Class of '89 - Adventure heroes

Rally replicas of the desert kings, the Honda Africa Twin in a used battle with the Yamaha Super Ténéré

For some time prior to 1989, BMW had been trying to convince us that an alternative new world of travel adventure awaited the emboldened motorcyclist, and not without success. But it was the Japanese that caught our eye and opened up this market to the masses, creating instant Euro hits with their rally replicas, and a modish convention that would provide a long-term shot in the arm for the global motorcycle industry.

With a well-deserved smirk, it is ironically and deservedly the Germans who not only dominate the adventure market, but whose letters G and S are so utterly synonymous with it. They persisted with their awkward, yet charming, desert crossing contraptions, beating the world into submission with endlessly heavier and more intimidating Tonka toys until we eventually gave in and saw the light. This was of course combined with the PR masterstroke of the century, enabling BMW to sit back on top of the sales charts and count the cash accrued from patronizing two charming yet hopeless luvvies on their very first Adventure adventure.

That is now, but two decades earlier the Japanese had only just managed to flick the switch with their designer twins – a whole decade after Yamaha had romped off with the maiden Paris – Dakar trophy, the very event that unwittingly inspired the replicas, the fashion (or should I say uniform), the tourism and the biking way of life that so many of us subscribe to today. It wasn’t until early 1990 that both models were easily available, but the gloves were off in ’89. As far as the motorcycling hoi polloi are concerned, the true dominance of the Dakar remains largely unknown. Most bikey folk if prodded, would claim that KTM or BMW have the fattest trophy cabinet, but in fact Yamaha surprisingly have bragging rights with 9 victories out of 29, versus (in fourth place) Honda’s five. Also interesting is the fact that Honda dominated the event in the late ‘80’s and therefore produced a true race replica with their Africa Twin, while Yamaha didn’t start collecting two cylinder victories until after their replica had been prowling the streets of Europe for a couple of years.

As is often the case, the Brits were a little slow to catch on to a scene that was already in full swing across the water, with a steady flow of Dakar wannabees gliding through the streets of Paris and Milan. That was then, but we now are a nation fully immersed in the Adventure Sport dream with a home market showing its greatest, and almost only, growth in that same segment.

So the scene is set for a showdown between two extremely significant trailblazers of yesteryear. The Twinkie remains a much-loved troubadour, with the Super 10 long gone but not forgotten. Honda’s XRV750 hit the streets a year before the Yam back in ’88 but stayed in production with little more than a regular change of stickers for an impressive 15 years. Disappointingly, the Yamaha just about managed a feeble six in comparison despite its slightly more technical and aggressive prowess. It still seems odd that neither manufacturer chose to develop what were accomplished machines that could easily have had improved power and chassis’. Yet much to our dismay, we were fobbed off with the TDM and Varadero as more street focused replacements when all we needed was an extra third in all departments. Getting it the wrong way round led to the long way down in many respects as sales were duly lapped up by the more focused and committed BMW, and the latterly flamboyant KTM.

Perhaps it’s relevant to point out, as I’m reminded having just clambered aboard, that maybe we were seduced by the Adventure image but panicked at the final hurdle - the realities of a 86cm (87cm on the Yam) seat height. These boys were certainly attractive to many but must have eliminated several potential customers who dithered and froze at the prospect of embarrassing low-level off-road incidents.

Yamaha XTZ750 Super Ténéré

Super Ténéré - The Pioneer

The view from the Super 10 is impressive. From the huge tank area via the braced motocross ‘bars to the stylish and clean dash – the whole area is so encased in bodywork and trim that the ‘bars and bark busters seem to emerge from a square hole in the centre. To the untrained eye, this lanky look-a-like with its front disc shrouds and fork gaiters, heavy-duty sump guards and snazzy graphics could well be the real deal. The motor fires instantly and spins with enthusiasm, the genesis inspired 5-valve head being pivotal in the excellent reputation that this 45° parallel twin enjoyed. The bike jolts forward as first gear is engaged and crunches through to second as if no clutch were being deployed. There is little improvement as the bike warms. Selecting neutral has to be carried out on the move but the rest of the up and down changes are pretty good.

The high seat and wide bars make sense on the move – the Yamaha is agile with a light front end that snakes effortlessly through traffic, though a full tank means a lot of weight up top which counteracts the hard work put into centralising mass and reducing the weight and height of the motor. It has to be said the engine is a bit of a peach. Not only is it peppy and responsive, it has a broad and linear spread of power from 3,000rpm to the 8,000rpm redline, with a noticeable surge in the last 1,000 revs.

Out of town and onto more open roads, the XTZ seems happier having its long legs stretched. Although (motor aside) there is nothing special about the running gear, it works nicely as a road package and is clearly more suited to tarmac work than anything too strenuous off-road. While there is sufficient suspension travel, the units are basic and lack adjustability for hard graft. There is enough torque to leave gear changing to a minimum though and the Ténéré is as happy surging admirably out of turns as it is at high revs. As the speed builds up, it remains a doddle to ride fast – as long as the roads are smooth and flowing. There are obvious limitations with a 21-inch front but adventure tyres are much more road friendly than they might appear.

There are only two road scenario’s that will unsettle the Tenere. At high cruising speeds of 90mph and above, the bars become light and are prone to taking on a lazy but pronounced weave thanks to the large front wheel and a huge wind-trapping frontal area. Fast riding on very tight, bumpy and undulating B roads will see the poor thing get confused and tie itself in knots. The rear shock just can’t cope with too much and slips out of sync with the front end, and the only answer is to let it settle and build up to a manageable pace again unless you are either fearless or in a terrible hurry in which case you can keep it pinned, let your body go limp and let the bike sort itself out.

