Cycle Magazine of 1986
The Paris-to-Dakar rally is like no other off-road race in the world. It starts near the Eiffel Tower, and ends in Africa, 22 days and 6500 miles later. In the fires of this mechanical hell, where street engines scream inside dirt-bike chassis, Cagiva forged its 650 Elefant.
The Elefant is a creative collision of street and dirt technology, combining the best of Cagiva’s and Ducati’s until now separate worlds.
Understand, the dual-purpose Elefant on these pages and in your dealer’s showroom is not a look-alike imitation of Cagiva’s racer as so many replicas often are: Cagiva’s Paris-to-Dakar technology translates remarkably well to American pavement, making the Elefant far more rugged and fast off road than any poser need be.
What happens when a company follows the P-D formula of stuffing a street engine into a dual-purpose chassis and turns the result loose on the streets and fireroads of America? First, look at the bike’s sheer size: Wheelbase, a touch over 60 inches. Seat height, 35 inches.
Wet weight, 454 poundstwice that of a 250 motocrosser. Other street bikes vanish behind the towering Elefant: its seat hits 600-class sport bikes at tank-top level; its handlebar measures chest high to a six-foot rider.
For Ducati lovers, running a desmo engine off road must be akin to burning pieces of the True Cross for an after-ride campfire. Viewed more objectively, the choice makes perfect sense. The Elefant’s 90-degree V-twin engine (borrowed from the 650 Alazzurra) is a tough unit: desmodromic valve actuation protects the engine from over-rev damage, and the engine cases proved unbreakable in 6500 miles of P-D pounding.
Though the Elefant and Alazzurra share basic engine specifications-82 x 61.5mm bore and stroke, 10.1 compression, valve sizes and included angle, 8500-rpm redline, and identical transmission ratios spread across five gearsthe engine needed a little fine tuning for dirt service.
Off-road engines soak up incredible abuse. Curiously, while the engine is solid mounted, aluminum mounts and frame sections isolate it from the steel frame rails. We’ve seen a similar approach before: Yamaha’s old 250G road racer suffered cracked engine mounts until aluminum plates were inserted between the frame tabs and engine caseswhen vibration took its toll, replacing those plates was a good deal less expensive than replacing the frame or engine cases.
Though the Elefant’s 90-degree engine layout cancels any primary imbalance, some secondary shakes, limited to a horizontal plane, remain. This, plus the enormous inertial loads encountered off road with a heavy engine, make aluminum mounting a sensible choice. Two alloy arms, extending from the backbone, hang the engine from above, and an aluminum cross-member, running between the down-tubes, supports the engine from the front.
The rear mounting system is even more unconventional. Two huge vertically disposed aluminum plates fit between the frame and gear case, attached to the frame at the top and bottom engine mounts. The swing-arm pin runs through the frame tubes, the plates, and gearcase.
A swing-arm pivot through the back of a solid-mount engine’s cases is a great idea for the street, but off-road bouncing would crack the cases without the reinforcement, and the Elefant’s single-shock rear suspension concentrates its loads in the gearcase-pivot area as well. Thus the alloy plates not only spread the load on the engine, but provide top and bottom anchors for the rear suspension.
Last year’s Elefant had relatively mild camshaft timing and smallish, 32mm Dell’Orto pumper carburetors. This combination gave strong low-end punch but sacrificed top-end power. Cagiva engineers fortified the ’87 model’s top-side performance by fitting longer duration camshafts with more overlap, and larger 36mm Dell’Ortos.
These tweaks, in conjunction with exhaust system and SuperTrapp spark arrester, improve the engine’s breathing performance.
Look closely at the Elefant’s carburetors and you’ll swear something’s missing: the rear carb. Ducati twins traditionally had their carbs at the rear of each head; compared to Ducks of yore, the Elefant’s rear cylinder head is backward, its intake port facing forward, exhaust port pointing back. Cagiva didn’t simply rotate the head 180 degrees; the change required a completely new casting to accommodate the cam’s right-side belt drive.
Why all the fuss? Cagiva needed room for the Elefant’s single-shock rear suspension, and wanted to give this and all their smaller twins a single air-cleaner housing and more even intake plumbing. For off-road use, Cagiva had to have an efficient air cleaner, but where to put it?
