Lauded as one of the top fifty motorcycles of all time, and to some the best adventure bike ever built, the Africa Twin first rolled off the line 25 years ago. Never directly imported to American shores, the Africa Twin is an elusive phantom seldom seen and enjoyed by a lucky few. How this motorcycle came to be, and why Honda never developed a suitable replacement, is an interesting ride through the pages of Honda’s history.
The Africa Twin, like many proven platforms, was forged on the anvil of the demanding Paris-Dakar Rally. Still a young event in the early 1980’s, motorcycle engineers grappled with how to design and build machines capable of simply surviving the race. By 1985, Honda engineers began examining the post-mortems of failed motorcycles and used those bones to sharpen their design teeth. By the following year they had returned to the Paris-Dakar with their new NXR750, a motorcycle purpose built to endure the unique punishments of the race. Every insult was considered in the design of the engine, from high temps to dirty gas. Not the most powerful motorcycle in the field, the NXR, or “Neuksar” as the French racers called it, was built to be easy to ride and above all––reliable. That year two Frenchmen rode their Neuksars to first and second place. That platform proceeded to win the next three editions of the Paris-Dakar as well.
Honda has always been able to parlay race day victories into commercial success. In 1988, they released the XRV 650, a consumer grade version of the NXR Dakar bike, and graced its tank with the now famous letters, Africa Twin. By late 1990, an improved 750cc version was made available and serves as the variant of the Africa Twin most have come to know and love. The 45º liquid cooled v-twin engine produced 61 horses, and sipped fuel at 54 miles per gallon. The ergonomics were comfortable, the balance was perfectly tuned, and the aesthetics put the Dakar bike under the average consumer. At 480 pounds, it was one of the biggest bikes of its kind and shouldered heavy loads with relative ease. The long suspension travel made it formidable in even the most aggressive terrain and true to its NXR heritage, was as reliable as a hammer.
In an effort to make the world’s best Dakar bike, Honda engineers had built one of the most reliable and capable adventure bikes of the era. Africa Twins would quickly become as well traveled as Germany’s legendary GS bikes. While regrettably not available to the U.S., Africa Twins sold in massive numbers in markets around the globe. Improvements were made to the bike through the 2000’s including a trip computer designed to mimic the navigational electronics on their Dakar counterparts. With thousands of units sold, Honda then decided the platform needed a ground up renovation. In 2003 production of the Africa Twin ceased. The Veradero stepped in to fill its place. We all know how well that went, which is to say not well at all.
In the years since, Honda has never won another Dakar Rally. Their attempts to build a proper successor to the Africa Twin have failed to met expectations and aging Africa Twins continue to be highly coveted. Advocates of modern motorcycles will besmirch the Africa Twin as a low-tech throwback to an era long gone, but these beastly machines continue to transport adventuresome owners to the far margins of the map. In the last couple years, there have been rumors and teasing images of a new Africa Twin built around a 1200cc engine, but hopes of a reprise of the original “Queen of the Desert” are fleeting. For now we’ll just have to celebrate the Africa Twin’s 25th birthday, and see what Honda comes up with next.