By Jeremiah Knupp

A cult classic for a reason

Page 243. Honda Motorcycle Identification Guide: 1959-1998. Second picture down. To a teenager with a freshly stamped “M” on his driver’s license, the image embodied everything two wheels should be. The description read “ROUND HEADLIGHT. ALUMINUM SPAR FRAME. SINGLE SIDED SWINGARM. 647CC SOHC 3-VALVE.” Sporty yet naked. High tech, yet minimalistic. The label above the picture identified this dream machine. “Hawk 647 GT.” So started a fascination.

Penned by the hand of Toshiaki Kishi, the famous Honda designer who would later go on to be the architect of the CBR1000RR and VFR1200F, the Hawk GT was the second Honda to feature their Pro-Arm single-sided swingarm (after the RC30 introduced in Japan in 1987). Its technical features were a mix of high-tech and mundane. Along with the Elf-designed swingarm, it used an aluminum twin-spar perimeter frame. This technological wizardry housed one of Honda’s staple engine offerings, a 52-degree 647cc V-Twin that featured single overhead cams, three valves per cylinder, liquid cooling and a five-speed transmission.

Honda introduced the basis of this engine in a 491cc Twin that came out in 1983 in its Shadow and Ascot models. The Hawk GT pushed the Twin’s bore and stroke to 79mm x 66mm to gain the extra displacement. Suspension and brakes were also nothing to write home about. The non-adjustable front forks held a wheel sized for a 110-width 17-inch tire and held a single disc to handle all of the front braking duties. The rear shock was adjustable only for preload. The total package had a 53-inch wheelbase, with a 30-inch seat height and a dry weight of 370 pounds.

“A thoughtful blend of European styling, American V-Twin muscle and a Honda trademark – technological sophistication … it’s perfect for around town commuting, short distance touring, weekend pleasure riding. Even serious sport riding,” is how a 1988 Honda ad described it.

The Hawk’s initial color offerings of Tempest Gray Metallic and Candy Tanzanight Blue in 1988 gave way to the sole color offering of Italian Red, a not too subtle jab at the Hawk’s competition, for its remaining years of production.

The experience of riding a Hawk GT is more super-moto than sportbike. The SOHC Twin pulls strong from the low end before losing wind in the high revs. The rider sits behind a narrow fuel tank that takes ergonomic advantage of the longitudinally mounted Vee engine. Raised bars and low footpegs make the seating position neutral and comfortable for the long haul. Low weight and wide bars make the Hawk feel light and nimble, allowing it to be quickly pushed into revealing its braking and chassis shortcomings. Back in 1988, before there was a Monster, a Hypermotard or an SV650, its style and riding experience were unlike anything else.

The machine quickly gathered interest beyond street riders. In 1988 the Hawk drew the attention of a road racer named Craig Erion. Erion, then a budding light Twins road racer, was becoming increasingly frustrated with his Ducati F1 when the picture in the magazine caught his eye. It was a new Honda unlike anything they had ever built before: a sporty, high-tech V-Twin.

“When I first saw it in a magazine I flipped out,” Erion recalled. “It was a dream bike. I didn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as excited as I was.”

Erion quickly acquired a brand new Hawk and started prepping it for the racetrack. The qualities that drew him to the machine would be familiar to any Hawk aficionado.

“At the time, Ducatis were race replicas with headlights and turn signals. The Hawk didn’t even have a fairing,” Erion said. “The Hawk said ‘I’m a utility knife, but you can make a dagger out of me and out stab the most exotic knives out there.’ It was an underdog. It kept you from being just another guy on a Ducati.”

In the spring of 1989, Erion debuted the Hawk at Daytona and finished 10th in the light Twins class, the first non-Ducati. His success was no small feat.

“Everything in the light Twins class was Ducati Pantah based. They were lightweight and had better suspension. They had been raced so there was a pathway to horsepower there,” Erion said. “The Hawk was completely different. We had to get performance parts from Japan, like a pipe and 1mm over pistons. The engine took ‘imagination’ to coax horsepower out of it. But the Hawk responded to TLC.”

Erion found bumping the Hawk engine to 700cc to be optimal. That powerplant could make mid-70s horsepower at the rear wheel and was good for one race week.

“You could make a 750cc version that would put out 100 hp but it had a short fuse,” Erion recalled. “The cases weren’t strong enough and it would allow the crank to flex, so it didn’t matter what you did to the crank, it wouldn’t hold up.”

Following Erion’s success, his brother Kevin, who had a DNF at Daytona due to mechanical problems with his Ducati, moved over as the rider of the Hawk GT. Kevin went on to win two national championships with the Hawk.

But while the Hawk GT found unlikely success on the race track, its performance on the show room floor was less than stellar. In 1991, after only three model years, the only Hawks imported were California models. The following year the Hawk was gone from Honda’s lineup. But that didn’t mean Hawks disappeared from Honda dealerships. Brand new machines languished on dealers’ floors for years, with fresh from the crate Hawks being sold into the late ‘90s.

“At that time a naked bike with that technology was a neat item, but it wasn’t something that the average Joe or Jane was going to spend $4,000 on,” said Steve Harrison, who was working in the sales department at Coleman Powersports, a Washington D.C. metro dealership, when the Hawk was introduced. “It was a UJM [Universal Japanese Motorcycle] with special features. Honda put it out there and took a chance on it, but they went too far. It was ahead of its time, and the typical rider just didn’t appreciate it.”

Why couldn’t so many American riders understand the magic that a Hawk GT holds? The often quoted reason for the Hawk’s commercial failure is price. In 1988 the Hawk retailed for $3,598, a scant $400 less than Honda’s flagship middleweight sportbike, the CBR600F Hurricane. The Hurricane had better suspension, dual front disc brakes, a DOHC Inline Four that produced nearly 30 more horsepower than the Hawk and, most important to many buyers, a race-replica full fairing.

