Memorable Motorcycle Honda XL 125

July 7, 2009
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda XL 125
Cranking out 13 hp, the Honda XL 125 was a reliable mountain mount for Afghan fighters.

I was discussing this article with my Collie bitch, Meg. I should explain that Meg is not so much a dog – a term she vehemently resents – but more of a furry person. To be fair, she is very knowledgeable about motorcycles in general and classic bikes in particular. But, as will be seen, even a Collie with a brain the size of a small planet can mis-understand an iconic motorcycle.

Meg’s point of view was, in some ways, justified. What, she argued, was particularly memorable about a low powered, low specification and quite unexciting 125cc trail bike with limited off-road performance and none too sparkling on road skills either.

This just goes to show how little Collie bitches integrate the history of motorcycling into the seismic shift which the geo-political paradigm underwent following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Mujahideen Fighter
“The boys with the beards wanted to cover 90 miles in a day carrying a bag of flour, an AK-47 and, if you were a lucky little fighter, 28 lbs of Raytheon Stinger missile provided by your friendly local CIA agent. What you wanted was the XL 125.”

Those readers with a keen interest in the rise of Muslim militancy will, I feel absolutely sure, remember that the Russians moved troops into Afghanistan in 1979. This was not so much an invasion but rather a military support of the unpopular, and ineffective, puppet regime of President Taraki. In fact, it was an exact clone of America’s disastrous foray into Vietnam for a series of identically hubristic aims.

The Russian invasion pitted a poorly armed, and apparently badly led, Mujahideen militia against a spankingly well organized, highly sophisticated and ultra high-tech Soviet army. Suddenly, running round a mountain side with a Second World War Lee-Enfield .303 rifle and shouting obscene threats did not seem to be the smartest thing in the world when your adversary was flying a state-of-the-art helicopter gunship armed with a rather impressive array of missiles and cannon.

The odds were evened somewhat thanks to the outstandingly naive efforts of the CIA who thoughtfully provided tens of millions of dollars in cash support – plus several very large warehouses full of nice, shiny things which went bang – to the Mujahideen in the hope that they would drive the pesky Russians out of Afghanistan, return the unused weaponry to the CIA, and then settle down to a nice, peaceful existence as goat herders.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda XL 125
The durability of the Honda XL 125 ensured its long use even under rigid punishment.

So far so good. Our good friends the Mujahideen – later to be re-branded the Taliban and presently the sworn enemy of all us nice, peace loving folk in the West – now had the hardware to do severe damage to the Soviets but lacked a method of getting around Afghanistan’s mountains and deserts. What the boys with the beards needed was a light, simple, stone-axe reliable, all terrain vehicle which used virtually no fuel – there being a slight shortage of 24-hour gas stations in the Hindu Kush. What they needed was the Honda XL125!

The power plant of the XL 125 is part of the bloodline of one of Honda’s greatest ever designs. The forefather of all the XLs was a 100cc powerplant, which first saw the light of day in 1970. It is a thing of intense mechanical beauty in that it does its job so wonderfully well. The air-cooled, SOHC, two-valve engine makes the Rocky Mountains look like a temporary fixture in terms of its utter, total and complete reliability. Change the oil regularly, and the beautiful powerplant will run to the end of time – and then some.

Maintenance in the mountains could be done by any mechanically adept Mujahideen using a handy rock and a spent cartridge case: demanding the XL was not.

Although the bike is no 600cc super slogger when it comes to pulling power, the tiny motor knocks out a very respectable 13 hp and will buzz up the side of a cliff – even in the rarefied atmosphere of Afghanistan.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda XL 125
The small XL 125 motor was the indestructible heart of a sturdy design.

Put anything vaguely combustible in the XL’s fuel tank and it will run – no Hi-Test exotica for this workhorse. Drop it down a ravine, drown it, bury it under an avalanche and two kicks later it will be purring as sweet as a kitten.

The transmission is built in the same planetary scales of reliability as the engine. It is completely and utterly impossible to break an XL transmission, or clutch, and both will take the most horrendous punishment without a murmur of discontent.

Moving on to the chassis and there is another Golden Gate bridge construction. If you break an XL frame in an accident then for sure you, and St. Peter, will be sharing the same bit of heaven looking down at the crash which killed you.

In fact, everything works just fine on the XL, from the suspension to the brakes and on to the incredibly frugal 80 mpg fuel consumption. And thereby lays the problem.

By 1980, we fussy Westerners wanted more than a bike which was reliable, started easily and could be ridden by anyone after three minutes tuition. What we wanted was a motorcycle which would pull wheelies in third gear. What we wanted was an off-road machine which gave three times the power of the XL and weighed the same. We wanted trick suspension and the ability to hang the back-end out just balancing the slide on the throttle. We wanted a KTM or Maico or, best of all, a works replica SWM. We were the Arai wearing dudes and we wanted off-road bling.

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda XL 125
“By 1980, we fussy Westerners wanted more than a bike which was reliable, started easily and could be ridden by anyone after three minutes tuition.”

By contrast, on the other side of the world, customers wanted to cover 90 miles in a day carrying a bag of flour, an AK-47 and, if you were a lucky little fighter, 28 lbs of Raytheon Stinger missile provided by your friendly local CIA agent. What you wanted was the XL 125.

Sadly, if you watch the news bulletins as closely as I do, you will not find XLs much in use today. They have been replaced by Toyota Hi-Lux pickups for the heavy duty military duties, and I hope that the Taliban are deeply ashamed of this, cheap Chinese copies of the XL for day work in the mountains. Guerrilla fighters these days simply have no style!

Memorable Motorcycles - Honda XL 125
The venerable Honda XL 125 was as capable on the road as off.

Today, the little XLs are one of the great classic bike bargains. Even assuming that you do not want to nip out to the woods on a Sunday with a ground to air missile strapped to your back – and that’s no criticism of readers in Montana – the XL is still a wonderfully willing little workhorse which is surprisingly competent off-road, providing the gearing is lowered slightly. It is also a wonderfully inoffensive motorcycle, making less noise than a well-muted lawnmower, so you can creep along in near silence simply enjoying the ride.

On the tarmac, the XL is equally delightful. At 50 mph, it makes virtually no more noise than an electric scooter and, at these modest speeds, the handling and brakes are fine.

The last piece of good news is that, at present, even nice early XLs can be bought for two balloons and half a box of candy. Just ask around your neighborhood and they will be there. However, as the delights of the XLs are being discovered, the prices are starting to stiffen so buy cheap now – or spend considerably more in the coming years.