I well remember the day in the southern winter of 1983 when I first clocked Yamaha’s original XT600Z Ténéré (left) outside Maxim Motorcycles on the Parramatta Road, west Sydney.
I crouched down for a good look at the machine which appeared to have addressed just about all the deficiencies of my 1982 XT500 desert bike: front disc brake, huge 28-litre tank, monoshock back-end, 12-volt electrics, folding lever trips, oil cooler and a thrifty ‘twin-carb’ set up. And all at around 140 kilos dry. The 34L XT600Z Ténéré, named after the most gruelling Saharan stage of the Paris-Dakar Rally (see below), looked pretty much desert-ready right off the showroom floor.
‘Tenere’ – What’s that then?
Tenere – or as the French write it: Ténéré – is one of the many Tuareg words for ’emptiness’ or ‘desert’. The more familiar Arabic Sahra [Sahara] means the same thing, but like the Inuit and their snow, the nomads of the Sahara distinguish between many types of desert and regions. The Tenere is a particularly desolate waterless expanse which fills the northeast corner of Niger (left and above right).
In the Dakar Rally’s 1980s heyday, the crossing of the Tenere from Algeria to Agadez in Niger via the dunes of the Bilma Erg typically decimated the field and helped establish the Tenere’s already notorious reputation of the ‘desert within a desert’.
In 2003 we rode to the famous Arbre Perdu or ‘Lost Tree’ in the northern Tenere (below) where Dakar founder Thierry Sabine had his ashes scattered following his death during the ’86 rally. More on the Tenere click this.
I finally bought my first Ténéré in London in 1985 to tackle my own London–Dakar adventure. This was the slightly modified 55W version of the original 1983 34L, produced for just one year. The changes were small: front disc brake cover, stronger DID rims, revised chain adjuster, longer, all-red or blue seat and most easily spotted: sloping speed blocks on the tank.
Modifications to my 55W amounted to nothing more than adding thicker seat foam and some Metzeler ‘Sahara’ tyres – a rubbish choice for the actual Sahara, even back then. Using no rack was another mistake which nearly cost me the bike when my baggage caught fire.
In fact, there was so little to do that I went to the bother of moving the oil cooler from next to the carbs out into the breeze over the bars. And I painted it black because I was still in my juvenile Mad Max phase.
With my £5 ex-army panniers slung over the back, in December ’85 I set off for Marseille, bound for Dakar in Senegal via Algeria, Niger and Mali.
This was my first overland trip which succeeded in actually crossing a few African borders – and it proved to be as eventful as my first Sahara ride on the XT500 (and the Benele quickie which followed). On the way I learned many must-do-next-times as well as several more never-do-agains, all useful material for my Desert Biking guide published a few years later and which evolved into the current AM Handbook.
I met Helmut in Tamanrasset and we set off across the Sahara together. Sadly he crashed and burned, never to reach the Niger border. I also had a smaller fire a day or two later, but was thrilled to have finally crossed the Sahara into West Africa. As I wrote later, reaching sub-Saharan Africa was like switching a TV from black and white to colour. There are a few photos at the bottom of the page, or you can read the long version of that trip in Desert Travels.
A few weeks later, with many more adventures and worthwhile lessons under my belt, I shipped my partly burned Tenere out of Dakar and flew on to Spain to catch up with it.
Yamaha’s original 600cc Ténéré was the first proper well-equipped lightweight travel bikes, created on the back of Yamaha’s success in the Dakar Rally which I encountered on a few occasions out there. That bike was a game changer, with the brakes, range, suspension, economy, power and lack of weight which ticked all the boxes. In Europe they absolutely loved them; over a decade the French alone bought 20,000 Teneres; over 30% of all production. A mate just picked up a rough one for a few hundred euros to go with an Italian minter worth €3500. They were never officially imported into North America. From 1987 the only-recently discontinued KLR650 filled the same niche and had the same loyal following. In Europe it was largely ignored.
A good early-Tenere page.
The next Tenere was the IVJ model (left and above) with kick and electric start, firmer suspension and the air filter positioned rally-style under the back of the tank. But costs were cut elsewhere, it supposedly had over-heating problems and it just didn’t seem as durable as the original kickers. Mine sounded pretty clapped-out by the time I returned from a 3000-mile Sahara trip.
I never owned one, but the classic twin-lamp 3AJ Teneres (left), was said to be a better machine, even if it had by now gained some 25kg. There was said to be a 5th gear problem common to other 600 Teneres, but only if you rode them very hard.
The 5-valve XTZ660 Tenere from the 1990s (below left) still looked great but by now had gained even more weight. On top of that, poor electrics and other flaws managed to lose the Ténéré mojo in the face of KTM’s dirt-focussed 640 Adventure (right).
After the 5-valve was dropped, for nearly ten lean years in the Noughties there were no Teneres in production. BMW’s 650 Dakar became popular big single travel bike; Teneres were seen as an 80s throwback.
Then, in 2008 Yamaha’s legendary desert bike returned as the XT660Z. Based on the injected XT660R and X produced from 2004, the fuelling was much improved and again, it ticked many boxes, even if it now weighed over 200 kilos and, at times, felt it. Fuel consumption varied widely but averaged 25 kpl, giving a range of about 570km/360 miles from the 23-litre plastic tank.
I bought a barely used one (above) soon after they came out, did the usual kerbside makeover and set off for Morocco to research the first edition of Morocco Overland. Read about that bike here.
By 2016 ever-tightening emissions regs killed off the hefty 660Z Ténéré. Meanwhile, travel bikers round the world have their hopes pinned on 2019’s XT700 Ténéré, based on the brilliant twin-cylinder CP2 motor as in my XSR700. The T7 is no heavier than the 660Z and looks like it’ll be another desert-ready hit right out of the crate. I hope to test ride one in a few weeks.
Pictures from Sahara & West Africa, 1985-6