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KTM Adventure


(by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen, Sept 2021)


KTM’s first foray into open-class adventure touring was bold

KTM. Funny little Austrian company that makes fast but sometimes fragile dirt bikes, right? Seems to have done a bulk deal in orange safety paint.

That, for the uninitiated, was pretty much the public persona of KTM up to the day it did something earth-shattering, which was take on the market segment comprehensibly dominated by the mighty BMW. Seriously, this is some whippersnapper dirt bike maker taking on one of the world’s automotive giants.

Of course we all love a good David versus Goliath story, and this one was shaping up nicely. Prior to the 2003 local launch of the 950 Adventure, KTM’s biggest offering was the 640 LC4 Enduro and Supermotard series – quick and feisty singles.

That they got away with a model name – “Adventure” fer crissakes – that described a whole sector was pretty stunning. It’s like BMW trademarking “Road Bike”.

KTM can trace its history back to the 1930s, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that it produced a motorcycle. Its corporate history has been somewhat dramatic over the years, and its survival (which was by no means certain) turned on the success of a massive company restructure in the early 1990s. Indian investor Bajaj Auto got on board around a decade ago and is now a majority shareholder.

KTM Adventure

As for the Adventure, that project goes all the way back to 1992, when a couple of engineering students showed off a V-twin powerplant that was essentially two LC4s grafted onto a common crankcase. Intended for Battle of the Twins racing, the project was shown by KTM but stagnated. Nevertheless, the seed had been sown.

A few years down the track, the company investigated buying V-twins from Rotax, which in the end refused to play. It then went to the emerging Folan, but that fell over, too – they might have dodged a bullet there.

Finally, developing the twin became a priority. By 1998 the company was cashed up and needed an avenue for expansion, so Chief Engineer Wolfgang Felber was given the task of coming up with a solution.
The decision was made to develop a lightweight and sporty 75-degree twin in-house and what better way to ensure you get the right engineering talent than pinch it from Rotax, the folk who refused to sell you powerplants all those years ago? Claus Holweg was head-hunted and put in charge of development of what became known as the RC8 engine project.

Now here’s something KTM is given too little credit for. Once it had the basic pieces in place for the RC8, it went testing in the real world. And we’re not talking around the block, but in top-echelon rallies. Young Italian Fabrizio Meoni won the Pharoahs Rally in 2001 and then the Dakar in 2002 on Adventure prototypes. He was later to die in a 2005 Dakar, one of two fatalities in the KTM team that year.

KTM had the LC8 powerplant in production by February of 2003 and unveiled the bike at Cologne’s Intermot show. It claimed some 95 per cent of the machine’s components had been tested in the Dakar.

What you got was distinctive angular design and two versions of the machine: the Adventure and the Adventure S. The latter was a little more off-road oriented, with longer travel suspension and greater ground clearance.

As a package, this was a fascinating motorcycle. The presentation was very much in your face, with a lively powerplant that claimed a solid 98 horses. More than enough for the job, but not extreme. Oh, and shock horror, it ran carburetors rather than injection.

Its frame was chrome moly steel – a little surprising in a world full of alloy alternatives – while suspension was premium WP Racing gear. Braking was almost inevitably by Brembo, with two-piston calipers all round. Dry weight was a commendable 198kg, while it carried a healthy 22 litres of fuel.

So what was it like? Motorcycle industry folk often cringe when you talk about ‘character’, mostly because it’s seen as a euphemism for sub-standard. Not in this case. There was just something about the KTM that spelled instant ratbag. Maybe it was the free-revving nature and happy cackle of the engine, or the confidence inspired by good quality suspension. Blame both.

Is there a catch? They’re tall, so shorter riders will struggle.

Like a lot of big adventure tourers, the KTM was a seriously quick road bike and a pretty handy thing on dirt roads. If the rider is skilled and brave enough, they can be remarkably quick enduro bikes, though we’d recommend a tyre sponsorship deal if you go down that path. They have been known to chew out a set of knobbies in record time.

There were some quirks, such as the separate twin fuel tanks which caught out a few users until they realised there was a whole other side they hadn’t tapped!

Not only was this a good piece of gear in its own right, it was a very formidable competitor to what else was on the market. Frankly, it blew everything else away, except the BMW – then the R1150GS. Lined up against the Bimm, it rated better on loose surfaces and maybe a touch behind on tar. Really the decision came down to personal preference and, probably, how confident you were to gamble on a new player in that market segment.

Local sales were steady but not spectacular, held back by the fact it was priced at pretty much the same dollars as the BMW, or around Au$21,000 – a lot of money back in 2003. A Honda Fireblade of the same year would have set you back $18,000.

It seems the company must have got the development pretty right, as in-service problems have been minimal. The slave cylinder for the hydraulic clutch wears out sooner than many would like, but that seems to be about it. There was an issue on the 990 Adventure that followed, where a clutch bolt could come loose – that was a warranty item.

KTM Adventure

Gen II in the form of the 990 Adventure followed in 2006. In addition to the larger capacity (which was achieved by changes to the bore and stroke) it gained fuel injection – otherwise it was much the same motorcycle, albeit with the claimed horsepower bumped to 107.

There’s some debate over whether it was really better, as the fuel injection could be a little snatchy at lower throttle settings. Many rated the original carbureted bike as a smoother ride.

KTM Adventure

KTM subsequently launched the 990 Adventure R, which had the long-travel suspension, and an extra 10 horses, in part to combat BMW’s R1200GS. It was a worthy thing and would be my pick if you had to have the 990 series. Youmight also keep an eye out for one of several special editions that were produced over time.

For the collector, however, the original 950 is what you want in the shed and I don’t think it matters a great deal whether it’s the standard or the S. In either case it was a ground-breaking machine for the brand with a fair amount of street cred.

As a ride, they’re huge fun and reasonably easy to live with. The thing is they get used, so low mileage examples are thin on the ground. Prices vary from mid-teens down to a little under Au$10k.

In any case, you’ll end up with something that has serious performance and a big grin factor.


KTM R100

KTM’s first motorcycle
KTM essentially started out as a workshop fixing and selling both cars and motorcycles in the 1930s.
Its first model was the R100 launched in 1951, which ran a 98cc Rotax engine that was fired up with a pull-starter.


Specs: KTM 950 Adventure

Well developed

Not so good
Expensive when new


TYPE: Liquid-cooled, four-valves-per-cylinder, 75-degree V-twin


BORE & STROKE: 100 x 60mm


FUEL SYSTEM: 43mm carburettors


TYPE: Six-speed, constant-mesh, 



FRAME TYPE: Chrome moly tube with alloy swingarm
FRONT SUSPENSION: 48mm USD WP Racing, full adjustment
REAR SUSPENSION: WP Racing PDS monoshock with full adjustment
FRONT BRAKE: 300mm discs with twin-piston Brembo calipers

REAR BRAKE: 240mm disc with twin-piston Brembo caliper




FRONT: 90/90-21 wire spokes
REAR: 150/70-18 wire spokes


POWER: 71.4kW @ 8000

TORQUE: 95Nm @ 6500rpm

PRICE: Au$20,500 plus ORC when new


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