SWAMP BEAST - 2011 KTM 690 SAFARI

It's the bike KTM steadfastly refuses to build – the 690 Adventure. But now a KTM specialist from Devon is producing his very own version. Introducing the 690 Safari...

Time and again at shows, races and on the telephone we get asked the same question by readers… How come KTM don’t make a 690 Adventure? And you know what… we really have no idea. Every year we ask the Austrian factory when the Adventure model is being launched, and every year they simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘Ve don’t know’.

Of course zey do know, but zey aren’t telling. I mean it’s not like they don’t have the experience of building adventure bikes, the know-how, the base machine, the fairings, even the sales figures for their previous 640 Adventure. And it’s not like there isn’t the demand. If people are ringing up  asking us about it, then they must be asking the same question of their dealer as well as KTM themselves at the dirt bike show. Besides we’ve raised the question both with the importers and the factory so many times, it must be obvious to them that demand is there.

And the 690 is just the perfect bike for the job: smooth and powerful, with that lovely long-legged, fuel-injected motor, a great rally-inspired chassis and superb enduro-ready suspension it’s just crying out to be turned into an adventure bike. Hell they’ve made three different supermoto models out of it so far, two-different pure off-roaders, and even a rally bike, when in reality the configuration and size are perfect for a proper usable adventure machine. A cheaper, lighter, more rugged, single cylinder version of their existing 990 Adventure - much more purposeful and ideal for adventure sport or round-the-world travel.

One bloke who’s given up waiting for KTM to build one, goes by the name of Swampy, and runs Marsh Performance down in Plymouth. Marsh Performance - in case you didn’t already know - is one of those small-scale, swarf-n-loctite-type engineering concerns that appears to exist on the peripheries of the dirtbike industry, but which in reality form the very cornerstone of our sport. 

Everybody knows a Swampy, he’s the ‘unofficial’  bike dealer to whom everyone turns when they have a problem with their bike that the dealer can’t sort out… Or simply won’t. Without blokes like Swampy who are prepared to think outside the factory manuals, everyone would be riding a ‘stock’  bike and paying for it to be dealer serviced.

We’ve known Swampy for years and his projects have been featured a number of times. A former KTM mechanic and Dakar spannerman to the late, great John Deacon (RIP),  Swampy’s been there, done that and worn the orange T-shirt.

Part of the reason we get along with Swampy so well is that like us, he refuses to be bound by convention. Just because the manual says you can’t do something, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go right ahead and try - even if it doesn’t work out. As they say: The man who never made a mistake… never made anything!

Sick of the constraints of having his hands tied as a dealer mechanic, Swampy simply turned in his orange badge ten years back and opted instead for a life less ordinary. And so Marsh Performance was born.

The result for gamekeeper-turned-poacher Swampy, is a small but incredibly loyal following of customers that come to him to make full use of his knowledge and expertise when it comes to problem-solving.

‘At the moment it’s the sidecar boys that are turning to me’  he says as we sit outside a tiny thatched pub in the Devonshire village of North Bovey discussing his latest project. ‘They’re all a bit “un-con-ven-tion-al”’  he intones, sounding out every syllable. ‘Well you have to be to want to race a sidecar. An’ none of them are what you’d call small blokes, they’re all proper burly, so they want to extract the maximum amount of power out of their Husaberg 570s. So we bore them out, make ‘em strong and retro-fit them with carbs… because, well… let’s just say these blokes like to keep things simple…’

Keep it Simple

And keeping things simple might well be the epithet applied to Swampy’s latest project… the 690 Safari. Let’s just deal with the name first. ‘We didn’t want to confuse matters by calling our bike an Adventure model, so we cast around and came up with the Safari tag.’  And here at RUST we reckon it works.

So in what way is this bike simple? Well in the sense that aside from the obvious changes - tank, fairing, seat etc - the rest of the bike is pretty much stock. There’s no over-bored motor, carb conversion or change of swingarm like most of Swampy’s other projects. In fact part of the brief from bike owner Daz, is that the machine should resemble a factory model. And I reckon they’ve succeeded on that score.

But as a certified card-carrying petrol-head, Daz did more than simply supply the donor machine. On the contrary because without Daz’s physical input, this bike simply wouldn’t exist - in this form anyway. Let me explain.

Daz runs a high-end yacht building company which means he knows his way around shaping GRP and carbon-fibre into sexy, streamlined shapes. Swampy had been looking to build a 690 ‘Adventure’  for a number of years because of continuing customer demand for such a model, and Daz was looking at trading down from his 990 Adventure to something a bit more wieldy, but couldn’t find the bike he wanted.

Bring the two of them together and the stage was set for the perfect meeting of minds: Swampy’s desire to continually push the boundaries of creating exciting yet individual motorcycles, and Daz’s expertise in panel forming. The result was many hours spent sculpting, shaping, crafting, finishing, reshaping, refinishing, testing and generally perfecting the design.

