From its launch in 1978, Honda's XL500 quickly marked its territory, even with its comically large 23 inch front wheel and far too much weight for serious competition, the big XL won fans with its bulletproof engine, stump pulling grunt and stability in the rough. Plus, if you squinted just right it seemed only a hot cam away from its performance oriented XR brethren.
Having been looking for a street legal machine that they could rip around the streets of Tokyo on and also campaign in local vintage moto cross and the Chirihama Sand Flats race events, the XL500 was high on our list of candidates. So when Deus Japan's Director of Motorcycle Operations Matthew Roberts got wind of a cleaner than usual example, he snapped it up.
Compared to the monster two strokes of the era that demanded total attention and nerves of steel to avoid a trip to the hospital, the Honda just makes you smile. Its somewhat of Clydesdale - easy to ride and delivering great bucket loads of torque from idle, so the approach was to shed some weight and give it capable suspension front and rear. Let the engine shine and make the beast a force to be reckoned with, on-road or off, something that could take the fight to the likes of the legendary Yamaha HL500.
After hitting the VMX race regulation books to decipher which elements they could go to town on and still be eligible for entry, a course was chartered and the search for suspension travel, handling and style began. We had to keep the engine and main frame, drums at both ends and twin shocks, but beyond that we could pretty much walk on the wild side.
Up front a set of late 80's XR600 forks have been grafted on, machining the stem and yokes to allow the standard steering bearings and head stock to be retained. These 43mm stanchions now offer full adjustability while ridding the equation of flex, very handy for when rider and machine meet terraferma. Getting decent air was never much a problem on these big singles, surviving the landing, however, was another matter entirely‚ laughs Roberts.
To curb unsprung mass, a KX 250 front hub was overhauled then laced to an alloy 21 inch rim for improved handling and greater tyre selection. A one off adaptor was fabricated to enable the Kawasaki drum hub to make friends safely with the disc spec fork lower. At the back an overhauled KLR hub and alloy rim offers similar reduced mass but still offer a small cush drive, to help soften the hefty pulses the 497cc single piston pushes out.
Out the back, most is bespoke. Rear suspension geometry has been completely reworked and now more closely resembles a Suzuki RM than an Honda XL, with almost 200mm of usable travel. The sub-frame was also created with a mind to cleaner lines, wheel clearance and increased peg to seat height, the original seat and frame had several odd angles going on. A custom swing arm maintains close to standard wheel base (important for road registration in Japan) while custom specification Ikon alloy gas shocks and springs take care of road holding. Radical suspension geometry changes can sometimes be a bit of black art, especially when calculations are designed for maximum travel plus a bit of extra anti-squat built in. Shake down sessions pleasantly surprised though, with the team only mulling over dropping the swing arm pivot shaft a few millimetres to get things just the way they like it.
Retaining the XLs bullet proof internals was always a priority, and race regulations precluded the use of their go-to FCR carb set up. So nothing more than a quick freshen up was deemed necessary. The standard carb, now fed through a K&N pod filter, was rejected to suit the one-off exhaust which features larger diameter headers mating up to a stainless megaphone nestled neatly under the rear frame rail. Roberts confirms the pipe has ticked all three boxes of looking good, sounding great and riding hard.
Seat base and side covers are one-offs in epoxy composite, shaped and created in-house, before the saddle was given simple period proportions and upholstered in kind. The XL frame is no custom builders friend when it comes to alternate tank choice, its high headstock necessitating extensive reworking of curves before having everything sitting right with matching lines. Paint is a little more extravagant than your standard race bike, with multiple layers of clear, vintage white, black and matte clear setting off its compact curves. The extra effort was rewarded, however, with a finished result sporting a healthy dose of early motocross DNA in its aggressive lines. Black vintage race plastic round out the package giving it a purposeful and slightly menacing appearance in race trim.
With the machine set for its competition debut in late July, the team at Deus Japan are understandably already drawing straws for who'll get to ride the main enduro event, unless a new owner beats them to it. What ever the outcome though, following the race, lights, dual sport rubber and minimal road going gear will be back on in quick order, so turns can be taken at night runs through Tokyo's streets for the summer.
Design and build by Matthew Roberts
Paint application by Nakata-san
Sumptuous saddle work by Miauchi-san