Author Archives: Chris S

Saudi – a new link on the overland trail?

Updated January 2020

Saudi Arabia, a notoriously reclusive country, recently announced 90-day tourist e-visas are now available online. This easing of restrictions to non-Islamic foreign visitors as well as hosting the Dakar in 2020 is said to be part of the Vision 2030 programme, as the country seeks to wean its saudi-malleconomy off oil. When Saudi talks of developing tourism, they’re probably more interested in groups flying in and spending money in resorts and glittering malls (right) or taking guided tours in air-con Landcruiers, rather than overlanders roaming self-reliantly around the desert.
Anyway, it seems these e-visas only apply to fly-ins leaving from the same airport. You will have to apply for a regular visa at a consulate, but you might assume that these are more readily issued now, not the old transit visas of old.

How does this relate to overland travel?
As the map below shows, it reminds you of the long-possible between Sudan and Iran, or a way to get between Sudan and Jordan for the Israel-Greece freighter ferry. All that really does is avoid Egypt and the Nuweiba ferry. With its protracted entry procedures and CdP there’s something to be said for that, but Egypt is a fascinating HMI country, probably more so than Saudi.

  • They may want to issue local number plates, like Egypt
  • International Driving Permit probably needed
  • Carnet probably not
  • Fuel works out 13p a litre

To the north is Saudi’s current arch-enemy, Iran which some can enter overland from at least five other countries. Like Egypt, on the UN HMI (Historical Monuments Index) Iran has a much higher rating than Saudi. There are ferries from the Emirates to Bandar Abbas, but Brits, Americans and Canadians can’t travel in Iran without an escort.
Though there was talk of it in 2018, currently there is no ferry from Muscat/Oman to Pakistan. (CdP needed for both places). And even then, it might have only ever been intended for passengers, not vehicles.

Is it ethical?
To some probably not, so don’t go there – or any number of human-rights hellholes commonly visited by overlanders. Solo women are allowed into KSA and, unlike Iran, don’t need to wear a burqa, just dress modestly. Expect some gender segregation in public places. It’s worth looking at laws as they apply to tourists, some of which appear shockingly draconian and are bound to get flouted by mistake.

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Honda NC750X DCT – 1100-mile review

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See also:
NC750
Africa Twin 800

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I tried an NC a few weeks back, liked it as I knew I would, so bought a low-mileage current XA/XD model with an idea of converting it into a budget but high-economy ‘Africa Twain’. Plus I wanted to properly get to grips with this DCT malarkey. Judging by Google search results (right), I’m not the only one.
I picked it up near Leamington, rode straight down to Cornwall, then over a couple of days headed back to London via the Dorset Coast. Here’s what I found.

