Memorable Motorcycle: Honda DN-01

February 24, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Containing both cruiser and scooter elements  the DN-01 was both poorly designed and marketed by Honda.
The ill-fated Honda DN-01 was a curious mount to be sure. Part scooter, part cruiser, part… Well, it was a curious mount.

Although I first began riding bikes slightly after the end of the American Civil War, I still retain a childlike enthusiasm for new toys. Yes, I might prefer to ride my Matchless G.50 rather than the latest Ducati superbike, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t delight in sophisticated ECUs, super sticky tires and dramatically efficient modern brakes.

I have another confession to make. I am somewhat biased towards Honda products having been in awe of Soichiro’s creations since the first Honda “4” screamed past me at Oulton Park. For me, Honda has not only made some of the most iconic motorcycles of all time – but the best too.

So, that’s the hors d’oevres out of the way and now on to the main course. Honda’s DN-01 shows what happens when engineers and marketing staff are allowed to come before the riders, who actually purchase the bike, when designing and producing a new product.

I am sure that the Honda suits sat around polished tables in planning meetings and gave each other all the reasons why the DN-01 would sell like heavily chilled bottled water in the middle of Death Valley. What they didn’t do was to invite a rider – motorcycle or scooter – to offer an opinion. Forget the techno-babble and marketing hype. Would you, as a purchaser, write a check out for $15,000 for a dull, uncomfortable, poor handling and impractical scooter?

Perhaps the clearest view on what was happening at Honda was via the promo video which Honda had on YouTube. This beautiful art film showed a vampish 1950s lady luring her leather helmeted, and DN riding, lover to break the mold of convention and ride off into the distance.

With a pricetag of  15 000 the DN-01s 680cc V-Twin produces only 45 hp and lacks character.
With a price tag of $15,000 the DN-01’s 680cc V-Twin would muster only 45 horsepower and lacked character.

There was more symbolism than you would find in a Hindu temple – but a distinct lack of reasons proffered as to why you should buy a DN-01 – unless you like girls who smoke and wear long, silky dresses. In short, even after spending a fortune on a promo film Honda still couldn’t find anything solid to say about the DN.

The first problem is identifying what the DN-01 is. It is a bit like a scooter and has strong hints of custom cruiser thrown in too, while cunningly managing to fail in both categories.

So, where to start? The scike, or booter, (scooter bike?) is powered by a de-tuned version of Honda’s 680cc V-Twin engine, which powered the wholly admirable Deauville mid-range tourer at the time. In the Deauville, the motor makes a respectable 60 horsepower and is actually a very pleasant ride if you are not in too much of a hurry. For European legislation reasons, British DNs were sold with a sleep-inducing 33 hp, whereas American DNs had a whole 12 hp more.

In the DN, the V-Twin motor is transformed into a dull, characterless powerplant which has strong overtones of a generator powerplant – really, it does. The marketing gurus might have thought that having a V-Twin would result in a rush of cruiser riders to the DN-01, but they should have visited any Harley meet and then tried to get a real cruiser fan to exchange their Milwaukee Twin for Honda’s offering.

Now here is the part where the audience stands up, starts cheering and breaks out into a chorus of: “Hail to Chief”. Bolted on to the back of the Deauville engine is the smartest, smoothest automatic transmission ever to be seen on a bike.

A shallow head angle makes cornering a chore and seriously dimishes the joy of riding the DN-01.
Cornering for our man Melling can be transcendental, with the proper equipment… But Frank didn’t find mechanical nirvana aboard the unwieldy DN-01.

It is a hydro mechanical design in which the engine drives a hydraulic pump which then, ever so cleverly, controls a second pump through a swash plate. The second pump drives the rear wheel and the result is a seamlessly beautiful transmission of power from the engine to the rear wheel, via a shaft drive. Yes, it is a miracle of engineering neatness, and yes it does work in practice, and yes it is, very slightly, better than the automatic transmission found on scooters. So, well done Honda.

Now everyone has sat down again. Let’s look at the real life experience. There are two drive modes “D” and “S”. The “S” option holds on to gears for longer and gives an allegedly more sporting performance. In practice, it makes almost no difference. In “D”, the DN-01 is as lethargic as a teenager being asked to mow the lawn on Saturday morning. In “S” it is as lethargic as a teenager who just been asked to mow the lawn on Saturday afternoon. Mathematicians might discern the difference in reaction time – parents can’t!

Press the left-hand side button to “D” and the transmission engages noiselessly. Open the throttle and there is a slight lag before the drive kicks in and then you burble away, well, like a rather de-tuned big scooter.

Honda DN-01
The low windscreen and odd ergonomics proved unpalatable to our seasoned vet.
Honda DN-01

Once on the move, the transmission is perfect, which is good but not that much better when compared to the standard-setting Suzuki Burgman.

