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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 58 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Honda PC800 Pacific Coast


My '95 On Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

History, Design, and Mission

Riding a Honda Pacific Coast makes you a lightning rod for all kinds of questions and comments. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the worst of them, realizing that any motorcyclist who utilizes the term “rolling porta-potty” has issues of their own.

The Pacific Coast, or PC800, was introduced by Honda in the 1989 model year. It was a revolutionary look back then, the bike completely sheathed in plastic body panels, and a spacious clamshell trunk in the place of traditional saddlebags. The appearance was pure Starfleet, sans phasers and warp drive. Had it arrived in ET's UFO, it could not have been more striking. The futuristic shape caught the eye of filmmakers, appearing in movies such as “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” “Back to the Future,” and “The Bourne Identity.”

Honda wanted a bike that would appeal to the suit-and-tie set; a bike one could ride to work without the risk of soiling the Armani. With that in mind, they purposely modeled the rear end after the very popular Honda Accord, the Yuppie flavor of the month for that era. But while the broad rear and long taillights looked good on the car, it was a decidedly odd look for a bike.

Honda produced the PC initially for two years, the ’89 in an ethereal Pacific Pearl White, and the ’90 in a magnificent Candy Glory Red. However, the marketing folks at Honda rolled consecutive gutter balls, choosing a soft, jazzy, avante-garde approach for their ads (a technique also used initially by Infiniti automobiles). The popular image of the motorcycle, all leather, do-rags, and sweaty biceps, completely clashed with this approach. Bikers snickered, and Yuppies remained confused. The price point was too high, and the flood of execu-commuters never materialized. With a ton of surplus machines on hand, Honda halted production.
1989 PC800

1990 PC800

The company tried again in 1994, while still selling the bike in Europe and Japan from '91 to '93 (identified by a silver-blue paint job). Inflation had made the price of the bike much more palatable. Success was moderate and overall, Honda produced some 11,000 units through the 1998 model year before the guillotine fell, this time for good.
The Euro/Japanese model

The PC800 is possibly the most misunderstood motorcycle in industry history. The bike was designed as a sport-tourer, yes; but its primary intended function was commuting. Hence, its capacious carrying capacity, low-maintenance, upright riding position, and the artful balance between a bike heavy enough for stability, yet nimble enough to maneuver through heavy traffic. As long as you understand this basic fact, then the bike becomes comprehensible.

--It was never intended to be a CBR in drag. If eyeball-squishing acceleration is what you want, look somewhere else.

--It was never intended to be Just Another Harley Clone. If that's what you're after, check the sheep pens across the road.

--And while it is a perfectly capable long distance tourer, it won't ever grow into a two-wheeled RV, like the Goldwing.

It's kinda like a country doctor: it does a lot of things well, it’s just not a specialist.

Design Strengths

These days, the volatile nature of gas prices has many commuters looking at motorcycles in an entirely new light; from the standpoint of practicality. Along with the exalted MPG, maintenance issues are usually high on the list. Commuters don't like to tinker. They want "gas 'n' go." One of the Pacific Coast’s strengths is that it’s about as close to that ideal of “fill and forget” as you’ll ever get with a motorcycle. Noteworthy are the hydraulic valves, which eliminate the need for valve adjustments. Digital ignition, hydraulic clutch, and automatic cam chain tensioners add to the easy care. The exterior skin also means that clean-up is an absolute breeze. 15 minutes, and this baby shines as it did on the showroom floor.

These enhancements, combined with the bike's tremendous reliability combine to make it one of the most economical rides on the road. Over the nearly 8 years that I owned my PC, the operating costs (including gas, oil, tires, batteries, maintenance, and the very occasional repair), consistently stayed below 7 cents per mile. By comparison, my 4-cylinder Toyota Camry averaged a hedonistic 13 cents per mile.