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  • High 80s/low 90s mpg without really trying. Back off a bit – say 60mph – and it will register a live 26.4mpl or 100mpg. With the 14.1-litre tank, at 88mpg/31.1kpl that would give a range of  438km or 272 miles.
  • Plenty of real-world power to get the job done. Fifty-four hp really is all you need
  • Thumb/finger manual changes slicker than my MTB 
  • I like the manual override on auto
  • And the auto downshift override when in manual. They thought it through
  • Suspension – what a surprise! I assumed it would be poor, like a CB-X or XSR7. Far from it. I rode an RE Interceptor recently; it’s better than that, too
  • Corners really well. Not had such a planted road bike for years
  • Right-engle tyre valves. No more struggles with inflation nozzles
  • Tubeless tyres
  • TFT dash – also new on me and the way to go
  • Despite low-speed lugging, day to day preferred the smoother D mode. Settled OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAoccasionally on S1. Higher S levels felt more jerky.
  • Tank box (but even open-face lids can be a squeeze; right)
  • Seat was actually pretty good; sore over 4 slow hours, but not in outright agony
  • For a modern bike, the slabby space ship look is less bad than some
  • Nice crobba-crobba thudding noise as the 270° mill pulls away.
  • Average mpl display was pretty accurate – 5% under at fill up
  • You pull in, flick down the sidestand and it switches off. Remove the key and walk away.
  • It’s a Honda; peace of mind on a long trip
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  • Heavy – on the home scales it came very close to the claimed 232kg wet. Holds you back on some rough bends.
  • Lumpy pulling away at town speeds. That was my impression hopping back on the bike after a couple of weeks. A bit more lumpy than you’d assume is good for the engine, but it’s only a 750, not a huge Harley. It may well smooth out when warm.
  • Harshness – noticed this as soon as I pulled away from the seller’s place. Could be part engine, part transmission (on the move). The test bike I rode a month earlier felt notably smoother, but this wouldn’t be the first time a Honda-sourced (not dealer) test bike felt better than what you buy. It mostly cleared after 1000 miles – maybe old fuel stood for months and needed a good blast? But it’s not as smooth as modern injected twins can be, cf: Interceptor.
  • The engine on my XSR700 was much nicer – and it was 47hp restricted, not the full 72hp. But the XSR only averaged 74mpg over 4000 miles. Can’t see an NC ever dropping below 80. I do wonder if extreme leanness – either to gain economy or pass emissions regs – can spoil an engine’s feel.
  • Still a bit auto-clunky at low speeds, not seamless like an auto car despite the so-called Adaptive Clutch Capability Control.
  • Rode mostly in D but felt like it lugged at times, especially up steep hills and despite ‘a control system in AT mode for gauging the angle of ascent or descent and adapting shift pattern accordingly’. Got into manual downshifting. Auto downshifted better on downhills. Maybe it would have adapted for uphills in time?
  • Maxed it out but the TFT dash was still a bit dim in daylight. Plus would have liked engine/ambient temp info on there, too
  • No 12-v power outlet. I thought there was one in the tank box?
  • I know it’s how we fill up in the UK, but would have preferred other metrics besides Miles per Litre – a new one on me but you’d learn soon enough. (I assume it shows kpl or L/100km if you flip the speedo to kph). Older models had mpg – maybe I didn’t RTFM enough.
  • Like other bikes I’ve had lately, trip distance total (for true mpg calcs) is annoyingly lost when it resets to reserve towards E (or I didn’t work out how to dig it out)
  • Screen is of course too small
  • No centre stand. I bought one before I even picked it up
  • Traction control was a new game for me. I played with it on mid-road gravel patches and the steep track down to my Cornish mate’s house. But unlike ABS, I can’t really see a real-world use for it on a fat-tyred, 54-hp bike like this, assuming you ride alert and sensibly. Corner too fast in the wet or hit oil and the front might go just as fast. TC just seems to be a brake on applying so much power you lose traction. How often do you do that on the road ?
  • The TC switch on the left bars is a clumsy afterthought. Same could be said for the parking brake, tbh.

At the Overland show, organiser Paddy Tyson told me he’d covered 38,000 miles on a manual NC and wondered ‘why isn’t everyone using these for overlanding?’ It was a good question. Manual or auto, an NC is a practical and exceedingly economical machine which carries it’s weight low while easily keeping up on fast highways. I’m pretty sure even in stock form it could cover the tracks on my Morocco tours, and with tyres to suit would have easily managed what I rode on the Himalayan in spring, but without the need to be truck to Malaga. And it would have used 15% less fuel too. CRF250-like mpg but with the grunt to tackle headwinds and hills and the power to sit comfortably at 70+ is not something you get on most bikes. That makes the NC sound like a pretty versatile machine but as is often the case, some bikes fail to catch the buying public’s imagination. The NC is a big seller among commuters, but I’ve barely heard of travellers using them. If DCT is so fabulous, it seems the much flashier Africa Twin is the bike of choice from what I’ve seen at shows lately. Just like BMW’s F800GS trounced the 650/700 version, despite my avowed pronouncements to the latter two’s superiority!

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To me an AT (left) was going a bit far. Yes, it may have eaten all the dirt I was able to feed it but is even heavier an NC with a higher CoG, costs more and had much inferior economy. I’d like to see DCT in a lighter bike like the CB500X, but maybe that just cannot be achieved, yet. Or a sub 200-kg 750 Africa Twin as has been mooted now the 1000L is becoming an 1100.
Low-speed clunks apart, it’s great not have to concentrate on stalling or heavy clutches or agricultural gearboxes or miss-shifts while still having manual control for slowing down into fast bends or steep hills. It allows you to concentrate on other things, and that includes gnarly climbs with steep, clutch-stressing hairpins which in auto or manual 1st would be easy work on the DCT.

