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Bike Review - Posted 29th April 2013
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Honda XLR200

Brian Jones explains why he chose to rejuvenate a 15 year old Japanese bike when most people would restore an old Brit, and reveals that even Hondas aren't immune to mechanical mishap...

Why rejuvenate a 15 year old Japanese bike when most people would restore an old Brit?

The logic goes like this:-

  • They are not too precious so liberties can be taken.
  • They are cheap and easy to find.
  • The parts are available.
  • They are usually in working order.
  • The job should not take too long, so you can be riding it whilst embarking on a more ambitious project.
  • It's a good place to start your first renovation.
  • Back in the 1980s while riding trials on my TLR200 (Honda) I always admired the XR200 enduro/trail bike. I've seen them hold their own in trials, motocross and on the road. A true do-anything bike. I nearly bought one on two different occasions but common sense prevailed having other bikes that occupied my shed. Now they are a hard to find and expensive dirt bike classic. But an unscratched itch will always frustrate.

    Here's the Honda, as it arrived... Honda XLR200

    Last year I spotted an advert for a XLR200, at a reasonable price. Could this be a substitute? What was it? How close was it to the original object of my desire? A phone call and visit the following day revealed a neglected, teenage style 125 dirt bike but with a 200cc engine. A test ride found a functional but reluctant to wheelie bike. I had been here before, not enticed but somehow attracted. Would I have regrets or satisfaction?

    Sod it; at my age it couldn't ruin my life so I parted with 600 notes and rode it down the motorway, holding a steady 65 to 70 mph with a slight weave. The bike seemed tough, affection was developing. First a new MOT, just a warning note about the tyres but a pass nevertheless. What did I want a trail bike for? Green lanes, forest tracks and unclassified roads in the Welsh Marches, just right. But could a biker in an open face helmet with a bus pass really ride a teenager's bike without a classic reputation? I could be recognised! But the XLR turned out to be a grin-maker in the forest and amongst the wind generators. It reminded me of a borrowed Serow. Yes, I could like this bike.

    Whilst in the forest I met a Welsh man who invited me to a green lane ride. The balding tires had not yet been changed and on the cold, wet, muddy day I wasn't certain that the bike would cope (me neither). On the first hill I got left behind, spinning a wheel at the bottom. Eventually under way, I trying to catch up and going too fast over the top - then I found myself going down a steep mud slide heading for a hazardous bottom. Better to bail out now and lie the bike down. As I didn't keep my toe tucked in I popped a knee ligament (not too badly).

    On an old XR I would have had to kick start the bike with that knee, but the XLR has an electric start: wonderful. Pulling up the other side of the valley in too high a gear on full throttle, I found that this engine can slug it out. Just two more 'offs' that day: over the handlebars hitting hidden boulders avoiding muddy patches, just a broken hand guard. This bike can take it. Any chance of regrets were receding fast. (And thanks to Dave for a great day out).

    In Ludlow found a parts book £10 (in Japanese, I can read Japanese numbers). It turns out that many of the parts are common with the 125 UK import. First thing to do? Tyres. It was suggested that a spare set of wheels with knobblies would be best and these were found on eBay at £100 plus delivery. Less than the cost of two new tyres. At Stafford while looking through dog-eared non-factory manuals I asked the vendor if he had a workshop manual for the XLR125.

    'Yes,' he said pointing to a Honda one, staring me in the face. £10. Fate!

    While changing the tyres I renewed the chain and sprocket, all from a local dealer, The chain was of the O-ring type which make joining difficult so I modified a gee clamp to squeeze the split link together to help fit the spring clip: still fiddly but easier than without. Having the knobblies gave me the option to have more road biased tyres for general use, so Metzler Enduros 1 and 2 were chosen, saving the others for crazy Welsh men.

    Painted or lacquered...

    This far, parts had been easy to find while doing a little work on the bike and riding it had increased my affection. So could I improve the looks? I was tempted.

    Here fate lent a hand again. After a season's riding the XLR developed a fault. On climbing long steep hills the engine lost power and would stop, but would then easily re-start. Intermittent faults - I hate them, but I always managed to get home. After a few unhelpful discussions in the pub, suggestions ranging from ignition to jumping chains or sticking valves, I was persuaded to strip the engine. Completely unnecessary I thought; it was a Honda after all.

    By following the workshop manual I removed the engine easily and put the frame on a scrounged stand. I started by taking off the head and stripping it, looking for any sign of a cause and found nothing. I already knew this was a waste time - it's a Honda. I'm always reluctant to do more than required having learned at an earlier age that a policy of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' is a good one to follow.

