Monday, 11 May 2015

Honda XL600L Desert Bike

This is my own XL 600L pictured on a trip to Morocco in April 2003*.

I have mixed feelings about it - but I look at this picture now and I wish I still had it. It was the first really decent bike I ever owned. I bought it around 1999/2000 with a blown top-end and fitted it with a motor out of an XR600 that I bought, rebuilt, from a breaker in the UK,

I went couriering on it and I loved it to bits. It was light and torquey, handled superbly and was super-fuel efficient. And it was blindingly quick! I particularly enjoyed driving it in the rain! After 10 years of driving CX500s it was a revelation to me that motorcycles could handle in the wet!

But like any other bike, it had it's imperfections. The XR motor was kick-start only which was tedious for a courier bike, particularly so in the mornings. I was (and still am) in the habit of starting my bikes and letting them warm up for a minute or two while I faff around with locks, gloves and helmets etc.

So in the morning I would engage the choke, find Top Dead Centre and kick the bike over. It would usually fire up on the first or second kick and would Chuff-chuff away to itself while I'd check-in on the radio and put my helmet and gloves on and generally get my act together. And just as I was about to mount the thing it would give a little cough and cut out...

And no amount of kicking, swearing or cajoling could get the thing to relight! So I'd call back in on the radio, take my helmet and gloves off and go back indoors and have a cup of tea and wait twenty minutes for the thing to cool down before having another go. It would start easily from cold or from hot, but in-betweeny... forget about it!

So after about six months couriering, the head of the decompression valve dropped into the motor and comprehensively destroyed the piston and barrel leaving the head intact! So I cobbled together a new motor using the original XL 600 bottom end, a Honda Dominator Barrel, the XR 600 head and a Wiseco 720cc piston and set about building a desert bike.

Noel donated the 27 litre X600LM tank and the short seat you see in the picture (the bike originally had a tiny tank and a long seat). I restuffed the seat with stiffer foam and covered it with light grey vinyl to reflect the heat of the sun. In addition to this I rewired the bike like a race-bike with just five wires to run the motor. In the interest of simplicity and redundancy the lights, horn and heated grips etc were in a separate loom. I replaced most of the nuts and bolts with stainless steel items and everything was loctited or lock-wired or both! Anything that wasn't useful was removed and I fabricated a sort of weird side-panel, pannier-support arrangement out of aluminium checker-plate (this worked perfectly well, keeping the panniers away from the hot exhaust and the back wheel, weighing and costing next to nothing!).

High-rise Renthal rally bars, Acerbis Rally-Pro hand-guards and Pirelli MT21 tyres screwed to the rims  (each with an extra thick tube inside another, sliced-open tube, liberally doused in talcum powder) completed the project and I was ready to hit the desert!

It worked pretty well. The only real bugbear was that I ended up carrying a 10 litre bidon of water on the pillion seat and this heavy and undamped fluid would slosh around and adversely affect the handling of the bike. The bike would zig to the right, and the water would slosh to the left. Then the bike would try to recover by zagging back to the left only to be kicked back to the right by the delayed-action zig of the water! That undamped water held high on the pillion seat caused me to crash countless times...

Unladen, as it is in the picture, the bike was a dream to operate in the desert. But laden down with tools, spares, water, food and camping equipment all the dynamic qualities of the bike were lost and it became a bit of a donkey!

But at the end of the day, the bike just wasn't very reliable. The build quality was superb, but it's my belief that those RFVC motors were flawed. The seemed not to get enough oil to the cylinder head and they seemed to wear the camshaft and followers inordinately. So I'm looking at the picture below and remembering all the good stuff about the bike. But I don't really want another one.

I made a second, similar trip a few years later on an Africa Twin and despite being a much bigger and heavier machine, I felt that the Africa Twin was a superior desert bike in every way except one - fuel range.

Mercenary Garage - Honda XL600M Sahara
Note the 'Berber Fridge' on the back carrier! Soaking a tee-shirt in water and wrapping it around a plastic water bottle magically chills the water. This only works if the ambient temperature is hot enough to evaporate the water soaking the tee-shirt. In Ireland, the tee-shirt stays wet and the water in the bottle stays warm!

*There are more images from the trip here... 
www.mercenary.ie/2013/04/10-years-ago-morocco-april-2003.html



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