Jul 7, 2014

#63 Bikes That I Love and You (apparently) Hate

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

At the end a workday this summer, I was surprised to see a new bike in our tiny area reserved for motorcycle parking. Even more surprising was that the bike was a 1988 Honda Pacific Coast PC800, one of the most unloved motorcycles ever imported to the United States. Honda tried to hustle us with this bike, off-and-on, between 1988 and 1998. We weren't going for it. Too quiet, too practical, too comfortable, too durable. Too something.

As you have already probably figured out, I like the PC800. I hung out waiting to meet the PC owner for a while. Two other bikers came by while I waited. They both had one or two nasty things to say about the "plastic glob" in our parking lot. When the owner arrived, he was suited (Aerostich), helmeted, and had his keys in hand. He walked purposefully toward his bike, avoiding looking at me, leaning against my bike and evidently looking to make a comment on his ride. I said, "Nice bike." He flinched and quickly swung a leg over, fired up the bike, and rode off. Obviously, he'd had and earful of the kind of comments the other riders make about the PC.

I managed to catch him a few days later, in a better mood. He said he'd made it to the freeway before he realized I'd complimented his bike instead of insulted it. We had a short conversation about his experience with the Pacific Coast and he confirmed my expectations of reliability, mileage, convenience, and comfort. He even said the PC was "a lot of fun to ride, especially long rides." His wife even liked taking trips with him on the PC.

I can't figure the reasoning behind all kinds of human decisions, from politics to music to motorcycles and everything between and outside of those brackets, and I'm at a loss to understand why the average motorcycle commuter wouldn't love the PC800. Unlike most of you, I've wanted a Pacific Coast, as a second bike, from the moment I saw one. Unfortunately, I never seem to own two bikes for long enough to consider multiple motorcycle ownership a practical concept. I have had the opportunity to ride the Honda Pacific Coast a few times and I found a lot to like about the bike. About a decade ago, a friend asked me to transport a PC800 from northern Iowa to central Kansas; and I loved every mile of the trip. It's like a comfortable car without the extraneous wheels. Great storage, smooth and quiet engine, cushy suspension, and it feels much lighter on the highway than you might expect. What's not to like? All that plastic, probably. No noise? The damn comfortable seating and predictable handling? The built-in storage?

A while back, I really pissed off one of our readers and earned a long, heated, rambling, saliva-spraying complaint letter to the editor. (Like that never happened before. Right, Victor?) Most of the reader's complaints were expected and more than a little funny. One of his claims, however, struck on a pet peeve of mine. He claimed that he didn't ride a motorcycle regularly because "a quality, fuel-efficient bike is not cheap." It's probably a taste thing. That reader's tastes are similar to thieves' tastes, since he claimed that his bike "within a month it would certainly by [sic] stolen or vandalized" if he rode it to work. Maybe he works at the wrong kind of drinking establishment? Maybe all that chrome attracts the wrong kind of attention?

I'm obviously out-of-sync with the kind of bikes that scumbags love to steal. For example, in 1994, I bought a nearly-new 1992 Yamaha 850 TDM; reviewers hated that bike, called it "bug eyed" and "gawky." I rode a TDM at a Yamaha Round-Up in 1992 and fell in love. At least as close as I get to loving a bike, anyway. Ok, I fell in "like." As in, "I think I'd like you in my garage."

I cared for that big red bike like it was the coolest guitar I ever owned. I waxed it, put road bags on it, installed new bars, crash rails, hand guards, a tall windshield, and dinky LED turn signals. (That's as tricked out as any street bike I've ever owned. Pitiful, I know.) A few months after buying the bike, my wife and I rode to an Aerosmith concert in Denver. We parked the TDM in the midst of Harleys and other chrome-laden cruisers, in our usual state of turmoil. My wife is not a willing bike passenger and any ride longer than a few hundred feet often turns her into an angry motorcycle protestor. In that state of marital discord, I managed to walk away from the bike with the key not only in the ignition, but with the ignition still on and the headlights blazing and turn signals flashing. Aerosmith audiences are on the far fringes from politically incorrect and, after the concert, there was a rash of stolen stereos, keyed bike paint jobs, snapped antennas. In the motorcycle parking area, bikes were tipped over and a few Harleys had vanished from the lot. The key was still in the TDM's ignition, the battery was drained, but the bike was untouched. I push-started it, came back for my grumpy wife, suffered a little mockery from the rent-a-cops, and rode home. Obviously, my TDM was not on the vandals' or the thieves' radar. I think that's a good thing.

