Thursday, December 22, 2011

The '85 Nighthawk, A Machine Propelled by Snake Oil, Mystics, and Good Faith


A few years back I bought a 1985 Honda Nighthawk 450. It was my first bike, purchased from an average man carrying an aristocratic name – something like Cannonball Bremenhold Jacobson III. The little Honda was was a great first bike in every respect – it was light, peppy but not dangerously powerful, and had room for two. It also had the sex appeal as a wet sock, so it collapsed my desire to showboat. Any attempts at hot dogging caused onlookers to contort their faces in confused disbelief, much like the Hugo's Hunchback before he started yelling “She gave me water!”
There was a small hitch with the Nighthawk, though, the kind of rookie mistake easy to make on a 700-dollar budget. The machine would start, run and ride beautifully, then, a half-mile from home it would die. When I say “die,” I mean the machine would sputter and burst like an epileptic horse until it collapsed, making no further sound than the pulsing melody of a whirring starter motor. Passersby would often think I ran out of fuel and offer to help. I would then explain that my machine functioned only within a half-mile radius of my house, and when that radius was breached, the machine would take two hours to reset, leaving me waylaid. Their offers changed to exhortations of “Oh, sorry. Good luck!” as they watched me push from the driver's seat. I’m happy to help, of course, so long as you don't expect me to get out of this car.
Of course, instead of pushing the machine, I could have left for the required two hours and let the bike establish a new “home” and half-mile radius; however, I invariably opted to push. I had sexy biceps and thighs in those days, in addition to a healthy cardiovascular system and a large map that decorated my office, one stabbed with pushpins in a vague circle, one mile in diameter.
As one might expect from the owner and purchaser of a $700 dollar motorcycle, many home remedies were tried to cure the machine's flagging health. Mystic interventions were common, ranging from the less-effective Gunk motor additive, to the more useful laying of hands and burning of sage. Periodically, after a particularly strong intervention, the motorcycle would run particularly well, and exceed its usual, half-mile radius, as if propelled by supernatural forces. This initially led to great joy and a renewed belief in the mystic, but always ended with a pushpin, if not anomalously placed, (blue for sage, gray for Gunk, pink for laying of hands, and so on.)
After a Friday evening with one particularly strong psychic medium, (a woman who claimed to channel the ghost of Sorichiro Honda's estranged mistress, Ashley, from Detroit,) the Honda ran particularly well. This, of course, inspired Kelsie and I to use the motorcycle for its intended purpose – a notion heretofore unspeakable – riding and enjoyment. I felt confident in the healing powers of Ashley, from Detroit, we climbed on and headed through town.
            I've yet to meet anyone who prefers thick, city traffic to a beautiful country road, yet for some reason our Saturday morning destination was Sears, which meant an in-town drive up the melee of highway 29 – an eight-lane cinema of vehicular homicide. Many things in life are more relaxing than highway 29, including (though obviously not limited to) using your motorcycle to jump derelict vehicles (without health insurance,) or punching as suicidal bear. For some reason, however, I felt compelled to stay in town. Perhaps it was Ashley herself whispering into my ear. Whatever the cause, we opted to stay in town instead of taking our fitful steed to the Virginia hills, where the only signs of life read: No Trespassing.
Kelsie and I left home quite happy. We rolled through town on the little red machine, and it cooperated. We puttered on, up and out of the cul-de-sac, stopped at a few stoplights (and more importantly, left those stoplights,) and started our battle up 29.
Things were fine until we approached a 7-11 about and a half from our house, the machine first coughed, but continued, then it shuddered and pulsed, which I knew to be the beginnings of the death rattle, so we made our way across three lanes of traffic as the machine settled into an all-out epileptic fit, shit itself, and died – or died and then shit itself, I was too busy navigating by momentum to pay attention to the order.
Highway 29 had no shoulder, and more importantly, a mile-and-a-half was entirely too far for manual transport, even for my toned legs and biceps. Mrs. Chu, our psychic, had earned the Honda a black pushpin twice as far from home as any of the others, but it was still a pushpin day, and I had no idea how to get home.
In almost no time at all, a 30s-something ex-military man, tall with salt-and-pepper black hair pulled into the 7-11 next to the Honda. He rode a thick, low-slung cruiser, and new to motorcycles, I assumed that this butch bike and rider were here for a bit of chiding, if not downright nastiness. But, immediately he started asking about us and our troubles. Turns out, he had just gotten back from riding the Keys and knew what it was like to be broken down with no help. He said not to go anywhere, and rode away to fetch ancient gray Civic, then escorted us home.
During the ride, I explained the situation – the Honda, the misfires, the fading and the failing, the Gunk, anointed oils, and Mrs. Chu's psychic intervention. He was understanding. “Ashley, from Detroit?” He said. “She told me that the Torakusu Yamaha had a lover by that same name.” The conversation turned to things mechanical. What had I tried, what was my plan of action? I told him about the new fuel filter, amongst other things, but that my real suspicion lay in the head gasket. “Just replace it,” he said “you seem capable enough, and on a small motor it's not as hard as you think. Also, Mrs. Chu's fee of 29.95 might have paid for the gasket.”
            I wanted to thank him, offer him some small token or gesture for his generosity, for his insight, but as soon as we reached our house, he only said, “OK, good luck!” and drove off.
Of course, he was right. All the magic potions that had gone into the crankcase were no more than rebranded Snake Oil, and it was time to quit dicking around. A couple hours later, Kelsie escorted me to the Honda by way of our Mazda 626, and watched me flog the poor machine home in fits and spurts, and plant it in the driveway, awaiting a brown truck to deliver a gift boxes containing a new head gasket and a Clymer manual outlining the procedure.
            I still assume Cannonball Bremenhold Jacobson III was an honest injun – he even asked after the machine by way of email a few months later. I was able to tell him that not only had I diagnosed the problem, but had also fixed it, and it was a teeth-cutting task that opened the worlds of wrenching and motorcyclists in one stroke. Mr. Jacobson may not have realized the lemon he sold me, and I never could have understood how sweet it could make my life.
Since those days, I may have intimidated a few new riders by marching up on on them, particularly my thick, Kawasaki Concours in recent days, but I've learned a few things since the Nighthawk, namely how important it is to reach out and be reached when trying a new community.




