First Impressions - Yamaha xs650

For all of us there seems to be a golden era in our youth when our pay packets were bigger than our debts.

A period when the demands on our time were pretty much limited to the hours per day it took to earn a wage. Our days off belonged to us. If you were like me they were spent on a motorcycle. Every Saturday morning, rain hail or shine I’d meet up with a mate.

We’d take a brief look at the sky and head to the clear patch on the horizon. We were young and the destination didn’t really matter. Actually knowing where you were heading seemed to spoil the adventure.

New roads, new towns, new people! But always there were others on bikes doing exactly what we were doing. Before junk food chain stores dominated our nomadic diet there were road house diners offering exactly the same food, you just had to wait a little longer for it.

While waiting, it was hard not to chat with the bloke on the Z9 who’d just pulled up beside you. Or the girl and the guy travelling around oz on an old CB 750 with everything they owned okky strapped to it.

Then there were the hard core blokes who saw no need to replace engine seals as long as servos sold oil by the quart. And what about the ‘electric set!’ The blokes who rode Ducatis and Guzzi’s. These blokes had changed more globes and relays than a janitor in Vegas. The fact that they could ride an Italian machine over one hour from home qualified them to trouble shoot for the SEC.

On a trip like this, at a servo outside Stawell, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a classic parallel twin. It burbled as the rider rolled off the throttle and coasted to a bowser.

At idle its front wheel pounded the pavement. The bike had a classic look , but it definitely wasn’t English. On either side of its long slim tank it proudly identified itself as a ‘Yamaha’.

In conversation with its owner I quickly learnt that I was looking at the first four stroke motor cycle that Yamaha had produced. An XS1 in original condition right down to the front drum brake and fading two toned paint scheme.

Manufactured in 1969, the bike was ageing well. The chrome was starting to pit and a little oil was seeping from the head gasket. Overall not too much to complain about on a bike that was already seventeen years old.

Yamahas XS 650 was obviously heavily influenced by the British bikes of its time. But to say that it was a just ‘copy’ does not do the machine justice. With the introduction of the XS, Yamaha had adopted and improved on what the Brits had to offer.

Early XS models found it hard to match the handling of British bikes but they did exceed them in reliability while offering near equal engine performance. The combination of traditional styling, reliability and competitive pricing really did put the Brits on notice. Japan was coming!.

The owner of this particular bike had purchased it new. Although virtually worthless when I saw it I couldn’t help but share his belief that this was a bike that was destined to become a classic once people started to take early Japanese bikes seriously.

So taken by the XS 650 was he that he had already started acquiring as many of them as he could get his hands on. And here was I only wanting one. The one that he was sitting on. But it was not to be. Pretty soon a young family and mortgages took precedence over my carefree weekends.

But the XS remained an eternal quest. I continued to ride a series of commuters to and from work and even managed to get away occasionally but I never got over that first encounter with an XS.

In 2003 I finally found an XS. It was laying under a dusty tarp in a farm shed near Wangaratta. Incredibly it had failed to attract a bid at the previous weeks clearing sale! The bike was an XS 2, complete and in reasonable condition. A faulty clutch push rod seal had taken the bike off the road. As the previous owner explained, replacement of the seal meant that the engine had to be removed and the cases split. Fortuitously for me he had not been able to find the time.

I bought the bike and a trailer load of spares to go with it. Over the twelve months I set about rebuilding the bike. I wanted a bike that I could ride on a regular basis so reliability and handling were high priorities.

The XS 650 club of Australia is an active organisation with a strong member base. Parts and expert advice are readily available through the club. After discussing the aims of my project with club members I set about making some minor improvements to the chasis.

The XS 1 and 2 shared a reputation for twitching and wallowing at speed. When new, most pundits attributed this problem to its rather light weight frame. Little effort was put into rectifying the problem at the time as Yamaha concentrated on developing a more robust frame for later models.

In the interim owners of the XS 1 and 2 had to learn to live with the bike or develop a means to rectify the problem themselves. And rectify it they did!. Amongst the XS enthusiasts that I met, there seemed to be a consensus that the bikes handling could be dramatically improved through, Replacement of the original head stem bearings, the fitting of brass swing arm bushes, updating of the rear shocks and the inclusion of a single bolt and spacer on the front engine mount.

Given that the bike was totally stripped none of these scenarios seemed to be extreme or difficult. In 1972 Yamaha claimed that the xs2 in stock form was capable of 185 kilometres per hour. The bikes limited braking and cornering abilities made it hard to justify increasing the engines power out put.

In standard form the XS compared favourably with its contemporary’s. When it came to rebuilding the engine I was quite happy to concentrate on keeping everything with in the manufacturers specifications. The only exceptions being the inclusion of a boyer electronic ignition system and the fitting of higher ratio cogs to the primary drive.

Having started with the best of intentions, they being to keep the XS as close to original as I could, I found myself starting to stray. Just how far could I stretch this idea of keeping changes limited to quickly replaceable cosmetics? Why not cafénate it a bit?

I dropped the tank, head light and side covers into the panel shop. In the spray booth was a metallic green Toyota landcruiser. When they asked what colours I wanted I just pointed at the cruiser and said, “use whats left from that.” Two days later the paint job was done. One of the apprentices had pin striped the tank with gold trim which really lifted the paint.

I had the local sign writer make up some matching ‘Yamaha’ stickers and fixed them to the original tank badges. A lowered seat, complete with matching cowell and a set of ace bars completed the café look. It couldn’t have been too bad cause when I finally got the roadworthy every one seemed happy to believe that the bike was original.

Since the rebuild it’s clocked up just under forty thousand kilometres. Although not my every day ride it is the bike I choose to ride. The bike snarls. It vibrates at all revs. It growls when you throttle off and barks when you give a fistful. The constant vacuum mikuni carbs work well in most conditions but really start to hum when there’s a bit of humidity about. It’s a bike that demands to be ridden but one which rewards your efforts. Its hardly a benign friend like some modern bikes.

The XS is more like a companion that’s heading in the same direction as you. Over time you grow accustomed to each other and accept it for what it is – a quick trip back in time.

Mark Arians

Reader's article

By Mark Arians