‘We tried to make it as Kiska-esque as possible’  they both confirm, with the trademark angled ‘flame’  panels that mark out a Kiska design. Kiska, in case you didn’t know it, is the Austrian design studio that has overseen the styling of all orange KTMs since the company’s rebirth in the year 2000. And in my opinion that’s exactly what these two Cornishmen have achieved. The bike looks EXACTLY like it’s just rolled out of the Mattighofen factory.

Look at the sculpted recess where the tank meets the seat, the join of the upper and lower halves of the fairing, the way the fly-screen dovetails with the design and - in particular - the three angled surfaces at the bottom of the tank. All are typical Kiska styling cues.

The difference is all in the finish however, because while the factory finish is impressive, this machine is outstanding in places. For instance the three carbon stripes on the tank are real carbon fibre (not some pseudo carbon-effect sticker),  hand laid by Daz’s best hull-builder. The rest of the tank is a mixture of carbon and GRP (glass-fibre to you and me),  the carbon is really there for its dramatic effect as opposed to any real contribution to weight saving because - as Daz points out - ‘to make the entire thing from carbon would have actually made it bulkier in order to get the strength and rigidity needed to survive being dropped.’

Of course everyone knows carbon fibre can be incredibly strong in terms of maintaining a rigid shape, using minimal layers of weave. But that doesn’t necessarily make it strong in an impact (from every direction).  Think of those explosive images you see on TV when F1 cars come into contact with one another and the fragile carbon nose cones grenade into thousands of shards. Of course F1 concerns also have access to huge budgets and autoclaves to ‘cure’  the finished product. But for Daz and Swampy, in order to get the strength and rigidity required for this application they would have had to make the carbon so thick and impregnate it with so much resin, it would have been bulkier and most likely heavier than the fairing they actually came up with. Not to mention hideously expensive.

Other aspects of the finish are also impressive - the depth of paint, and incredible shine from the layers of lacquer which were applied over the top of the logos to give a gorgeous three-dimensional effect.

I should explain that the tank you see is actually a tank COVER that fits snugly over the top of an existing clear 14L Safari tank made by Aqualine in Australia. This has the advantage of providing additional protection for the fuel cell itself whilst still being able to be painted. So whilst the fuel is held in a suitable (flexible)  clear polypropolene, the snug-fitting tank cover allows the finish you’d expect with a bike like this.

Of course when it comes to building a special, nothing ever goes quite to plan as Daz explains. ‘The first dummies we made didn’t fit. We kept checking our measurements to make sure it was all correct, but then we realised that the Aqualine tank is not quite symmetrical [laughs].  Swampy adds: ‘The Aqualine tank is a bit of a mess really, the filler isn’t centred and it’s a bit rough in places, but it’s good and strong, and once we slip our own cover into place it smartens it all right up.’

And I have to agree. Getting down underneath the bike and looking up under the tank you can see that the Safari cover literally touches the rally tank and wraps around (slightly)  underneath making a really neat, strong job. At the front the KTM orange fairing has been painted in contrasting black and uses a cut-down 990 screen to guide the airflow. A cut-out just above the 990 headlight ducts air behind the screen in order to even out any low-pressure area and avoid noisy vortices. ‘I’ve tested the bike at over 100mph and it’s perfectly stable’  says Swampy. ‘Absolutely rock solid’  he adds.

Good thing too because they’ve geared-up the 690-R slightly to allow for the extra road performance thanks to the fairing, and the bike is more than capable of high-speed cruising. Helped also by a switch to the low front mudguard from the latest-generation 990 Adventure, fitted with a pair of adaptor brackets that allow clearance for a set of knobbly tyres.

Also (unlike in our photos)  the latest bike they’ve built has the clocks/dials recessed into the dashboard for a smarter look. It’s worth mentioning that while most aftermarket fairings use a complicated aluminium structure mounted beneath the front to support both the fairing and the ‘dashboard’  part, the Safari bike doesn’t need one. Instead it relies on the inherent strength of the design to support itself (that’s the benefit of using a clever boat designer to build it).  That said, Swampy has insisted they build-in two aluminium stays (or ‘goalposts’)  to the inside of the fairing so people who want to add heavy rally-nav gear to the bike can still do so.

But rallying is not what the Safari bike has been built for. There’s already a couple of other ‘rally-rep’  type conversions out there for people who want the rally look (or want to take their 690 racing).  For the most part these fairings are much taller, more ungainly and less ‘factory’  than the Safari bike. No, the Safari bike has been built in order fill a gap in the marketplace for a proper middleweight, adventure-sport KTM, and to further extend the 690’s versatility (and range)  as a true dual-sport machine but without compromising either its road or off-road manners.

All Change

Of course most of you will already know that the 690 utilises an underseat fuel tank as standard and Swampy wanted to keep this useful capacity but without the owner having to fill two separate tanks. In order to do this he had to design a blanking plate to fit over the rear tank’s filler and then link the two tanks via high-capacity, heavy duty hoses which you can see on the right side of the bike (at the rear).  The existing fuel pump has been retained but the breather has been routed all the way to the front of the bike where it exits up under the fairing (above the highest point of both fuel tanks).  The weedy fuel petcocks of the aftermarket tank were ditched in favour of proper heavy duty banjo fittings and the net result is a capacity of around 25 litres of fuel and a range of 300 miles with an additional 50 miles in reserve. This effectively more than doubles the standard bike’s range.

