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ADV NewsA Ride Through 32 Years of Africa Twin History

A Ride Through 32 Years of Africa Twin History

 A race-born adventure bike with a a rich history spanning over three decades.

Published on 10.28.2020

You may know the Honda Africa Twin as a tech-forward, big-bore adventure bike that’s been a top seller in the category since it was reintroduced in 2016. Honda bills it as a bike for touring enthusiasts who like to mix in dirt with their rides, and that’s on the money.

But it wasn’t always the case. In fact, the first publicly available Africa Twin was directly descended from a legendary race bike, and it was built in small numbers, by the same people who designed the factory race bike. Though it has changed considerably over the years, it still inhabits a category it helped create: adventure touring with a focus on off-road capability. Here’s a look back at the evolution of the Africa Twin.

Born to Race

1986-1989 Honda NXR750 Dakar
The Honda NXR750 took the win in its 1986 Paris-Dakar debut with Cyril Neveu in the saddle. Under the huge front tank was a brand new 779cc prototype V-twin engine with OHC valve train and 70hp.

In the beginning there was the NXR750, a purpose-built racer aimed squarely at winning the 1986 Paris-Dakar Rally, now called the Dakar Rally.

The Honda Racing Corporation, or HRC, began the project in 1984 and sent engineers to the rally in 1985 to learn what they could about this grueling test in the desert and build a bike that was far ahead of the competition. They set some parameters for their racer: it had to be easy to handle and stable. It needed to reach 112 mph and have a sustained cruising speed of 95 mph. It also needed to be easy to work on and have a range of about 280 miles.


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They came up with a bike that would go on to dominate the Paris-Dakar Rally, and inspire a generation of production bikes that looked like desert racers. The NXR750 employed a 45-degree 779cc V-twin engine layout with a 90-degree crankshaft to squelch vibration, a design good for 70 horsepower at 7,000 rpm. It featured 15-gallons of fuel capacity with a saddle-type front fuel tank to keep the center of gravity low, a mesh covering over the headlight, six-speed transmission, and 11.8 inches (300 mm) of wheel travel in the front and 10.6 inches (270 mm) in the back. It weighed in at 419 pounds.

1988 Honda NXR750 Paris Dakar Rally
Gilles Lalay taking the NXR to its 4th consecutive win in the 1989 Paris-Dakar. The success of the platform was the catalyst for the first production Africa Twin.

Back then, BMW, Yamaha and Cagiva were the ones to beat. But Honda had apparently hit some kind of magic formula, because the NXR750 took first and second in its 1986 debut, and went on to win the race four years running. No manufacturer had ever before written such a success story at the Dakar, and the NXR was immortalized in the sport. But the bigger success, perhaps, was the bike that descended directly from the NXR750. 

The Africa Twin is Born

The first Africa Twin, the XRV650 (RD-03), debuted in May 1988 to capitalize on Honda’s success. It stuck as closely as possible to the race bike’s design, even being produced by HRC rather than Honda.

Designers borrowed the existing 583cc, three-valve per cylinder, SOHC V-twin from the Honda Transalp and bored it to 647cc to create the 57-horsepower heart of the new bike. They wanted a more aggressive look than the Transalp, so they followed the design philosophy of the NXR750.

1988 Honda XRV650 Africa Twin history
The first Africa Twin was built by HRC. The bike debuted in 1988 and was conceived as a no-compromise, street-legal replica of the race-winning NXR750.

Incorporating the 24-liter (6.3 gallon) saddle-style fuel tank meant some of the gas was stored below the level of the carbs, necessitating a fuel pump and extra complexity. The shape and size of the tanks caused manufacturing problems as well, but the extra cost was the price to be paid for mission integrity. Ditto for the quick-release fasteners on the body panels and the mesh covering over the dual headlights. Beefy 43mm forks with 9.1 (230mm) of travel derived from Honda’s motocross bikes graced the front of the XRV650, behind which nestled twin aluminum radiators. A new box-section aluminum swingarm and adjustable monoshock with 8.3 inches (210 mm) of travel handled suspension duties in the rear. A full stainless-steel exhaust system and suede-like seat were also specced, along with a stout bash plate, hand guards, a competition-style dash and HRC’s tri-color racing graphics.

1988-1989 Honda XRV650 Africa Twin history
Features like the quick-release fasteners, headlight grill and other high-spec components didn’t survive when the Africa Twin ceased being produced by HRC in 1989.