The design has some nice well-thought-out features. At the four corners are crash bars, covered in plastic and smoothly integrated into the skin. If the bike does lay over, these bars keep the main body from contacting the pavement. The rear views are the breakaway type with integrated turn signals. If they snap off, they can be reattached with patience and an Allen wrench. Another nice touch is the Torque-Reaction Anti-Dive Control, quite the nifty piece of handling tech. Self-canceling turn signals were available through the 1995 edition.  And while the big tail lights look odd, you can be sure that when you activate either turn signal or brake, whoever's behind you will know it; far better than the tiny-by-comparison red dots most bikes have.

The car-like instrument cluster is large, easily readable at any speed and logically laid out. It includes a speedo, tach, fuel gauge, water temp gauge, and warning lights for oil pressure, high beam, and sidestand. Strangely, on a bike where the engine noise is so hard to hear, there's no gear indicator, except for the nominal neutral light. It also lacks a clock, but as one rhapsodic PC owner soliloquized, "Riding is a timeless exercise in freeing the human spirit. Who the hell needs a clock for that?"

The seat is wide and comfortable, which is fine for long-distance, but a little awkward for the back-and-forth slide of the dedicated knee-dragger. Seat height is a comfortable 30.1 inches, which fits perfectly for a rider between 5'6" and 5'11". For the long-legged, the forward crash bars are perfectly placed and configured to mount a set of after-market highway pegs. The rider position is almost upright with just a slight forward lean, and the knees at a relaxed angle of 100 degrees; very comfortable, especially for those long days.

Uniqueness

On a machine known for its unapologetic individuality, it's most singular characteristic is the sound it makes, somewhat reminiscent of something owned by George Jetson, or a very large industrial fan. This was a key to the marketing of the bike. Honda figured that for the PC's targeted demographic (the urban professional), or the novice rider (and the suburban neighbor), noise is intimidating. Even annoying. This bike is beyond quiet. It's almost stealthy. PC owners have yarned about idling along close behind pedestrians completely ignorant of the bike's presence. Usually such a story ends with details of air horns and sudden bladder control problems. Underway, once you get past 60 mph, mostly what you hear is the wind. And its silky smoothness almost makes you forget that you're sitting astride a V-twin.

(By the way, if you're a member of the "Loud Pipes Save Lives" crowd, allow me to point out that accident statistics collected by the insurance industry and NHTSA show no correlation between the presence of loud pipes and lower "failure to yield" accident rates.)

Of course, there's the trunk. Even people who hate the bike love the trunk. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 liters, the space opens vertically, which means that you could lay a neatly folded suit coat in there and have it arrive at your destination perfectly unwrinkled. Because the seams are overlapped and parallel to the ground, the space is completely waterproof. And when you open it, your possessions won’t fall into the mud, as they are wont to do with side-opening bags. As a commuter, it is a great sense of freedom to be able to park the bike, stow your chaps, jacket, boots, and helmet in a locked space and walk away, rather than carting all that gear into work with you.

This cavernous space can carry up to five paper bags of groceries (2.5 bags per side), enough clothes for a three-week trip with no laundry days, and a host of other loads that would frustrate lesser machines. More than one PC owner has been accused of using their bike like a pickup truck. Many times I've been followed from checkout stand to parking lot by people who were frankly curious how I was going to pack all that stuff home. Should the Diet Coke spring a leak on the ride home, removing a couple of rubber drain plugs in the bottom of the trunk makes cleanup a snap. Adding the Givi top box, either the 46-, 52-, or 55-liter, actually gives the bike as much or more capacity than its big brother, the opulent Gold Wing. And the bike is so well-balanced that unless you insist on carrying barbells or bowling balls up there, you won't notice the extra mass.

Technical Discussion

The PC's beauty goes beyond skin-deep.

The engine, the slightly re-worked mill from the 750 Shadow, is an 800cc SOHC 45-degree V-twin with three valves and two spark plugs per cylinder, producing 46 hp at 6,700 rpm. The engine has a bore and stroke of 79.5 mm x 80.6 mm and a compression ratio of 9.0:1. It breathes through two 36 mm diaphragm-type Mikuni carbs. Punch the starter button and the plant is fired by a solid-state digital ignition. It is smooth, durable, and efficient, but hardly dramatic. It will go 120 mph with an almost eerie calm (um...or so I've heard), but you might want to take a good book along for the acceleration part of the ride. It has proven over time to be a virtually bulletproof power plant. In the long memory of the Pacific Coast community, the only PC engines known to have gone bad were both victims of owners forgetting that last important step to an oil change: replacing the oil. Even so, they both managed to get over 30 miles down the road before the pistons seized, apparently so enraptured as to completely miss the blazing bright red oil light.

