Where did adventure riding start?
That’s a tough one, and we don’t reckon anyone has the answer. There was probably a caveman somewhere who jumped on his Ural and decided to head to Lake Baikal to see if could get there – and the Ural technology was frozen in place and hasn’t changed since.
During the 1980s and 1990s there was a bit of a fad for adventurey-looking bikes that were little more than trailbikes with big tanks. Perhaps in an indication of things to come, riders loved them, bought them, and then got a rude shock when they actually tried to cross deserts and conquer mountains.
Still, there were some trends started in those days that continue into current thinking.
So, here’s a few bikes we reckon were at the very forefront of the adventure bikes we ride today…
Officially released in 1985, the first XR600R was a refinement of the XR500 before it. It was a twin-carby beast that evolved into the bike we reckon really started Honda on the track to the first and current Africa Twin: the 1988 XR600R.
This one will raise a few eyebrows.
The KLR has been around for donkey’s years – as a KLR600 since the mid 1980s – but it was the KLX650 in 1993 where Kawasaki had a crack at something with a little more performance. It was more powerful than the KLRs of the time, had better suspension and looked a lot more aggressive.
No doohickey, an oversquare 100mm x 83mm barrel, a four-valve head and twin overhead cams marked it as a far more modern package than what was already being called the ‘old’ KLR, even though the engines shared a lot of similarities.
The KLX also featured a new steel perimeter frame and KYB suspension.
The bike was discontinued in 1997, but it was Kwaka’s foreshadowing of its adventure-bike philosophy for the future. It’ll probably happen any day now…
Yamaha XT 600 Z Ténéré
The word ‘iconic’ gets thrown around a lot, but it’s probably fair to use it when discussing Yamaha’s long-running adventure model.
First offered in 1983, XT600Z Ténéré was a high-spec proposition in its day and offered an incredible 30-litre fuel capacity stock. The look of the bike hit the world in the eye and it became incredibly popular.
After many years of development the model designation was finally retired in 1998, but revived in 2006 with the incarnation that’s so popular today.
Suzuki DR750S Big
At a time when large bikes were in fashion, Suzuki held nothing back and called it’s Paris-Dakar-look-alike the ‘DR Big’ and encouraged the affectionate title ‘Desert Express’ for the chunky 1988 model.
The DR 750 Big only ran for two years. Then it became even bigger, moving to a 779cc capacity and being named the DR 800 Big.
When would it end!
The ‘bigger is better’ phase faded – even though the Suzi Bigs only had a 24-litre tank – and the 600 and 650 capacity proved enduring in off-roaders, while the V-stroms headed off in a different direction.
Still, the DR Big made an impact and marked Suzuki’s flirtation with adventure-specific big ’uns.
In 1980 BMW foisted the R80GS onto a drooling and adventure-ready market.
Actually, in 1980, BMW was a little ahead of its time. The trend among manufacturers in general was for purpose-specific bikes, where the R80GS was marketed as a dual-purpose bike, capable on- and off-road. For the trivia nuts, the ‘GS’ designation stands for ‘Gelände/Straße’ which translates to ‘off-road/road’.
The best bit was, the bike was genuinely well-suited for exactly the purpose BMW said it was designed for, and riders around the world found themselves with a production bike that truly was an adventure-ready mount.
The R80GS designation endured until 1994.
KTM 620 LC4
In 1997 KTM introduced the 620 Adventure with a 609cc engine. The bike received a new 625cc engine for the 1998 model year and was renamed the 640 Adventure. It continued as an adventurer’s favourite around the world until it stopped production at the end of the 2008 model year
The left-side kickstarter on the early models wasn’t well-loved, but the performance and durability of the bike quickly made it a favourite with performance-hungry adventurers.