Reaching back 15 years, this article first appeared in the now-defunct Dual Sport News. I thought it would be a worthwhile look back at some of Elden’s developments with the KLR-650. This will probably get me in trouble, but Elden will be 80 this month and Pauline turns 88 in 2015… they’re still riding two-up on motorcycles faster than most folks!
The Real Deal: Elden Carl’s King KLR
by Robert Morgan
Someone once said, “Ignorance is bliss.” If only I had listened to the wisdom in that remark. Before I rode Elden Carl’s “King KLR”, I was happy with my 1997 Kawasaki KLR650. We were pals. It was my favorite toy. I was like Andy in Toy Story with his favorite toy “Woody”. My bike and I were soul mates road mates and playmates. I had tricked it out and was real pleased with what my KLR had become. I was both happy and proud. Then I rode “the Real Deal”, Elden’s bike. In that moment – in just a few short miles of twisty highway – I realized my bike fell far short of its potential.
Elden Carl is the 64 year old guru of the Kawasaki KLR650. He has amassed a vast amount of information from his own personal research and development as well as the efforts of his friends. He builds motorcycles and is a valued consultant on engine modifications, suspension, frame and steering geometry. He is a regular columnist for Dual Sport News and has solved countless technical problems for people with KLR650’s all over the globe. Elden has logged over 130,000 miles on KLR’s alone. His current KLR (his fifth) a 1993, the pone I was fortunate enough to ride, has 89,000 miles on it. He told me, “Old bike, old guy…” My ASS! I dare you to keep up with him! EDITOR’S NOTE: Go forward to 2014 and million mile motorcyclist (since 1955) Elden Carl has logged more than 275,000 mile on KLR’s and another 225.000 plus miles on DR’s since 1990. The world’s one and only known KL650 A/B featured in this article is now the property of Cuco Villarias of Mexico City.
I asked Elden why he chose the KLR650 rather than some other marque and model for his base dual sport ride. He told me. “I rode one and it’s a BIG GUY’S bike. No one makes bikes for guys over six feet. “He went on to add that the KLR has lots of things wrong with it but each of its shortcomings can be massaged. This isn’t to say that he’s now a poster boy for the Kawasaki Corporation. Quite the contrary, he maintains that Kawasaki’s manufacturing tolerances are sometimes sloppy by industry standards and has locked horns with them in small claims court winning a $1,700 judgment for faulty clutches and balancer parts. Still he feels it is the best dual sport bike around. Yeah it’s heavy and it is a far cry from the perfect dirt bike, but according to Elden. “If you are looking for a dual sport you don’t want a 250 pound bike because it will beat you to death on a long ride of three or four hundred miles a day”.
I was amazed at the way Elden’s bike felt when I rode it. It seemed to float, not roll. My bike on the other hand, with its Progressive springs, Feels solid and tight, but lets me feel every pebble in the road.
Elden’s bike rides so smooth one can’t even feel the Bots Dots in the center of the road. It is soft and squishy, but it also feels very reassuring when cornered hard. You roll the throttle back and it seems to squirt forward. But for as soft as it rides, it does not bottom. When a handful of front brake is applied it does dip a little up front but more like the dignified bow of a Sumo wrestler than the smack down my bike used to do. My lower back really liked the soft ride and like most large guys, my lower back gets sore.
Let’s get technical, starting at the ground and working up. Elden’s wheels are not stock. He runs Takasago Excel rims strung up with Buchanan stainless spokes and nipples. Up front he has a 1.85 x 21 rim. This is a little wider than stock. He says the tire manufacturers don’t recommend anything narrower than that for a 90/90 tire, but I guess they neglected to tell Kawasaki. Elden rides aggressively on and off-road and does not want a distorted “contact patch.” At the rear he has fitted a 2.50 mx 18” rim, this is the same width as stock but an inch taller (stock diameter is 17”). These are his “road wheels.” He has Avon Gripsters mounted front and rear. The larger rear wheel gives him a rear – rolling diameter of 26.3 inches. In the dirt he rides a “90/90 x 21” Metzler Unicross up front and switches to a 17” rim in back with a Pirelli MT-21 120/90 tire. This combination provides for a rear wheel diameter of 25.5” (stock diameter is somewhere between 25.5 and 25.8”).
Why the fuss about wheel diameter? Two things, according to Elden, first, with a smaller rear wheel the bike revs higher and pulls harder. Bu secondly, the real advantage is that it changes the steering geometry. Elden likes more rake and trail both on and off-road. “More trail less flail” is the way it works. With a smaller rear wheel, the bike sits lower in the rear and the steering angle (fork rake) and fork trail increases. This causes the bike to steer a little slower.
The crafty Mr. Carl has also modified his forks to achieve further adjustability in head angle geometry. He has designed and had manufactured fork extension caps that screw into the top of the fork tubes in place of the removable stock factory units. These finely crafted caps add about an inch of adjustability to the fork tubes. His typical setup is to run with the fork tubes pushed down 20mm.
As close as I can measure it, Elden’s rake with dirt wheels and the forks pushed down is 29 degrees. Fork trail is 120mm. With the road wheels installed the geometry tightens back up closer to stock (approximately 28.5 degrees of rake and 116mm of trail). Now the bike steers faster than with the dirt wheel set-up but just a bit slower than stock. I know that a degree here or a millimeter there does not sound like a profound change, but trust me, steering geometry is a major factor in how a bike handles.
