Scooters are generally meant to zip around a city, not for epic off-roading adventure. That didn’t stop me from taking a 1986 Honda Elite 150D with a bent frame on an epic 200-mile enterprise and nearly killing myself doing it.
I sometimes make passing mentions of my Gambler 500 rally shenanigans in my other posts and you lovely readers keep asking me to tell some of these stories. One of these adventures was taking a scooter on a long-distance off-road rally that was particularly treacherous for the only participant dumb enough to do it on two wheels. That’s me.
The Gambler 500 is an off-road rally with an attractive draw. Participants are encouraged to buy the cheapest vehicles possible, theme them up and make them survive an epic 500-mile road trip. It’s like off-road 24 Hours of Lemons, but without the sacks full of nickels and a total disregard for competition. But the Gambler isn’t just about lifting a Geo Metro and taking it wheeling into the woods; it’s also about cleaning up trash from trails and giving back to communities.
One of the coolest parts about these events is seeing what people show up with. You’ll see everything from the Smart Fortwos that I normally run to limos built like monster trucks.
But what you won’t see often are motorcycles. It’s not too surprising, given that fuel stops are often few and far between and the off-roading involved isn’t exactly kind to someone on two wheels.
I only saw that as a challenge and decided to run the 2019 Illinois Gambler 500 in Jerseyville, Illinois, on a motorcycle. To make this even more of a challenge, it would be the first time that I would off-road any kind of motorcycle.
But what motorcycle would I choose? I wanted to ride something that would look a bit silly off-road. My first thoughts were to take an old 1980s full dresser Honda Gold Wing, but I didn’t like the prospects of having to pick it up after a potential crash. Maybe a Kawasaki Ninja 250? No, that sounds quite painful to crash off-road. Eventually, I came to the decision to do it on a scooter. Scooters are lightweight, forgiving and dirt cheap.
Given that a Gambler 500 is a car-centric event that occasionally involves high speed, I needed something that could easily hit 60 mph. That means a minimum engine size of 150cc. I scoured Facebook Marketplace for anything that fit the bill, but I found most scooters to be in way too nice shape to beat up on this trip.
Then I found it: a 1986 Honda Elite 150D.
The scooter had a bent frame, rust and scratches all over. But it ran and had a rad pop-up headlight. I parted ways with $350 and got started on my build. I procrastinated in buying the scooter and as a result I only had two days to get it ready for its adventure.
I quickly learned that this beater of a Honda was a bit worse off than I realized. It didn’t like starting and the cooling system didn’t make any sense. It would appear to overheat while sitting, but be fine while on the throttle. The temperature gauge moved way quicker than I thought the engine could even heat up or cool down. An examination of the radiator revealed a pretty ratty thermostat and an inoperative radiator fan.
Unfortunately, getting a new thermostat would take far longer than the time I had, so I decided to run it as-is. Remember this for later.
The next thing I did was lock the handlebars to prevent it from getting stolen. Not only was this a bit silly because nobody was going to steal this thing, but I learned the hard way that there was something broken in the ignition. Now the handlebars were stuck.
To add insult to my injury, I broke the key off in the ignition trying to free it. At least new ignitions were only $13.
Installing that new ignition revealed that the Honda Elite 150D has a hood like a car does. Under it, you have access to the pop-up headlight, the ignition and radiator. While under the hood I decided to top off the coolant, hoping that the reservoir bottle being low was my problem.
For finishing touches, I added off-road light pods, Bluetooth speaker, new front tire and a giant fan to the front.
I should have cleaned the scooter’s carburetor and went through the cooling system, but I decided that I would just send it. I loaded the Elite onto a trailer hitched up to the back of one of my Smart Fortwos then took off for the starting point.
Amusingly, the Elite started giving me problems before the event even started. Apparently, the scooter didn’t produce enough power to run the lights, fan and charge my phone all at the same time. As a result, the scooter drained its battery and died on the first trail at camp. I took load off of the system by killing the halogen headlight, which seemed to be just enough to keep it happy. Don’t worry, this would be far from the the only issue the scooter would throw at me.
The very next problem would occur right away when start/stop switch stopped working.
It was still the day before the event and I didn’t even have a working vehicle. A few hours of tinkering with the switch later and I found that I could get the scooter to start if I sprayed brake cleaner on the switch first. It was a stupid fix, but it worked and meant that I could finally get underway and test how a beat up scooter handles an off-road journey. I strapped a jerry can to the scooter for extra range and departed for an awesome trek.
You’d never look at a scooter and think that it would be good off-road, but the little thing impressed me. Illinois experienced a ton of flooding during that time, so the terrain was wet, soggy and oh so muddy.
The cars of that weekend were having quite the rough time.
And yet, the Elite rolled through it all. I even took it through a flooded trail that got water up to its headlight and it didn’t die.
Here I was, someone with absolutely zero experience taking a motorcycle off-road and I was going down trails that people in cars were too afraid to take.
But what was killing the scooter was that carburetor and the heat. Remember how I said I did nothing to the carburetor?
Well, as it turns out, the carb was getting progressively more clogged, likely from rust and other gunk sucked up from the tank. This eventually made it so that not only would the scooter require a ton of starting fluid to get going again, but I had to keep the throttle pinned open when stopped to keep it from dying.
Still, I made it deep into forests and trails that this scooter was never designed to get into. And it was still on street tires. By 100 miles in the temperature gauge needle was flirting with the hot mark, but otherwise the machine and I were getting along great.
My first experience taking a two-wheeler off-road started off great, but remember how I said it almost killed me? Here’s where we get to that part.
My first big mistake was avoiding deep and loose sand on a trail by riding on a small elevated ridge that ran alongside the trail. It all went so well until I stared at some jagged rocks on the trail and like that, rode right off of the ridge and into my first motorcycle crash.
Thankfully, it was slow enough that I was more embarrassed than hurt. The same couldn’t be said for the scooter, which lost much of its plastics and went back to not starting. Target fixation is real and it can lead to some painful consequences, or worse. But I didn’t let that stop me and I got the scooter started again and got right back to the task at hand.
My next mistake would be a huge one, and it was going far too fast on a dirt road.
Around 150 miles in I found myself doing about 60 mph on a really sketchy dirt road following some other Gambler 500 participants. At some point, the dirt transitioned to big, loose rocks without warning. The scooter’s rear end reacted by breaking into a high-speed slide.
As the Honda slid across the rocks, I thought about how painful it was going to be to land in those rocks and probably get run over by my own scooter, then the car that was following me. It felt like the rear wheel was completely perpendicular to the front and that I was going to high-side at any moment.
Taking a deep breath, I gently rolled off of the throttle and the rear wheel eventually caught traction. This stopped the slide, but weirdly, the front end then responded with what I could only describe as a death wobble. The death wobble was easy to cure compared to the slide.
The whole transaction took maybe five seconds, but it felt like an entire week to me. I had to pull over to take in what happened before I got back on the road.
Sadly, the scooter would only make about 200 miles of the 500-mile adventure. The engine got so hot that it began pinging badly, then the carburetor followed it up by getting completely clogged.
The Honda had to get towed back to camp, where I was unable to bring it back to life again. It seemed that the problem now was low compression and I couldn’t get it back even by adjusting the valves. I ended up selling the scooter for $50 to a grandfather and son team that wanted to revive it for fun.
I finished that rally in my trusty Smart Fortwo which, like the scooter, performed way better off-road than anyone expected. But that’s a story for another day.
If you haven’t taken a motorcycle or scooter off-road, I highly recommend it. The experience is unforgettable and you may learn a thing or two that will even help you on pavement, too.