Common Tread

The joy of Craigslist: This is not the motorcycle he expected to buy

Aug 05, 2016

As spring approached, I spent so much time on Craigslist that my wife started to call it "Craigporn."

I had an excuse. Last fall, I sold my first-generation Hinckley Triumph Bonneville. The decision to sell it was sort of an admission of defeat. I acquired it eight or nine years ago, for $1. 

That was a fair price. The Triumph’s first owner was a friend-of-a-friend out in California; a fellow I’d met in passing a few times. He’d purchased it new, but before he’d ridden it much, he fell into prescription-drug addiction. For six years, his bike sat parked as he’d left it, about a mile from the ocean. The tires slowly deflated, the fuel gradually solidified, the clear-coating on the cases succumbed to that California sunshine, exposing the alloy to those gentle ocean breezes; the pads barnacled themselves to the brake rotors.

The owner, unlike his motorcycle, eventually got better.

“Hey Mark,” he said one day. “You know about bikes. Come and tell me what mine’s worth.”

I told him the truth: as it sat there, diddly-squat. He wanted it out of his driveway anyway, hence the price. About $1,500 of work went into getting it to run, rebuilding the brakes, and making it road-safe.

In the Triumph’s defense, it provided reliable day-to-day transportation over the next several years, first in San Diego and then in Kansas City, in exchange for little more than fuel, the occasional chain adjustment, and oil changes on intervals determined by comparing a small sample drawn from the motor with squid ink.

That salt air had given it a patina that made it look like a genuinely vintage bike, and it got a lot of compliments – most of which were followed by awkward conversations about how old it was(n’t).

Triumph Bonneville
My Triumph Bonneville looked good from a distance. Up close, it looked old, and not just because of the retro styling. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

That whole time, I fantasized about turning it from a bike that looked good (at about 50 feet) into a bike that actually was good. But every time the fantasy started to turn into an actual plan, I realized that even if I sunk thousands of bucks into the Triumph, it would never be half as competent as a 10-year-old Gixxer 600 (that I could just buy on Craigslist for about what the Bonnie would bring.)

Last fall, in order to resolve my own inner conflict over the bike, I sold it to a guy about half my age who was going to "café it out."

All that long, rambling preamble was to get you to this point in my story: Selling the Bonnie left me without a motorcycle. 

Not technically. I mean, if I was under oath in a court of law, I’d have to admit that I owned motorcycles. I had a scooter for trips to the market. I had an oddball trail bike (a Honda TL200). And an old friend in Calgary still has one of my ex-race bikes in his basement. He assures me it’s not an inconvenience, although he says so less convincingly with each passing year.

What I didn’t have was what my wife calls “a proper motorcycle.” My motorcycle inventory crisis was exacerbated by the fact that, since moving to Kansas City from SoCal, I can’t exactly call up some manufacturer’s media rep and borrow a bike whenever I want, in exchange for a promised story.

Anyway, over the winter, I carefully conceived a plan to acquire a motorcycle. A motorcycle – singular – as in one, versatile, do-everything kinda bike. This was, in itself, a big adjustment for me, because like most in this business, I tend to think of motorcycles the way a golfer thinks of golf clubs, or a bass fisherman thinks of lures. You need one for every situation. That mindset, however, is not practical for a 99-percenter like me.

After analyzing Craigslist in K.C., I figured that a realistic budget for a solid machine with several good years ahead of it was $3,500. I compiled a list of candidate models (something I imagine Donald Trump does when shopping for a new wife).

Then, I created a little spreadsheet. I scored candidates in categories like age, versatility, and weather protection; I considered factors like the availability of hard bags, durability, ease of maintenance and parts availability; and last but not least I hazarded guesses about resale value, liquidity, and future collectability. 

On that basis, I started looking at a diverse range of models on the Suzuki DR650-to-Kawasaki Versys spectrum, as well as sporty-touringish candidates ranging from old K-series BMWs to pre-VTEC Honda VFRs.

Bikes other people think are cool actually got a minus point; not because I am committed to being uncool, but because I didn’t want to pay a coolness premium.

