For years now, the Dual Sport segment has seen continuous growth in the motorcycle industry. Lately, a COVID-fueled sales boom in off-road powersports has put that demand on steroids, leaving many dealers showroom floors picked clean with nothing left to sell. Demand for used bikes has also been on a tear, driving prices up and encouraging owners to pull their old machines out of crevices to get them prepped for sale.
Whether one is new to the sport or coming back after a long hiatus, an affordable cost of entry is one thing that makes Dual Sport riding an appealing recreational activity. These days there are many great new Dual Sports options in the $5,000 and up range, and you can find well-kept used models between $3,500 to $4,500. For many on a tight budget that may still be too pricey an investment though. How about something good for around $2,000? A capable Dual Sport that isn’t falling apart, just needs a little TLC, and might actually make people say “Nice bike!” once cleaned up?
For this latest project, we set out to find a machine that ticked all the boxes mentioned above and began eagerly scouring the classifieds in search of a sweet deal. One bike we had our eye on comes with a very unique history — the Honda XR600R. While it was marketed as a trail bike in its day, it saw surprising success in off-road racing. Notably in the Baja 1000, where it achieved the top step of the podium five times with riders like Johnny Campbell, Jimmy Lewis, Bruce Ogilvie, and others at the helm. Scott Summers also famously raced the XR600R in the GNCC series, collecting five titles, even though the big thumper was considered too heavy for tight woods terrain by its critics.
The XR600R had a long run from 1985-2000, before being replaced by the water-cooled, aluminum-framed XR650R, and much of its original design continues to live on in the current 2021 Honda XR650L. With a large range of years to choose from, a late 90s XR600R (or even an XR650L) might have been a sounder choice for the project, but as far as cool factor, the mid-80s XRs with their iconic Red, Gold, Blue color schemes were talking to us. And when a nice-running specimen from 1986 came along with a dual sport conversion kit and California plate, we couldn’t pass it up at a negotiated price of $2,000.
So what do you get with a ‘86 XR600R? For starters, it’s an air-cooled single, fed by twin carbs, that puts out 45 horsepower and 40 ft-lbs of torque (when new). It delivers power through a 5-speed gear box and fires up with a kick starter aided by an automatic decompression system. The front suspension is a 43mm damper rod fork with 11.0 inches of travel and damping adjustment via air valve. The rear shock uses a linkage system with 11.6 inches of wheel travel and is fully adjustable. Braking up front is performed by a single 256mm front disc with a 2-piston caliper, and an old-school drum brake provides stopping power in the rear.
The bike rides on a 21”/17” wheel combo with a seat height that is up there at 37.0 inches, but it also offers ample ground clearance at 12.6 inches. As far as fuel capacity, you get a 2.8-gallon fuel tank, and the 600R weighs in at 267 pounds dry. Not bad numbers for 1986 and some of these specs would still be impressive coming from a dual sport just being released today.
Shopping for a new ‘used’ motorcycle is all good fun, but it’s not without its own set of hurdles. It takes patience to find the right machine, an understanding of the market, and a thorough inspection before making a purchase. Even the best mechanics sometimes get it wrong and only discover they’ve brought home a turd after going through the bike in detail. If you’re not the mechanical type or don’t have a good friend who is, going pre-owned can be more trouble than it’s worth. However, for those up for the challenge or wanting to learn more about motorcycle mechanics, it can be a rewarding experience.
With the XR purchased and that wonderful 80s smell permeating through the garage, we seemed to have a good running machine with no major signs of abuse. But we wanted this to be more than just a bike you ‘putt around on’ close to your pickup truck. Dual Sport riding is all about heading out to remote locations and knowing you’ve got a reliable motorcycle that can get you back home again.
To put this $2,000 Dual Sport to the test, we entered it in an upcoming AMA sanctioned 300-mile Dual Sport Ride in the rugged Eastern Sierra — the Lone Pine 300. This is one of Jerry Count’s Dual Sport West rides, which are notoriously tough. Completing all the hard routes and making it to the finish line on this vintage machine would be a good indicator that we picked a winner.
Before we could even begin to dream about blasting down rocky single-track trails on our XR, we needed to go through the entire bike and perform some basic maintenance tasks to get it ready for the big ride. Mechanically, there were a few things we knew it needed right off the bat. First, it was missing a chain slider, which probably ripped off at some point due to a loose chain. The chain and rear sprocket were also looking pretty worn and needed replacing. Brakes were weak to say the least, but perhaps that’s just what brakes felt like in 1986? And while we’d heard stories about the power of the XR600R, it was feeling more like a 350R. As for the chassis, everything felt pretty tight, but the front suspension seemed a bit harsh and inconsistent over bumps.
