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Can You License an Off-Road Motorcycle for Dual-Sport Use in California?

dirt motorcycle off-road motorcycle dirt motorcycle how-to Honda XR KTM motorcycle

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#1 Moses Ludel

Moses Ludel

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Posted 30 September 2013 - 09:25 PM

I recently started a topic on the merits of doing a dual-sport conversion and "plating" a dirt motorcycle rather than purchasing an OHV permit ("sticker"). Within my home State of Nevada, and many other states from coast to coast, it is perfectly legal to convert an off-road (dirt) motorcycle into a dual-sport for both on- and off-highway use. The motorcycle must be brought to DOT and state on-highway equipment standards. Insurance is a requirement as with any other highway legal vehicle. 
 
Such conversions are not allowed in the neighboring State of California on motorcycles built after 1977. There is much discussion across the motorcycle community regarding California's off-road motorcycle to dual sport conversion policy. I took the time to research the California rules. Here is a quick recap of what I shared earlier about the State of California ruling:
 
"...The conversion of off-highway "dirt" motorcycles (deemed "off-road use" by the cycle manufacturer, DOT and EPA) has not been allowed within the Golden State since February 1, 2004. There are two exceptions: 1) motorcycles built prior to 1978, and 2) 1978-up cycles with less than 50cc displacement...According to the current regulations, California dual-sport conversions were acceptable on motorcycles built through model year 2002 if the conversion was completed and paperwork submitted to the DMV prior to February 1, 2004. From January 1, 2004 forward, the DMV has required "verification" or proof that the motorcycle came with an EPA and/or California emissions label for on-highway use. This ruling about "verification" went into effect on January 1, 2004, with a one-month "grace period" during that month....If there was a street title issued within these timeframes and the cycle has current registration and street use insurance, the cycle is still legal for highway or dual-purpose use...The internet is rife with rumors, anecdotal stories and speculation about the fate of California plated dual-sport motorcycles converted after January 31, 2004. According to a statement that reflects the actual California DMV regulations, some have good reason to fear: statement of the rulings.  If you're puzzled, contemplating a dual-sport conversion or considering a cycle purchase intended for California registration, read the statement and at least know where you stand. Check with the DMV about whether "grandfathering" applies when an earlier dual-sport conversion goes through a title/ownership change."
 
Just today, I purchased an ultra-low mileage Honda XR650R for a dual-sport conversion. At Nevada and many other states, this is a popular candidate for a dual-sport conversion. This particular motorcycle was first sold in Texas, had a Texas title, and was actually equipped for street legal use in the State of Texas. Nevada requires a complete verification of the conversion equipment, based on DOT and Nevada standards. The motorcycle will be inspected for its street legal equipment and DOT tires. This cycle currently has a Baja Designs dual-sport conversion kit, which will meet Nevada requirements as it did in the State of Texas.
 
The seller/owner was denied California dual-sport registration and titling on this 2000 Honda XR650R. The sole explanation from the DMV was that the motorcycle did not have an on-highway OEM emissions sticker. This sticker is issued on EPA and EPA/California certified motorcycles built and sold for highway use. 

 

Note: Using the VIN, many motorcycles can be segregated quickly as "off-road use only" and "highway use". 2003-up cycles with a "C" or "3" in the 8th position of the VIN are automatically classified as "red sticker" or restricted off-road use with non-compliant emissions. Since February 1, 2004, no 1978 up off-highway motorcycle, green or red sticker eligible, has been eligible to convert into a dual-sport by the State of California.
 
I'll skip the anecdotes and stories about motorcycles that have undergone a conversion after February 1, 2004, those owners that managed to secure a license plate in California. Cases of "knowing someone" or a "friendly" (more likely a naïve or overwhelmed) DMV counterperson who let one slip by, or whatever, are not as important as California's regulation on the books that says conversions on 1978-up motorcycles are not legal after January 1, 2004. Whether California thoroughly enforces this ruling or not, there is a regulation. 

 

When did California Air Resources Board start addressing motorcycle tailpipe emissions? Here is a statement from the California DMV's official "Vehicle Industry News":
   
"The California Air Resources Board (ARB) established emission regulations for on-highway
motorcycles beginning with 1978 year models. These regulations require an off-highway
motorcycle to have an emission label affixed to the vehicle indicating certification
by the manufacturer for on-highway use when converting to on-highway or dual
registration. ARB, DMV, and the California State Parks' Off-Highway Motor Vehicle
Recreation Division mutually agreed to begin implementation of these regulations
January 1, 2004."
 
