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Everyone Loves A Winner : The Africa Twin Returns

North Americans have been waiting quite a long time for any version of the Africa Twin to arrive. Here we look back on the history of what is, arguably, Honda’s second most important model in decades.

At a recent winter motorcycle show, a Honda representative suggested the Africa Twin might be the company’s most significant model since the current generation Gold Wing was unveiled at the turn of the millennium. That is a heady statement considering the big touring bike’s position in motorcycle lore. The Gold Wing has the advantage of being continuously featured in the Honda lineup since the mid 1970s and in its current form of a fully dressed touring bike since 1980 where it has dominated and even defined the category. As its own brand within the Honda stable “Gold Wing” is hallowed and one would be hard pressed to find a more loyal following. But eventually every bike (with the possible exception of Honda’s own XR650L) needs to be remade and there’s an enormous responsibility to get it right. Which brings us back the Africa Twin. Why is it such a significant name in Honda’s history? Let’s think about this.

The Africa Twin? Say What?

For most North Americans, the Africa Twin is a mythical machine that exists only elsewhere. Anyone under the age of 25 wasn’t even alive yet when the original Africa Twin was in its glory years—it was a brief era when the bike consistently and irrefutably dominated a segment. In the late 1980s global riders gushed over the bike even if much of North America was unaware.

It began, of course, in Africa. Honda first entered the Dakar in 1981, only two years after the rally’s first edition, and finished in sixth place. Much thanks for this goes to the initial pilot, Cyril Neveu, who joined the Honda effort having won the inaugural two Dakars aboard a Yamaha XT500. Honda’s second year was a good one with a win at Dakar as Neveu rode an XR500R to the podium. The race was quickly gaining both prestige and momentum with categories for trucks, cars and motorcycles in the world’s most grueling competition. 

Factory teams pumped up the effort and the next three Dakar motorcycle titles were taken by BMW’s R100GS, leading Honda to develop its own twin cylinder motorcycle. Throwing a lot of money, engineering and effort at the problem proved successful as Honda won the 1986 Dakar with its NXR750V. Welcome to a brave new liquid-cooled world! Never again would an air-cooled bike reach the Dakar podium. 

This ground up V-Twin machine and its rider were very good, winning the next three Dakar rallies—the final two as the NXR800V. Apparently that was enough—it’s good to go out a winner. Like John Elway and perhaps Peyton Manning, Honda decided that leaving on top was best and departed the Dakar Rally with that final win. 

But the wins and development represented a great deal of effort to just settle without long-term results. The monetization of that success came in 1989 with a street version of the Dakar bike—the Africa Twin. This was the first time the name was used on a motorcycle. The bike would be sold in Europe where the rally is so popular and in the Japanese home market. 

The commercial result of the NXR750V was the XRV650 Africa Twin built in the spirit of the Dakar winning bike but toned down as an adventuring touring machine with an off-road bent. The bike was a twin as the name implies and produced 57 horsepower. It looked the desert racer part resplendent in HRC racing colours, brazenly sporting a massive bash plate and twin round headlights and moving the scales to 193 kilograms dry. But it debuted in the late 1980s when bigger was getting to be better. 

After two years on the market it was upgraded to a 750 with revised suspension, more horsepower and dual front brakes. With BMW selling numerous 980cc R100GS Dakar models, the Honda offering needed to keep up. The Africa Twin was revised again in 1993 and 1996 before finally ending production in 2003, nearly 14 years after Honda’s departure from Dakar racing.

While the original Africa Twin was produced in variations for 14 years, the bike was never sold in Canada or the United States. At the time, big dualies were seen as the passion of a select few in Europe and the Japanese market while in North America cruisers, sport machines—and Gold Wings—were ruling the roost. 

Beyond uninterrupted offers of the ubiquitous XR650L and creating a passionate group of Baja kit converts with the brief but shining XR650R, Honda flirted with the North American market through the period with the TransAlp and more recent Varadero. Neither of those bikes met with resounding success. The Varadero had already been available in Europe for years and came to Canada at a disadvantage to bikes like the KTM Adventure and the BMW R1200GS. Honda knew they needed a modern bike in the ADV category and at the time Varadero was what they had available. The new Africa Twin has changed that. 

The 2016 Africa Twin is a .global machine – perhaps even the most global offering of the entire Honda lineup if the basics of capability rather than style are the gauge. Whereas sport bikes, Gold Wings and most certainly cruisers have regional followings, the Africa Twin is equally at home in Europe, the Americas or Asia. 

As for the name, it is the spirit of the original Dakar winner that Honda seeks with its new AT not so much the first commercial production Africa Twins … beyond their off-highway capability. Time and technology have both dramatically moved on from the original bike and the CRF1000L has moved on with them. 

Africa Twin Moves to the Street

Interesting that the Africa Twin was not Honda’s first foray into the V-Twin on/off-road segment. From 1983 to 1986 the company produced a bike that looked the part and was again available in the red, white and blue Honda racing colours but it was far more at home on the pavement. 

The XLV750R was an air/oil cooled V-Twin weighing a beefy 195 kilos dry and featuring, of all things, a shaft drive. While it looked like an adventure racer it didn’t perform like one and disappeared from the lineup quickly. 

What does the current Africa Twin have in common with the bikes Honda is again entering in the Dakar? Not a great deal. Classification changes in 2011 limited the displacement of motorcycles competing in the race to 450cc. KTM has had that category sewn up with the KTM 450 Rally winning all of the races since that rule change. 

Winning the Dakar became a new challenge for Honda when it reentered the Dakar in 2013 with the CRF450 and then the new CRF450 Rally in 2014. That the new smaller CRF450 Rally produces  horsepower approaching that of the original NXR750V seems ample reason for the 2011 rule changes. The top red, white and blue machine in 2016 finished fourth as Kevin Benavides got Honda closer to the podium but not close enough to usurp KTM’s 15 years of domination.

It begs the question with Honda’s current Dakar runner being a single. What would happen should that bike take the overall motorcycle crown? It is tough for any company to neglect that kind of marketing potential. To paraphrase the old stock car mantra ‘win in January, sell in April.’ There would be another member of the family. But sticking to the 2016 bike, here in Canada you would be hard pressed to find a Africa Twin that hasn’t already been spoken for. The offerings have been snapped up. After all, enthusiasts have been waiting 13 years for a new Africa Twin—even those in Canada who had never before been able to buy one. 

When the NXR750V was winning the Paris-Dakar in the late 1980s it is claimed to have had a nickname: the “Desert Queen.” We can thank Honda for not holding on to that handle. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it even if everyone does loves a winner.

2016 Honda Africa Twin

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue # 320


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