Mounting the airbox conventionally above the engine would have swelled the gas tank to grotesque proportions, so Cagiva tucked the air-cleaner element under the seat and plumbed it to the carbs through the frame’s huge stamped-steel backbone.
Reversing the Elefant’s cylinder head both complicated and simplified its exhaust. Positioning both exhaust headers on the right allowed the two-into-one exhaust system to mount high, out of harm’s way. The front pipe snakes beneath a protective plastic bash plate under the engine, then climbs to join the rear header just in front of the muffler/ spark arrester assembly.
Unfortunately, the Elefant’s restrictive exhaust plumbing nicks horsepower off the top end: At the strip, the Elefant posted a best quarter-mile run of 13.65 seconds at 95.3 mphunderwhelming for a street bike, while still impressive by dual-purpose standards.
Since off-road speeds are far lower than street velocities, the Elefant pays particular attention to its cooling. Its rear cylinder is largely isolated from the main air stream, so to cope with the additional heat, the bike uses a seven-tier oil cooler located in front of the fuel tank. The cooled oil runs directly to the single overhead camshafts in both, front and rear cylinder heads.
Oil capacity is also up over the Alazzurra.
Altering the desmo engine for off-road duty was a cake-walk compared to building a chassis rigid enough to house it. The Elefant’s steel square-section, double-downtube, full-cradle frame is quite a different approach from the series of slender pipes that form the ladder-type frames in Cagiva’s street bikes. Well it shouldthe 650’s engine weighs 133 pounds bone dry; that kind of weight pounding across rough ground can crack a frame in a hurry.
The Elefant’s answer to this stress is mass: Everywhere in the Elefant’s frame, massive sections buttress massive sections. The box-section backbone measures 4.5 inches across its widest (rearmost) point, tapering down to 2.3 inches at the steering head. Vertically, the backbone flares in the opposite direction, smaller at the rear, over nine inches tall at the steering head. The main frame tubes are 1.2-inch square, and the right downtube unbolts to facilitate engine removal.
The rear subframe, constructed of smaller square tubing, bolts to the main frame and mounts a small luggage rack at the rear.
Positioned vertically- behind the twin alloy swing arm/engine/shock mounting plates is an aluminum-bodied Ohlins damper, with separate, external controls for compression and rebound damping, and adjustable collars for spring preload. The top shock eye mounts directly to the plates, but the bottom eye hangs on linkage, which connects to the box-section aluminum swing arm and forward plates, and pivots on a self-lubricating bushing. This shock itself is first rate: compression damping is infinitely adjustable, the rebound adjuster offers 15 settings, and the linkage provides eight inches of progressive-rate wheel travel.
The Elefant’s front suspension and running gear are equally impressive. Thick alloy triple clamps hold an air-adjustable 43mm Marzocchi fork which strokes through nine inches of travel. Straight-pull spokes lace alloy rimsa 17-inch rear, 21-inch frontto lightweight hubs carrying Brembo brakes.
The front brake combines a 10.2-inch floating disc and four-piston caliper; the rear, a solid-mounted 9.4-inch disc and dual-piston caliper. Does a dual-purpose bike really need such serious brakes? If it weighs 454 pounds and generates as much speed as the Elefant, it does.
The Elefant likes to run in wide-open spaces, across the desert, down fast, sweeping fireroads. The desmo engine is a powerhouse off roadsmooth, torqueyand the rigid, long-wheelbase chassis provides unshakable highspeed stability. This, combined with powerful brakes, excellent steering, near-perfect suspension calibration and grippy Pirelli tires are the ingredients of a formidable fireroad flier.
Pitch the Elefant into a turn, and the front end bites. Feed in some throttle, and the rear kicks into an easy slide. Take your pick: turn the handlebar and steer with the front tire, or twist the throttle and aim with the rear, dirt-track style.
Either way, the Elefant is remarkably trustworthy, stable, responsive.
An Elefant is nevertheless a unique experience to ride. Size gives it a street-bike presence off road; other dual-purpose bikeseven 600cc thumpersfeel tiny by comparison. Tight, rocky trails exaggerate the Elefant’s scale; fireroads put it back into perspective.