But, I added one more column to my spreadsheet, and labeled it "It Factor." 

It Factor bikes were ones that I had particularly enjoyed as a journalist, even if they were narrowly focused and/or simply unobtainable. K4 and K5 Suzuki GSX-R750s, first-gen Ducati Multistradas; go figure, an XR1200x Sportster. Those 2004-05 Gixxers have all been crashed and trashed. An air-cooled, duovalvole Multistrada is an ugly duckling, but only until you’ve ridden it. The few who own them will never sell them. And those Sportsters that actually dared to be sporty sold so poorly that there are no used ones floating around.

By now you’re probably starting to understand that although buying a motorcycle is often an impulsive, emotional decision, I was determined to make it as coolly rational — dare I say as Canadian? — as possible. Even reviewing the process, as I write this essay, makes me feel old and bland. To make matters worse, I hate spending money in a hurry.

That was a problem because even though most of the bikes on my list were hipster kryptonite, they were “motorcycle guy” bikes that have the Craigslist lifespan of a fruit fly. If a good KLR or Wee-Strom comes up at a fair price, you’re welcome to sleep on your purchase decision, but when you wake up it’ll have sold. I know ‘cause it happened to me. A few times.

Which is how, back in June — with summer fast approaching — my Craigslist-check-interval dropped to less than an hour.

Then, I saw an ad pop up for a 1989 Honda NT650, aka a Hawk GT: “26k miles, condition: fair.” Price: $1,500.

Not on my list. More than a decade too old. A bike I’ve never even ridden.


Honda Hawk GT
Too old, no wind protection, no luggage capacity, but plenty of "It Factor." Photo by Mark Gardiner.

The Hawk was designed early in Toshiaki Kishi’s career (he went on to lead several Honda flagship projects, including the CBR1000RR and VFR1200.) It’s almost the only bike an ordinary person can afford that has Honda’s fabled "RC" model designation (it’s an RC31). Then there’s the Elf-inspired Pro Arm suspension. And the old Two Bros. mystique; it was the Hawk that made the Erions’ reputations as tuners. 

So going through my spreadsheet, it was basically an F in almost every category except "It Factor." In It Factor, it scored an A.

I shot the seller an email, asking if he had a title and keys. (Hey, it’s Craigslist, you’ve gotta’ ask.) He did, so I called him. He’d owned it for a few years, his brother’d owned if for a few before that. It had cosmetic issues; it was showing its age.

“Well, so am I,” I thought, “but I still enjoy a good ride.”

The seller was at work, so no one was going to buy it out from under me. I arranged to meet him at his home a few hours later. He lived so far away that in order to meet him when he got home, I had to hop on my scooter right away. 

He was totally squared away; I didn’t ask him what he did for a living, but he put out a vibe like a cop, or maybe an FBI agent. Definitely the kind of guy who would ensure his bike got basic maintenance; definitely not the type to ride the crap out of it.

I was the first Craigslister to see the Hawk. That was all good. But still, my heart kinda sank.

Honda Hawk GT
The single-sided swingarm still looks sweet after all these years, but look at that muffler! And what's up with the seat? Photo by Mark Gardiner.

It had issues, alright. Someone had done something horrible to the stock exhaust, involving a welder. It had been resprayed, at best semi-professionally. And there was a huge gap between the seat and the tail section. It had aftermarket plastic turn signals with fake carbon fiber.

I don’t even like real carbon fiber.

For a moment, it looked as if the word molded in the tire sidewall was "Odious," but it turned out to be "Podium." Ugh. And the DOT date code showed them to be seven years old. 

The right clip-on was bent. And someone had fit "billet" footpegs and grips; big fat things. Who does that? Grips and pegs are the key points of contact with the bike. Fitting huge foam-and-metal grips is like going into Little Darlings in Vegas for a lap dance, but leaving your Aerostich on.

As I looked it over, I reviewed my checklist. Versatile? Nope. Dependable? Well, it’s a Honda, but parts are probably scarce. Luggage, weather protection? Hah. 

