"Ummm...is it supposed to be sparkly like that?"
It was August, just over a month since I had earned my motorcycle endorsement and bought my Nighthawk 550. In that time, I had put just over 1,000 miles on the bike. I was starting to reach that stage where I was feeling comfortable on the bike, but hadn't yet become complacent. I had started pushing the envelope a bit, and was very pleasantly surprised with the power and performance of the little Honda's engine. It wasn't overwhelming for a relative newbie like me, but still had enough power on tap to keep the bike exciting. Twice, I had taken the power for granted and found myself doing wheelies as I left stop lights. Nevertheless, as long as I didn't get cocky, the Nighthawk was a very well behaved bike.
However, if I was going to own a bike, especially a bike as old as the Nighthawk or the GoldWing, I also needed to learn to maintain the bike. So I consulted with the Nighthawk Forums and jumped into an oil change. After fighting with the oil filter can, I finally was able to get access to the filter itself, and what I found was not encouraging. The oil filter looked like someone had thrown a handful of gold colored glitter in it.
The bike had had a noisy rattle since I bought it, but I had assumed it was the cam chain tensioner, a common but relatively harmless problem with vintage CB550s. With a sinking feeling, I realized that my problems may very well be bigger than I had thought. Once again, I consulted with the gurus on the Nighthawk Forums. The consensus was to put the new oil and filter in the bike and see what happened next, so I did. The bike ran great for a week. The noise was diminished, power output was great...the bike seemed to be running like a top, although it was a bit difficult to start (which I attributed to weak coils and a spark plug wire that was wrapped with electrical tape around the spark plug boot). However, on my way home a little over a week later, there was a slight jolt, and then the bike felt like it was stuck in quicksand. By nursing throttle and clutch, I was able to get it home, but there was clearly something wrong. I opened the oil filter back up, and it was full of glitter again. I called the guys over at AK Cycles, and they suggested I bring it by. They even loaned me a motorcycle trailer so I could tow it over behind my truck. I filled up a ziploc bag with glittery oil, dropped the oil filter and can in another ziploc bag, loaded the bike up on the trailer and dropped it off at their shop.
The diagnosis was a bottom end knock caused by the brass bearings on the crankshaft giving out. My heart sank. "The good news is, we can get you a rebuilt engine for about $500." My spirits soared. "But it will cost about another $1,000 to install it." My heart sank again. I talked to my wife. "No way. The bike isn't worth that much." We had bought a bike that was a little rough around the edges because we didn't want the insurance premiums of a brand new bike, and because I didn't want to be heart-broken if I dropped a pristine motorcycle. We had intentionally purchased a disposable bike, and much as I loved it, I had to admit, it didn't make much sense to spend $1500 to rebuild the engine on a bike that we had bought for $900...and which honestly needed more work than the new engine. I searched Craigslist and E-Bay for other Nighthawks, preferably a 750. I debated fixing the bike up, even though it didn't make economical sense. I tried to figure what it would cost in time and money to get the GL1000 running. I considered ordering the rebuilt engine from AK Cycles and installing it myself. I had swapped out the clutch on my '92 Eagle Talon a few years earlier...installing a new engine in a motorcycle couldn't be any harder than that. Finally, I thought long and hard about how much I would really trust an almost 30 year old motorcycle.
The truth is, I really wanted to tour Alaska and the lower 48 states on a motorcycle. The Nighthawk had already stranded me at work once, resulting in a six mile hike home and a return trip to install a new voltage regulator. While I really loved the Nighthawk, I really didn't want to go very far from home with it. It was one thing to walk home from work; it would be another thing entirely to be stranded halfway between Anchorage, where I live, and Seward or Glen Allen. Alaska has a lot of very remote country. If the bike broke down anywhere more than half an hour out of Anchorage, you couldn't always expect to be able to call someone for a ride home. No, while I loved the classic look of vintage bikes, I really needed a more modern, reliable steed. After discussing the options with my wife, I decided to sell both of the Hondas and look for a new ride. Sadly, I posted ads in Craigslist for the Nighthawk and the GoldWing. Within a week, both were sold. One man wanted to install a 750cc engine in the Nighthawk and build a custom chopper. The GoldWing went to a kind, older gentleman who already had one running GL1000 that needed some work. He actually was only interested in some of the parts I had, but since I had almost enough parts to build two complete engines, and he was intrigued with the possibility of rebuilding a second bike too, he bought the entire project from me. Cash in hand, I started saving up for a brand new bike. Triumph had some really slick bikes on their web site...maybe I should check out a new Bonneville in person?