1989 Honda Transalp

A generalist bike from before the age of specialization that does everything.

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by Nick Cedar
  • Engine: 583cc liquid-cooled 4-stroke 52-degree V-twin, 75mm x 66mm bore and stroke, 9.2:1 compression ratio, 54.2hp at 8,000rpm (per manufacturer), 40lb/ft @ 6,000rpm (per manufacturer)
  • Top speed: 110mph (period test)
  • Carburetion: Two Keihin 32.5mm CV
  • Transmission: 5-speed constant mesh, left foot shift
  • Electrics: 12v, electronic CDI ignition
  • Frame/wheelbase: rectangular section double loop, single downtube/60in (1,524mm)
  • Suspension: 41mm Showa telescopic front forks, single Showa rear shock, spring preload adjustable
  • Brakes: 10.9in (277mm) single disc front, 5.1in (130mm) SLS drum rear
  • Tires: 90/90 x 21in front, 130/80 x 17in rear
  • Seat height: 33.3in (838mm)
  • Weight (wet): 450lb (204kg)
  • Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.8gal (18.2ltr)/40-58mpg
  • Price then/now: $4,498/$2,200-$5,000

The twenty first century is the age of specialization.

It’s not enough to be a computer engineer, you have to specialize in a particular branch of computer engineering. Doctors have certificates in one subspecialty of gastroenterology, not just gastroenterology in general. When it comes to motorcycles, there are luxury touring motorcycles, light touring motorcycles, cruisers, cross country off-road motorcycles, trail motorcycles, trials motorcycles and motocrossers, to name just a few.

The Transalp, unlike most motorcycles made these days, is a generalist. It does almost anything.

Owner Allen Siekman has a collection, mostly of vintage Japanese motorcycles. They all get ridden, but this Transalp is the one he grabs when he needs to get someplace. “The Transalp does everything so well,” he says. It has also aged well — the original paint and bodywork on this machine looks new, despite the odometer showing over 62,000 miles.

Transalps are classified as dual-sport bikes, a kind of motorcycle that has evolved relatively recently. At the dawn of motorcycling, all motorcycles could be classified as dual-sport bikes. With the streets of major cities commonly paved with cobblestones and rural roads mostly dirt and often featuring deep wagon ruts, Reading Standards, Popes and flat tank Harleys were expected to deal with all possible road surfaces, and did quite well, given the state of technology in the Teens and Twenties. As time went on, more and more roads were paved, and motorcycles were built to only run on paved roads, or smooth dirt in a pinch. There were still a lot of people who either lived out in the country or liked to go exploring, so manufacturers built special purpose dirt bikes for those who wanted to get out and play in the dirt. These were typically smaller displacement, longer suspension lightweight machines that had a lot more torque than top end power and no lights.

The division begins

Special purpose motorcycles — street only or dirt only — created problems. What if you were out on your dirt bike and wanted to make a run into town to pick up some food? What if you were out on your street bike and saw an interesting trail off to the left? What if you only had enough room in your garage for one bike?

In the 1950s, British manufacturers started building bikes with high pipes and single carburetors that were street legal, but usable off road. In 1968, Yamaha started exporting the 250cc 2-stroke DT-1. This light, powerful bike was a good dirt bike with full lighting equipment. It became a very popular machine, and spawned a long list of imitators, called enduros: lightweight street legal motorcycles that were based on dirt bikes.

Unlike other enduros, which were often 2-strokes, Honda’s CL series was based on its 4-stroke 350 street twin, but with high pipes, dirt tires and lower gearing to improve off road performance. The BMW R80 G/S debuted in 1980. It was a heavyweight motorcycle that was both a good touring bike and highly capable off road. Adventurers used GS twins to go all over the world, published stories and photos of their exploits and sparked a whole new category of motorcycle. Other manufacturers took note. Yamaha introduced its own touring off-roader, the Tenere, in 1983. It soon became a hit in Europe.

While all this was going on, Yamaha’s arch enemy Honda was developing a liquid cooled V-twin engine. The first iteration was used in the CX500 in the late 1970s. A later variation on this concept — a 52-degree V-twin with overhead cams — first appeared on the 1980’s Ascot twin, and then (with a driveshaft) powered the Honda Shadow family. It proved to be a very reliable engine.

Beginnings of the Transalp

Yamaha was scooping up sales with its Tenere, and Honda wanted to market something similar so its dealers could compete. Like the ancestral CL, the new model was based on a street bike concept, modified to travel on gravel and dirt. The company decided to use the reliable V-twin to power the Transalp, which was announced soon after Honda took five of the first six places in the Paris-Dakar race in 1986. Advertised as a bike that would be equally at home on dirt and pavement, the Transalp was powered by a 583cc version of the V-twin, with the cylinders fore and aft instead of sticking out at the sides. Each cylinder had three valves; two intake, one exhaust, with two spark plugs per cylinder.

Highlighting the hybrid nature of the beast, it boasted a fairing that had been tested in a wind tunnel, extensive bodywork, a 33.3-inch seat height to allow for reasonable suspension travel and a comfortable seat roomy enough for two. Despite the skid plate and plastic hand guards, testers deemed the Transalp engineered more for the street than the dirt. For the first two years, it was only available in Europe, but in 1989, it made it over to these shores.