To address the drivetrain issues, we started by ordering the missing chain slider parts. Luckily, the chain hadn’t dug into the swingarm yet, which can be a big problem. The bike also came with a new rear sprocket, which was larger as well. The stock gearing was surprisingly tall, so the lower gearing on the loose, steep trails in the Eastern Sierra would give it some extra oomph. Digging through our parts bin, we also found a brand-new O-Ring chain, which helped us save a little money.
With the drivetrain refreshed and fully lubed, it was on to brakes next. We were glad to see the rear drum pads still had plenty of life left and all they needed was a few twists of the adjuster to remove the excess slack. The front brake pads were looking worn out though, but the owner included a new set with the bike which saved us some cash. Even so, the brake fluid looked muddy and probably hadn’t been changed in decades, so we did a complete flush and bleed of the system, using DOT 5.1 brake fluid, when installing the new pads.
To address the lackluster power, we gave the engine a valve adjustment and fresh spark plug. With access ports at all four corners of the valve cover, adjusting valves is fairly quick and easy to do on the XR. It turned out that all of the valves were loose and one exhaust valve was way off tolerances. We also gave the air filter a good cleaning and oiling.
Of course, an oil and filter change were on the to-do list and we opted for a semi-synthetic rather than a full synthetic oil. This again helped keep costs down, plus these older bikes can spring an oil leak when using a full synthetic. According to Motul’s Oil Guru, Joey Cabrera, the detergents in high-quality full synthetics clean up the sludge in older engines so effectively, that the ultra-slippery oil can begin to squeeze through tiny cuts and pores in old deteriorated gaskets. We went with Motul 5100 15W-50 semi-synthetic for this bike, which has many of the high-temp protection features of a full-synthetic (critical for air-cooled engines) without the worry of oil leaks.
One of the cool things about old dirt bikes that you don’t see these days are the Zirk grease fittings on the suspension. The XR has several Zirc fittings on the swingarm and linkage, and we gave them all a generous helping of grease to flush out any dirt that may have accumulated over the years. To address the harshness in the front fork, we dumped out all the old fork oil (or whatever that muck was in there) then refilled it with ATF (Automatic Transmission Fluid). Unheard of these days but for years, ATF was the standard for damper-rod forks. The rear shock still felt fairly fresh, so we just did a quick sag adjustment. Well… quick after soaking the lock nut with penetrating oil overnight to get it un-seized.
Another task we got started on was rejuvenating the plastics. The fuel tank and fenders were in poor shape with years of accumulated scratches and heavy fading. We paid special attention to the tank, which had a thick layer of oxidation on the surface, likely caused by being stored out in direct sunlight for a period of time.
We got to work on it with a regimen of scraping away gouges with a razor blade, then wet sanding starting with a 400-grit sandpaper, and gradually moving up to 2000 grit. In between, we hit it with a heat gun to refresh the plastic, and finally, polished it to a shiny finish with a buffing wheel. Not a museum restoration by any means, but nice enough to bring back some of its 1980s glory from 6 feet away, and not too nice that we’d be afraid to scratch it up again.
With everything refreshed, we were eager to get it out on the trail. But after sitting in the garage for a few months, the bike didn’t want to idle without the choke on. Uh Oh! A look inside the fuel tank revealed some sediment had somehow gotten in there, which we could only assume gummed up the carbs.
Stories of how the dual carb setup on these mid-80s XR models can be tricky to tune and the potential for cracking a brittle intake boot had us worried we’d hit our first big stumbling block with the project. But before digging into the carbs, we decided to clean out the tank, give it some fresh fuel and try mixing in some fuel system cleaner. We let the bike idle for about 20 minutes on choke, letting it chew on the cleaner for a while, then dropped it down to half choke for another 10, and finally, the moment of truth, no choke. Thankfully, we dodged a bullet on this one. Any debris in the jets had cleared itself out and the XR was idling smoothly again.
It had been a long time coming, but finally we were ready to give the bike a good shakedown test on a local off-road loop in the San Bernardino mountains. Immediately, we could tell the power woes were gone with the bike picking the front wheel up in first through third gear. Apparently, the 80s did have decent brakes, as the new front pads and flushed brake fluid made the previously lackluster braking a distant memory. Yet, the rear drum brake’s performance was still a bit underwhelming.
With a refreshed fork and a pre-load properly adjusted, the suspension had a plush feel while easily absorbing bigger hits. Much better performance than we expected from a pre-cartridge style fork. High elevation wasn’t a problem either for the carburetor’s jetting and it always fired up within a few kicks. Best of all, it was an absolute blast to rip around on this 35-year-old machine that could still give many modern Dual Sports a run for their money.
