Honda XR185, XR200: They were not maintenance snowflakes, and Tough as nails

Honda XR185, XR200: They were not maintenance snowflakes, and Tough as nails

 This October’s fall day, as I am starting winterize my motorcycles, I cannot help but pine away for the days of simple motorcycles and uncomplicated maintenance schedules that didn’t break the bank. My KTM 450EXC was a good example. It was a fantastic machine with a long-travel suspension that kept my 65-year-old back in the fast off-road game longer than could be expected. It was vastly superior to the off-road motorcycles I rode in the 1970s and 1980s—lighter, faster, better handling, and possessing that very important magic starter button.

However, the KTM’s maintenance schedule started to drain my bank account at a rate similar to my car payment of the 1970s.  For example, it called for an expensive oil change, replacing “dual oil filters” with pricey synthetic oil every 15 hours. Valves were to be adjusted every 30 hours. The service manual threatened that it should need a bottom end rebuild sometime starting at 500 hours. Are you kidding me?  One could suggest that this mega-bucks maintenance is germane only to the Austrians. However, even the Japanese high performance enduros of today now all have much shorter duration of maintenance than they did in the 1990s. One has to ask the question: does everyone really need off-road bikes that require a step-ladder to get onto them and are such maintenance-heavy snowflakes?

 My off-road riding history goes back to 1976. After owning a couple of the simple two-stroke Bultacos and a Puch MX175, the Honda XR Off-Road Series was my next mount. I found it to be tougher than nails. I started with the 1979 XR185 pictured below. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I took it to the highest mountain passes near Ouray, Colorado: Engineer, Black Bear, Ophir, and all over the highest riding trails of Colorado. The little XR made it up all of them—not fast, but reliably. We rode for six days at a minimum of 70 miles daily, and one long rainy ride when we got lost, over 150 miles. A KTM design engineer would go apoplectic at the thought of not changing the oil mid-week with that kind of punishment!


In a subsequent year I took a Honda XR200 back up to the same southwestern Colorado trails. The XR200 had the same dependable engine performance and a little better suspension with the design change to a Monoshock rear. You just couldn’t beat them for simplicity, reliability, and fuel economy. I would change oil and clean the air filter once a year and go!  I had a buddy who lived in Texas and rode year round. He changed his Honda XR 200 oil only every other year—and he was riding a good 1000 off-road miles a year! With over 5000 miles on his odometer, he had never changed a piston.

Then again in 2016, I took my Suzuki DRZ 400, but also took an Honda XL185 as a bike for My friend Tommie D. to ride.  The XL performed flawlessly until he crashed and broke some ribs.  That day I had to go back up on the mountain as a passenger in a truck and bring the XL185 back down to our cabin.  I was floored as to how well the XL185 handled the 6 miles long downhill. Since it was downhill, the small motor made no difference.  I could absolutely stuff it into all the switchbacks and fly down that hill.  In retrospect I was riding over my head with an almost 40 year old bike with old suspension technology. Even the drum brakes still did the job. What a testimony to the XL XR Honda bikes.

Those XL Hondas rarely had engine mechanical failures because they were simple and built to last. Now everything is made of the lightest, most expensive materials to shave off every ounce of weight. Have you ever looked at the piston crown area of a new 4-cycle enduro bike? There is not much there. Give me a good old Wiseco piston with a three-inch piston skirt.

Now I ride a Honda CRF230.  It has the same basic engine as the old XR's, but comes with the very welcomed electric start and longer travel suspensionThis bike may not be really fast, but it is light, handles just fine, and I can still touch the ground with both feet—and you don’t have to change the oil every sixteen hours of riding!  Honda USA are you listening??