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Behind a plastic cowling the electro-hydraulic gear shifters look a bit vulnerable. Get a crash bar.

I’d bought an unusually nice (for me) late model which would be easy to shift – at ~£5k the most I’ve ever spent on a bike. In the end, I decided the 750X was too nice a road machine to meddle with weight-adding protection, longer travel suspension, higher-profile tyres and maybe a 19er front (I suspect the front wheel from a 2019 CB500X would fit). At over 230kg it was too heavy for my sort of gravel roading and the lack of smoothness compared to similar motors was surprisingly off-putting. How spoiled we’ve become!
I lost 100 quid selling it back on ebay; a reasonable sum for a fortnight’s rental. While selling the NC I took Enfield’s 650 Interceptor out for a quickie. Read what I thought about that one here.

Quick Ride: Enfield Interceptor review

egg-Steve-McQ78-bonnie140While working on next year’s AMH I’ve contrived a new category for my expanded section on overlanding contenders: Feel-good Retro Twins. Doing a trip a la Ted Simon or Steve McQueen’s brief tour of the Swiss border could add a certain old-school frisson to the journey. Or maybe it’s just that this was how the twins that I liked looked in my influential teenage years.
It’s not all down to rosey-hued nostalgia. One dk-fittingsgood thing about retro style (or plain motorbikes) is that a tank is a tank, not a plastic cover held on by 12 zillion screws and fittings, like the Africa Twin (right). It greatly eases maintenance or fault diagnosis on the road and ought to reduce labour costs. Plastic cladding has become a cheap way of snazzily styling bikes or adapting the look across a model range.
Enfield’s new 650 roadster twin – the Interceptor is one such machine; what you see is what you get: a low-saddled, low-revving plodder which is light and low enough to handle off-highway excursions across alpine meadows while pulling its weight elsewhere and looking good as only modern classics can. There’s a 650 Continental cafe racer too and they say a taller Scrambler may be in the pipeline.
The twins were largely designed at RE’s UK Technology Centre south of Leicester, assisted by many former Triumph engineers who know a thing or two about twins. It shows, and according to re650motorthose who know, internally Enfield’s 650 engine is a very close copy of Bonnevilles and the like, but rides better in many ways, has six gears and costs about a third less.
Talk of a 650 Scrambler would make sense, given the popularity of the Ducatis and success of the Guzzi’s V85TT. The Himalayan was a big step up from the Bullets but was still recognisably an RE. On the 650 there are a few cheap components which could easily be replaced, but from the look and the feel, the new twin puts RE even closer if not right among its competitors in western markets. That’s a pretty amazing achievement.


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• Great price
• Three-year warranty includes roadside recoveryreintspex
• Looks good, so is the fit and finish
• Very slick gearbox with no drivetrain lash
• Low saddle is comfy enough (and easy to re-foam)
• Engine fuels and pulls smoothly
• Twin shocks easy to adjust or modify. Means no rack needed for throwovers, too
• No complaints about the brakes

cros
For a 270°, motor a bit lacking in character compared to a CP2. A little less silencing may help
Suspension a bit soft (shocks on lowest setting)
Clocks are a bit too retro for me
There are better-looking paint schemes than orange
Felt a bit small for me; taller bars may help

Forum link to a detailed 875mb service manual pdf download (it’s safe).

 

The first thing that struck me pulling away on the 1300-mile-old Interceptor was how uncannily smooth the motor was. It was almost disappointing that the 270° mill’s character had been so well disguised. The other observation was how exceedingly heavy the steering was. Surely not normal. The front Pirelli looked OK, but I know tyres can appear fine and even feel firm but be down by 10psi.
The seat height of 804mm (31.6″) is nice and low but the bike felt quite small which made me feel a bit exposed after a fortnight riding a plastic-clad NC750X. The motor ticks over steadily (no ineffective Himalayan-style cold-start aids here, just proper efi). It revs freely and the gearbox is amazingly slick with zero slack or lash in the drivetrain, something that spoils so many bikes. It means once rolling, clutchless upshifts take just the merest nudge from the foot. I’ve never ridden a bike which does this so easily.