Like all Honda motors, it is quality through-and-through. It's not unusual to find owners who have racked up in excess of 150,000 miles without any major repairs. The current record is 301,047 miles, a PC done in by an inattentive cell-phone gabbing multi-tasking mini-van driver.

And it’s perfectly happy sipping 87 octane at a rate of 40 to 50 miles per gallon, depending on speed and aggressiveness.

The engine is paired with a robust radiator cooling system that keeps things within limits even on the hottest days. The radiator fan, like a car's, works off a switch connected to the engine thermostat. It almost seems counter-intuitive that a clothed bike could keep an engine cool, but the sensuous skin hides a sophisticated and efficient cooling air path.

The 5-speed gearbox can be a bit clunky at times, but still does its thing with little fanfare. A virtually indestructible shaft drive completes the drive train ensemble.

The frame is connected to the ground by 41 mm forks up front, with 5.7 inches of travel. In the back is a double-sided swing arm and dual shocks with four-way preload and 5.1 inches of travel.

The brakes are adequate, dual 2-pot discs in front and a drum in the back.

The road is lit by a single halogen lamp. It comes with the standard 55/60-watt H4 bulb, but most riders run at least an 80/100-watt for extra illumination. I have actually run up to a 100/130 bulb after adding a relay to the headlamp circuit. Trust me, there is no such thing as excess in the search for deer along the roadside.

The standard shoes were Dunlop K-177's (which became K-555's), 120/80-17 front and 140/80-15 rear, although except for the '89 model, there's enough room in back to run a 90-series tire, if you so choose. The rubber is mounted on custom alloy wheels. However, many owners have shifted to Metzelers, preferring the much longer tread life and greater load capacity of the Teutonic tires. The appeal of the Dunlop is that brand's slightly softer compound, which makes it (by narrow comparison, IMHO) a better rain tire; albeit with a shorter tread life. This is important, since most PCers are dedicated all-weather riders. The drawback is that the Dunlop tread pattern meets in the middle of the tire.  So when you ride over longitudinally grooved pavement, or an open-grate bridge, the wheels have a nerve-wracking tendency to dance, as the tires try to follow the not-so-nuanced directions of the road surface. On the other hand, Metzeler's tread pattern overlaps the center, so grooves and grates are mostly ignored. However, when you lean hard into a twisty, the Metzeler's will moan at you. I never let the sound bother me, but others find it unnerving. There are PC's out there also wearing Michelin, Avon, Pirelli, and Cheng Shin. But there's no more passionate debate among owners than the one between respective fans of "Dancing Dunlops" and "Moaning Metzelers."

All the model years are almost identical, so parts are still very available. You can ID the vintage of most PC's by their paint job. '94 and '95 models were black over silver. '96 models were red over black. For '97 and '98, the bike lost its front wheel shroud in favor of short fender, while retaining the same red over black paint.
1994/1995 PC800
1996 PC800
1997 PC800
1998 PC800

Riding Personality

Easy rideablility is one of the best characteristics of the Pacific Coast. The bike has a very low center of gravity, (helped by the 4.2-gallon internally mounted under seat fuel tank) which makes it a very friendly machine to operate, even at parking lot speeds. At 584 pounds dry/620 pounds wet, it is a bit heavy, but nothing you feel once underway. For new riders, the PC is very friendly and forgiving, despite its apparent girth. For experienced veterans, the bike gives you reliability out the wazoo, which means far more time riding than fixing, perfectly filling the commuting bill.

The real joy of owning a PC comes when you take this Starship into the twisties. It's relatively high underclearance and low center of gravity allows the rider to...not "flick" really...perhaps "fling" would be the better term. Once you get into the rhythm, you can't help but smile. It is oh, so stable, which gives the rider an absolutely intoxicating feeling of confidence.