Swampy has redesigned the seat on the Safari bike too, adding an alcantara cover for a touch of ‘rally bling’,  though admits that the seat is a work in progress. ‘The standard seat base is grooved and shaped for additional strength, but this compromises its comfort’  claims Swampy. ‘We are looking at building carbon-based seats - not for their lightness but because they can have a completely flat base and still be stiff enough to resist flexing. That will allow us to use either a different foam or gel seat with the alcantara cover, and make a GENUINELY comfortable KTM seat.’  Nevertheless the seat they have designed slips on and off as easily as the original (despite sliding snugly under the tank at the front)  and once again feels like it was a factory designed part.

Another little mod Swampy’s made to the bike is to change the clutch cover from the one-piece design of the standard bike (which means you have to remove the whole case to inspect or change the clutch)  to the two-piece design which lets you just remove the clutch cover on its own. The original cases are magnesium so they can’t simply be welded and machined, so what Swampy’s done is to have the face of the cover machined off then fitted a special adapter ring (which is chemically bonded to the existing case),  and that allows a bolt-on cover to be fitted. Very neat.

The sump guard is a Rally Raid products which has been anodised black, but which is likely to be modded further with the addition of a toolkit fitted down on the lower right hand side. And the footpegs have been given extra girth by the addition of weld-on mounts.

Dirty Fun

As you’d expect the 690 Safari felt pretty much like a regular 690-R on the lanes: tall and well suspended and with that lovely willing motor. The extra size is noticeable of course - especially when picking your way through rocks as we did - as there’s slightly less visibility looking down toward the front wheel, but fortunately it doesn’t intrude on the riding at all. That’s because the front tank is far enough forward to not impinge on your knees and the extra-large pegs allows you switch position (though you do still notice the 690’s left-side exhaust down by your boot).

On the road the 690 Safari felt like it came straight off the factory production line. There are no squeaks or rattles, no nasty vibration or noisy turbulence to contend with. The bars turn easily from lock to lock without the fairing getting in the way - Swampy has re-routed some of the cables away from the bars and into the fairing; and the whole thing feels exactly like a standard Adventure bike might.

My only criticism of the machine has to do with the stock bike underneath. Because of the potential of that formidable 63hp, 654cc motor, KTM uses a system it calls EPT (Electric Power Throttle)  to limit the bike’s power in the lower two gears in order to prevent wheelspin, which means you have to rev it a bit more than you might imagine for a 650 to really get going away from the line. The bike also has a bit of a tendency to turn itself into corners as soon as you begin to lean (more than you would expect).  I wonder whether a little bit of suspension set-up (perhaps lowering the back-end slightly, or maybe even changing the amount of trail using a slightly different fork offset)  might help to counteract this, and make the bike more of a relaxed bend-swinger - more in keeping with its intended use.

No doubt the boys will want to play with the bike over the coming months to perfect the set-up. But as with any ‘special’  it’s what the owner prefers that really matters. Daz is three inches taller than me so lowering the rear end might not be his ideal solution to this issue - if it even bothers him in the first place.

So far Swampy has built three Safari machines for different customers all of whom are reportedly delighted with the result. But as he puts it: ‘This is the basic set-up if you like. You can have any colour you want, you can have any size, shape and colour of seat you want, and of course you can have any engine mods you require, depending on how deep your pockets are.

‘We’ve tried to keep the bike as standard as possible, using as many original parts as we can. The beauty of using KTM parts like the screen is, first of all it keeps the cost down, but secondly in a worst-case-scenario where someone has damaged their screen, they can simply go to a KTM dealer, order up a replacement part and then cut it to fit using their original as a template.’

Daz has now completed the first batch of fairings which are awaiting paint and finishing depending on owner’s preference, and Swampy will build the bike up to the required specification. The basic cost of the transformation is £3,000 (that was in 2011)  for a fully finished bike (that’s a ride-in, ride-out price, there’s no kit available), but of course you can specify the machine with your own graphics and paintscheme for a bit extra. That means you could have your company name or your own name emblazoned on the side if you prefer (remember the graphics are lacquered over for a professional paint finish).  And of course Swampy can build you whatever motor you want in the thing.

With secondhand 690s available from about £3,000 that means you could have a freshly painted Adventure sports machine on which you could head off for the holiday of a lifetime for around the 6k mark. Plus of course you are getting something incredibly exclusive. So for all you 690 owners out there, desperate to broaden your bike’s repertoire, or perhaps simply tired of waiting for KTM to launch their own Adventure model, the 690 Safari HAS to be the answer to the question so many of you have been asking…

Swampy would like to thank: Niky J @ AMP Grahics, Graham @ AMS Precision, Marina Easter for vinyl, Alec @ Core Racing and of course Daz. RUST would like to thank both of them for engineering not just a good bike but also a great day out. Cheers guys…

Copyright © 2017 Rust Sports Ltd. All rights reserved.

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