As a large displacement, off-road-style bike, the Africa Twin was unique. The “rally replica” dual sport was born.

Bigger, but Better?

Honda updated the Africa Twin in 1989 (1990 model year) with the introduction of the XRV750 (RD-04). It was a better bike in many ways, and available in more markets. But it also marked the end of the HRC-built Africa Twin and was a step away from being a street-going version of the NXR750.

1990 Honda XRV750 Africa Twin history
The 1990 Africa Twin model marked the end of production of the bike by HRC. The bike was introduced as the XRV750 with a bump in displacement, improved braking power and new bodywork.

The big news, as the model name suggests, was the bump in displacement. The engine was the same basic layout — a 52-degree V-twin with three valves per cylinder – with displacement now at 742cc and horsepower up a couple to 62. Dual 276mm discs up front, along with a 256mm disc in the rear, provided a much-needed braking upgrade, while suspension on the new model came in the form of 43mm air-assisted forks in the front and a fully adjustable Pro-Link system in the rear. Suspension travel went down in front to 8.7 inches and up slightly in the rear to 8.4 inches.

The new XRV750 was still billed as a desert-conquering dual sport, but it was decidedly a downgrade in terms of production standards. It got a trick-for-the era digital trip computer called “Tripmaster,” but gone were the quick-release fasteners on the bodywork, the headlight protector and suede-like seat material of the earlier version. And the bike had gained weight, now up to 460 pounds from 408. 

1990-2003 Honda XRV750 Africa Twin history
Honda’s last major upgrade to the V-twin Africa Twins came in 1993 with the arrival of the XRV750 (RD-07) featuring a revised chassis, lowered fuel tank, lower seat, and new bodywork.

Honda’s last major upgrade of the V-twin Africa Twins came in 1993 with the arrival of the XRV750 (RD-07). This time, engineers left the powerplant alone, apart from a slight drop in horsepower, and focused on incorporating a new frame and sleeker bodywork, the goal of which was to make the bike more responsive at lower speed and easier to handle off-road. The fuel tank was lowered to improve the center of gravity, and the seat height came down a bit as well.

1990-2003 Honda XRV750 Africa Twin history
Aside from minor updates in 1996, the XRV750 remained largely unchanged until it was discontinued in 2003 — ending the first 15-year chapter of the Africa Twin’s history.

Apart from a cosmetic makeover in 1996 (the XRV750 RD-07A), the bike remained largely unchanged until it was discontinued in 2003 ending the first 15-year chapter of the Africa Twin’s history.

Born Again

Honda revived the Africa Twin model in 2016 with the CRF1000L in one of the most-anticipated adventure-bike launches in history. The new bike had to both live up to its predecessor’s reputation and compete with a new generation of larger adventure bikes from BMW, Ducati, KTM, Triumph, and Yamaha.

2016 Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin history
The legendary Africa Twin was revived in 2016 with the introduction of the CRF1000L. The bike had more power, a parallel-twin engine, similar suspension travel to the original XRV650 model, and a dual-clutch transmission option.

Of course motorcycles had changed dramatically in the intervening years and Honda had to keep up, if not take the lead. Instead of creating a relatively tame, forgiving dual sport with roots in desert racing, Honda’s answer was a heavier, more powerful, adventure-class motorcycle with a very British parallel-twin engine configuration stuffed with modern technology like switchable ABS and tunable traction control. They included a bit of engineering razzle dazzle by offering their dual-clutch transmission (DCT) option on the new model, a feature that essentially makes the bike an automatic.

2016 Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin history

The idea was a bike that could go anywhere, from highways to dirt paths. To find that balance, Honda kept the overall length of the bike relatively short; in fact the wheelbase was only a half-inch longer than the XRV750 at 62 inches vs. 61.6 inches. In addition, the new Africa Twin gained suspension travel compared to its predecessor, sporting 9.1 inches in front and 8.7 inches in the rear. The new Africa Twin’s parallel-twin engine layout, and an emphasis on keeping the mass of the bike centralized and low, made that possible. Honda employed tricks like a unicam head design similar to their CRF motocross bikes and balance shafts integrated with the oil and water pumps to keep the powerplant dense and low.

2018 Honda CRF1000L2 Africa Twin Adventure Sports history
Along with the addition of throttle-by-wire, Honda introduced the Africa Twin Adventure Sports variant in 2018 featuring a bigger tank, longer suspension travel and many other extras.