Coming down some steep, shady lanes off the North Downs, the bike really didn’t feel that safe, so in Reigate I pulled into a Shell and put 32psi in the front. Aired up from who knows what pressure and with the sun now out, this was much more like it, at least when I got a chance to let the RE run on between clumps of traffic or cameras. As always, you can’t help comparing a test bike to what you’ve been riding recently and the lighter 650 didn’t feel as planted at my NC, nor was the suspension anywhere as good. Up Chipstead Way the bike (about 211 kilos with the 13.7-litre tank brimmed) was bouncing all over the place. But the motor was much smoother, if lacking the NC’s punchbag-thumping torque, and the light clutch and gearbox as unintrusive as they get.

reint-redLooks-wise, the orange tank with an RE badge and liberal chrome/alloy elsewhere doesn’t do it for me. I’ll take the more recently available batch of pinstriped and painted tanks, especially the black and red with added noire (left). And those bars look like something off my old TS185. One journalist reviewer parroted how the 650s go through no less than a ‘1007-point post-assembly inspection’ to make sure everything is absolutely in order and aligned. Maybe it’s just me, but you’d think they could take a couple of minutes to align the handlebar brace correctly (below). Luckily other bars are available and Triumph twin specialists, TEC have produced a range of 650 accessories, some useful, others just cosmetic but including shocks for just £150.

You’re going to enjoy this.‘ said the bloke at the bike shop as he handed me the keys. It should have been my type of machine but, unlike my Himalayan, I was disappointed to find myself under-awed by the Interceptor. Less quiet pipes may help but it feels like they’ve erased much of the character from the twin and reminds me yet again what a great thing Yamaha’s CP2 is – just the right blend of torque, sound and mutted throbbing – but never any harsh vibration. My XSR Scrambler could be a Feel Good Retro contender too.
These days there’s so much good stuff out there that, along with your wallet and looks, all you’ve left to help you decide is your gut instinct. I look forward to seeing how the 650 Scrambler turns out; it might be worth a second look.

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Eeesh! Sort out that crossbar brace!

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Chunky footrest mounts stick out a bit and, as TEC observed, on the left aren’t squared up.

Lots of sump clearance for protection, though header undersides might get a beating.

A classic mid-Seventies rear end.

Easy-to-adjust shocks got a bit bouncy. Only 3.5″ of travel too, but easily lengthened, with about 10mm of fork-top protruding too.

Tools and battery behind a keyed sidepanel. Just off camera top left is a knob to release the seat (I read later).

Ultrabasic clocks true to the era: odo or trip + fuel gauge.

Plastic indicators on rubber stalks and a headlamp right off my ’78 Bonnie.

Big oil cooler, plus double-skinned pipes stops them turning blue.

One big front disc does the job, with an ABS safety net.

Some pre-unit ‘homaging’ going on here. But at least no faux carb bodies.

Not much plastic at all. Honest bare metal castings with nothing to hide.

Get yer motor runnin’. Head out on the highway. Interceptor overlanding could be fun.

 

 

 

 

Quick ride: AJP PR7 review

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Updated Summer 2020
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I took a short road blat on an AJP PR7 at the Overland show in August and must say, I was impressed. Like many, I’ve been aware of these bikes for a couple of years but it looks like 2019 was the year they officially hit the shops in the UK.

It looks exceptionally well put together and finished, exuding an air of toughness, quality and design integrity which I found lacking in the similar SWM SuperDual 650X I also tried (same red top, six-speed, ex-Husky TE630 motor). However, the ~184-kilo SWM (below) costs £1500 less so it’s still a contender.

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The Samsung tablet idea could be interesting. It wasn’t hooked up online but I think the idea is you plug in your Garmin navigator to display big via the screen – or it has built-in GPS and you load maps on it, plus it must hook up with mobile signals to run online maps. There’s a USB or two on there too. The main dash pod looks like a clone of a Trail Tech Voyager, a bit small and fiddly but some of that info will display on the screen.

The 600-cc engine has loads of smooth power for the claimed 48hp (some say 58; which must be the fierce  ’60-hp’ version), but it and the gearbox were much less harsh than I expected. I got up to 60 before I realised I was still in 4th (been riding an auto lately) and I briefly saw 80 in top where I noted the screen worked very well.  By comparison, the thick but too steeply raked 650X screen (below) felt like a wind hose.