22 comments:

  1. Brady:

    I also had a Honda 450 Nighthawk, but it was reliable, always started and never let me down. I can't remember much about it but I think I bought it from someone at work and I had it for a couple of years. He wasn't an Aristocrat so I got lucky . . .

    bob
    Riding the Wet Coast

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  2. Motorcycle mystics followed by the appearance and disappearance of problem solving Samaritans sure sounds like a Twilight Zone episode. Did you shake his hand to make sure he was of this world?

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  3. It really is a great feeling isn't it, figuring out and then fixing your motorcycle's problems....getting to that however usually cost blood, sweat and sometimes tears. ;)

    Merry Christmas to you and Kelsie

    Dom

    Redleg's Rides

    Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

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  4. Fixing broken bikes can be frustrating and very rewarding at the same time. I have done both and also found engineering faults along the way(thanks Dad).

    Merry Christmas Brady

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  5. Ah....the old Shite - sorry, NIGHThawk!

    Thanks for a year of great reading!

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  6. Bobskoot,

    Once I had the head gasket fixed it was perfect - absolutely perfect. A great machine that never let me down. Of course, it was underpowered and too light for any cruising over 50MPH - but a very nice machine to put around on in the hills of Virginia. (Provided you knew it would get you home.)

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  7. Jay,

    The man came and went out of my life so fast I didn't have time to think. Seemed like a really great guy, but could have been an otherworldly spirit - though I pretty much gave up belief in them as soon as science and mechanics fixed my machine.

    Thanks for reading,

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  8. Dom,

    This Nighthawk was the very impetus that lead me to my wrenching ways. As rough as the purchase was (learning you bought a lemon is a real mean-hearted bitch) I learned a lot about myself and old Hondas in the process. I wouldn't renege on that agreement.