Top speed on European models is allegedly almost 100 mph, and this is probably right. With the generator engine wheezing away beneath my legs, 80mph came up easily enough but the booter did not feel relaxed at these speeds.

It’s also not all that the hype would have you believe in terms of ease of riding. There is a discernible lag before the drive is taken up and the promises about ease of riding need questioning. To all those newer riders who might be fooled into believing that automatic transmission is a benefit, I would say stick at developing your riding skills and get the miles under your belt. A Kawasaki ER-6, or Yamaha Fazer, is 10 times easier to ride in heavy traffic and is much more controllable – and therefore safer.

The DN also has a semi-auto mode, but this is such an affectation that it is not worth mentioning. Yes, theoretically, you can change gear semi automatically but the trouble is not worth the effort. Leave the DN in “D” and at least have the benefits of a scooter.

In fact, that’s all the good news with the DN-01 – and from here things go rapidly downhill. First, the scike is an uncomfortable thing to ride. I am 5’11” tall and this means that I was pushed backed in the saddle so that the lip of the pillion cut into the small of my back. After 50 miles, I had really memorable backache.

The screen is utterly useless and managed to deflect the wind right into the space between my riding jacket collar and helmet so with my head pinned back I got garroted by the air at anything above 30mph. Now riding down the PCH in California, this might not be a problem, but in cold and rainy Britain it most certainly is! Did Honda test this bike anywhere in the world with rain and temperatures below 50 degrees? I seriously doubt it.

At the same time, one’s legs are forced forward in real cruiser style. If you rest your boots where they feel they should naturally go, the heel will drag through every corner with unfailing irritation.

Ah yes, corners. Riding a motorcycle through a corner is one of the great activities in life. It compares favorably to sipping a fine Chardonnay by the river on a warm summer evening; feeling the ski bite the snow as the turn is perfectly initiated and yes, gentle and subtle love making. Getting a corner perfectly right on a bike is a thing of beauty, of harmony, of sensory delight – an act which brings warmth to the soul, lightness to the heart and a smile to the rider’s face. Corners are what make a bike a bike and not a car, or tractor, or a lawnmower, a truck or a snowmobile. Corners go straight to the heart and soul of a motorcycle.

Then there is cornering on a DN.

One of the only strengths of the DN01 is its transmission  which seamlessly transfers power to the ground through a shaft drive.
The DN-01 isn’t without some success as its transmission seamlessly transfers power through a shaft drive.

I prefer to use the words “navigating a corner” when it comes to the DN for the very good reason that being at the helm of a sailboat and riding the DN are very similar activities. The DN has to be forced to turn because of its shallow head angle and then the forks flex and it wallows round with the rider giving a touch of rudder and then easing off again and then another tug at the rudder as the bend is negotiated. On a lake, this is fun but the DN simply emasculates the joy of motorcycle riding and that is unforgivable.

Things don’t get any better with the brakes. Potentially, the braking system is very clever. The rider squeezes a conventional brake lever on right-hand side bar and this applies both brakes. With big discs – there is a 263mm disc at the front and triple pistons – the system should work very well, but it doesn’t. Once again, it’s the lack of rider involvement which is the problem. Brake and the bike does slow down but it’s like sending an e-mail to the calipers asking them to grip the discs when they have a spare minute. Heaven help the rider who has to do an emergency stop on the DN.

A nearly inaccessible rear brake made stopping the DN-01 far more difficult than should be the case.
A nearly inaccessible rear brake made stopping the DN-01 a chore.

Almost as an aside, you will note that there is no mention of using the rear brakes for the very good reason that you will need legs the length of an NBA star to reach the pedal. Even then, nothing much happens when the rear brake is applied.

If the DN is a thoroughly dispiriting experience then perhaps there are other reasons for putting one in your garage. To be honest, I quite like the swoopy Batman tribute looks and the DN is no more impractical than other cruisers. This is a bike to be seen on, rather than slaughtering 400 mountain road miles in a day. Unfortunately, like everything else about the bike – gearbox excepted – the DN misses the target by miles.

At one level, it is bling free – but what’s a boulevard cruiser without mile deep paint and lustrous chrome? The DN has neither.

Honda insist that the DN is a practical motorcycle like a Suzuki Burgman, so where are the heated grips and SatNav? In fact, where is anything to justify the $15,000 price ticket which someone at Honda optimistically stuck on the bike?

Now, the DN-01 has quietly slipped into oblivion to be replaced by much more sophisticated hybrids. Would you want one in your collection today? I really can’t see a reason unless you really do like quirky failures. Currently, very low mileage examples fetch around $8000 – but there are many better uses for your motorcycle collecting money.