Missed Adventure: 1984-1987 Cagiva Elefant

From launching its first street bikes in 1978, Cagiva was, by the early 1980s, the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in Europe — meet the Cagiva Elefant and its contenders.

  • 1984-1987 Cagiva Elefant
    Image courtesy Cagiva
  • 1987-on Kawasaki KLR650
    Image courtesy Kawasaki
  • 1980-1987 BMW R80G/S
    Image courtesy BMW

1984-1987 Cagiva Elefant 650
Claimed power: 55hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 115mph (indicated)
Engine: 649cc air-cooled SOHC desmodromic V-twin
Weight: 454lb (wet)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 38mpg (avg.)
Price then/now: $4,632 (1986)/$1,750-$3,000

The present-day fad for adventure touring motorcycles has, like most fashions, a precedent in a previous generation. But it wasn’t Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s parents who sparked the European craze for dual sports in the 1980s: It was BMW’s success in the Paris-Dakar race, which they won four times (1981 and again from 1983-1985). Seeing a “me too” sales opportunity, several Italian manufacturers followed suit with adventure bikes in the 1980s: Morini had the 500 Camel, Moto Guzzi the V65NTX, Laverda the 600 Atlas, and Cagiva the 650cc Elefant.

From launching its first street bikes in 1978, Cagiva was by the early 1980s the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in Europe by number of units produced — mostly small 2-strokes. In order to break into the bigger-bike market, Cagiva reached a deal with Ducati for the then government controlled company to supply them with 650cc engines. Three motorcycles resulted from this initiative: The sporty Allazzura, the Indiana cruiser, and the dual-sport Elefant.

The Elefant’s engine was a development of Ducati’s desmo 2-valve, air-cooled L-twin Pantah with a bore and stroke of 82mm x 61.5mm for 649cc, and with the rear cylinder head reversed, as on the 750 Paso. But instead of the Paso’s troublesome Weber down-draft carb, the Elefant breathed through a pair of Dell’Orto PHF36 pumpers. Ignition was Bosch electronic, and drive to the wide-ratio 5-speed transmission (sharing cogs with the Indiana) was by multi-plate clutch — wet on early bikes before changing to dry.

Unlike the lithe, ladder-type frames of its Ducati contemporaries, the Elefant used a full cradle of square-section tubes under a broad, sturdy spine that also served as a plenum, feeding air to the carbs from an airbox under the seat. Ducati street bikes typically have the swingarm pivot in the gear case and the Elefant did as well, augmented by stout frame plates. A pair of bolt-on bars also triangulated the power unit to the spine. And to ensure the well-buried rear cylinder stayed cool, an oil cooler was added, bolted to the frame downtube.

The box-section alloy swingarm traveled through 8 inches and worked an Ohlins shock — adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping — through Cagiva’s “Soft Damp” rising-rate linkage. Wheels were laced up with Akront alloy rims, 17 x 2.75-inch at the rear and 21 x 1.85-inch at the front, the latter controlled by 9-inch travel, air-adjustable Marzocchi 41.7mm forks. Brakes were Brembo with a 10.2-inch front disc and four-piston caliper and a 9.4-inch disc with two-piston caliper at the rear. They were all top drawer components intended to create a quality product. So did it work?

12/13/2014 11:28:15 AM

Timely article! I recently bought an '86 just like in the lead photo. I remember from riding an '87 Lucky Strike edition that the forks had a tendency to flex under hard braking, I plan to add a fork brace to help with this. Seat height is a bit of an issue since I'm only 5'6" tall with a 30" inseam. I've dialed out most of the rear spring preload, moved the forks up as much as possible and am having an extra seat cut down an inch and a half. Should get where I need to be. Looking forward to putting some miles on it in 2015. Thanks for the article, hopefully values will go up as a result! :-)

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