Retrospective: Honda XL350 Dual-Sport: 1974 – 1978

(This Retrospective article was printed in the June 2012 issue of Rider Magazine.)

This four-stroke woodser was an immediate hit with the casual rider, and could even seduce two-stroke lovers away from their mounts. As an added bonus the XL350 K1 was quite adequate on the pavement.

For less than one-thousand 1974 dollars anyone could buy this mid-sized thumper and go play on the thousands of miles of dirt roads that traverse this continent. You just had to keep in mind that the 2.2-gallon gas tank liked to be replenished every 100 or so miles, and with a wet weight of 320 pounds the machine needed to be treated with respect.

Tripping down the tree-shrouded byways, where gravel could turn to sand, dirt to mud, the piston in the slightly oversquare cylinder (79mm bore, 71mm stroke) provided a satisfyingly grunty response when the throttle was twisted. The Brits had long claimed dominance in the four-stroke enduro scene, with half-a-dozen companies fielding 350s and 500s in the 1950s. These were good for everything from trials to trail riding. Then the Spanish came along with some razzy two-strokes, and the Japanese, most notably Yamaha, were soon to follow. Four-strokes began to slip away. The Brits were rapidly losing control of the enduro market, with BSA’s 500cc, OHV single-cylinder B50T (for Trail) of 1972 being the last gasp. The Western world was wondering what the Eastern motorcycle manufacturers would do to fill the gap.

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In 1969 Honda bore the four-stroke banner among the two-stroke-oriented Japanese. It had tried to market its popular OHC 350 twin as a dual-sport machine, the SL350 Motosport. However, the revvy little engine felt much better on the street than on a forest road. That model lasted for five years, to be replaced by the XL350 single in 1974.

1976 Honda XL350 K2 engine.
1976 Honda XL350 K2 engine.

The XL350 was a direct descendant of Honda’s XL250 single. The latter appeared in 1972, and was a pleasant little creature, with the operative word being “little.” The 300-pound 250 was actually quite good in competition, but racing is a very different world from the fun-loving types who just wanted to putter along unkempt trails through a forest, state or national. Honda understood that they could sell a lot more bikes to the fun lovers than to the relatively few competitors, and these folk were more interested in slogging—rather than high-revving—power. To that end the 250, with a chain-driven single overhead camshaft, got bored and stroked to 348cc, and a spin on the dyno showed the 21-incher had well over 20 horsepower at the rear wheel, and almost 20 lb-ft of torque. Respectable.

The same year that the XL350 came on the scene, Honda introduced the XL175 single—250 pounds with 1.8 gallons of gas in the tank. And the miniscule XL125 at 235 pounds appeared in 1975 for riders who really wanted light weight.

Serious enduro types did not need such sissified things as electric starters, so the XL350 had an old-fashioned kicker. But instead of tickling carburetors, retarding sparks, pulling in the compression release and getting the piston just past top dead center, as required by the British, all the Honda required was a big kick. And to pull out the choke if the engine was cold. The four-valve engine’s power peaked at 6,500 rpm, but it could cheerfully spin to 8,000, and a tach kept the rider mindful of engine speeds. The five-speed gearbox had rather wide ratios, good for scrabbling in the muck, and a mere 5,000 rpm was required for cruising along at 55 mph on the pavement. Top speed was said to be about 75 mph.

1976 Honda XL350 K2 tank.
1976 Honda XL350 K2 tank.

Particulars for the XL350 were simple. One 32mm Keihin carb sent the fuel mixture into the combustion chamber, where it was compressed 8.3 times, sparked via points electrified by a flywheel magneto, spent gases exiting through a single header pipe that curved under the left side of the engine and into an environmentally friendly, and heavy, muffler. One of the weak points of the bike was that when riding through rocky terrain, the header pipe was susceptible to getting squished by rocks, and a flattened pipe did not help engine operation at all.

The XL350 had a pleasantly large saddle, though no passenger pegs. The vibration from the solidly mounted engine was not a serious problem, but in consideration Honda designed the rider footpegs so that they were isolated by rubber absorbers. This machine was definitely for the semi-sporting enthusiast, though it was street-savvy, with turn signals and all. However, in anticipation of the rambunctious rider Honda made it easy to pull off the turn signals, lights, and take out the small battery.

1976 Honda XL350 K2.
1976 Honda XL350 K2.

The frame was similar to the cradle-type that housed the 250, with a single front downtube splitting into a pair of supports running under the engine. A reasonable bash-plate protected the vitals, with about eight inches of ground clearance when a not-too-heavy rider was aboard. The swingarm was extended an inch from the 250’s, for a wheelbase of 55.3 inches, which helped to make the front end a little lighter.

The rear shock absorbers had preload adjustability, the fork none. Wheels used tough alloy Daido rims, with a 3.00 x 21 tire on the front, a 4.00 x 18 on the rear. Brakes had small drums, fine in the dirt, a tad weak in traffic.