    And a very merry Christmas to you, too, Mister Chang.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  9. I have to agree that fixing motorcycles is one of the great aspects of life. It helps bring everything into focus.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  10. Affer,

    The style of that hawk may have been (read: was) shite, as you so eloquently put it, but it was solid, if nothing else. (After the head gasket was fixed.) Still, I can't refute the clever UK play on words (Shithawk doesn't rhyme very well) Thanks for reading, Merry Xmasses!

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  11. I love that my Triumph runs with no roadside intervention. I carry a few tools and offer them to appease the Dogs every time I come across a stranded rider. I've helped several over the past few years, none of whom had a wrench between them and who all had minor problems easily fixed with my bag of tricks (a plugged filter, loose shifter nut etc...) not to mention the drunks whose motorcycles I have righted, parked and given a ride home (two this past summer).
    Even though it is rare for motorcyle riders to actually stop to help each other these days, they all wave madly as they sail by as though we belong to some rebellious brotherhood. Irony makes me smile.

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  12. Merry Christmas fellow blogger and wrencher!

    N in Wiesbaden

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  13. Never had the pleasure of owning a Nighthawk, but I can certainly relate to the first bike syndrome. My first machine, a '78 Yamaha 400, I got from an uncle for free. I found it under a tarp in his garage. He told me if I could start it and keep it running for 10 consecutive seconds, I could have it.

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  14. Conch,

    I cut my teeth on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the riders there waved as fervently as anywhere else that I've seen in the States, but they were also extremely friendly off their machines. I think everyone knew better than to get on the Parkway while boozed up, it was pretty thickly patrolled. By the same token, nobody showed up on an inadequate machine, but lots of guys stopped to talk at the overlooks. Maybe it was just scenery fever setting in, but they were extremely friendly. Not rebellious, but friendly for sure.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  15. Nikos,

    A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year back at you (since I'm a little late.) Enjoy the season.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  16. Derek,

    That sounds like my kind of offer. I've got a soft heart for hard-luck cases. I just can't help it. I assume you got it running for a whole lot longer than 10 seconds and it was the fulfillment of your wildest fantasies. Whatever some may say about the Nighthawk and for all the trouble it gave me, it was great, and set me on a great path.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  17. Little things like this are a learning experience in life, I too enjoy dicking around with motors and machines.

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  18. I've stopped and helped several 'Brothers' over the years, but none lately. I need to repent and remember the last line of your story.
    Thanks for the reminder.

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  19. George,

    As much as I like living in Germany it's the lack of motorcycles that really kills me. There are weekend days when I want nothing more than to go out and pull apart my '78 Honda carburetors - but they're kind of far away.

    Thanks for reading.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  20. Ken,

    It's strange to think of motorcyclists in that light. When I was first starting out the whole scene was intimidating, but the understanding few who stopped to lend a hand really changed things for me and helped build a positive opinion.

    I can't help it, though, whenever I'm out I narrate what's happening - CB Honda, R series Beemer, Victory... and I want to stop and talk about every machine with every owner, but that's what separates me from sanity, and punctuality. When someone needs help that's just vindication that all my knowledge is useful and not just a waste of time. Still, it makes me feel pretty good knowing I can help.

    Brady
    Behind Bars

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  21. Dear Brady:

    Now this was a first class story, written in a compelling fashion that kept me on the edge of my seat. By the way, the odds of getting another guy on a bike to stop increase 100% if you have a hot-looking chick with you.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack/reep
    Twisted Roads

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  22. Yea, no question about the hot chick. That helps. I got back into bikes with an '89 Yamaha Radian. Had pretty good luck with it too but quickly realized it twernt gonna be big nuf for my skinny arse. I sold it and found an '02 Kawasaki Concours which I still have. Been almost 8 years now. My mind still wonders to those 70's and 80's bikes of my youth and I find myself going through page after page on Craig's List to find just the right one to buy, work on, fix and ride. I never find it though. What's that say? Don't answer I already know.

    Good story. Thanks.

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