In the straightaways, the PC is pure pleasure. The seating is comfortably upright, which allows the rider great 360-degree visibility without undue neck strain. On hot days, the body panels keep the engine heat from roasting your legs, a nice touch I discovered on a hot July afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona. And since the engine is so smooth at all speeds, you can easily rack up a 700-mile day and not feel like the bike spent the time pummeling your pelvic saddle.

The full fairing and tall windshield provide a comfortable bubble for the rider. At high speeds, however, the bubble tends to collapse between the rider and the passenger, making the backseater feel buffeted, especially around the helmet. The occasional appearance of bugs coming at you from behind attests to the odd aerodynamics at work. The only place where the wind protection breaks down is on the hand grips.  Unless you have heated grips or heated gloves, 3 or 4 hours in sub-40 degree (f) winds is likely to become problematic.   To be fair, this is a common weakness of all faired bikes, something that should be an easy design fix but is rarely addressed.  I suggest the purchase of a pair of devices called "Hippo Hands." 

I remember one spring day when a yellowjacket got sucked into that low-pressure space between me and the windshield. For about a mile, it hovered there, staring me down until I broke the spell by batting it out of the way. Disconcerting? Yeah, I thought so.

This machine is equally at home eeling through rush-hour traffic, trekking along the Superslab with the trunk stuffed to the gills, or rippin’ through Killboy Corner at Deal’s Gap. The flexible nature of the PC’s design was also revolutionary. Back then, you had to choose between “go hard” motorcycles and “go far” motorcycles. The PC melded the two together quite nicely.

Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions.
"This one shoulda been in the highlights, Killboy!"
 
 
I took three long trips on this bike, an 1,200-mile round trip from Somerset, PA to ride The Dragon, a 2,600-mile jaunt that took me from Columbia, Missouri along the south shore of Lake Superior, and southward along the banks of the Mississippi, and the big one, a 5,000-mile sojourn from Columbia, MO through seven western and southwestern states, simply the 9 greatest days of my life.  On those trips, I traveled on long, straight roads (east to west across Kansas), climbed mountains in Colorado and Arizona up to 12,000 feet, and epic twisties in those mountains and white-knuckle runs through The Dragon and Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, AZ.  In all cases, the bike peformed magnificently.  The western trip was especially noteworthy as I discovered upon my return home that I had done at least part of the trip on a busted shock and never noticed the difference.  

Zits and Boils

Of course, no bike is completely perfect. Pacific Coast owners yearn for the 1100cc powerplant from the big Shadow. The tranny feels like it's a gear short, and the stator has very little excess capacity, so loading up aftermarket electronics requires the accurate computation of wattage. Over 100,000 miles, the top end of the engine will sometimes develop oil seepage. In a rare "why did they do this?" Honda used goop instead of gasket to seal the marriage between those two engine pieces. This seepage has absolutely no effect on the engine performance whatsoever, but it does leave embarrassing Harley-like oil spots on the garage floor. It's an easy fix, in and of itself, but the amount of disassembly and reassembly required is both time-consuming and expensive.

(Let me step in here and offer a reality check. On what other motorcycle have you ever gotten a maintenance advisory about a problem at 100,000 miles? How many other motorcycles would you expect to even still be on the road at 100,000 miles? Don't think too long; the list is very short.)

The gas tank needs to be bigger. PC riders complain that 180 miles is too short a distance to have to pull over and fuel up. The bike is that comfortable. In addition, the float in the gas tank has to be adjusted, since the default factory setting has the gage reading "E" when you actually have about half a tank left. (Easy instructions on the Internet Pacific Coast Rider's Club website -- more on that just ahead.) A common complaint is an incipient odor of gasoline that tends to develop in most of these bikes. The culprit is either the vacuum petcock, easily replaceable. (Hint: order the one for the V65 Sabre.  It's the same part, but less expensive.), or the plastic "T" connecter between the carbs.  Replace it with a brass connector.  On the ’89 model sometimes the trunk rubs on the rear tire, a problem made more acute by running the larger tire size or overloading the trunk.  Also on some '89's the stator dies an early death at around 30,000 miles. Both issues were fixed for the 1990 model and beyond, although Big Red still won't 'fess up to the stator issue.