In 1976 Honda did a major revamp of the XL350, calling this one the K2, with chassis changes that increased the fork rake to 32 degrees, trail to 5.5 inches. A new cylinder head allowed better intake breathing, and a very neat high-level exhaust system was tucked behind the frame and exited on the right side—taking care of that previously mentioned susceptibility problem on the low-level exhaust. Appreciating the state of the market, passenger footpegs were fitted that were, of course, rubber-mounted. The weight went up to 330 pounds, the price to $1,200.

The K2 had a happy three years, but in 1979 the 350 morphed into the XL500S, which is another story entirely.

1976 Honda XL350 K2 wheel.
1976 Honda XL350 K2 wheel.
1976 Honda XL350 K2 gauges.
1976 Honda XL350 K2 gauges.

28 COMMENTS

  1. My rides in the ’70’s had all been two strokes. I got to the peak of the tree, so to speak, with a Yamaha RD350. I had chased my buddies on their RD350s, on my Suzuki 250 twin, and had always kept them in sight. To my great disappointment, I hated the RD350 (fueling difficulties in steady progress, on/off throttle), so when the chance came to swap it for an XL350, I leapt at it. This was my first four stroke, so getting started was a learning curve. After a while, and with a few modifications, my 1974 XL350 became my best bike ever. Very torquey, extremely maneuverable in traffic, unlimited ground clearance, just lovely. I could often go haring along a mountain road with barely a gear change, surfing the torque and relying on engine braking (the actual brakes not being a street highlight). I changed to RD350 shocks to lower the ride position, and lengthened the swing arm by two inches, for better stability at speed. I never noticed any vibration, just appreciated the agility and broad power spread. To me this was an ideal road bike, and I have never found anything quite like it since. There was never a circumstance my Honda could not meet to my full satisfaction. I sold it to buy a car… stupid!

  2. This was my first bike. (1978 250cc) As I lived on a farm, and had dirt roads to contend with to get to work, this little thumper did it all. It was my main form of transport till I got married and needed to buy a car. I eventually gave it to my brother who wanted a cheap to run scoot to get to his classes. Still reminisce about this bike. It was reliable, cheap to run and had plenty of grunt. I added a camel tank on to give me better mileage, the only mod I did with this machine.

  3. This was/is my first bike and it has been quite the adventure owning it. I picked it up my senior year of highschool for 375 bucks almost running (took a bit of tinkering). Stripped the lights off (less to break and I wasn’t going on the streets anyways) and rewired the whole damn thing with 2 wires. I then just went from there started riding in the tight woods of oregon. Now as i’ve rode newer fancier nicer bikes I can’t help but love my bike more. Yeah its heavy and has no suspension travel compared to the fancy new bikes but as long as i keep oil in it and feed it gas the damn thing will run forever. Not only is it bullet proof but it has taught me so many things about good riding that i just don’t think you can learn as fast or as well on a newer bike. Someday i will own a newer bike with all the fancy gadgets but i will always hold a spot in my heart for this old lead sled.

  4. I learned to ride on an XL175, with my best friend. As I got older, I wanted something that I could trailer with my boat, and go fishing, camping and maybe even hunting with. I found a fair deal on an XL350, which needed only a little cosmetic work. After picking up a few parts on Ebay, I had a fully functional unit. Easy to use, easy to service, and relatively bulletproof. One of the best bikes I’ve ever had.

  5. Picked up a 78 XL350 off craigslist for $550 last year. Cleaned out a ton of goo out of the carb, ran Sea Foam through it, replaced the fuel filter, and have been riding the thing several times a week ever since. I continue to put a little Sea Foam in the tank from time to time to keep it clean and haven’t noticed any negative consequences of doing so. In doing so is there anything I should be concerned about?

  6. Bought a ’76 XL350 in 1977 when I joined the military. It took me halfway across the country, when I rode it from Tampa, Florida to my first duty station in San Antonio, TX, on its original knobby tires. What a great little thumper! Demolished it jumping dry river beds in TX. Always wanted another one and found it this year in WA. Had it shipped home to FL and its currently under restoration. Can’t wait!!

    • Doug… send some pics if you can- I’m actually looking for an ’74 to ’76 xl350 for a rebuild. May end up with an elsinore 250MT that i have my eye on. would like to see your efforts- thanks!

