The Honda XRV750 Africa Twin – Getting it Right, First Time

Honda XRV750 Africa Twin history
Honda XRV750 Africa Twin 1995. Photo: Honda

The history of the XRV750 Africa Twin is inextricably linked to the Paris Dakar rally. Yet Honda’s legendary V-twin dual sport has a history that pre-dates its 1989 launch by quite a few years.

In 1983, the Honda XLV750R was a red, white, and blue bombshell. Most on/off-road motorcycles of the day (remember the dual-sport tag wasn’t used then) were small, lightweight, single-cylinder machines.

Along came the 750cc V-twin monster with long-travel suspension, lots of ground clearance and a go-anywhere do-anything attitude. The bike featured hydraulic valves, shaft drive, a single rear shock and was unfaired except for a tiny headlamp nacelle.

Hang on a moment. That all sounds somewhat familiar. While groundbreaking for Honda, the BMW R80GS, with its almost identical spec, beat them to the punch two years earlier. So not quite a groundbreaking model, but as BMWs were very much an acquired taste, Honda had high hopes for appealing to the masses.

Unfortunately, the conservative and well-strategized Honda blew its launch by introducing the bike to the press at an enduro course in Spain. For a bike billed as a rough and ready tourer with just enough dirt ability to take its rider from the road to the campsite, an odd move to say the least.

What’s more, when the motorcycle journalists tackled the enduro course, calamity ensued with many crashes due to the bike not being built to cope with such extreme conditions.

The PR disaster worsened when German magazine Motorrad tested the Honda’s off-road ability, broke the bike and labeled the XLV750R an “elephant.” The bottom line was a limited release in some European countries and Australia, a short production run, and a two-year lifespan.

Honda XRV Africa Twin Model Specifications

Model ID Years In Production Weight Horse Power Spec
XRV650 RD03 1988-1989 185KG 57HP Hand built in HRC factory
XRV750T RD04 1990-1992 207KG 62HP Engine boost, lower spec
XRV750P-S RD07 1993-1995 207KG 62HP New frame and bodywork
XRV750T RD07A 1996-2003 207KG 62HP Alts to front cowl and screen

XLV750R: Set Back or Smokescreen

The Honda XLV750R
The Honda XLV750R. Photo credit: / Honda

On the surface, in taking on the new ‘all road,’ Beemer, Honda looked like they’d bitten off more than they could chew, especially as a BMW GS had won four out of the last five Paris Dakar Rallies. Back at the HRC (Honda’s in-house racing department) in Japan, things were about to kick off in a big way.

In 1986, Honda entered their all-new 750cc V-twin NXR750 in the Paris Dakar Rally to compete with the Germans. Honda dominated the race taking first, second and third place. This fact leads me to speculate whether the release of the XLV750R was a smokescreen intended to draw attention away from the real work taking place behind the scenes.

Honda NXR750 From 86
Honda NXR750 From 86. Photo:

The new Dakar dominating V-twin Honda was the first liquid-cooled motorcycle to win the event. What’s more, it went on to thrash the competition for four consecutive years. Their stranglehold on the Paris Dakar was so complete; never again would a BMW boxer twin win the infamous desert race.

So with Honda’s off-road credentials established, was the world ready for the launch of the 750cc Africa Twin that we all know and love? Not Quite.

XRV650 Africa Twin: The Real Deal

Honda XRV650 from 1989
Honda XRV650 from 1989. Photo credit: / Honda

The first generation of Africa Twin was 650cc, AT lovers considered it the better bike and here’s why. Rather than being built on the factory floor, the entire one-year production run was handled by the HRC (Honda Racing Corporation).

The result was incredible attention to detail, including the first production bike to have a saddle-style tank and fuel pump. The engine kicked out an impressive 57bhp, quick-release fasteners featured on all the body panels, and the exhaust was stainless steel. The XRV650 is considered the first authentic rally replica but was superseded in December 1989 with the launch of the XRV750 Africa Twin.

Despite the 100cc jump incapacity, the 750 AT managed a mere 2bhp increase over the 650. Honda was putting its money on longevity rather than the wow factor.

The relaxed feel of the unstressed motor guaranteed high mileage and defined the motorcycle’s laid-back, handle-everything-in-its-stride character. The Africa Twin also looked right. It was big, yet not intimidating, could lug any amount of luggage, and was hugely popular in Europe, right from the launch.

XRV750 Compared to the Opposition

Black Honda XRV750 Africa Twin history
Black Honda XRV750 Africa Twin history. Photo credit: / Honda

The XRV750 is an excellent bike in its own right, but it’s not hard to see why it won so many fans in those early days compared to its contemporaries. Yamaha’s XTZ 750cc Tenere was also launched off the back of Paris Dakar victory and aimed at taking on the new adventure market.

The parallel-twin engine, though, with its double overhead cams, 10- valve head, and almost 70hp, was buzzy on the road and more of a handful on the dirt.

The largest displacement green-laner Kawasaki had at the time was the KLR650. Once again, a popular bike, but the lazy single-cylinder engine and diminutive size meant it couldn’t come close in a head-to-head with the Honda.

As for Suzuki, their take on the giant trail-bike market came in the shape of the DR800. The huge one-lunger was the largest capacity single-cylinder bike in production, and thanks to a huge beaky front mudguard, it got itself noticed.

As fun as the bike’s stump-pulling torque was off-road, cruising speeds could loosen fillings, and its seat was for masochists only!

The BMW R80GS became the only motorcycle to rival the Africa Twin. Back in the day, on paper at least, the bikes were comparable, weighing within three kilos of one another and costing almost the same. Yet on the showroom floor, it came down to looks.

BMW’s Airhead boxer twins are an acquired taste, but in 1990, the sophisticated Africa Twin left the R80GS looking like an agricultural implement.

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It’s All About Heritage

If you’re going to call yourself an adventure sports bike, it does pay to have a degree of off-road ability. Whereas some bikes in this category can’t handle much more than a dusty track, the Africa Twin surprised a lot of people. But, then again, look at its heritage.

Before building their Dakar dominating rally bike, to fully understand the terrain the bike would have to tackle, Honda sent engineers to the African desert. The information gathered gave them a tricky and complex technical brief to follow.

The terrain was a nightmare of scree-covered moonscapes and mountainous dunes. To compete and to be in with a chance of winning, the bike had to be able to maintain high speeds and handle the desert heat. It also needed to be stable on all terrains, manageable enough not to fatigue the rider, and have a substantial tank range.

Sounds easy enough if you say it quickly, but the solutions Honda came up with were nothing short of groundbreaking. To begin with, the engine, which many people believe came from the calamitous XLV750R, was more of a Transalp derivative.

Honda XL600V-Transalp from 1987
Honda XL600V-Transalp from 1987. Photo: Honda

The NXR750 Dakar’s 45-degree V-twin had a 90-degree crankshaft, was bored out to 780cc, fitted with extra valves and a sixth gear.

The bike produced its 70bhp at a comparatively low 7000rpm, which, together with the cylinder and crank layout, gave a great spread of torque and minimal vibration.

The V-twin configuration was also crucial as it keeps the weight low down and reduced the engine width. The perfect design for dodging rocks, cactus, and stray camels.

The NXR featured a box section steel cradle frame with long travel 43mm forks upfront and a Pro-Link monoshock back end. All of which came together to enable it to handle the continuous torture from the demanding terrain.

The final box to tick for a low center of gravity was a little trickier. Wanting to squeeze out around 280 miles between refueling meant the gas tank needed to be huge. Honda created the saddle tank to straddle the frame instead of sitting it on top, and this kept the weight as low as possible.

This layout resulted in some of the fuel sitting below the level of the carbs needing a fuel pump. The saddle tank and fuel pump may be a familiar sight today, but in 1986, it was cutting edge.

Win on Sunday Sell on Monday

The old saying of ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ certainly worked at the Dakar. Yamaha’s double victory (1979-80) onboard the new XT500 saw sales of the big trail bike shoot up by a staggering 60,000 units in Europe alone.

And this is why innovations from Honda’s Dakar winner filtered through to the XRV 650 and the XRV750 Africa Twin’s 1989 launch.

As mentioned earlier, although the engine was de-tuned, the Africa Twin looked close enough to the Dakar winner to guarantee its popularity.

Life on the Road Today

Comfort wise, the Africa Twin feels good for a bench seat, which although not all day comfortable, is nowhere near the DR800 torture league. The handlebar and footpeg layout leave the rider feeling well balanced, and although the front plastics look substantial, they don’t make the bike feeling front-heavy.

Individually mounted, white-on-black clocks are clear and easy to read. Yet, the idiot light consul appears to be bolted on as an afterthought. However, this type of layout is another nod towards its Dakar heritage as damaged components can be changed individually rather than replacing a complicated one-piece consul.

Later-model XRV750s had the trip removed from the speedo and placed in a consul above the clocks. The Tripmaster, with its seven rubber-covered buttons and multiple digital readouts, may look the part, but for me, it’s analog every time.

With 220mm of travel in the front forks, dive is inevitable, especially with that nice twin-disc setup. It’s no worse, though, than that of the Triumph Tiger, for example, which launched three years later.

As for weight, at 237kg full of gas, the Africa Twin comes within 1 kilo of the Yamaha XTZ 750 Super Tenere. Unlike Super Ten, the rider feels placed in the middle of operations and sitting-in, not perched on top of the machine.

When it comes to the bodywork, due to the tank’s size, the fairing seems big, but is in reality, relatively minimal. Twin headlights and a decent size screen live in the top half. While the lower curves out where the tank narrows inwards to give some knee protection from the elements.

Useable Power and Good Torque

There’s enough real-world performance to enjoy the ride with its widespread useable power and 62ftlb of torque. Acceleration is more linear than neck-snapping. By comparison, the latest generation of Suzuki 650 V Strom, for example, although looking as chunky as the Africa Twin, is around 20kg lighter and faster in all departments.

The AT is happy to sit at motorway cruising speeds all day, but swinging from bend to bend on a country road is the best place to enjoy it to the full. Head north of 85mph, and things can start to get buzzy.

Like any 21in front-wheel, things get a bit squirmy if stuck in raised lines or tar snakes, as the American riders call them. The handling never starts to feel vague, though, thanks to the bike’s impressive neutral handling.

Besides, let’s not forget this bike is also meant to hold its head up in the dirt, and a 21in front wheel is pretty much essential. While the bike is comparatively lumpy at 520lbs, all the R&D carried out at the Dakar really shows.

The weight doesn’t feel top-heavy, and if you don’t overdo the speed and overload the suspension, forest tracks are a total joy. Thanks to the footpeg and handlebar locations, standing up feels comfortable, too, allowing plenty of control without leaning the rider too far forward over the bars.

Why does the Africa Twin Remain Popular?

Simple, Honda got the Africa Twin right first time. The engine is good for six figures without a significant overhaul. Plus, it gives a good account of itself on both road and dirt. Add to this Honda’s legendary build quality, and you’ve got a motorcycle that does everything well with the potential to last a lifetime.

From its December 1989 launch, the Africa Twin remained pretty much unchanged for three years. But in 1993, the bike got a makeover that would confirm its place in motorcycling’s hall of fame.

Leaving the engine alone except for minor tweaks to sharpen low rev response, the Africa Twin got an all-new frame and swoopy bodywork. The new layout allowed the 23ltr fuel tank to move down, and this, together with a lower seat height, dropped the center of gravity.

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Apart from some new graphics in 1996, these changes saw the Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin remain almost untouched for over a decade. Not something many motorcycles can boast.

Once again, all the elements needed to make the Africa Twin a rideable classic are there, including plentiful supply, abundant spares, and a vast range of accessories.

Ironically, upon its launch and for several years after, British bikers wouldn’t give the Africa Twin the time of day. It was left to the French, Italians, and Greeks to embrace the big trail bike mentality. Today in these countries, good condition examples are still available for a reasonable amount of money.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain, having, at last, jumped on the adventure bandwagon, you can expect to pay twice as much for the same year and condition bike. It goes to show that being slow to invest always costs more in the long run.

The Honda Africa Twin’s Main Rivals



The very first dual sport bike credited with kicking off the adventure bike genre.
Good points: built like a tank.
Bad points: style and speed of a tank.

Suzuki DR800

1988 Suzuki DR Z 800 & Gaston Rahier at Paris Dakar promotional video

Biggest thumper on the market at the time and started the Woody Woodpecker front fender look.
Good points: lots of torque, lots of fun.
Bad points: vibrates like a road drill.

Yamaha XTZ750

Super Tenere XTZ 750 1991 (Mitas E-09)

Big bold bike with a twin cylinder DOHC 10v head.
Good points: fast revving engine.
Bad points: corrosion, buzzy top end.

Kawasaki KLR650

Killing the Un-Killable KLR650 – Kawasaki Review

Genuine go anywhere do anything bike.
Good points: build quality, cheap as chips to buy secondhand.
Bad points: slow, seat made out of wood.