If you own a motorcycle sold and marketed as an "off-highway" model, can you now get a "label" from the motorcycle's manufacturer? No—the manufacturer did not pursue such a label for this particular dirt motorcycle model. A label implies that the motorcycle has passed EPA and/or California emission standards and can be operated on the highway. So, why doesn't the manufacturer do this, especially in cases where the actual tailpipe emissions are in compliance with highway requirements? The reason is clear: These strictly dirt motorcycles may have a "clean" tailpipe, but they do not have D.O.T. approved lighting, a brake light, mirrors, reflectors and such.
 
California's Air Resources Board apparently takes the position that motorcycles without these emissions labels were not "clean air" certified, and without certification, they were considered "polluters"—simply because they were not certified. The presumption is that off-highway "dirt" motorcycles built from 1978-up might create a pollution issue in California.
 
Are four-stroke motorcycles "gross polluters"? Judging by fuel efficiency and the tuning requirements to run right, these vehicles should be contributing less tailpipe pollution per mile than automobiles, trucks and busses...Two-stroke engines, with high hydrocarbon emissions, might arguably be considered an issue, so we'll stick to four-strokes.
 
Motorcycle engines, like other gasoline engines, run best at stoichiometric 14.7:1 air/fuel ratio when cruising. Tuning a motorcycle to run richer than stoichiometric would be detrimental to performance (unless there is a high performance camshaft and boosted compression ratio that will tolerate richer mixtures). In many cases, a street motorcycle engine design and its tuning will appear in an off-road motorcycle. It can be reasonably assumed that dirt tuning is somewhat like street tuning. (Crankcase emissions and evaporative emissions are a whole other issue.)
 
Even if the off-road motorcycle ran richer, consider the displacement of dirt motorcycle engines. A well engineered 650cc engine is enormous for a dirt bike. True dirt bikes weigh so little that, in the case of an "uncorked" Honda XR650R, you're looking at a power-to-weight ratio of under 6 pounds (considering the bare cycle alone) per horsepower!  The Baja racing version of these cycles has more like 4.5 pounds per horsepower.
 
Given the relatively small displacement and this level of power to weight ratio, a motorcycle should be incapable, in reasonable tune, of being a gross polluter when compared to pre-catalytic converter automobiles, trucks/SUVs, commercial vehicles or a bus. Some argue that a motorcycle is typically one-person transportation. Has anyone checked recently to see what percentage of California's SUVs are in the two-person commuter lanes and how many SUVs have only a driver/occupant?
 
Any state genuinely concerned about air quality and pollution levels should applaud any increase in motorcycle transportation on the streets. The lone motorcyclist, even on a "Big Red Pig" Honda XR650R converted dual sport motorcycle cannot possibly pollute as much as a popular SUV with California emissions certification. Lower compression engines in cycles like the street legal Honda XR650L (air-cooled) or a KLR Kawasaki can deliver 50-plus mpg. Even a properly tuned BRP, known for winning the Baja 1000 many times in modified form, can muster 40-plus mpg when driven sanely. Isn't that a measure of clean air success while reducing our dependency on foreign oil? Or are we so bureaucratic and rule-oriented in states like California that stickers and labels take precedence over dramatic reductions in fuel consumption and less pollution per mile from the use of smaller engines?

As motorcycles shift to EFI from carburetors, tailpipe emission concerns decrease even more. Forward thinking manufacturers like KTM and Christini have now certified (at least EPA) their competitive dirt motorcycle models. (The KTM 500EXC and Christini 450DS are two examples.) These cycles are both DOT and EPA legal out of the box. 

 

Honda and others must follow. The lightweight, dual-sport motorcycle market is wide open. Consumers want lightweight, bona fide dirt motorcycles that are "dual-sports" for the purpose of titling, registering and legally running on public highways. Sure, a 250 pound dirt bike with knobby DOT tires is hardly the best candidate for the Autobahn or cross-country interstate highways. However, it does eliminate the need to lug your cycle to the OHV park in a pickup or on a trailer!

 

In the meantime, there are many thousands of affordable used four-stroke dirt motorcycles out there whose owners could benefit from riding on the highway. Imagine, they'd be parking their pickup truck that gets 14 mpg and getting 35-60 mpg on the highway—if they can keep the front wheel on the ground...

 

Moses





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