Coming to America

The 1989 American version of the Transalp had a 4.8-gallon gas tank. According to a period test, the bike got 54.1 miles per gallon, thus producing a theoretical cruising range of almost 260 miles — enough to really get you someplace despite lack of gas stations on your route. It also had a rack on the back, providing a place to carry loads, since the high pipes interfered with saddlebags. Final drive was by chain. Stout forks and a well-thought-out monoshock dealt easily with broken up pavement and other common city road hazards, while an excellent front brake assisted with panic stops. Although the Transalp may not have been at its best on narrow trails out in the country, it excelled as a commuter.

Testers agreed that the V-twin engine produced impressive torque and power for its size. They praised the seat, but found it a little soft for long trips. They liked the wind protection afforded by the fairing and hand guards, the smoothness of the engine, and the non-vibrating mirrors. On fire roads and other reasonably well graded unpaved byways, the front end was trustworthy enough to get up some speed. The editors at Cycle cautioned that taking the Transalp on tiny, twisty paths in the hills was risking expensive bodywork.

On and off road

Bob Anderson, writer for the late lamented Road Rider magazine, took his test Transalp on the annual Barstow to Vegas dual sport run. This event, still run by AMA District 37, involves both challenging off road sections and fast road work. The first thing Anderson did after he picked up the bike was figure out how to take it apart. He was pleased by how easy it was to remove the bodywork (one screw!) and how accessible the oil filter, battery and fuses were, although draining the oil involved more dismantling than he would have liked. He also appreciated that it ran well on regular unleaded.

That year’s Barstow to Vegas run featured “150 miles of rain, then 226 miles of fog,” as Anderson put it. At one point, with visibility close to zero, he went down at less than 5mph after putting his front wheel in a rut that he couldn’t see and scraped up the bodywork a little. “How did the Transalp do? Better than I am capable of.”

Anderson was pleased that in 1,500 miles, the Transalp used no oil, the battery stayed charged, and the coolant level stayed up. The tires wore rapidly, which was a concern. The seat and the riding position were comfortable, the handlebar controls were easy to operate and the suspension made for a comfortable ride.

Honda imported the Transalp to the United States in 1989 and 1990. The 1990 version was almost the same as the 1989 model. Cycle World did a test that year with seven different dual sport bikes, and praised the Transalp for its versatility, its torquey engine and its great suspension.

However, the writing was on the wall in the U.S. when Honda dealers were forced to discount ’89s to get them off their floors. Hugely popular in Europe, the twin never achieved a mass following on the left side of the Atlantic. It didn’t appeal to either the sport bike crowd or the cruisers, and people who wanted to get dirty generally owned a pickup truck to haul their off road machinery to where the road ended. A small group of American cultists cherished their Transalps, and some even kept a Transalp to ride in Europe. Europeans could buy new Transalps through 2012, and there are rumors that Honda is planning a Transalp comeback.

Acquiring this Transalp

One of the places American magazines often took their test Transalps was to Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is actually quite temperate much of the year, although sane people avoid the place from the middle of April through the middle of October, since summer temperatures are regularly above 110 F. The park features spectacular desert scenery that is accessible via a mix of good pavement, graded dirt roads and challenging trails with rocks and soft sand. Many bike clubs, including the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club, have an annual Death Valley run on their calendar, and Allen Siekman often participates in the VJMC run.

A friend of Allen’s turned up on a Transalp on the VJMC Death Valley run several years ago. Allen was impressed, and told him that if he wanted to sell, Allen wanted to buy. Eventually, the friend found a need to thin the herd in the garage and called Allen. “I snapped it up.”

Allen took his prize home and inspected it. Although the Transalp had a fair number of miles on it, it had been carefully maintained and the bodywork was in prime condition. The only apparent problem was the previous owner’s taste in tires. “He put a fat rear tire on and a skinny front. It handled badly for me, so I changed to the stock size tires, and now it handles great.” Aside from the tires, the only apparent deviations from stock were heated grips and a European-spec bluish gray fairing lower.

Allen probably rides this bike more miles than the rest of his collection, but probably does less maintenance on it than on most of his bikes. “I change the oil every 1,000 miles because I like to,” he says. There is very little to do on the Transalp; the carburetors stay in synch and the ignition is an electronic CDI unit. The CDI ignition is a weak point; and Siekman carries a spare, just in case. He also says that the bike comes “with a reasonable tool pouch — except the sometimes needed 13 millimeter wrench.”

“All it needs is oil changes, new tires when the old ones wear out, chains and sprockets. It had new sprockets when I got it. I spend a lot more time cleaning this bike than working on it. S100 works so well — it cleans off major dirt. I also use Meguier’s cleaners and hi-tech liquid wax, and detail spray between washes.” Regular cleaning, indoor storage and attention to detail keeps this high mileage machine looking like it just rolled off the showroom floor.

On the road

The Transalp is not particularly warm blooded, and, although it fires instantly, it needs to warm up for a few minutes on half choke, about the time it takes for Siekman to finish putting on his jacket and gloves. Once warmed up, he says the engine is incredibly smooth, and doesn’t make a lot of noise. “The stock exhaust has a warm burbling sound. I like the tone of the engine when accelerating — it’s a warm powerful sound. It has a lot of torque, possibly due to the gearing. It doesn’t matter what gear it is in, it’s very smooth.”

“It’s also surprising how well it handles on twisties. All I have to do is weight the footpeg and it wants to dive into a corner.” Siekman campaigns a Honda 160 and a Honda 450 in the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) roadracing series and understands handling. “Even if the RPM is low, it wants to pull out from wherever you are. It has a very wide powerband.

“This bike is an undemanding, functional, pleasant, smooth ride. The looks are cool in a retro-ish way. The Transalp has no issues, which is why I ride it so much.” MC

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