The fact is, there is a plethora of reasonably priced, low-mileage, high efficiency, comfortable, practical motorcycles available. (Yes, El Guappo, I do know what "plethora" means.) Personally, I think the trick is to avoid ownership of things that others covet. I, especially, try to avoid owning things that professional thieves go out of their way to steal. Here are a few of the machines that I think meet the high standard of "a quality, fuel-efficient bike" that are reasonably priced, if "not cheap": Back in the 80s, I owned both the 1982 and the 1983 versions of the Yamaha XTZ550 Vision. How can you not love a water-cooled, drive-shafted bike that gets nearly 60mpg and has a heating system (in the faired 1983 version)? Americans did not love this bike and it was another dealer-discounted bike that took almost three years for Yamaha to move from show rooms. Other than a couple of minor maintenance problems, I rode the hell out of my Visions and got most of my money back when I sold them.

  • I still like the 1988 Honda NT650 Hawk GT. A great experiment in a mid-sized high-tech motorcycle that failed miserably. Clubman racers learned to love the Hawk GT until it was made obsolete by the Suzuki SV in that class, but Honda practically gave them away as door prizes at the dealerships. In Denver, several Honda dealers were still trying to unload brand new 1988 Hawks in 1993. Since the Suzuki SV arrived, used Hawk prices have, again, fallen.

  • I have lusted after the 1988-to-today's Honda XRV 650/750 Africa Twin and the 1989-1996 Yamaha XTZ750 Super Ténéré since the moment they were announced. These beauties are a pair of super-sized dual purpose bikes that never came to the U.S., but I've seen them in bike shows and at the old Steamboat Springs Vintage Bike Days. Once I'd sat on the real thing, my US-wimp Ténéré replica (the TDM) seemed tame and incomplete.

  • 1986-today's Honda Transalp 600/650 versions, but the newest Transalp 650 is unbelievably cool. We don't get many cool bikes in the States, so this bike is just a dream that will probably go unfulfilled. It doesn't come here because Honda thinks we wouldn't buy it in sufficient numbers to justify the EPA qualification process. The 1983(US and the world)-2000(Europe and Japan only) Honda NX650. This bike just kept getting cooler, but we didn't get a second chance at it after the US market imploded and dumbed-down in the mid-80s. For a commuter, this bike is close to perfect: electric-start, extreme suspension, ultra-reliable single-cylinder engine, big enough to travel at highway speeds, small enough to easily find parking anywhere.

  • How can you not love the 1984 Yamaha RZ350 Kenny Roberts Replica? Bumblebee cool, quicker than snot, smells like teenage Castrol (at least what Castrol smelled like when I was young). Kenny was still playing with this little guy, to whip the bootie out of liter bikes and lesser riders on Spain's mountain roads, as recently as five years ago. The original Honda Reflex, the 1986 Honda Reflex, looked like a trials bike, rode like a twitchy dual-purpose bike, got about a zillion miles-per-gallon and could leap medium-sized culverts, climb mountains, and was as reliable as a brick. As usual, Honda couldn't give them away at the dealerships.

  • 1982-83 Honda 500/650 Silverwing, fully loaded with fairing and bags. Whenever some BRC student tells me he/she needs a hippo-bike because he/she might want to "tour," I let 'em know that I crossed the country a few times on my 1981 Honda CX500, which is the undeveloped version of the Silverwing. I froze my ass off, in March moving from Nebraska to California, and put more than 100,000 miles on the bike before I sold it to a friend. We're still friends, too. No surprise, Honda couldn't find many buyers for this bike either.

  • 1988-2005 Honda VTR250, especially the last European VTR250 version that looks like a mini-Ducati Monstro. Look it up, it's an incredibly cool bike, but we don't get it because we're . . . not that smart. The 1988 VTR was Ninja-like and a slow mover for dealers, so Honda quit bringing it here about the time they started getting the cosmetics right. I've owned the 1988 VTRs and I can't say anything bad about it. The mileage was incredible. Sold that one to my brother and he wore it out. Personally, I think the weirdest bike I love is the 1987 Kawasaki 250 Ninja with the white wheels and grasshopper-looking exposed suspension bits and the macho red seat and black body work. I don't like the look, feel, or seating position of the newer 250, but I was really jazzed about the original bike.