    However, with the piston at TDC I removed the cylinder and I discovered signs of piston pick up and score marks on the bore! Why? A rebore, piston and rings were required but I had found a symptom not a cause. A plus 0.5mm (20 thou") piston, rings, head and cylinder gaskets were purchased and the rebore took a week, all sourced locally. While the cylinder was away I examined the big end by feel and passed it as good (racing clearances!). Reground the valves and tappet ends; measured the valve springs; gave it a de-coke, and took out casting lumps from the ports. To remove the valves I made an adaptor to convert a G clamp into a valve lifter.

    So now the top end was in good condition, I decided to drain the old oil and check for piston debris. Draining only about a cup full of oil I found my cause; on climbing hills all the oil had drained back into the gearbox, so starving the oil pump inlet and causing the piston to start to seize.

    My fault, but I've got two other Hondas and I never (well hardly ever) check the oil because they never need any! I just change the oil when the time comes. It's an easy mistake to make - ask any Honda owner. I had changed the oil when I got it, so where had all the oil gone? The bike had done some enduros according to the previous owner. Many unnecessary parts had been removed; sidestand switch, rear footrests, etc, so I think the old rings had suffered a hard time. I couldn't find any oil leaks.

    The new head gasket was much thinner than the old one but was a Honda part with the right number, so with the larger piston and raised compression ratio could I claim some slight tuning. I used bought gaskets on the cylinder but for old times' sake I decided to make the timing and tappet covers myself - using a method I learned when I owned a Royal Enfield.

    All you need is some thick brown paper, a 8mm (5/16") ball bearing, scissors and dirty fingers. Stretch the paper over the cover and make a hole where a bolt goes through by rotating and pressing down the ball bearing over the hole. This cuts a perfect hole. Hold the paper in place with a bolt, cut out two more holes while stretching the paper over the cover. Use more bolts to hold the paper in place and cut the rest of the holes. With dirty fingers, rub the paper on the inside and outside edges of the cover, cut out the gasket following the dirty marks and fit with red Heramatite.

    Some of the 'special' tools made for the job...

    I learned from Triumph ownership that adjusting the tappets is made much easier if the feeler blade is shortened and attached to a bolt. This allows it to be used un-bent so improving feel. I always err on the loose side, as a small rattle is preferable to burnt valves in my opinion.

    The frame was sound but rusty. Taking the engine out would give an opportunity to paint the frame but prolong the job, so painting was postponed. However picking off lifted paint is hard to resist and once started it proved impossible to stop. Using a rotating wire brush in a battery powered drill can remove a lot of rust and reveal metal needing treatment with phosphoric acid, (I'll just do the worst bits…)

    Of course the worst bits multiply. (I'll leave the sub-frame and swinging arm).

    The worst rust is on the sub-frame and swinging arm so I start to pick at it. Now I have cleaned the whole frame of rust, there's lots of bare metal so it needs treating and painting! Dismantling and stove enamel are out of the question. Here I prevail, the logbook said the bike was white.

    Before painting...

    So masking-off the still-fitted parts, and then brushing or spraying white Smoothrite I undercoated the frame.

    I coloured the frame by over-spraying with Honda polar white aerosol which produced a near perfect match. (Let everything dry first as crinkles can develop, try this at your own risk).

    Off Road Hondas on

    After painting...

    The exhaust system was wire brushed clean of rust. The pin holes were sealed with high temperature metal epoxy resin then treated with phosphoric acid, and painted with black stove paint. Zinc plated engine brackets were wire brushed and sprayed with clear aerosol lacquerer.

    Reassembly was straight forward and a test ride revealed that the front disc brake was now binding. So it was cleaned, new seals, clip, and guide peg fitted, all re-assembled with a spot Copaslip. To force the pads apart a separator was made with a door hinge and two bars of metal; this aids the refitting of the front wheel.

    Here's the Honda, as it ended up... Honda XLR200

    At the same time I succumbed to the irresistible urge to paint the lower fork legs. Other improvements were a halogen headlamp bulb, LED rear lamp and a battery charging socket for the Optimate. Parts I made were a knob for the idle screw on the carb to make starting easier, a short brake lever to match the clutch, handlebar ends from white rubber door stops. The reason for shortening the levers and bar ends was to minimise damage from the inevitable 'off'.

    Painted forklegs work well for me, at least... Honda XLR200

    All this extra painting and life delayed things somewhat, so the 'repair job' took about five months instead of a fortnight. It became a rejuvenation rather than a prolonged renovation, but I think the bike looks smart and I am looking forward to using it. I am reluctant to ride much in the cold wet season that is our winter, but come the spring I shall be out there.

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