“It had decent brakes, decent handling and a decent engine. It was everything that the average rider needed, but it was exactly what the average rider didn’t want,” said Bill Shenk, owner of Powerhouse Dealer Services, who was selling Hondas when the Hawk debuted. “The American market has never bought what it needs. It has bought what it wants.

“Honda was asking questions that had never been asked,” Shenk added. “If they had made a Ducati killer, it would have sold like crazy.”

For Honda motorcycle aficionados, the years of 1988-1990 are known as a “golden age” of innovative and unique models. During those years Honda’s stable included a V-Twin “adventure” machine (the Transalp), a retro British-styled Single (the GB500), a 250cc sportbike (the VTR), a 400cc naked sport (the CB400F CB-1) and a line of faired dual-sport Singles that ranged from 125cc to 650cc (the NX series). The Hawk GT was the last of these “golden” models to survive in Honda’s lineup. The sales failures of these machines are a little hard to understand in the world we live in today, where Harleys, the R1200GS and the SV650 are some of the best sellers on two wheels.

American riders are always staring longingly across the ocean at the innovative and unique machines that get sent to the European and Asian markets but never make it to our shores.

New models outside the mainstream, like Yamaha’s Super Tenere, get offered in the U.S. after they experience success elsewhere. Even Harley-Davidson initially sold its XR1200X, what some consider the best Harley ever made, solely to Europeans until the howls of domestic riders got the company to begrudgingly offer the model in the U.S.

Most dealers will tell you they sell three fully faired sportbikes to every naked or standard model. Ask a Harley dealer how fast XR1200Xs (now discontinued in the U.S.) were flying off the showroom floors compared to Softails and Road Kings. Did the commercial failure of motorcycles like the Hawk GT in the late ‘80s push manufacturers into a more conservative “cruiser or sportbike” approach to the U.S. market?

John Seidel, assistant manager for Powersports with American Honda, disagrees with this assessment.

“The industry was struggling in a downward turn, and Honda tried to change the market with something new,” Seidel said. “At the time Honda was looking into everything, and they were reacting to what was happening in their market at the time. It was a concentrated effort to change the direction of the market with interesting and different models. It was a bold step.”

On the race track, the Hawk quickly fell prey to more advanced machines, but in club racing it remained popular until the introduction of Suzuki’s SV650 in 1999.

“On the track it was a tremendous success compared to the numbers sold,” Erion said.

It still soldiers on at tracks around the country. If you see a Hawk at the front of the pack there’s a good chance the rider is Chuck Burnett. Burnett bought his first Hawk new in 1989 and has been faithfully racing them ever since.

“It was easier back then, but the SVs made it hard on us Hawk people,” Burnett recalled. “AHRMA [American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association] is where the Hawk really fits in now.”

The Hawk still has a strong following on the street as well.

“It hasn’t lost its appeal in terms of looks,” commented road racer Burnett.

The Hawk GT is the textbook definition of a “cult bike.” A quick Google search will turn up dozens of owner pages filled with pictures, tuning data and mods for the machines. The most popular improvements continue to be a CBR600 F2 or F3 front end swap to get adjustable suspension, a 120-width front tire and dual disc brakes. Other popular modifications include replacing the stock shock with a CBR900 unit and modifying a VFR750 rear wheel to fit the Hawk swingarm to gain extra tire width in the back.

For a motorcycle that was produced in small numbers and hasn’t been in a dealer catalog for 22 years, the Hawk has a surprisingly strong aftermarket, from carbon fiber tanks to frame sliders, custom seats to performance cams. Many parts are available from Hawk aficionados turned entrepreneurs. Unable to find a certain part, enterprising Hawk owners with the right skills make what they needed. Then the Internet did its magic. A picture gets posted on a message board. A few requests come in for them to duplicate their work. Next thing you know they are in business.

Craig Erion’s business, Two Brothers Racing, recently reintroduced a full exhaust system for the Hawk, which Erion calls “a legacy model for our company.”

“The Hawk is what put us on the map,” he said.

What about Honda? Is the company clawing its way back from the commercial failure of so many spectacular machines in the American market in the early ‘90s? In the past five years its lineup has expanded to include many models long known in the European and Asian markets, including a 1000cc naked street bike, a 500cc sportbike that comes in both faired and unfaired versions, a Parallel Twin adventure/super-moto-styled machine and a retro 1100cc UJM. They have also re-entered the 250cc sports market, a category dominated by Kawasaki without challenge since Honda’s VTR 250 was dropped from the lineup in 1990.

The current Honda model that would most catch a Hawk aficionado’s eye is the NT700V. The Deauville (a model, along with its predecessor the Revere, that has been in continuous production for European markets since 1988), a mid-sized sport-touring machine based on the original Hawk, brought Big Red’s mid-sized 52-degree V-Twin back to the American market in 2010. With its integrated saddlebags, dual front disc brakes with ABS, half-fairing and shaft drive, it may be what the Hawk GT was intended to be all along. Now Hawk owners have something new to ride. Oh, wait. Honda discontinued the NT after offering it for only two years.

The Hawk GT story is the story of a machine born before its time. It is a tale of a manufacturer giving American motorcycle riders what they needed, but discovering few riders actually wanted it. For those who have been bitten by the Hawk bug and have been lucky enough to get their hands on one of the machines, it’s a decision that is not regretted. Though out of production for a quarter of a century, the Hawk GT is a motorcycle that will live on, at the track, on the street and in the minds of new riders who will continue to discover Honda’s obscure dream machine.