And although I’ve seen some handsome Hawks, this wasn’t one of them; 26,000 miles is not a lot of mileage for a bike that’s approximately the age of Donald Trump’s next wife, but a naked bike’s subject to corrosion.

By the time I’d gotten up off my knees and wiped off my hands, I’d pretty much talked myself out of it. Still, I’d come all that way on my scooter. It would’ve been a shame not to test ride it.

Honda Hawk GT
The Honda Hawk GT makes me look taller. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

It started right up, without making any untoward mechanical noises. The mangled exhaust actually sounded OK. I did a quick check of lights and turn signals; all the stuff it would need to clear Missouri’s cursory safety inspection. The front brake felt as if it had just been expertly bled. 

I strapped on my helmet and snicked it into first gear. I was still in the guy’s driveway when I realized it felt like a proper race bike. It’s so small that in the riding position, you can’t see any motorcycle at all, unless you look down between your arms to see the tank. But there’s more to it than that; I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase "mass centralization" in 1989 when the Hawk was made, but it definitely reflects that design philosophy. 

I decided to turn right at the next intersection. When it came time to countersteer, the Hawk whispered something in my ear. 

“I thought you were going to want turn here, so I started turning before you told me,” it murmured. “I hope you don’t mind.”

It’s been years since I last rode a 650 cc V-twin, but it felt pretty stout on my butt-dyno. Spreadsheet be damned, this was The One. I brought it back and bargained, in my Canadian way.

“Your bike’s worth what you’re asking for it,” I told the seller. “But not to me. It needs new tires, and that exhaust has to go. That’s $500 right there.”

To my surprise, he agreed to split the difference, and we settled on $1,250. I told him that it might be a day or two before I could arrange to pick it up. He said that was fine; he’d wait until I came back to collect the money. 

I forced a couple of hundred bucks on him, just in case someone showed up willing to pay the full $1,500. It was a done deal.

A few days later, I got a ride down to his place, and rode the Hawk back to my house. Getting home was the first test, and it passed. So far, besides downloading and printing the whole service manual (and ordering a Haynes manual from the U.K. for good measure), all I’ve really done is look at it.

Of course now, I have a different kind of checklist going.

Those Shinkos were actually not terrible when new, and there’s lots of tread left on them, but I can’t have confidence in seven-year-old tires. So, new tires are the order of the day. The installation of which is going to involve getting a new rear stand, since I’ve never owned a bike with a single-sided swingarm.

Honda Hawk GT
Pro Arm suspension. Amateur-hour footpegs. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

On principle, since it’s going to see some track days (at the very least) I need to source a steering damper. The footpegs need replacing, but while I’m at it, the bike would benefit from rearsets. Since I like to ride with two fingers on the brake, I need an adjustable lever to accommodate my small hands (although I can assure you, there’s no problem with… ah, forget it; I’ll stop picking on The Donald).

Sure, I’d hoped for a fairing and hard bags, but I can probably make do with a tank bag and soft luggage, right? 

As I look at that to-do list (and even scarier, the to-buy list) there’s a part of me that fears this is just another project like the Bonnie, that I’ll never start because it seems never-ending. 

But then I tell myself that while the Hawk’s a decade older than the bike it replaced, it’s much closer to being ready for prime time. (That’s not a diss on the first-gen Hinckley Triumphs, which are solid — if stolid — machines. It’s just a reflection of the engineering love that went into this particular Honda.)

Honda Hawk GT relay
When I got the Hawk home, it wouldn't start. Turns out this relay had failed and thus, no fuel pump. I didn't even know it had a fuel pump. Anyway, I shorted across the connector, bypassing the relay, and now it works again. ("Og make fire! Og great!!") Photo by Mark Gardiner.

In swapping the Triumph for the Hawk, I’ve gone from a bike that drew admiring comments from non-riders, to one that is only visible to ex-racers. Before, when guys said “Nice bike,” the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Well, not really.” 

Now, I inwardly blush and think, “Shucks, you noticed.”

Of course the second thing that crosses my mind is, “This one is worthy of TLC, and deserves to be ridden hard.”

Time to get started, then…