Dakota Richline
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Riding the Legend: Daily-riding a Classic Motorcycle

This essay was written for a Composition and Rhetoric class

Commuting by motorcycle is basically the modern-day equivalent of riding a horse. It follows that a rider is usually drawn to a particular style or model: their bike. In my case, it was a classic 1991 Honda Nighthawk 250 well preserved in a Pennsylvania garage. A 28 year-old bike is surprisingly similar to its modern counterparts; experiencing the hobby as it was several decades ago is what sets a classic apart. I found a perfect motorcycle for myself at a yard sale, and its age led to some unique, rewarding experiences.

Motorcycle with for-sale sign

Finding my Nighthawk at a yard sale

I wanted a motorcycle since I was small, and finally had the means to make that dream come true at age 17. Conventional wisdom is to buy the smallest, cheapest bike available as your first. My neighbor, a motorcycle club member and avid rider, was excited to tell me about a bike he found for sale. His three cruisers are in the range of $20,000 each, but he was able to find something that fits a limited budget. The Nighthawk was a great deal: an excellent beginner motorcycle, in great condition, for $1000, on the same street I lived on. The bike was dirty and had some damage, but it started easily and fit me well. While bringing it home, the weather quickly turned from a drizzle to a torrential downpour. Puddles formed on the road, and trucks were showering my dad while he rode with no protective gear. After wheeling the Nighthawk into the garage, I was elated to finally have a bike of my own after spending hours scouring Craigslist and watching motorcycle videos. Before any serious riding, the bike needed some tender loving care: new tires, brakes, lights, fork seals, and rebuilt carburetor, on top of routine maintenance. Buying your first motorcycle is completely different from any other purchase; it combines the fun of car shopping with an exciting new hobby that has millions of members.

Shiny waxed motorcycle

Shiny paint after a wash and wax

Visually, the Nighthawk is a classic and timeless motorcycle; it was in production unchanged from 1991 to 2008. It was cheap, very easy to maintain, and easy to ride for beginners. The small footprint and low seat made the Nighthawk feel very secure; in comparison, riding a Harley feels like perching on a bar stool and reaching for a high shelf. It’s possible to wrap your legs around a Nighthawk and “grip” the tank with your knees. The placement of the pedals and handlebars forces you to relax your arms, sit upright, and let the miles roll by. Part of the Nighthawk’s legendary reliability is its simplicity. The lack of instruments made tracking mileage mandatory, and running out of gas inevitable. As I pulled up to a red light in Northampton, the familiar vibration disappeared and I had to roll onto a sidewalk to turn on “reserve fuel.” It was a very easy bike to maintain; all the bodywork could be removed in ten minutes with a single wrench. Every part is designed to be as cheap and simple as possible, but made well enough to function perfectly nearly three decades later. A wash and wax brought the dull paint back to life and made it shine like a candy red mirror. Rust was almost non-existent on all the neglected chrome. The only major flaw was the non-hydraulic drum brakes. They were connected directly to the controls, as opposed to modern brakes that have several assists. Even after replacing the pads, the brakes had a tendency to lock the rear wheel on wet roads. It’s a scary feeling when a motorcycle suddenly turns into a unicycle in the rain, and it’s one of the only ways a bike can actually fall over. The Nighthawk’s brutal simplicity caused some annoyances, but those are to be expected for anything designed to be cheap and simple.

Motorcycle parked inside store

Cheekily parked in the grocery store, sporting a “Whitehawk” Plasti-Dip livery

Instead of taking a safety course, I made the stupid decision to teach myself to ride. A typical motorcycle course spends several days just in a parking lot, because low-speed skills are the most difficult. Everything seems ridiculously difficult to coordinate when you ride for the first time. The 300 pound bike needs to be handled carefully; it can’t be muscled around like a bicycle, and dropping a bike can do serious damage to itself and the rider. The Nighthawk’s lack of weight and power made it easier to learn on, but a motorcycle capable of 70mph still needs to be treated with respect. A friend bought a bike after being interested in mine, but he wasn’t disciplined and survived a 130mph crash while trying to videotape himself. Learning to ride is a game of patience and practice to perfect new skills without getting cocky and hurting yourself. Daily driving an old bike is a special experience, even though the riding itself is unexceptional. It’s a reminder of what motorcycles were like before the advent of GPS, bluetooth helmets, and an overbearing need for speed. Cruising down twisty Pennsylvania roads on a quiet, docile bike feels like the purest form of riding. Even a loud, obnoxious, ’50s-style Harley doesn’t feel as special. All bikes share the same controls, but they also have a unique character. The Honda Nighthawk’s character was clever and nimble, with some unforgiving feedback. It took about 2000 miles to start becoming annoyed with the Nighthawk’s limitations. Once the initial need to intently focus on your riding disappears, it’s easier to pay attention to small details. A top speed of 70mph is enough almost anywhere, but prolonged riding at a higher speed is hard on the engine and the rider’s hands. The windshield helped with fatigue, but vibrations were extreme above 60mph. Clean and precise riding is mandatory to make the most out of 17 horsepower. It’s safer for beginners, but becomes a nuisance quickly on big roads. I outgrew the Nighthawk, but it was fun to own, and served its purpose in making me a safe rider.

Harley Sportster motorcycle

The Nighthawk’s successor: a Harley Sportster (no longer in my possession; I don’t ride anymore)

The Honda Nighthawk is an unassuming motorcycle that serves as a fun reminder of how things used to be. Mine spent 28 years in a garage, until I bought it at a yard sale and treated it like new. After some cleanup and maintenance, it looked beautiful and rode like a champ. Learning how to ride and own such an old motorcycle was a unique experience that I’ll always look back at with nostalgia and humility for the stupid mistakes. Honda Powersports’s 1960s slogan is true: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda!”

Motorcycle with storage box

The Nighthawk’s final form before selling it, with a toolbox serving as an improvised tailbag

Motorcycle painted white

The short-lived “Whitehawk” livery

Motorcycle in garage

Diamond in the rough: the day I brought it home

Motorcycle with shiny paint

Freshly waxed fairings

Motorcycle undergoing maintenance

Changing tires without a motorcycle jack

Motorcycle frame

The CB250 frame: A beautifully simple piece of Japanese value engineering

Bird poop on motorcycle helmet

Good thing my helmet was closed!

Last modified: 03/07/2021