"People said I wouldn’t walk again, let alone rebuild the bike"

Published: 13 July 2016

After a serious accident that left his body and XJR1300 SP in tatters, you’d have forgiven Gary Haythorn for giving up riding. Instead, he recovered and turned his crumpled Yamaha into a triumphant resto


ou couldn’t have blamed Gary Haythorn if he’d got rid of this 1999 Yamaha XJR1300 SP. People have divested themselves of bikes for the most spurious of reasons – the wife doesn’t like the colour, their mate’s bought something they perceive to be better, they have to squeeze past it in the garage to get to the lawnmower; the litany of lazy reasons for flogging a bike is endless.

When you’ve had a life-threatening, life-changing accident on a bike then you probably couldn’t be blamed for never wanting to see the evil thing again, let alone getting it back on the road. But that, as you can see from Gary’s sublime restoration/special, is not his way. 

On 7 June 2011, he was returning home from a bike night. Gary was ‘on it’ that evening, his mate Andy Hartopp chasing him down some Lincolnshire lanes, trying to keep him in sight. Somewhere near Holbeach, things went very wrong for Gary. “The accident was caused by some idiot going too fast... I am that idiot,” he says with a wry grin. He wasn’t smiling that summer evening, though, or for a long time to come. A broken back, neck, legs, ribs, jaw, eye socket and a burst lung were compounded by a brain injury, as well as some other lesser but still unpleasant grievances. Luckily Andy was trained in first aid. In the immediate aftermath of the accident Gary, incredibly, wanted to sit up and get home. Andy demanded he stay stock still until help arrived, and probably saved Gary’s life.

He was placed in an induced coma and transferred to Nottingham, where the long process of repair and rehabilitation began.

The bent, battered and broken Yam was recovered and taken to the HGV repair yard where Gary works, while the more important business of saving our hero got underway. 

This, therefore, is a tale of two builds, pre and post-accident. Gary bought the XJR in 2003, spotting it for sale in a local free ads paper back in the day before eBay took over most of our used bike transactions. He was particularly attracted by the fact it was an SP model, benefitting from factory-fitted Öhlins shocks, a faux stitched seat and one of a range of paintjobs that was a little more exciting than the single-colour options offered on non-SP models. 

“I’d been looking for a retro and had dismissed the Suzuki GSX1400 as being too pricey,” he says. “I’m not mad on Bandits, couldn’t see a Kawasaki ZRX1100 or 1200 at the right money and I don’t like Hondas. The XJR1300 was the right bike at the right time and the right price.” Well, the price wasn’t quite right at first. “The guy wanted £4250. I’m a tight-arse and wanted to pay about a grand less than that,” says Gary. Negotiations went on for several weeks, but eventually the owner relented and sold it to Gary for £3450 – with 8000 miles on the clock and a personalised numberplate, V13 YAM.

Gary is a serial restorer. He also has a sideline in top-notch paintwork; long-term readers will have seen his Suzuki X7 and Kawasaki GPZ900R in the pages of PS. But the XJR1300 didn’t require restoration – at least not at that point. What it was crying out for, as far as Gary was concerned, were some modifications. “I wasn’t about to go crazy,” he says. “It was important to me that the bike looked like it had been built by Yamaha, with a few personal touches.” To that end he fitted the usd forks from a Yamaha YZF-R1 4XV (that model being of the same vintage as his XJR), getting rid of the rather basic rwu units. The modification uses an R1 bottom yoke with the XJR steering stem pressed into it, and flowerpot risers on top of the legs to bring them to the correct height and allow them to be clamped by the stock XJR top yoke. That work was undertaken by Speedyfab in the West Midlands. 

The standard XJR1300 wheel fitted, once just a little aluminium was removed from the inside of the left leg to accommodate the retro’s mechanical speedo drive. Scorpion end-cans and link pipes attached to the stock Yamaha headers changed the soundtrack and the bike’s lines for the better. Drilling the airbox unlocked a little more performance, too. Being a child of the 1970s who started riding in the 1980s, Gary also fancied a JMC swingarm. “I really thought I’d lost my money there,” he says. “I couldn’t get them on the phone once I’d placed my order and when they finally answered, after about nine months, they told me the swingarm was nearly ready and just off for polishing. Sure enough it turned up a few days later.”

Gary had been particularly attracted by this bike’s black-painted engine. “A mate of mine, Domingo in Little Oakley, told me that eight out of 10 are silver,” he says. “They did them in 1998-’99 and again in 2003. They’re prone to flaking around the fins. Mine had, so I blew them in with aerosols.”

There then followed 9000 miles of fun for Gary – possibly more given his penchant for wheelies – before disaster struck on that June night in 2011. In October he returned home for a month to get up to strength for his last operation the following month. Confined to a wheelchair, he asked to go and see the bike. 

“I didn’t want to forget about it and from where I sat it looked rebuildable,” he says. It had, as we sometimes say, crashed well. “The tank was crumpled and the forks were bent; the clocks and headlamp were shattered. The bodywork and rear light and mudguard were shot, too. As it happened I’d bought and repainted a tank prior to the accident and had some spare panels ‘just in case’. Although the subframe was bent and the lockstops had been ripped off, the rest of the frame was good. The wheels and engine, plus my precious JMC swingarm, were fine.”

