With the imminent unveiling of Harley-Davidson’s hugely-anticipated, all-new adventure bike, the 1250 Pan America, a machine so counterintuitive to Harley’s history of old-fashioned, air-cooled cruisers it’s a bit like asking exotic superbike specialists Ducati to come up with a cheap scooter
It got us wondering: adventure bikes are so popular and omni-present these days that almost everyone’s come up with an adventure bike at some point, from Royal Enfield to Buell, not all with great success.
So which adventure bikes of the last few decades have been the most unlikely of all?
You may find the results we came up with a little surprising – and not all of them bad. After all, arguably the very first adventure bike of all – BMW’s R80G/S of 1980 – was unlikely in itself.
Back then, the idea of a big-engined ‘trail’ bike capable of tackling continents was so wacky and unusual many didn’t know what to make of it. So maybe the idea of a Harley adventure bike won’t be so weird after all…?
10 – Triumph Tiger 900 [1993-2001]
When Triumph was reborn in 1991 as an all-new concern in Hinckley building a range of modular triples and fours its bikes were more conservative than most.
That all changed in 1993. The Tiger 900 was the new concern’s first dip in ‘monster trailie’ waters, was done at the request of its French and German importers (where the market for such bikes was huge) and resulted in the biggest, fastest and, arguably, scariest ‘adventure bike’ so far conceived.
Like all early Hinckley bikes it, too, was ‘modular’ – but this time Triumph was beginning to go more bespoke. So, although the engine was based on the 100bhp Trident triple it was retuned to 85bhp to give more torque (although it was still capable of 130mph).
The tubular steel spine frame may have been carried over, too, but new, longer travel suspension and a bigger, 19in front wheel added up to an imposing seat height of 850mm.
Meanwhile, new regulations allowing plastic fuel tanks led to brazen, all-new bodywork incorporating a fairing. In truth it worked reasonably well – if you were tall or strong enough to handle it. On the street it was fast, characterful and fun. Off-road, though, it was so tall and top-heavy it was almost impossible.
9 – Aprilia ETV1000 Caponord [2001-2004]
Despite its off-road heritage, particularly in lightweight motocrossers and trials bikes, Italian brand Aprilia has never had much luck with its big adventure bikes. The first, the 2001 Caponord (Italian for North Cape) arrived in 2001 based around its all-new RSV Mille V-twin but detuned, like the RST1000 Futura sports-tourer of the same year, to 100bhp.
On paper, it had a lot going for it: a slick, flexible V-twin powertrain; an impressive, aluminium twin spar chassis and lots of quality touches.
On the downside it was let down by oversoft front forks, initially slightly suspect reliability, a high-ish price and a dealer network which, back then, simply couldn’t match the likes of BMW and Honda, all of which contributed to its sales failure.
That said, it’s not a bad bike, sorted, used examples are potential bargains and they certainly stand out in a crowd. The later, completely different 1200 version, suffered similarly but was also a good, underrated buy – especially used.
8 – Benelli Tre-K 1130 Amazonas [2007-2014]
Here’s a rather unlikely route for creating an adventure bike: revive a historic Italian brand; build a radical, exotic, three-cylinder, 900cc superbike (2000’s 900 Tornado); turn that into a naked 1130cc version (the 2004 TNT), then a ‘sports-tourer’ (the 2006 Tre-K 1130) before finally chancing your arm with an adventure-style version of that, the 2007 Amazonas.
Basically, as you might expect, the Amazonas is actually a sporty sports-tourer that happens to have longer travel suspension, off-road style wire wheels and even semi-knobbly tyres, none of which make it a genuine off-roader.
But as a rugged-looking ‘sports adventure’ with 123bhp and plenty of individuality and character it was actually far better than you might expect. If you can find one.
7 – Kawasaki Versys 1000 [2012 – ]
Kawasaki’s big Versys ‘adventurer tourer’ has become so ingrained in the adventure bike panoply since its debut almost a decade ago that it’s easy to forget how unlikely, bordering on bonkers’ the original four-cylinder ugly duckling truly was.
Based on the hugely popular Z1000SX sports tourer but with a detuned, 116bhp version of its mill, longer travel suspension, different bodywork and a more upright riding position, there’s no doubt that the first Versys was an oddball: an ‘SX on stilts; a sort of four-cylinder adventure bike, but with zero off-road ability and looks only its mother could love.
Still, at just under £10K, it was cheap. That affordability really was its saviour. Although no true adventure bike, the Versys was a useful, comfortable four-cylinder tourer at bargain money – and proved popular as a result.
Improved looks, spec and electronics came in 2015; a blinged-up SE version complete with semi-active suspension in 2019. And, though maybe no longer the bargain it once was (and, arguably, even less of an adventure bike) the Versys remains an effective, useful, comfortable tourer for two at a price rivals can’t get near.
6 – Moto Morini GranPasso 1200 [2008-2010]
Italian legend Moto Morini’s revival in the mid-Noughties was never celebrated as much as the preceding reincarnations of compatriots MV Agusta (in 1998) and Benelli (in 2000) but its bikes were arguably even more exciting.
