Swamp Monsters | Top 10 Most Unlikely Adventure Motorcycles

Adventure motorcycles are big business and it seems everyone has had a go... with varying degrees of success. Here are 10 of the more off-piste off-roaders

Aprilia ETV1000 Caponord.jpg

There has never been a better time to be in the market for an adventure motorcycle with an already competitive segment rapidly swelling as more new models join the fight for your affection and cash.

And it is not hard to see why, with ADVs blending go-anywhere ability, trendy rugged images, taller riding positions and tough mechanicals.

Still, the class has come a long old way from the rudimentary models of the 70s and 80s that were developed to grind the routes between Paris and Dakar, rather than swerve pot holes in London, and while many have matured into great success stories for various firms over the years, there are others that, well, just got stuck in the mud.

With everyone from Royal Enfield to Buell to now even Harley-Davidson, here is our rundown of the 10 Most Unlikely Adventure Motorcycles you may have forgotten all about...

You may find the results we came up with a little surprising – and not all of them bad. After all, arguably the very first adventure bike of all – BMW’s R80G/S of 1980 – was unlikely in itself.

Back then, the idea of a big-engined ‘trail’ bike capable of tackling continents was so wacky and unusual many didn’t know what to make of it. So maybe the idea of a Harley adventure bike won’t be so weird after all…?

10 - Triumph Tiger 900 [1993-2001]

When Triumph was reborn in 1991 as an all-new concern in Hinckley building a range of modular triples and fours its bikes were more conservative than most. 

That all changed in 1993. The Tiger 900 was the new concern’s first dip in ‘monster trailie’ waters, was done at the request of its French and German importers (where the market for such bikes was huge) and resulted in the biggest, fastest and, arguably, scariest ‘adventure bike’ so far conceived. 

Like all early Hinckley bikes it, too, was ‘modular’ – but this time Triumph was beginning to go more bespoke. So, although the engine was based on the 100bhp Trident triple it was retuned to 85bhp to give more torque (although it was still capable of 130mph). 

The tubular steel spine frame may have been carried over, too, but new, longer travel suspension and a bigger, 19in front wheel added up to an imposing seat height of 850mm. 

Meanwhile, new regulations allowing plastic fuel tanks led to brazen, all-new bodywork incorporating a fairing. In truth it worked reasonably well – if you were tall or strong enough to handle it. On the street it was fast, characterful and fun. Off-road, though, it was so tall and top-heavy it was almost impossible.

How things changed for the Triumph Tiger 900 some 30 years on... 

9 - Aprilia ETV1000 Caponord [2001-2004]

Despite its off-road heritage, particularly in lightweight motocrossers and trials bikes, Italian brand Aprilia has never had much luck with its big adventure bikes. The first, the 2001 Caponord (Italian for North Cape) arrived in 2001 based around its all-new RSV Mille V-twin but detuned, like the RST1000 Futura sports-tourer of the same year, to 100bhp. 

On paper, it had a lot going for it: a slick, flexible V-twin powertrain; an impressive, aluminium twin spar chassis and lots of quality touches. 

On the downside it was let down by oversoft front forks, initially slightly suspect reliability, a high-ish price and an Aprilia dealer network which, back then, simply couldn’t match the likes of BMW and Honda, all of which contributed to its sales failure. 

That said, it’s not a bad bike, sorted, used examples are potential bargains and they certainly stand out in a crowd. The later, completely different 1200 version, suffered similarly but was also a good, underrated buy – especially used.

8 - Benelli Tre-K 1130 Amazonas [2007-2014]

Here’s a rather unlikely route for creating an adventure bike: revive a historic Italian brand, say, Benelli; build a radical, exotic, three-cylinder, 900cc superbike (2000’s 900 Tornado); turn that into a naked 1130cc version (the 2004 TNT), then a ‘sports-tourer’ (the 2006 Tre-K 1130) before finally chancing your arm with an adventure-style version of that, the 2007 Benelli Tre-K 1130 Amazonas. 