The restoration proper started in summer 2012. Although he’d already repainted a tank in standard colours to his own impeccable standards – “bikes and restos are a serious hobby for me” – Gary was suddenly moved to try something different. “I’d always liked the look of the 1979 Yamaha RD400F Daytona Special, the last of their air-cooled two-stroke twins,” he says. A now defunct local supplier mixed the paint to the exact shades specified by Gary, while Image Works made the decals. Gary applied the paint and decals in homage to Yamaha’s 1970s stroker.

There was much work to be done before the newly-painted bodywork could be fitted. Gary made a steel still jig to strap the engine and frame to, which allowed him to straighten the rear subframe using hydraulic rams. Used spares came from autojumbles and eBay. “I found some clocks that had racked up pretty much the same mileage as mine,” he says. At £250 they were the most expensive item but Gary was happy to pay it – they’re a grand new. By contrast, some Yamaha new spares are cheap – a rear inner fender is £40. The now defunct CH Biggadyke supplied the new parts, including a £50 throttle cable and mirrors at £27 each. Handlebars, switchgear, head and tail lights were all autojumble finds. Secondhand indicators are fitted with clear lenses from a later XJR.

The aftermarket end-cans were beyond help but Hawk made a pair to Gary’s spec
to fit the Scorpion link pipes attached to the Yamaha headers. The bike was good to go again in spring 2013 with just £1250 spent on it, and so was Gary, who’d returned to two wheels the previous summer on his GPZ.

“People said I wouldn’t walk again, let alone rebuild the bike, but I’m a determined bugger and that sort of talk just spurs me on,” says Gary. “That said, you’re nothing without the people around you. My wife Penny came to the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham every day I was there, where the staff were amazing; my mum and dad made the trek every other day. My mate John Cooper runs Leeson’s Garage in Sutton Bridge and filled up Penny’s car for months and wouldn’t take any money from her. Then there’s Andy Hartopp, without whom it could all have been game over. 

“But that’s enough of that. I suppose you want to ride it?” Oh yes.

The Ride

Although it’s 14 years since I last spent any significant time with an XJR1300, it all comes rushing back the minute I hop on board Gary’s  Yamaha. In 2002 I had custody of one of these big nakeds for nine months. I loved it. Back then I reckoned it to be the best of its contemporaries, even seeing off Suzuki’s double-pronged retro attack in the portly shape of the 1200 Bandit and GSX1400. Only Kawasaki’s ZRX1200 could convince me the choice in the over 1000cc retro class wasn’t a foregone conclusion, and even then the Yamaha would always win out.

Impressions change over time, much as memories tend to grow fonder when refracted through a rose-tinted lens, but one thing that hasn’t changed as far as the XJR goes is that its seat and tank haven’t got any narrower, even as I’ve got wider. If I close my eyes once in position on the imposing Yamaha, I could be my 14-years-younger self ready to commute to my staff job on Performance Bikes. There’s something that feels instinctively right when you sit on an XJR. It looks like a big bike, feels like a big bike and indeed it rides like a big bike. Just the sort of thing many of us aspired to back in our novice days, only more so.

Wheelie fan Gary usually runs slightly lower gearing on his Yam but for now it’s on stock gearing, selected for easy overdrive on a long continental jaunt last year. Oddly, first gear feels taller than I recall and demands a little feathering of the clutch on take-off. But The engine’s abundant torque soon takes over and there’s no sign of the occasional clutch slip Gary sometimes experiences when the bike is cold. He has considered the popular mod of an extra diaphragm spring, but thinks the heavier clutch would be too high a price to pay to do away with for what is only an occasional inconvenience.

Indeed the XJR’s torque is irresistible and addictive, particularly the accompanying soundtrack when it peaks at 6500rpm. The drilled-out airbox contributes to an angry rasp as the rev counter needle continues its relentless push to one o’clock on the dial. The carbs are attached to less-restrictive FJ1200 rubbers; there’s a four-degree ignition advancer to liven things up too. A hacking crackle in the Hawk cans on the overrun is the perfect complement to the acerbic airbox.

Of courses there are other deviations from stock that make Gary’s XJR different to the one I remember. Those R1 usd forks promise a good deal more sophistication than the basic rwu originals and on this they deliver. Compliant when they need to be and more than capable of keeping the XJR composed and level when those blue-spot calipers do as blue-spot calipers do, this is a conversion that works. I couldn’t honestly say whether or not the JMC swingarm is any big improvement over the original but it ticks the box marked ‘trick’ and justifies its place on the bike.

One of Gary’s stated aims in building the bike was that it must look like it could have come out of the Yamaha factory. It certainly succeeds. The RD400 Daytona-influenced colour combination is sublime and a welcome change from speedblocks – not that we’re averse to those, but this is an inspired design, right down to the replication of the 1970s Yamaha font for the ‘1300’ on the sidepanels. 

But not only does it look factory, it rides like a true production special. Inspired and, given Gary’s story, inspirational too. 

Thanks

Hawk Exhausts 01704 897778, pipewerx.com

Gary Haythorn Painting 07515 327549

Image Works 0115 944 3111, bike-stickers.com

Roy from Bungay for the power pack

Words Alan Seely  Photos Stuart Collins