As a touring bike the Super 10 is spot on. Enough wind protection to maintain a steady 80mph all day and enough fuel capacity to manage 200 miles between stops. The seat is just about wide and deep enough to keep the rider comfortable between stops and vibration is never an issue. Touring with a splash of gentle trail or unmade road is really what this bike is about. A good rider will manage to get it through all manner of off-road situations but it is handicapped by its road-biased rubber. You just can’t shift a heavy tall bike through anything soft or wet without Enduro tyres. The wooden brakes wouldn’t be a problem either but as things stand, the rider is restricted to fast stretches of fire track that will thankfully provide unlimited amusement with a fantastic motor and insufficient grip. Just weight the pegs and lean into the turn whilst providing a fistful of revs – instant Dakar hero.

With a little preparation and a few hundred quid, this fun bus will easily get you to Dakar and allow some fairly hard-core exploration en route. Braided hoses and competition pads, a decent after market rear shock and a set of proper tyres will cover the basics. Add some stylish metal luggage and a Sat-Nav and you’re starting to look good. You couldn’t accuse the Ténéré of being pretty but it certainly stands out from the crowd and has a motor-driven character that makes it a very affordable real world alternative to more recent Adventure models.

Yamaha XTZ750 Super Ténéré Specifications

Price now: £750 - £2,000
Engine: 749cc liquid-cooled, 10-valve parallel DOHC twin
Power: 69bhp @ 7,500rpm (claimed)
Torque: 49 lb-ft @ 7,600rpm
Front suspension: Telescopic fork, non-adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, preload adjustable
Front brake: Twin 245mm discs, 2-piston callipers
Rear brake: Single 236mm disc, 2-piston calliper
Dry weight: 203kg
Fuel capacity: 26litres
Top speed: 105 mph
Colours: white, red

Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin

Africa Twin - The Best

The Honda is a slightly better known quantity and they are more common on our roads today having sold well across Europe for so much longer. Remembered with affection by so many, Honda’s friendly Adventurer hit the spot with those that wanted the styling and the pedigree but in a package that could offer no form of threat or intimidation – an already very Honda idiosyncrasy. Yet in their wisdom, Honda as with all the Japanese manufacturers, eventually bowed gracefully out of this fruitful orchard and proceeded to offer only fully bogus styling exercises. With a similar design and dimensions, the Africa Twin isn’t likely to offer an especially different riding experience.

It does still command an imposing presence thanks to its bulk and is easier on the eye than the Super 10 with more flowing bodywork and softer edges. The gentle thump from the SOHC engine is pleasing enough, and it’s already easy to guess that it’s a lower spec motor in a lower state of tune than its rival. The 3-valve, 52° V-twin is willing enough and pulls cleanly from the lights without a fuss or the need for a big handful. Unlike the Ténéré, it moves through the gearbox with the slightest prod and selecting neutral remains simple whether hot or cold.

The initial feel from the Twinkie is that of a slightly softer bike - both in the tune of the engine and its power delivery and also the chassis. You feel more a part of it and sit slightly lower in a more intimate position. The ride is very soft, bordering mushy, but it also rolls effortlessly in and out of turns with a graceful momentum. Sitting at 80mph/5,500rpm all day long is a given and will return 50mpg with another admirable tank range. Grab the front brake and the performance is much the same from the small front discs but at least they’re progressive and offer more feedback.

Getting into the flow is simple. Keep as much corner speed as possible (without any undue effort) and avoid heavy braking that has the long travel forks diving up and down. The Africa Twin is lazy and soft yet also friendly and easy to cope with. It also has no components special enough to boast about but will go about its business with enthusiasm and legendary reliability. It feels more likely to be at home taking one man and his tent to the Alps and back rather than a sandy far away continent as the 60bhp motor, though only a few horses down on the XTZ, doesn’t feel like it’s up to hauling 350kg of people and luggage for days on end. It feels like it has enough on its plate already.

It is more comfortable though, and is happiest plodding along at around 65-70mph on a good stretch of smooth A-road. It will glide over the rougher roads and is more compliant, especially at the rear, but it doesn’t have the same sporty leanings as the edgier Yamaha. For faster riding, the Honda also needs a generous throttle hand as the V-twin shows no torque advantage over the parallel twin. The difference is that it feels woolly and less happy at sustained higher revs, where the Super Ténéré positively thrives and will gladly produce the goods hour after hour. The Honda will probably have the last laugh though as there have been so many reports of happy 100,000mile owners, whereas functioning high-mileage ST’s are a rarity.

For my money, I’d sacrifice looks, reputation and longevity and go for the sharper tool that more closely represents the spirit of Adventure Sport.

Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin Specifications

Price now: £750 – £3,000
Engine: 742cc liquid-cooled, 6-valve SOHC V-twin
Power: 62bhp @ 7,500rpm (claimed)
Torque: 47 lb-ft @ 6,000rpm
Front suspension: Air-assisted telescopic fork, non adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, preload and compression adjustable
Front brake: Twin 276mm discs, 2-piston calliper
Rear brake: Single 256mm disc, 2-piston calliper
Dry weight: 205kg
Fuel capacity: 25 litres
Top speed: 110mph
Colours: white, red, blue