Now, I can guess what you're going to say about a lot of these picks of mine, "I'm a forty-year-old, five-foot-six, two-hundred-and-sixty-pound guy and I'd look stupid on any of those bikes." Trust me, with that physical description you'll look hilarious on anything smaller than an over-under-tranny White Industries farm tractor. I know because . . . I know.

Several of my friends say that, in my 25-year-old Aerostich one-piece, I look like a giant gray sausage with salmon trim. Salmon, the color, not the fish. There is no fix for being a hippo, except for getting rid of the hippo-ness. A fat guy on a hippo-bike doesn't look any skinnier than he would on a 50cc scooter. Bikes look cool because they are cool looking, because they have some dedication to function that drives their form to coolness. To my eye, the hippest bikes are so committed to their function that they blow off fashion and trends and charge after the function they've identified without getting tripped up on whatever foolishness the rest of the industry is pursuing.

Economically, it makes more sense for manufacturers to join the pack and follow fashion down the drain of human conformity. Technically, whatever is happening today is already past-tense. Many of the bikes listed above sell for more today than they did when they were on dealers' floors. Some were so far ahead of their time that their time hasn't, apparently, come yet. Or I'm as motorcycle fashion-sense-inhibited as I am devoid of any other fashion sense. Personally, I think the weird non-functional designer bikes are the motorcycling equivalent to the strange Vogue/GQ crap that clothing designers display in Paris. Jeans, loose cotton shirts, Goretex hiking boots, and motorcycles designed for a function are what trips my trigger. Your mileage, apparently, varies.

MMM June 2007


Andy Mckenzie said...

I've got to say, I think the PC800 is a horribly ugly bike. But if I saw one for a good price, I'd probably buy it anyway, purely for the utility.

As to the Silverwing... I had one, in reasonably good shape except for the ignition, and I'll probably always regret selling it. It was the right choice, but now I actually want to make long distance rides, and it would have been perfect.

T.W. Day said...

I suspect we have a completely different definition of "horribly ugly." In my view, there is no such thing as a decent looking cruiser; they go from awful to putrid, regardless of manufacturer. The PC800 is incredibly functional, which is the baseline for attractive in my opinion. It has a function, other than some sort of girlyman lifestyle expression like cruisers, and the form follows that precisely.

Since I wrote this one for MMM, in 2006, there have been a passel of bikes that "you" don't like and I have liked a lot. I'm used to it by now. Whenever pretty much anyone says "nobody [insert your descriptive phrase here]" they are talking about me. I've been nobody for so long I quit looking in the mirror for my reflection.

Andy Mckenzie said...

Hah. Yeah, appearance is pretty much a personal preference thing. I like the look of the old Japanese standards, and things like the Royal Enfield B5. The PC800 is far too covered in plastic for my preferences. Like I said, though, utility makes up for that almost entirely.

That said, except for appearance I pretty much agree entirely. I wish someone would make a modern lightweight 500cc (or thereabouts) bike that I felt comfortable riding on the highway. My CM450 is close, but it's old enough that I'm nervous about going too far on it. Probably if I were more mechanically skilled I'd be more comfortable, but I only have time to learn so many things.

T.W. Day said...

I have no experience with them, either, but I suspect the Honda NC500 series might fill that bill pretty perfectly. I guess it depends on what you call "lightweight," though.

Andy Mckenzie said...

Is there an NC500? I know there's the CB500 series, which might be what you mean. Looking at those, you're right... the CB500x only weighs in about 50 pounds more than the CM450, which seems high, but is still manageable, especially if the center of gravity is as low as it looks like it should be. I hadn't looked at those before, I don't think: I'm surprised at how practical they seem to be.

I've also been tempted by the NC700x, which looks like a decent bike for riding locally and a great bike if I actually started doing the longer distance riding I'd like to do. I've talked to a few people who are claiming 70+ mpg doing long distance touring on the NC700, which is appealing.

So I suppose someone IS making the kind of bike I want. It might be time to start setting aside money and getting the Rebel and CM450 prepped for sale...

(I'm still not a fan of the look of either the CB or NC bikes, though. They're not horrible, but I don't much like them either.)

T.W. Day said...

Sorry. You're right. The CB is based, in some ways, on the same technology as the NC bikes, but I had the wrong prefix. I just discovered yesterday that I had completely forgotten that Honda still had their 650 DP bike in the mix, too. Old and senile.

The NC takes a little adapting, but after a bit of familiarizing it starts to look pretty decent. A friend has one and he has pulled down a couple of near-90mpg tanks in the mountains. I could love a cruiser that managed that feat.