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Though it’s 920mm high and narrow, I also preferred the flat seat to the stepped one Superdual X, even if it was 30mm lower. Amazingly, I can’t say vibration was at all intrusive on either bike, but then it did all pass by in a bit of a blur.

The PR7 feels light too for the claimed 165kg wet (again, been riding a 235-kilo NC)The fuel filler is now in a more conventional position compared to the 250 AJPs, but the 17-litre tank remains low and out of the way under the seat, like 650 and 800 BMWs (and an NC, as it happens).

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With only 1.8 litres of oil in the engine, service intervals are 5000km (5500 on the SWM) which include valve checks (same as a Himalayan), but as you can see on the right (click to enlarge) a few people have already done long trans-continental trips on PR7s.

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Price is a hefty £8500 (alongside the SuperDual’s £7k). It’s the same as an XT700, true, but this bike would be a whole lot more fun and much easier to ride in the desert or Far Eastern Russia, for example. I wonder if it will be as amazingly economical as the 690/701s because I suspect part of the engine’s smoothness is down to rich running, but I’m told it’s in the 20-25kpl range. Consider it an alternative to the two Austrian bikes which take more to be adventure-travel ready. It sure looks better.

In November I came across Belgian eric in Morocco who did one of my tours a few years back and was now back on his year-old PR7 with about 20,000km. he mentioned a fuel-pump or filter meltdown in the Pyrenees one time when he ran low. Mpg was no so good – about 20kpl or 330km to a tank. he needed a Rotopax. His Samsung tablet did not agree with the rain. But other than that he was very happy with it.

Quick ride: Fantic 500 Caballero Scrambler review

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See also: Chinese travel bikes
FTRally
fantold

Fantic is another revived Italian brand who’ve lately produced a trio of retro-styled Caballero singles: the Dirt Track, Scrambler (above) and taller Rally (left) in 125-, 250 and 500cc variants. Fantic also produce skinny, dirt competition bikes (plus MTBs and eBikes in the US), but with the nine Cabs, they clearly believe that capitalising on the current retro fashion – based rather thinly on their 1980s trials and dirt-racing legacy – is a way forward. Good luck to them; just as long as they don’t revive that hideous two-stroke 125 chopper.

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The 500s use Zongshen’s NC450 449-cc engine, tuned, we’re told, to Fantic’s specs. Along with Shineray, Zongshen is one of China’s leading moto manufacturers who don’t just pump out 125s and 250s, and have their eyes on bigger capacities still.
With the DR-Z400 unsold in the UK for over a decade, the disappointment of last year’s Honda 450L and my recent Himalayan filling a different niche, I wondered if the Zongshen motor might be the missing link between 250 trail bikes and 500+ twins?

The 4-valve SOHC water-cooled NC450 isn’t yet another clone based on a late-80s XBR Honda motor as found in the old WKs, the Mash and many other Chinese 400-cc bikes (under various brands) including the now-discounted SWMs 440s. The NCs are a cut above that and in 2017 Zongshen entered five NC-engined bikes in the Dakar. All DNF’d, but mostly due to crashes.
No surprise then that the compact six-speed NC engine looks more like the 450R in the CRF450L. Could this be a travel-friendly Goldilocks motor CCM should have used in their GP450 (had it been around), and with more realistic service intervals than Honda’s 450L? A quick spin on the Fantic Caballero Scrambler might provide answers.

• Oil capacity: 1.6L
• Oil and filter change intervals: 5000km/3000 miles
• Valve check inter
vals:5000km/3000 miles
• Alternator output: 300w
• Power / torque: 40hp @ 7500rpm / 43Nm @ 6000rpm
Source
Zong450
ZRX4-2019-2In the US, CSC directly import the Zongshen RX4 (right) which uses Zongshen’s NC450. It sells for $6000 but like many Chinese bikes, with prices now exceeding what we’ll take a chance on blindly, manufacturers seek to add value with a lot of clutter extras and bulked-up bodywork which with the RX4 whacks the weight up to over 200 kilos, more than a stock CB500X. More here
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Going for around £6400 new, my Fantic Scrambler had under 600 miles on the clock and riding out of Horley, at low rpm felt a bit cold-blooded, with hesitant fuelling spitting pops and bangs out of the pipe. This wasn’t a softly tuned, rattley old plodder like my recent Enfield Himalayan.
I realised: OK, so this is how it’s going to be. The Scrambler 500 likes to be gunned and the noises spitting out of the pipe are part of its character. What a shame then that I was stuck among the leafy, 40-50mph-limited byways of Sussex and Kent, with vans pulling out of driveways, tractors flinging crap in all directions crap and hatchback mums tootling about on errands.