The forks themselves consist of stock KLR forks, which have better dampeners and longer travel and Tengai (the KLR’s cousin), lower fork tubes. The Tengai lowers are set up to run a dual piston front brake caliper, a larger disc and a front fork brace/fender assembly. He also runs the Tengai front disc cover, but has trimmed the front section to improve disc cooling. The Tengai’s nifty rear cover graces the rear brake caliper. When the dirt wheels are installed, the lower Tengai front fender gets swapped for the stock high mounted KLR unit.
Elden starts his modification to the forks with hard anodizing the lower fork tubes. The uppers are steel and fine the way they are. Hard anodizing of the fork tubes makes the fork bushings slide up the down with less resistance thus providing smoother fork travel. The lower rebound hole in the upper portion of the damper tube is drilled out to 1/16 of an inch. He uses stock springs with an increase in preload of about ¼ inch. Ten more milliliters of fork oil than the stock amount are used and the viscosity of the fork oil reduced to 7wt. BEL-RAY is his favorite brand. The additional oil volume adds to what Elden refers to as “air spring”. Ambient air pressure is also prescribed.
Due to manufacturing inconsistencies some KLR front axles need shimming to eliminate “fork bind”. If needed, Elden shims his front axle so that his fork tubes remain parallel throughout their travel. With the fork springs removed, he pushes the front wheel up to full overlap, he then backs off the axle nut and uses a feeler gauge to measure the clearance between the speedometer drive box and the right fork leg. He then installs one or more .025” KX250 shims (part #92025-1135) or thinner ones if needed on the axle to ensure effortless travel. Many dirt bike forks have a four-bolt saddle on the right leg of the forks to provide this adjustment. Alas the KLR has no such saddle, and some front axles must be shimmed to achieve the same result. I’m here to tell you this front-end works
The rear shock on the KLR also needs help. The primary problem with it, according to Elden, is the stock spring. It is rated at 5.5 kg and actually tests closer to 5.0 kg. This spring is too light, and in order to keep from bottoming out the rear, folks crank the preload up to the max, thus overcompensating with preload for a weak spring. This “over preloading” negatively affects the resilience of the spring. Elden suggests a much heavier spring with a light preload. When he rides one-up with luggage he uses a 6.5 kg spring, two-up he prefers a 9 kg spring. He generally sets the preload between 18 and 22mm.
He runs an Ohlins’ gas shock on the rear with a separate, adjustable compression reservoir. Actually, he has two different Ohlins’ shocks neither of which is “off the shelf”. The first one is for street and dirt riding and has 8 inches of travel (1/2” more than stock). It was custom built by the renowned suspension expert Stig Pettersson (Pettersson Pro Suspension). The other is also a “one off” and is used in the dirt. It was built by the late Bob Elliott of Noleen Racing and has nine inches of travel. Both of these works shocks are adjustable for both compression and rebound.
In order to keep crud from the rear shock area, Elden has fabricated a neoprene mudguard that runs down from the inner fender and attaches to the swing arm. This portion of the swing arm has been slightly relieved for the larger spring. Elden’s KLR has been modified to accept a small “idler” chain wheel mounted to the frame just above the chain and below the air box. With added rear travel, the chain wheel keeps the chain from chewing up the air box.
For gearing Elden uses the stock 15/43 combination for one-up long high-speed trips with the 120/80X18” rear Gripster. For local mountain riding he switches to a 15/44. He uses a 14/43 combination for slow rocky two-up dirt rides. He has sprockets and adjusters made up for each kind of riding for quick changes.
In the control department about the original part on Elden’s bike are the handlebars. They have a bar snake stuffed in them. I felt little vibration. The mirrors are from a Honda XR650L with dampeners. Levers, perches and the front brake master cylinder are from a Suzuki DR350. I noticed a grease fitting in the upper part of the steering head. Now, why didn’t the factory think of that! Not wanting to trust the automatic factory fan switch, Elden has installed a switch to manually turn the cooling fan on when needed. Mounted at the right foot peg is a tubular socket where a two piece right side stand is fitted to facilitate removal of the rear wheel in the field. The conventional left side stand has been lengthened to account for the suspension changes. For riding two-up Elden adapted metal off-road passenger pegs from a DR350. They are powder-coated and remounted so his wife Pauline Read has the benefit of added traction when she rides.
Pauline’s custom rear seat attaches with Velcro to the rear of the stock seat. Happy Trails’ side racks support the modified Chase Harper Enduro Saddle Bags. The speedometer cable and the Russell stainless front brake line have been lengthened to accommodate the added front fork length.
Elden has completed extensive modifications to his engine, clutch, balancer shafts and exhaust. These modifications are beyond the scope of the present article.
Elden Carl has been tinkering with motorcycles longer than I have had a driver’s license (since 1955). He has raced in several Tecate 500 Enduros, finishing 12th, 6th, 7th and 2nd place (he was snowed out of one finish). In spite of his age, I don’t know anyone who can catch him, on-road or off.
His bike exudes his many years of experience in riding with abandon. In my book, his bike well deserves the title of “King KLR” and when it comes to this venerable model, it is “the real deal”.
Ohlins shock builder/tuner:
Vey de la Cruz (Ed. note – Vey is now retired)
Custom paint work:
1277 N. Cuyamaca St.
El Cajon, CA 92020-0154
Buchanan Spokes and Rims: