridden languidly.  Back in the ’90s – when gas only cost about $1.20 a gallon – the Nighthawk was virtually free transportation. '83 CB550 OD 1

$12 would cover the week, usually.

I stumbled onto the bike by chance while reading the classified ads. This was pre-Internets early ’90s, so it was an old school paper ad – just two lines of type and a phone number. The second line interested me the most. It read: “1565 miles, asking $1,300.” Notice the absence of a comma in the first figure. I, too, assumed it was probably 15,650 miles (seller’s typo). On the other hand, if it actually was 1,565 miles then it was time to pick up the phone.

It was a Richmond number – area code 804 – not far from where I lived at the time in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia. The guy who answered told me he’d bought the bike new, intending to ride it regularly but then he (cue funeral dirge) got married, a baby came and the wife did not cotton to him riding anything.

Thus the Nighthawk mostly sat… in his heated garage, under cover. Every so often, he’d start it up, let it run for a little while. But he almost never rode it after that first summer. The years passed, wife’s attitude didn’t change. It was time to sell.Nigthhawk 3

Want to come take a look?

After hitting the ATM, the emergency slush fund (extra bills I kept in the lower drawer of my tool box, under some manuals) and borrowing another $350 from my pal Derek to cover the remainder, we hit the road. About an hour later I was in the guy’s garage, looking at what would soon be my Nighthawk.

Half an hour later, I was on the road, headed back home – on the Nighthawk.

It would be several years before I got off the Nighthawk – even though other bikes were acquired during that time. The Nighthawk stayed because it remained my go-to bike, the one I rode most often.

Why?

Because it did almost everything right – and very little wrong.nighthawk ad 3 It had a great personality, it was likeable. And it was a a lot of fun. It always put a smile on my face and never a frown.

Bikes like that are keepers.

I often wish I’d kept this one.

Throw it in the Woods?     

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  16 comments for “Retro review: 1983 Honda Nighthawk CB550

  1. JoePA
    February 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

    This article brought back memories. My first bike was a 1983 Honda Shadow. It was a great bike back then as like all “Jap” bikes it still is today even though it is long gone. There are many of these bikes….and cars sitting in barns collecting dust waiting for their day to return.

    • eric
      February 24, 2014 at 10:14 am

      For me, that era – roughly, 1973-1988 – was the golden age of motorcycling. They had become modern enough, powerful enough – and reliable enough – to be ridden anywhere, anytime. But they weren’t “over the top” as so many bikes are today. Part of the fun – again, for me – is that bikes (back then) were cheap to buy, cheap to own, cheap to maintain. They also had more personality, more character.

      I miss them – but at least I have a few (four!) in the garage…

  2. jcard21
    February 24, 2014 at 10:46 am

    My 2nd bike was a new

    1983 Honda V65 Magna

    • $3,898 MSRP
    • 65 cubic inches/1100cc
    • V4
    • 105hp
    • liquid-cooled
    • shaft drive
    • 6-forward speeds
    • digital display.

    It was a beast … a street dragster, yet also a cruiser.

    I used to ride it to work in my 3-piece suit with my briefcase strapped to the back, going up to 90mph, daily. :-) … I never got a ticket!

    I averaged about 13,000 miles per year on it.

    Here is a 1983 Honda TV commercial:

    And here is a short walk-around of someone selling one:

    • Inconsistencies
      February 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      Notice on that TV commercial, there was no lawyer fine print “Professional rider. Closed course. Do not attempt.”

      • eric
        February 24, 2014 at 1:25 pm

        Yup – that’s why I chafe so much about the “safety” culture of today. I can remember before it took hold. America was a different – a much better – place in those days.

    • eric
      February 24, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      Great bike, JC!

      I’ll never forget the Magna, either…

    • Garysco
      February 25, 2014 at 1:07 am

      The V65 was a quick scarey-ass machine. A lot like the Yamaha V-Max.

  3. geoih
    February 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

    I thought GPZs were Kawasakies (end of paragraph 14).

    • eric
      February 24, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      Ach, not enough (or too much) coffee again… fixed – and, thanks!

  4. Marc
    February 24, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    My neighbor has an 84 650 Nighthawk. He often uses it on his farm as a work vehicle so it’s usually caked with mud. After hauling my pressure washer over there last summer and cleaning off years of accumulated of dirt and plant material, I could see that the bike has an aggressive yet elegant profile that really appeals to me. Although smaller, it reminds me more than a little of my former Yamaha XS1100 Special. Just for the heck of it, I checked out the horsepower and acceleration specs on the internet and they’re pretty darn impressive. Thankfully for my ego, they’re slightly below my 865 Bonneville which means I can still hold my head up and swagger around like a vastly superior being. Aftermarket parts are readily available.

    • eric
      February 25, 2014 at 9:14 am

      They’re great bikes – both the 550 and the 650 (and also the later 700S and the 750 Nighthawk “standard”). It’s a shame such bikes are not made anymore. Among other things, they were great starter bikes that you didn’t outgrow in six months’ time. Very few such like today.

      The styling was a high point, too.

      I like to see the engine; I like chrome and polished metal. Plastic does little for me.

      I haven’t lusted after a new sport bike in several years now…

  5. Garysco
    February 25, 2014 at 1:31 am

    @Eric- I don’t think the “perfect” bike can be made. That is why us addicts usually have 2 or more, depending what/ where we want to go and do. My ’99 black and chrome Honda Valkyrie standard is another “one off” from Honda. An 800Lb. head turner that sounds like an angry Ferrari when cranked up. Even the Harley guys come over and ask what it is (enter the sound of a hissing balloon on their face when they learn it is a rice burner :) . It is happy to run 400 miles a day at well over 90MPH and ask for more, but around town it is a handful.

    I see Honda has brought back the old 70′s CB retro bike in an 1100cc (and 1300cc off shore model). I do wish they would bring back the Nighthawk (and the old Yamaha Virago) in an updated tech version too.

    • eric
      February 25, 2014 at 9:07 am

      Very true, Gary –

      Like a lot of guys, I have multiple bikes – one of almost every type (sport bike, touring bike, naked/standard, cool old antique, off-road bike).

      I finally convinced Dom to get a second bike – and he seems to be happy with it!

      • Erle
        June 18, 2014 at 2:10 am

        My daughter of age 26 with a kid and another kid- a husband bought a Hogley-Ferguson 103 CID thing for a first bike. I about went through the roof as my wife takes care of the grandson on my dime, If informed I would have given her a 1000 mile Buell 1125CR or let her have just about any of my bikes to learn on and then make a decision on whether she really wanted that tubby Harley or perhaps a very low miles Benelli Sei 900, She decided to try a Moto Guzzi 500 III which is a fairly slow 500 twin but is a laugh to ride as the handling and brakes and light weight make it such a pleasure as her “training bike”.
        I saw your later bike articles and agree with you on how a test ride is so important so that one does not end up with a bike that gives no pleasure.
        I had no business buying that Buell even if it was stupid cheap as I am not good enough anymore to ride it the way it was designed to be ridden. I get far more pleasure from my ’67 TR6 that is an absolute slug compared to most anything nowadays.
        I have something against 400 lb+ bikes—just me.

        • Garysco
          June 18, 2014 at 2:46 am

          @Erie – For your “in crowd” daughter.
          http://youtu.be/OOWO–z1S8A

        • eric
          June 18, 2014 at 5:21 am

          Hi Erie,

          Good stuff!

          I’m not a Harley guy, either. Too heavy – and too expensive. Which isn’t the bike’s fault, I realize. It’s what the market will bear. I like lighter, more agile bikes.

          No offense meant to HD fans. They’re just not my bag.

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