Weight had grown on the new bike to 503 pounds wet (534 for the DCT model), but horsepower had also increased to 94. Fuel capacity was down to 5 gallons, but the new engine, equipped with modern fuel injection of course, clawed back some of the lost range with increased fuel efficiency.

Following the usual schedule of improvements every two years, Honda updated the CRF1000L in 2018 with additional riding modes, more options for the Honda Selectable Torque Control, improved intake and exhaust tuning, throttle by wire and other refinements. That was also the year Honda introduced the Africa Twin Adventure Sports variant, which got a bigger gas tank, longer suspension travel (9.9” front / 9.4” rear) and more wind protection in addition to all the other upgrades.

Major Revisions For The Legend

2020 Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin history
The new 2020 1100cc Africa Twin gets more-advanced electronics, more power, a revised suspension and a new chassis, along with a host of other changes.

True to form, in 2020 Honda came out with the significantly revised CRF1100L Africa Twin. It looks similar in design to the old bike but now offers more; more power, more technology, more suspension capability, and is more accommodating for riders both on- and off-road. There’s also more of a clear focus for the two variants: the Africa Twin’s aim continues to be off-road performance, while the Adventure Sport is now more attuned to long-haul riders. The extra-tall suspension travel and seat height of the previous Adventure Sports model were reduced to the standard model’s height, plus it got electronically-adjustable suspension and more road-friendly tubeless rims.

2020 Honda CRF1100 Adventure Sports Africa Twin history
For 2020, Honda reduced the suspension travel and seat height of the Adventure Sports model to the standard model’s height. The AS variant also got electronically-adjustable suspension and more road-friendly tubeless rims.
2020 Honda CRF1100 Africa Twin history
The new CRF1100L Africa Twin offers one of the most-robust and feature-packed rider interfaces of any motorcycle in its class.

Aside from the bigger engine, which produces 6 percent more horsepower, 2020 saw the Africa Twin arrive with a narrower frame, a redesigned swingarm that takes inspiration from the CRF 450R motocrosser, and new suspension internals aimed at making the bike more stable both on-road and off.

But one of the biggest changes is probably the electronics suite. The 2020 Africa Twin has a six-axis IMU that keeps tabs on cornering ABS, the Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC), rear-wheel lift and other inputs. Riders can choose from a dizzying array of six ride modes, three levels of wheelie control, seven levels of HTSC control, etc. Not to mention the three levels of screen display, cruise control, and Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay connectivity. 

2020 Honda CRF1100 Africa Twin history

Even with all electronic wizardry, and the bump in displacement and horsepower, Honda managed to shed several pounds off the bike’s curb weight.

The new Africa Twin is a button-pusher’s delight. But it’s also capable of handling nearly any terrain its riders will put it on with stability and poise. In that sense it still pays homage to the original, even though it’s a universe apart.

Photos by Honda

Author: Bob Whitby

Bob has been riding motorcycles since age 19 and working as a journalist since he was 24, which was a long time ago, let’s put it that way. He quit for the better part of a decade to raise a family, then rediscovered adventure, dual sport and enduro riding in the early 2000s. He lives in Arkansas, America’s best-kept secret when it comes to riding destinations, and travels far and wide in search of dirt roads and trails.

Author: Bob Whitby
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8 thoughts on “A Ride Through 32 Years of Africa Twin History

  1. Pingback: A Ride Through 32 Years of Africa Twin History – Bikers Connection

  2. Interesting but not strictly accurate with regard to the NXR750. The fuel was carried in both the front tank, and two side tanks. The bash plate held water, and tools, not fuel.

  3. The first” Africa Twin”, is definitely the XLV 750, like no other bike before or since this bike was ahead of its time. Although less than 10,000 were made, the majority are still accounted for. That is 36 to 39 years of riding. How could any serious journalist worth reading not know this, and give honourable mention to the first Africa Twin, the Honda XLV 750.

    • Not really. The XLV 750 was Honda’s first attempt at a V-twin dual sport but that’s where it ends. It was not the first Africa Twin nor was it ever called that.

    • That naming convention was used by Honda for many of their models. For example the first NX650 Dominator was the RD 02, the XR650L was the RD 06 etc.

      • Technically correct but the RD01 has a firm place in the hearts of all old school Africa Twin owners. I have a standing order with a friend of mine in Australia to buy one should he find one in good shape.
        It would be nice to see it acknowledged as a forerunner of the rest of the line.

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