This post was kindly sponsored by Honda.
The year: 1988.
The situation: The world was about to turn the corner on the Cold War, with major international travel restrictions about to crumble.
Honda’s reaction: The XRV650 Africa Twin, an adventure bike that was very much of its time, but also very much a bike for the coming years.
The late 1980s was the perfect time for Big Red to bring out a big new bike. Adventure travel was gaining popularity, and the Dakar Rally was gaining a lot of press for big-bore dune-blasting bikes—bikes like the Honda NXR 750, which won the rally four times in the ’80s. Honda took the old “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” formula and turned it into “Win in January, sell the rest of the year.”
It was a gamble, but a cautious one. In the 1980s, BMW was the only company mass-producing multi-cylinder adventure bikes. Most manufacturers had some sort of large-capacity thumper in the lineup, but that was it. Kawasaki’s KLR , the Yamaha XT line, even the legendary Suzuki DR Big: all single-cylinder bikes.
Honda’s new 650 Africa Twin went with a V-twin engine instead, with liquid cooling. It straddled the line between the large GS lineup and the smaller thumpers. It made 50 horsepower, more than the 650 singles, and it had obvious travel-bike lines, with a massive 6.6-gallon gas tank, dual headlights, aluminum engine guard, and other adventure-friendly bits. But the Africa Twin also had some practical touches, like a chain drive instead of a shaft drive—much easier to repair, if you break down in Africa.
Although the 650 Africa Twin was solid enough, it was only in the lineup for two years, and never imported to North America. In 1989, its successor was already waiting in the wings, as Honda introduced the XRV750 Africa Twin for 1990.
Like the 650 version, the 750 Africa Twin had lots of torque with its liquid-cooled V-twin, and it was a smooth runner, but it wasn’t exactly a powerhouse, rated at 60 ponies at the crank. That might pale in comparison to a modern ADV flagship, but it was still enough to lose your license on a European road in 1990—or whisk you to safety, far from any gangs of bandits you might encounter in the remote corners of the world. That’s the sort of exotic traveler’s lifestyle that sold the Africa Twin, and even though it was heavier than the 650 at around 445 pounds, it performed well in off-road conditions. It looked the part too, and that certainly didn’t hurt its sales. A visual makeover, upgrades to the engine, and a second brake disc up front improved the bike’s performance and looks and made it a sales floor darling.
Still, Honda tinkered with the formula through the ’90s. In 1993, the Africa Twin got the trick Tripmaster gauges, which were really just standard clocks done up to look like a roadbook, but still pretty cool if you were into the Dakar look. Honda also shaved some weight off the bike in ’93, and re-designed the frame. It was still the same basic machine all the way through 2003, when it was put on hiatus.
As with any older motorcycle, you’ve got to be aware of some standard issues when buying a vintage Africa Twin, but they hold their value well. The 52-degree V-twin engine (with three-valve, dual plug heads!) was a perfect example of something that was usable instead of being silly-fast. For a rider who wanted a proper hard-use travel bike from Japan, with multiple cylinders, the 750 Africa Twin was basically the best choice for many years, even after it was canceled.
By the early 2010s, Honda was ready to renew the Africa Twin as a full-sized adventure bike with an emphasis on off-road capability. By the standards of the day, the 750 Africa Twin was heavy and under-powered, but it had the right idea; it was an adventure bike that could handle off-road action. That’s what Honda wanted to do again, and after the teaser campaign, we got the CRF1000L late in 2015.
The new Africa Twin looked a lot different from the 650 and 750 versions. It had modern, carefully sculpted headlights, not the bulbous beams of old. Overall, the bodywork was sleeker. Instead of a V-twin engine, Honda used a sensible liquid-cooled 998 cc parallel twin. The new AT made 94 horsepower, more than enough to haul a load of luggage at high speed, especially when you figured in the 72 pound-feet of torque.
But along with all the engine and chassis updates, there was another very big difference with the new Africa Twin. Now, it was available with Honda’s optional Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT). Instead of fumbling with the clutch and gearbox, Honda’s flagship adventure bike could just twist-and-go, if you paid for the upgrade.
Other companies have played around with auto-shifting motorcycles over the years, but with the exception of Husqvarna’s dirt bikes from the 1970s, nobody had really tried to make twist-and-go off-road bikes. This was a bold move for Honda, especially since most off-road riders really like the utility of a manual clutch. Some of those riders were converted once they used the DCT, others still preferred the old-school six-speed gearbox, but Honda stuck with it. Every Africa Twin model since 2015 has had optional DCT.
Speaking of which: Along with the Africa Twin, Honda also eventually released an up-spec’d version aimed at more vigorous off-road use. The “Adventure Sports” variant debuted at EICMA in 2017, with a larger tank than the standard CRF1000L’s, as well as longer-travel suspension with more adjustability.
When Honda announced the new CRF1100L in late 2019, we also got a new Adventure Sports version. Now, both versions of the Africa Twin have a 1089 cc parallel twin, making 101 horsepower and 77 pound-feet of torque. As these are intended to be flagship ADV machines, there’s a modern electronics package, with six-axis IMU that governs the traction control, riding modes, cornering ABS, launch control and other electro-tricks. Honda also included a 6.5-inch TFT screen and even Apple CarPlay. You can even pay extra for electronically-adjustable suspension.
Clearly, these machines have come a long way since their Dakar days, yet Honda still sells them with the 21/18-inch wheel combo and markets them as an off-road-oriented big-bore adventure bike. To a certain extent, that’s changed over the years; previous adventure bikes relied on rider capability to keep them upright and moving forward. That’s still true, but the manufacturers have figured out how to give the riders a lot of help with advanced electronics.
What is next for the Africa Twin? Rumors have been circulating on the Internet for a few months. We’ll wait, impatiently, to learn what the next evolution brings to the big ADV bike line.
Photo Credit: Montana Motorcycles. Photos used with permission.