Want to know why the motorcycle industry seems stuck in a malaise? You can blame it on a lack of appetite for risk. These days, the motorcycle manufacturers research all their product offerings to the max. I’ve sat through product launches where the execs basically say: “We identified a market segment that wants to buy a bike, then built a bike to suit it.” That’s a safe bet, if your customer is already sewn up before you begin production.

Look at a bike like the Honda DN-01, and you can see why the OEMs are increasingly risk-averse. This machine was a big gamble from Big Red, and it was a big failure. And yet, the machine itself wasn’t a terrible idea—it was just Honda’s usual problem of being too far ahead of the curve.

The Bat-Bike?

Despite its odd looks, the Honda DN-01 came from very sensible origins. The liquid-cooled 680 cc 52-degree V-twin, with chain-driven SOHC top end and four-valve heads, originally featured in Honda’s Dullville … errr, Deuville tourer. The Deauville wasn’t Honda’s most exciting bike, but it served many Euro riders faithfully. In fact, that engine’s origins went all the way back to the Transalp model from the 1980s. Depending who you ask, it made between 40 and 50 horsepower in the DN-01—I’ve seen wildly disparate numbers reported, and don’t have my own bike and dyno to check for myself, alas. Supposedly, the top speed was 113 mph (180 km/h).

The Deauville and Transalp engines came with manual clutches and five-speed standard gearbox. The DN-01 started its weirdness here, with a CVT transmission when it debuted in 2008. This was Honda’s first attempt at a twist-and-go motorcycle in the modern era, with two-speed auto shifting, or thumb-shift override that gave the impression of a six-speed manual gearbox.

Officially, Honda called this its “Human Friendly Transmission,” and it followed in the steps of the CB750 and CB450 Hondamatic models of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Honda always saw clutch-and-shifter transmissions as a barrier to entry-level motorcyclists, and after 25 years, it was ready to revisit the idea of an auto-shifting bike. Now, we’ve seen many Hondas equipped with DCT over the past decade, but it was a big step in ’08.

However, the transmission wasn’t the biggest problem for most riders. Even before they sat on the bike in a showroom, potential buyers saw the weird bodywork. The DN-01 looked like something dreamed up for the Dark Knight movie series, a Batbike for the 2010s. It wasn’t as oddly-styled as the Honda NM4, which came along a few years later, but it was pretty far-out in 2008.

Along with the bizarro bodywork, Honda put feet-forward floorboards on the bike, which helped keep the seat height low (a key to Human Friendly design!).

Cheap 00’s digital LCD gauges. Cutting-edge back then, but dated now. Photo: All Seasons Powersports

The DN-01 came with a four-gallon (15.3-litre) fuel tank. The DN-01 weighed 595 pounds wet (270 kilos). Dual 296 mm discs were standard up front, with three-piston calipers, and a 276 mm disc in rear. Honda put its Combined ABS system on the bike.

Overall, it was a weird mish-mash of scooter, touring bike and cruiser features, with little of the practicality of any of these designs.

The Bike That Bombed

What did DN-01 stand for? Away from their corporate overlords, Honda dealers used to joke it meant Did Not Order One; riders joked it meant Did Not Own One. Whichever version you like, the reality is the DN-01 was a massive sales flop.

There were many reasons for this, starting with the bodywork. Neo-retro styling, based off Blade Runner or Akira, is all the rage these days (including Honda’s own CB300R and CB900R are perfect examples). However, Honda hadn’t perfected the formula in 2008, and the world wasn’t ready.

The twist-and-go setup was another hangup for many riders. Riders didn’t like the performance trade-off with no practicality in return—if they wanted a CVT, they could buy a Burgman 650, and it came with loads of underseat storage (GIVI did offer a nice aftermarket luggage set for the DN-01). Having said that, the HFT (Human Friendly Transmission, remember?) did win over some riders to Honda’s ideas. Back in ’09, my former boss Rob Harris wrote

“This is what I was expecting to really dislike, but it’s actually so good that I didn’t even notice that I was riding an automatic motorcycle until I came to a stop and realized that I hadn’t pulled the clutch in and the motor was still idling. It’s not like the CVT transmissions you find on scooters – they somehow always feel like an automatic. Honda has engineered a transmission that pretty much does what I would have done manually, only with far less rev swinging in between and without the need to actually change gears.”

But most of all, buyers didn’t like the price. The DN-01 was horribly overpriced, considering its performance and polarizing looks. It hit the US market with an MSRP of $14,599, before taxes and fees. Canadians paid around $17,000.

The DN-01 lasted in the Honda lineup until 2010, then went down in history as an unmitigated disaster—until the NM4 topped it a few years later.

These days, that bodywork isn’t as polarizing, certainly nothing like the NM4, aka the Vultus, when it debuted. Photo: All Seasons Powersports

What about this bike?

This 2009 DN-01 has low mileage—only 6,080 miles on the odometer. It’s at a dealership, so it’s likely in good nick. If you want to own one of these oddballs, here’s your chance to pick one up barely-used for almost $10,000 under original MSRP. The $5,199 asking price isn’t too silly, and if you don’t like it, chances are you won’t lose too much money on the resale.

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