The skin consists of a series of interconnected panels assembled in a sort of Rubik-like sequence attached by pin-and-boss and Allen screws. Over the years, some older models have begun to experience a few problems with the mounting systems, the plastic becoming somewhat brittle with age. When you introduce a PC to your wrench, it is important to make sure he or she knows the ins-and-outs of the off-and-on. This, of course, adds unwanted labor dollars to any repair bill. Some PC owners remove the panels themselves before turning the bike over to the shop.

Probably the most exhaustive site for PC technical information would be the one belonging to Douglas Van Bossuyt.  If you can't find it here, it simply doesn't exist.

Making the Bike Your Own

Like any other bike, the stock version is the empty canvas upon which is brush-stroked the manifestations of a rider’s personality. The Pacific Coast is no different. The broad expanses of empty body panels practically scream for custom paint, or for the monetarily challenged, pin striping and stickers.

Some of the most common owner additions and modifications include, radio/CD/CB (speaker cutouts flank the instrument cluster), voltmeter, auxiliary lighting, suspension upgrades, stiffer clutch springs, trunk liners, Givi top box, custom seating, air horns, and GPS. (For a comprehensive list, see the IPCRC website.) One owner grafted a larger 5.5-gallon fuel tank onto the bike, which required some design ingenuity. Another owner, a welder by trade who opted for a more authoritative exhaust note, adapted the 2-into-2 exhaust system from the Shadow.

Unfortunately, no one yet makes a performance-enhancing jet kit for the PC. But there was one guy who added a nitrous injection system. According to legend, he removed it after the first test, which turned his born-to-be-mild PC into a bucking bronco, launching a wild eye-bulging, sinus-clearing, lung-emptying, butt-puckering wheelie from 70 miles per hour. Apparently, the immediate decision to uninstall was heavily influenced by his wife, who was occupying the pillion seat at the time.

Strength of Community

The Pacific Coast has attracted a sizeable international following, identified by the cheeky “Body by Tupperware” decals. (If you ask, they'll "burp" the trunk for you.)

The PC community is probably the least pretentious of the plethora of owner’s groups out there. They are a truly eclectic group of people, home base for whom is the IPCRC (Internet Pacific Coast Riders Club). The group numbers about 4,000 members from 18 different countries. A recent poll showed that the majority of them work in the engineering and IT fields, which is a strong statement in itself. Clearly, folks for whom precision is a way of life find this bike attractive.

The group sponsors many rides throughout the year, always easily identified. A parking lot full of brightly colored PC800s resembles not so much a covey of bikes as a spilled bag of Skittles. They don’t shave their heads, or wear orange togas, or dance around chanting “100 liters of bags on the bike…” but it is a very close-knit, yet warm and welcoming community.  In addition, there are other smaller organizations built around this bike in England and Japan as well.

Hannibal, MO
 
 Laurel Highlands, PA

Available to all owners is the legendary WOTL, or "Wisdom of the List," the accumulated hard-won knowledge acquired by IPCRC members. This includes some short-cuts and work-arounds regarding maintenance access to the bike's innards. For example, a wrench may tell you he has to remove the entire trunk to change the rear tire. Actually, just taking out the rear tail light bar gives just enough room. Other mechanics may state that up to five panels have to be removed to replace the battery. The IPCRC has devised a method that requires the removal of only one panel. It pays to ask the experts.

The IPCRC is also a great source for all the anecdotal information one needs to properly evaluate the potential purchase of this bike. There you can find the answer to the eternal question, "Why would I want a motorcycle for which the newest model is already 15 years old?"

The answer is simply this:

It runs. And runs. And runs. And runs. (Detecting a pattern here, are ya?)