Basically, as you might expect, the Amazonas is actually a sporty sports-tourer that happens to have longer travel suspension, off-road style wire wheels and even semi-knobbly tyres, none of which make it a genuine off-roader. 

But as a rugged-looking ‘sports adventure’ with 123bhp and plenty of individuality and character it was actually far better than you might expect. If you can find one.

7 - Kawasaki Versys 1000 [2012 - ]

The big Kawasaki Versys 'adventurer tourer’ has become so ingrained in the adventure bike panoply since its debut almost a decade ago that it’s easy to forget how unlikely, bordering on bonkers’ the original four-cylinder ugly duckling truly was. 

Based on the hugely popular Z1000SX sports tourer but with a detuned, 116bhp version of its mill, longer travel suspension, different bodywork and a more upright riding position, there’s no doubt that the first Kawasaki Versys was an oddball: an ‘SX on stilts; a sort of four-cylinder adventure bike, but with zero off-road ability and looks only its mother could love. 

Still, at just under £10K, it was cheap. That affordability really was its saviour. Although no true adventure bike, the Versys was a useful, comfortable four-cylinder tourer at bargain money – and proved popular as a result. 

Improved looks, spec and electronics came in 2015; a blinged-up SE version complete with semi-active suspension in 2019. And, though maybe no longer the bargain it once was (and, arguably, even less of an adventure bike) the Kawasaki Versys remains an effective, useful, comfortable tourer for two at a price rivals can’t get near.

6 - Moto Morini GranPasso 1200 [2008-2010]

Italian legend Moto Morini’s revival in the mid-Noughties was never celebrated as much as the preceding reincarnations of compatriots MV Agusta (in 1998) and Benelli (in 2000) but its bikes were arguably even more exciting. 

The first, the Corsaro 1200, landed in 2006 and was a sporty super naked powered by a punchy, 123bhp 1187cc V-twin. The adventure-styled GranPasso, with a slightly softer 118bhp, the usual long suspension/wire wheels combo, a more upright riding position and adventure-style bodywork came in 2008 with a trendy Scrambler version in 2009. 

But although the Corsaro, although cruelly overlooked, remains the most celebrated model, for our money the GranPasso is better still, trading off a touch of handling steadfastness for more comfort and practicality without losing any of its excitement. 

Suffice to say, it never really caught on, dealers were few and Moto Morini folded in 2010, only to be revived a couple of years later with the Corsaro and Scrambler still available, but not the GranPasso.

Since then, Moto Morini has collapsed (again) and been revived (again), this time with Chinese investment. Having already launched the mid-range Moto Morini X-Cape 650, rumour has it the firm is developing a spiritual successor the GranPasso with a 1200cc version of the X-Cape.

5 - Moto Guzzi Quota 1000 [1989-2001]

Historic Italian brand Moto Guzzi actually beat Britain’s Triumph to the boast of ‘biggest adventure bike’ when it came out with its first Quota 1000 in 1989 – although it wasn’t brought into the UK until later. 

On face value it had a lot going for it: the traditional, transversely mounted Moto Guzzi V-twin, which actually suited the adventure bike layout well, along with BMW-rivalling shaft driven. On top of that there was also the usual long-travel suspension, off-road wire wheels and new bodywork. With 69 grunty bhp and bags of Italian style on paper it had it all. 

Trouble was, back then Moto Guzzi build quality was little better than British Leyland’s on a Friday afternoon, with a seat height set at a massive 865mm it was even taller and more ungainly than the Triumph and off-road was a simple no-no. 

Somehow it plodded on and Guzzi updated it to 1100cc form in 1997 after which it lived on to 2001, although we’re not quite sure how…

4 - Harley-Davidson Pan America 

Given the ubiquitous popularity of adventure motorcycles - especially in the USA - but then also the ubiquitous popularity of Harley-Davidson's antitheses hogs and cruisers - especially in the USA - we can't decide whether it's hard to believe Harley-Davidson took so long to create the Pan America, or whether it's hard to believe the Harley-Davidson Pan America exists at all.