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Providing you were a few thousand revs above idle, the motor responded instantly to the heavily sprung throttle and the snicky gearbox and taught drive train drove the bike forward. The fat-profile 17/19-inch Pirelli Scorpion Rally STRs stayed well inside their comfort zone while 150-mm of travel on the 41-mm USD forks occasionally thudded over sunken manhole covers. The twin canned Arrow pipe managed to hit just the right balance between obnoxious din and an over-muffled parp. But high pipes need intricate routing to avoid both cooking and dislodging the right leg. The burning sensation at my right ankle soon cleared once the thermostat opened but stood up, the panel pushed the shin out like a Triumph Scrambler. Looking underneath, there’s room to route it low with chassis rails to take a sump guard.
The
Bybre brakes worked as well as they looked, with little pressure needed to haul on the 320mm ø front disc. A quick stab at the back proving the ABS works like it should.

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The Caballeros are said to weigh about 160kg with ~12-litre tanks brimmed and the minimal nature extends to the switchgear and a tiny speedo. I must admit I missed a gear-position indicator – there you go, I’ve come out and said it! – but also the not-working (or disabled?) rev counter. It’s integrated a little too cleverly into the periphery of the dial, overlapping the fuel and battery level indicators. Blundering about with the display scrolling came up with trip meters and maybe remaining fuel range and battery charge (again). Even stood still it was hard to tell, but there must be a way to adjust the clock and hopefully flip to kph. Also, the unit looked set a couple degrees off in the housing.

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I pulled over onto a village green for a closer look at the Scrambler. It’s a good-looking machine and the black, all-19-inch, black, Flat Track version (below) is even better (though I might spec the Scrambler’s fatter seat). Big chunks of CNC machined alloy were bolted to the black Cro-Mo frame, the brake pedal tip is replaceable and the gear shifter folds in. I like the rectangular route of the long header with integrated catalyser; a clever way of extending the pipe (long pipes = better torque). It mirrors the big radiator above, capped with a header tank that’s not just tacked on the side for once.

FMCabFT
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There’s a feeling of solidness which matches the ride, only spoiled by the odd flaw like the oil filler cap right under the scalding header (right), the pillion footrest under the bulging sidepanel /exhaust guard, and some scruffy wiring on the left side of the engine (left).

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At the bars the ABS is intuitively disabled with a button, but the non-self-cancelling indicator rocker switch took a bit of getting used to, and the high/low beam switch is not one I’ve seen before and might be tricky to flip quickly at night. While doing that it’ll also be interesting to see how that multi-bulb LED headlamp lights up the night. On the back, the tail light must be the legal minimum size, as is the front fender. Get over it; that’s the look! The top of the plastic tank cover has an inset panel and strap slots which I’m guessing is there to evoke the enduro scorecard holder from a 1970s Cab’, but will hold a BLT just as well.

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It was time to head back to Horley, only now with a little more gusto. I’d already decided that in this state of tune, Fantic’s take on the NC450 was a bit too fruity to make an agreeable long-range travel bike. I’d trade a bit less top-end surge for some low-end grunt, plus cleaner fuelling. It reminded me of a hot-cam’ed TT500 with an over-sized slider carb which all only works towards WFO.
But for the moment, let’s just enjoy squirting the Scrambler from bend to bend, van to van and 30-mph-village to Kentish village. Out on Britain’s lonely moorland roads the Scrambler or the Tracker would be a blast. I got up to nearly 80 and the bike and engine still felt as solid as a bell and with more to give. Retuned and in a less Spartan, low-pipe configuration like the Him, it might just plug the hole for a light, dirt able travel bike which Honda’s 450L failed to do.

Many thanks to T. Northeast in Horley for the test ride.