Sliding the Elefant through turns, you feel as if you’re riding a tall street bike- and getting away with murder. Terrific fun, yes, but be warned: when 454 pounds of motorcycle gets away from you in the dirt, the chances of snatching it back are slim.
And the after-effects of even a moderate tip-over can be formidable on the Elefant. Bailing off an uphill section, one tester was unable to get the bike upright until help arrived. Our downed Elefant also dribbled crankcase oil through the breather into the airbox, ruining the paper element and oiling the carbs and plugs.
To its credit, the Elefant survived the crash otherwise unscathed, proof of the ruggedness of its components.
Canyon roads are nothing more than fireroads with better traction, so it’s no surprise the Elefant works well here too. If you’ve never ridden a dual-purpose bike, you’d be surprised how quickly they can carve the twisties, and the Elefant is no exception. A wide, motocross-style handlebar makes for light, quick steering, and virtually unlimited cornering clearance invites steep lean angles.
Conservative steering geometry and a lengthy wheelbase provide the Elefant with high-speed stability unrivaled in the dual-purpose class. Though geared lower than the Alazzurra, the Elefant has ratios tall by dual-purpose standards, and the 650 pulls harder from corner to corner, with fewer gear changes. Unfortunately, while our Elefant’s hydraulically actuated dry clutch offers a light pull, it dragged during testing, making it difficult to find neutral and shifting stiff and notchy.
The Elefant also uses stiff throttle springs that pump up a rider’s arms on the backroads.
If the Elefant has a limiting factor in its off-road handling, it’s the-Pirelli tires. Universal-pattern skins strike a balance in on/off road traction, and while the Elefant’s tires are versatile performers, they quickly get skittish when pushed on the street. Despite this poor traction, the Elefant’s Brembo brakes offer tremendous stopping power and excellent feedback.
From 60 mph the Elefant’s shortest stopping distance was 136 feet, only two feet longer than it took to haul the triple-disc Alazzurra from 60 to zero.
Street riders will find the Elefant takes some getting used to: You sit high, the fork flexes under braking, and the softly sprung, long-travel suspension allows enough up and down chassis movement to have you reaching for Dramamine. For hard riding, dirt or street, you must set the dampers on firm, but we found the recommended settingsatmospheric pressure up front, and all rear adjusters in their middle positionsoffer the best street/dirt compromise.
The Elefant’s long legs offer distinct advantages and disadvantages on the street. Tall suspension invariably produces a tall seat height, and this makes the Elefant near impossible to manage in stop-and-go traffic if you’re under six feet tall. The upright seating position feels perfectly natural on the highway; only at speeds above 80 mph does the rider have to tug on the handlebar against the wind.
The seat is narrow and doesn’t provide the support of a good street bucket, but it offers enough comfort to sit through a full tank of gas, about 174 miles of steady-state running. At 75 mph, the desmo engine runs effortlessly; though some engine vibration seeps through the gas tank, no annoying vibes come through the handlebar or seat, and the footpegs feature removable rubber inserts to damp vibration from the rider’s feet. Full analog instrumentation, and the best switches we’ve seen from Italy, enhance the Elefant’s highway experience.
Comfortable, versatile, quick, stable, ruggedthe Elefant is all these things, but is it for you? Cagiva wanted to build a world-class replica of their Paris to Dakar machine, and that’s what they did with the Elefant. Consequently, this dirt and-street 650 has its own quirky appeal: If your shoulders aren’t broad enough to hoist the Elefant back on its feet, or your inseam long enough to reach the ground, or your pocketbook deep enough to spring for the $4,632 sticker price for a dual-purpose bike, kindly excuse yourself right here.
But if you’re still with us, picture this scenario: You strap a bedroll to the luggage rack, dig out a map, and find a stretch of two-lane blacktop that runs out of town, trips through the mountains, and dips onto a long, sweeping dirt road. Follow that road until it runs out, then find another, and another in a string of 200-mile days with lots of detours through dusty, forgotten towns.
Explore. Ride. If that sounds like frivolity or eccentricity, look elsewhere. If it sounds like paradise, so should Cagiva’s 650.
Either way, riding the Elefant in regions that grow more exotic, more remote, more inaccessible, is the closest thing to being out there, tromping on long, steady legs at speed across the Sahara.
Source Cycle Magazine of 1986
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