While the shock of a tall, muscular off-roader bearing a Harley-Davidson badge has largely subsided three years down the line, the Pan America - conceived just in time to be spared the axe by a new management structure unenthused by their predecessors' bold diversification plans - might remain an oddball in the range now the LiveWire has been estranged from it, but the Milwaukee firm deserves credit for producing a more accomplished ADV at its first attempt than many expected.

While 90% of the divisive styling is dominated by its resemblance to the Hammerhead Shark - the kookiest of all the sharks - the Pan America is brimming with well-judged technology, the 1250cc Revolution Max engine feels meaty and the dynamics are both hushed on the road and hold their own in the rough.

In short, far from encouraging Harley-Davidson to stick to what it knows, the Pan America proves that - with a bit of imagination - its R&D team can take the brand out of the box too.

3 - Honda VFR1200X Crosstourer [2010 - 2021]

The Honda VFR1200X Crosstourer is a classic case of being one of those concept bikes that everyone clamours to be put into production which, when exactly that happens, somehow fails to live up to expectations. Shame really. 

Launched in 2012 after being touted around the shows for a couple of years, the awkwardly-named Crosstourer is basically an adventure-style version of Honda’s then, all-new V4 sports-tourer, the much heralded VFR1200F, as itself launched in 2010. 

Although, despite its powerhouse Honda V4 and novel DCT semi-automatic gearbox option, the VFR1200F ultimately failed, being deleted in 2015, the spin-off Crosstourer lives on – deservedly so. 

It may be no off-roader, its tech and electronics may be ‘behind the curve’ and it’s also slightly heavy, but it’s also handsome and comfortable, the shaft-drive V4 somehow better suits this adventure format and it’s now decent value, too. 

Starting at £11,499, it now undercuts all but the very cheapest version of Kawasaki’s Versys while used examples, from around £5K, can be an absolute snip.

2 - Royal Enfield Himalayan [2018 - ]

Yes, we admit it, even we were slightly gobsmacked when quaint, archaic, little old Royal Enfield, whose historic singles barely muster over 25bhp, launched their own take on the ‘adventure bike’ with its 24bhp, 410cc Royal Enfield Himalayan in 2018. 

Nor did that view change much when promotional videos surfaced showing a footpeg snap off under fairly mild provocation. But if you focus instead on its £4399 price, remind yourself of its lightweight and novice-friendly manners and consider a more gentle adventure pace away from 100bhp+ 1200s, you could be in for a treat. 

Well, sort of. In truth, the Royal Enfield Himalayan would be a blast in its mountainous namesake, bumbling along ash tracks, having a mountain adventure of your own.

Compare it to big bore, modern machinery and ‘unlikely’ doesn’t even begin to describe the Himalayan, but this could change soon with the impending launch of the Royal Enfield Himalayan 450, a more dedicated off-roader in the vein of the KTM 390 Adventure that is expected to land some time in 2023.

1 - Buell XB12X Ulysses [2006-2009]

If the idea we mentioned at the beginning, of Harley’s new Pan America being one of the most unlikely of all adventure bikes, gives you cause for concern then don’t worry – the American’s have ‘previous’ here. 

When oddball, sporting offshoot Buell was under Harley ownership between 2003 and 2009 it’s most unlikely product was surely its Harley-powered adventure bike, the Ulysses. 

Widely disparaged at the time as the ‘Uselessly’, the XB12X was basically a new-generation XB12 Lightning naked, complete with twin spar (fuel-in) frame, signature rim disc brake and tuned, 103bhp 1200cc Harley Sportster engine, but with extended rear bodywork, new screen and more upright riding position. None of that made it a true adventure bike. 

The Ulysses was heavy, had street wheels and tyres, belt drive and a rim disc. But nor was it actually as bad as some made out, being comfortable, torque and characterful. But, yes, unlikely – and largely unloved – it is.