During the early 1970s, the off-road motorcycle market was in full stride. With models from Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha entering and leaving the showrooms like a revolving door, this had Honda completely on the back foot with their only response to these being the outdated SL125 or CL350.
With the newer dual purpose sports bikes taking over in the dirt and on the sales charts, Honda needed something new if it was to get back on top. Enter the XL250.
Honda XL250 Review
The original Honda XL250 was introduced in 1972 and as the Father of modern day four stroke duel sports bikes is considered one of the most important motorcycles of the 1970s.
Unlike the previous Honda “off-road” offerings, the XL250 was not a derivation of an existing road bike but built from the ground up to tackle the trails.
Sticking to their heritage, at the heart of the groundbreaking dual-sport was the world’s first mass-produced four stroke overhead-cam, four-valve motorcycle engine. A contrast to the two-stroke powerhouses of its main rivals the Yamaha DT250, Kawasaki F11 and Suzuki T250.
The new 248 cc compact engine utilized a flywheel magneto ignition system, Keihin slide carburettor and five-speed gearbox with its engine cases made from aluminum with side covers in, then-exotic, magnesium alloy.
The wheels were a standard 21 inch front and 18 inch rear aluminium spoked and were stopped by means of an expanding “drum” brake. The slimline design of the bike, just 12 inches at its widest point (excluding the handlebars) gave it that proper “dirt” feel of true enduros.
Unlike our standard 12v wiring systems of today, the XL250 ran off a 6v battery, which if one desired could be disconnected and removed saving nearly 6 kg of weight.
With much of the attention of the XL250 being on weight saving to claw back the extra kilos the engine added compared to its rivals lightweight two-strokes. The XL250 weighed in at 132 kg (291 lb) fully fueled. still some 15 kg heavier than the DT250 of the same year, but almost 20 kg lighter than the outgoing SL350.
Four variants of the XL250 were released between 1972 and 1976 with only minor cosmetic changes. The first major change came in 1978 with the release of the XL250S, with the front wheel size increasing from 21 inches to 23 inches.
This signature front wheel never found favour amongst the off-road community and was finally lost in 1982 with the release of the XL250R. Along with reverting back to a 21 inch front wheel, the back wheel was reduced to 17 inches and the 6v electrical system was replaced with the more ubiquitous 12v system.
The other major change the XL250R brought was a switch from a 5 speed transmission to 6 speed helping the bike tackle long hills with more ease and giving it more potential as a long distance adventure machine.
Even if it wasn’t intended to be a true Scrambler the sales figures justified the research and development, and its popularity effectively negated the need or justification for the long-running CL bikes.
Such was the success of the four stroke enduro that it swiftly prompted the launch of 100, 125, 175, 185 and 200 cc versions.
Honda also created performance versions of the XLs for pure off-road purposes, the XR Series. The XR variants had higher seats, more torque and lacked equipment for the road like lights and mirrors, a competitive dirt bike through and through.
1987 saw the last year for the XL250 but by no means the last year for Honda dual sport bikes. The XL series were replaced with the short-lived NX250 in 1988 and quickly replaced in 1992 with the XR250L and XR650L, which were street legal and closely follow the roots of the XL series.
The XR series continued on from here, gaining single rear shocks, more ground clearance and Radial Four-Valve combustion chamber heads.
In 2000 they developed the range further by introducing the XR650R. The first range of enduro’s from Honda to feature both a liquid-cooled four-stroke engine and an aluminum frame. The XR650R has gone on to win every Baja 500 and Baja 1000 it’s taken part in as well as winning the only Baja 2000 that has been run to date.
In April 1972, Cycle World took the XL250 off-road to compare Honda’s new dual sport with that of it’s rivals. After spending a day in the hills, Cycle were full of praise for the XLs power stating that it “pulls like a tractor,” and “the XL250 was an impressive hill climber … maybe the best. There was not a hill encountered in our test that the bike would not deal with.”