A PC and Your Reputation

As a PC owner, or as they preferred to be called, "Rider," you will undoubtedly endure rude comments from the unwashed and uneducated, those who think the only machine worthy of the title "motorcycle" has to be loaded with chrome and sound like an earthquake. "Super Scooter" is one of the nicer terms, although on a charity ride, I heard my bike referred to as LaToya Jackson -- "All fat ass and fake leather." (His words, not mine.) But make no mistake, when in mixed motorcycle company, the curious will walk past the Harleys and the sporties, straight to the PC and ask serious questions. The Pacific Coast is, quite simply, admirably unique. The only other bike that approaches its smooth, swoopy look is the BMW K1200LT, a bike so visually similar that, when initially presented to the public, caused suspicious PC owners to mutter, "Hey, wait a minute..." (A few PC owners have carried out a snarky piece of subterfuge by putting BMW decals on their bikes. They've fooled a lot of people.)
No, Bavaria doesn't have a Pacific Coast.
Or any coast, for that matter.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to earn Rider's Respect with this bike. Not necessarily while parked at the local Dairy Queen, but where it really counts. On the road. In the twisties. And on the odometer. This is not a bike for investors or speculators, or those who have the need to look "cool." This is a bike for riders, people serious about the sport, both the fun and practical parts. If your riding is limited to Sunday afternoon excursions, racking up maybe 1,000 miles per year, or you own a bike simply to impress your buddies down at the local beer bistro, this may not be the machine for you. If, on the other hand, you enthusiastically ride whenever it's not actually snowing, and 2,000-mile-months are par for your course, the PC800 will fit you like a glove. It'll start every morning and run all day (and all night, if need be) without causing you a minute of worry or apprehension.

Joining the Cult...er...Family

A good-condition well-maintained Pacific Coast with low miles can be had for less than 4 large, which makes for a very reasonable investment. Purchasers be warned, however! Figures given in Kelly Blue Book and the NADA Guide are hopelessly out of date. Over the past three years, market values (what people have been actually willing to pay) have boomed. Final figures from Ebay auctions reflect the actual market values of PC800's anywhere from $800 to $2,000 higher than where the "price bibles" peg them. Since banks and credit unions rely on them to decide loan values, be prepared to contribute some of your personal jack to complete the purchase.

The good news, is that these values reflect the quality and longevity of these bikes. With proper care, the Pacific Coast will last you well into the 6 figure range of your odometer.

The Life of a Happy Maverick

The PC was, and is unlike any other bike on the road. It's looks, versatility, performance, and easy upkeep has simply had no contemporary match. There were bikes that were faster, larger, trail-rated, or more flickable; but none that did, and still do as many things as well as the Pacific Coast. The generous storage means that this bike is not only good for sporting pleasures, but running most of the shopping errands you need done.

Not to sound too karmic, but the PC800 is a bike that becomes more relationship than ownership.  Part of that has to do with the unique sense of oneness one gets from riding it.  Also, PC owners generally hang on to their bikes for much longer than average.  I owned mine for nearly 100,000 miles.  And I'm not unique.  This explains why almost all PC owners "name" their bikes.  These sobriquets range from the corny, such as Nata Harli (Not a Harley -- get it?) to the ethereal, such as Seishin no Yomichi, or "Spirit of the Night Streets."

This machine gets attention from a different crowd, those who are individualistic enough to eschew a Milwaukee product or any of their dozens of clones, and mature enough to know their own limitations as far as speed and power are concerned. For them, a bike is more “tool” than “toy.” They know what a jewel of a bike this is.

And quite frankly, they don't care what anyone else thinks.

The very definition of a rebel.

If you’re tempted to ask, “So What?” bear in mind that this is what Honda’s target demographic was when the bike was introduced 20 years ago. For these wise pragmatists, functionality rules; and the Pacific Coast is eminently functional.

This is what owning a PC is like:

A few years ago, I rode to a company picnic hosted by my wife’s employer. I rolled up to a parking area already full of chrome and iron. From a distance, I could see the sarcastic grins already forming. I parked the bike, enduring the semi-drunken hooha, which continued until I swung open the trunk lid to reveal both sides filled with ice, beer, and soda.

Reverent silence followed.

Functionality wins again.
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