The first, the Corsaro 1200, landed in 2006 and was a sporty super naked powered by a punchy, 123bhp 1187cc V-twin. The adventure-styled GranPasso, with a slightly softer 118bhp, the usual long suspension/wire wheels combo, a more upright riding position and adventure-style bodywork came in 2008 with a trendy Scrambler version in 2009.
But although the Corsaro, although cruelly overlooked, remains the most celebrated model, for our money the GranPasso is better still, trading off a touch of handling steadfastness for more comfort and practicality without losing any of its excitement.
Suffice to say, it never really caught on, dealers were few and Morini folded in 2010. But the firm was revived and the Corsaro and Scrambler – but not the GranPasso – live on. Shame, it was brilliant while it lasted.
5 – Moto Guzzi Quota 1000 [1989-2001]
Historic Italian brand Moto Guzzi actually beat Britain’s Triumph to the boast of ‘biggest adventure bike’ when it came out with its first Quota 1000 in 1989 – although it wasn’t brought into the UK until later.
On face value it had a lot going for it: the traditional, transversely mounted Guzzi V-twin, which actually suited the adventure bike layout well, along with BMW-rivalling shaft driven. On top of that there was also the usual long-travel suspension, off-road wire wheels and new bodywork. With 69 grunty bhp and bags of Italian style on paper it had it all.
Trouble was, back then Guzzi build quality was little better than British Leyland’s on a Friday afternoon, with a seat height set at a massive 865mm it was even taller and more ungainly than the Triumph and off-road was a simple no-no.
Somehow it plodded on and Guzzi updated it to 1100cc form in 1997 after which it lived on to 2001, although we’re not quite sure how…
4 – Yamaha XT660 Ténéré [2008-2016]
With all the fuss and fervor about Yamaha’s latest 700 Tenere, the 689cc Dakar-style twin launched in 2019 as derived from the successful MT-07 roadster, it’s easy to forget that its immediate single-cylinder predecessor was almost as good – just not as heralded as such.
Basically a big-tanked, longer suspended, Dakar-styled version of the XT660X trail bike, which by then had already been around since 2004, the Tenere 660 was authentic-looking, affordable, a reasonable road performer (well, as much as any 48bhp single can be) and very capable off-road, too – all the things, in fact, a middleweight adventure bike needs to be.
Better still, today you can pick up a decent low-miler, complete with luggage, for around £4500, which puts the new version’s so-called ‘value’ in a completely different light…
3 – Honda VFR1200X Crosstourer [2010 – ]
The Crosstourer is a classic case of being one of those concept bikes that everyone clamours to be put into production which, when exactly that happens, somehow fails to live up to expectations. Shame really.
Launched in 2012 after being touted around the shows for a couple of years, the awkwardly-named Crosstourer is basically an adventure-style version of Honda’s then, all-new V4 sports-tourer, the much heralded VFR1200F, as itself launched in 2010.
Although, despite its powerhouse V4 and novel DCT semi-automatic gearbox option, the VFR1200F ultimately failed, being deleted in 2015, the spin-off Crosstourer lives on – deservedly so.
It may be no off-roader, its tech and electronics may be ‘behind the curve’ and it’s also slightly heavy, but it’s also handsome and comfortable, the shaft-drive V4 somehow better suits this adventure format and it’s now decent value, too.
Starting at £11,499, it now undercuts all but the very cheapest version of Kawasaki’s Versys while used examples, from around £5K, can be an absolute snip.
2 – Royal Enfield Himalayan [2018 – ]
Yes, we admit it, even we were slightly gobsmacked when quaint, archaic, little old Royal Enfield, whose historic singles barely muster over 25bhp, launched their own take on the ‘adventure bike’ with its 24bhp, 410cc Himalayan in 2018.
Nor did that view change much when promotional videos surfaced showing a footpeg snap off under fairly mild provocation. But if you focus instead on its £4399 price, remind yourself of its lightweight and novice-friendly manners and consider a more gentle adventure pace away from 100bhp+ 1200s, you could be in for a treat.
Well, sort of. In truth, the Himalayan would be a blast in its mountainous namesake, bumbling along ash tracks, having a mountain adventure of your own. But start to compare it to big bore, modern machinery and ‘unlikely’ doesn’t even begin to describe the Himalayan.
1 – Buell XB12X Ulysses [2006-2009]
If the idea we mentioned at the beginning, of Harley’s new Pan America being one of the most unlikely of all adventure bikes, gives you cause for concern then don’t worry – the American’s have ‘previous’ here.
When oddball, sporting offshoot Buell was under Harley ownership between 2003 and 2009 it’s most unlikely product was surely its Harley-powered adventure bike, the Ulysses.
Widely disparaged at the time as the ‘Uselessly’, the XB12X was basically a new-generation XB12 Lightning naked, complete with twin spar (fuel-in) frame, signature rim disc brake and tuned, 103bhp 1200cc Harley Sportster engine, but with extended rear bodywork, new screen and more upright riding position. None of that made it a true adventure bike.
The Ulysses was heavy, had street wheels and tyres, belt drive and a rim disc. But nor was it actually as bad as some made out, being comfortable, torque and characterful. But, yes, unlikely – and largely unloved – it is.