Further compliments surrounded the little XL including the front brakes and weight distribution however there were a few critiques regarding the rear brake and turning radius. Other than these the feedback was positive from all the testers, most commented that it felt smoother than its two-stroke rivals, far easier to manage at low revs. At the end of the test, Cycle World went on to conclude that it “is destined to become one of the most popular off-road motorcycles ever.”
Honda XL250 specs
Engine: 248cc air-cooled OHC single cylinder
Power: 20 bhp @ 8,000 rpm
Seat height: 848 mm / 33.4 inches
Fuel tank: 9 litres / 2.38 Gal
Dry Weight: 122 kg / 408 lbs
Top speed: 80 mph / 129 kph
Finding a Honda XL250 For Sale
Honda sold thousands of the original XL across the globe in its 15 years lifespan. As what has become expected of a Honda-built product, their durability is incredible, resulting in many good quality machines still in use today. If you’re looking to purchase a good working model with low miles, expect to pay between £3,000 and £4,000. For a truly immaculate example expect to pay upwards of £5,000.
On the other side of the purchasing fence, for those looking to restore one, you’ll have plenty to choose from in a variety of budgets. A good running bike with a few mechanical gremlins and being in need of a cosmetic makeup there are a number available around £2,000 to £2,500.
If you’re really ambitious, you can find non-runners for less than £1,000! For this amount you can expect to spend a good amount getting it working and looking good, but for the right person it would make a great project.
1972 Honda XL250 for sale at £2,500 here.
1975 Honda XL250 for sale here for £4,250
1980 Honda XL250 for sale here with the owner wanting £4,000
Restoring a Honda XL250
Given how popular the XL/XR dirt bikes still are, there are many parts available for the various XL250s that Honda gave us over the years. Honda themselves still produce genuine new parts for the later models, though at a cost.
A new front brake disc for most of the range will set you back £110 and a brake master cylinder kit costs £55! However, knowing you’re able to get every single part straight from the factory, even at a premium price, will certainly give you peace of mind if you plan on restoring one
Alternatively there are a plethora of second hand parts one eBay, as well and many aftermarket parts still being produced. A quick online search will yield results for a front brake disc for £60, almost half what Honda are asking for. If you’re on a budget and don’t want second hand parts, this could certainly be the best way forward.
Below are a few places to get you started.
Is the Honda XL250 a good investment?
Prices across the XL/XR range have plattode over the past year after having a huge spike in popularity and almost doubling in price the year previous. As a financial investment, it seems the time has passed us by to make any substantial profit on the XL and the market is unlikely to raise anytime soon. Fully restored at the highest quality were selling around 5k but now the interest has peaked off the value has dropped to around £4,500
The XL250 made its own small impact in the off-road world and paved the way for the modern Honda dual sport bikes we have today.
It wasn’t a race winner or a bike to pose with but what it did is what Honda’s do best, it worked anywhere and everywhere. It was also the bike, and Honda’s foresight of the market, that paved the way for the new generation of four-stroke dual sports which is still in full swing to this day. A grand legacy indeed.
I was offered a 2004 XR250L dirt bike quite recently with fairly good mileage and a price tag to match. However, I had just invested in the XRs successor, the CRF250L, for green laning, road book rallys and long distance off-roading so didn’t have the funds nor space to put it. If this hadn’t been the case I would have snapped it up.
The original XL250 was a lightweight, robust four stroke enduro. It would cover any terrain you pointed it at and even take you around the world if you wanted, albeit at it’s own pace. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m planning to do with its successor in the near future.
Thursday 14th of April 2022
Having no car, in the spring of 73, bought a First Model, cherry, XL250. As a remote Park Ranger in the Arizona mountains, we had only 2 vehicles, and 1 paved road. Clean, professional,and quiet, it was marvelous for patrol, yet powerful for 60 mph runs into town. Having a few backcountry, enforcement issues, it was great on steep, dirt roads, plus I was usually there before they heard me...with not expecting a *sickle officer. Best of all, met my beautiful wife of now over 40 years, she was impressed, on duty....astride this *tough, cream puff, sweet *sickle*. While I later became a Horse Officer, to serve in riot duty, wish I still had it*.