  7. Aaaah the memories! !! I owned several of these XL 350s when I lived on the central coast of California from 1978 to 84. When I was in the military it was my preferred mode of transportation. There was no Condition these bikes wouldn’t excel in. Street, desert,dunes,mountains or surf I never feared any impulse to leave the pavement for a spontaneous excursion. This has to be one of the most reliable bikes Honda ever built. I once blew a head gasket a good 15 miles into the Desert along the Santa Ynez river bed and limped home at a max speed of about 25 mph. Pulled the jug,new head gasket,ran better than ever. Laid another one down running 60 coming out of the mountains around Sisquoc. Some 4 wheel motorists stood my bike up helped me on it, and even though my separated left shoulder made it impossible to clutch rode it 30 miles home. The bike never stopped running. I put those bikes through more abuse that anyone could imagine and they never let me down. Sold every one for more than I gave for it, except the one I broke the frame on jumping it. Thanks for this little jog down memory lane

  8. Just starting my restoration project on my 350Honda 1978model any tips on were to find parts?Also what kinda price tag should I put on it when done?

  9. Got my first brand new motorcycle in 1973,a HONDA XL175. One day while my buddies and me were tearing around at our riding site a fellow rode in on a XL350, WOW, can I ride it? I asked and the guy let me! What a dream machine. 3 years later right after graduating high school I was in the HONDA shop and the AWSOME shop owner asked if I wanted to buy a brand new 1 year old left over 1975 XL350 for $900.00. I borrowed the money and had my dream machine! One of my buddies bought one too! We rode those bikes everywhere in the dirt, mountain trails and the road as well. I eventually took my engine apart and powrolled the crank, bored it out to a 450 and beat R5 350’s in a drag race front wheel in the air! My parents wouldn’t let me race but some of my buddies did and I was crew mechanic for a Champion framed XL350 my buddy raced, what a thrill that was watching and listening to those thumpers fly around the corners of short tracks, TT’s and half mile tracks. Now some 42 years later after bringing many old motorcycles back from the dead I finally came across a 1976 XL350 complete with turn signals. Someone broke off a spark plug and parked it many years ago. The engine is locked up and I can’t wait to tear into the heart of the beast and restore her back to life. Love these old thumpers!

  10. I’m in the process of buying a 1974
    XL 350 Honda and will be restoring
    In off Frame any idea how good are the carbs and bottom end of the engine or any weak points I should know about so I can rectify during
    The rebuild ?

  11. Currently looking. For larts to a 1975 Xl350 ane don’t need much.. But I’m gonna make her a bad ass Flattracker vintage bike for me! Any suggestions or line of a line would be AWESOME THANKS EVERYONE FOR READING! Cant wait to get her on the track! Shes My Blue Suede!

  12. Finish my 1974 Honda XL 350
    Starts and idle good but can’t xellerate so I replace the primary
    Coil but still can’t get full throttle without breaking down any ideas

  13. I had a similar problem with my ’74 bike. It seems they are very dependent on the correct float height. Honda helpfully don’t specify it in their workshop manual, but the Clymer manual suggests the bottom of the float should be 18mm below the carb body when the needle begins to engage. This should set the bottom of the float more or less parallel to the carb body.
    The emulsion tube (Honda call it the Holder, Needle jet) should have 5 small holes in each side, it seems to be critical, so I would check that this is correct, the Honda part number is 16165-356-004.
    It might be worth replacing the HT coil – make sure you get the correct type.
    The bike is certainly worth the effort, lovely lazy engine and effortless to ride

  14. In march of 1976 I bought a new 350xl, I wanted a bike that would do it all, on road and off road.
    I set it up with Samsonite tribar luggage and often rode it on and offroad two up.
    It has been an amazing bike. Today it still is, it’s in my garage and still runs great and after 43 years I still enjoy it.
    I can’t imagine ever selling it.

  15. XL 350 was my first big moto after having peugeot bike

    i traveled with over 5000 km in iran before be arrested by police after revolution

    i’ve ride with 4 guys almost 140km/h without any problem.

    great moto and good souvenirs

  16. Bought my 74 xl350 at the end of 1973 and I can tell you that their isn’t a tougher bike made. After getting out of the service in 1980 I stripped her down and painted it green for huntin. I’ve peeled all the green paint off and just put a replacement cylinder on it from ebay that had never been on an engine but had slight surface rust in the barrel for $65 and a new set of rings. It cranked the first kick and runs great. The only thing wrong with it is the wrist pin end of the connecting rod is slightly worn but doesn’t make any noise that I can hear. This bike shouldn’t be running, as much spinning in the mud all day for years that it has seen.

  17. Wow, thanks for the great comments! I just purchased a 1976 XL 350 from The Old Motorcycle Shop in Calgary only yesterday. Knowing nothing about the bike, I came here to brush up on some basics. It looks like I scored a real gem!

  18. Great article. My friend owed me money for working on his street bike. Three years later (a week ago) he brings me a 1974 XL 350. Someone had taken the tank apart at the seam. The seat was trash but the bike was complete. Rebuilt the carb and it fired on the 3rd kick. I just happened to have two tanks and a seat. In my pile of parts. I’m excited to get it road ready and out on the trail.

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