With our XR600R refreshed, we just needed to make a few final adjustments in preparation for the big ride. For one, there were still some electrical gremlins we had to address with the lighting kit to make sure it wouldn’t draw the ire of the local police during stops in town for gas. The old tires were also in serious need of replacing, and there were some final aesthetic treatments we wanted to apply to really get that 80s Honda dirt bike nostalgia flowing.
With two days of riding, over more than 300 miles of rough jeep roads, winding single track, loose technical descents, rock-strewn hill climbs, sand washes, and even some dunes awaiting us, we’d find out soon enough if our XR was up to the task. If we’ve learned anything from our last Jerry Counts Dual Sport Ride in Death Valley, it’s that when he marks a route as ‘Hard’ you can believe him. Stay tuned for the full story in part two where we finish final prep of the bike and put the XR through its paces!
Great story that brought back memories of the 80s and 90s. Simple bikes that you can fix at home. But being 53 there is no way I want to kick a big thumper to life ever again. Still have nightmares of kickback from a DR600 and YZ490. Miss riding in the dirt but would need that magic start button. Cheers
That’s what these bikes are all about. Bringing back those fond memories of simpler times. Sure, bikes are much better now but it’s not all about a stopwatch. It’s about how a bike makes you feel. And this is a bike I can’t get enough of. Actually, the kickstarting of this bike is not so bad. It’s got the automatic compression release so it feels like kicking over a bike with low compression. Usually starts with one kick, if you know the proper technique. Sometimes it does kick back though if you don’t get it right. I hear you though on the magic button. Although for an extra bike you take out once in awhile, using a kickstart is just part of the fun.
The XRs were easy starters once you got the drill down. Even after sitting upside down off the side of the trail.
Great stuff! Can’t wait for Part 2!
The big question is, will this article now start driving up the price of the xr600?
Hope not. I still see some great deals out there. Hard to find them with a plate though.
I had an ’86 that I created my own dual-sport lighting kit using a total-loss ac system. Worked OK until I hit the brakes at night into a downhill corner and it went -dark- while field coil responded to demand. I also installed an HRC 628 kit in the bike which was awesome until the cams went flat and the engine grenaded going 70 near Zzyxx Rd in the Mojave. Suspension work by Phil Douglas cured the stink-bug head shake.
Moved on to a ’94 XR600 with proper Baja Designs dual-sport electronics and lighting. Cartridge forks. That was a really great bike. I rode it in D-36 Enduro (thanks for the inspiration Scott Summers), many LA-B-V dual sports and also many Countdown rides. I sold it to buy an XR400 and got one of the last CA blue plates in ’02. Loved the 400, but the 600 was really a great bike overall.
Sounds like you had some great times on the XR600R. Would be fun to try out one of the 628’s but I like the idea of keeping this one stock and dead reliable. Perfect bike to have in the garage for getting out on a few dual sport rides each year. Our Countdown ride story on the XR is coming soon. Stay tuned!
Sold my big bikes and only use my XR 600 ’98 to do long trips with.Stock After almost 135 bikes in my lifetime , this is the one which makes me feel best on gravel. I have another ’95 , who’s getting an electric start 650 L engine at the moment. ( for the extra bit of torque from the heavier flywheel , not for the push button ). I just acquired a twin carb RF , like the one in the article in pieces which I am planningto restore as I have no pension fund at 55. I use my XR everyday
Wow. XR’s Only as they say! Good luck restoring your Twin Carb XR. I can’t wait to get back in the garage to tinker with ours some more!
I have an 85 XL350R and am going through roughly the same refurb process. I’m stuck at the pulse generator. Of course they don’t make the exact part anymore, no one can rebuild the original, a used one would probably have the same problem as mine (good when it’s cold, ohms too high when it warms up, then causes misfiring) and you can’t find them anyway. I bought a Yamaha one that looked similar dimension-wise and was supposed to have the right ohms, but after testing it, it didn’t have the right ohms. Did you need to replace the pulse sensor? Any leads on where to find one?
Love this story. I picked up a 1986 XR600R last year intending to plate it for dual sport rides. Amazing bike, but this one has several electrical gremlins keeping it sidelined for longer than I had hoped. Looking forward to part 2 of this story.
Glad you liked it. You won’t have to wait long. Part 2 just dropped on Monday. Check it out!
Good luck with your project!
Wow $2000 I did awesome negotiating $300 for my 1987 XR600 that also came with a spare motor from a 86. Bike didn’t have spark but after chasing and replacing almost everything but the wiring harness. I officially think it is the pickup coil which the other 600 was missing so going to have to order a new one and hope that’s it. My 2000 XR650L needs a stable mate.
Sounds like a great deal and fun project if you can get it running good. Looks like you have a decent start on collecting a whole family of XRs. The prices on these bikes are definitely going up. No intentions of selling this one anytime soon though.
Totally great story. Love that you’re not trying to sell me something other than a good time. Clicking on part 2 now….
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