We say goodbye to the ultimate pioneering adventure motorcycle – the Yamaha XT
Yamaha’s XT may be going, but it won’t be forgotten. It’s 40 years since the XT500 changed the motorcycling landscape and, in various guises, it’s been the bike many have chosen to ride around the world. Here, we pay tribute to the many awesome incarnations of the Yamaha and let those whose lives have been changed by it, tell their tales.
The Yamaha XT500 set the world on fire in 1976. It was the first of its kind; a big four-stroke single, a desert racer and rally bike, which anyone could own. The Japanese loved it and the Americans craved it. And once Cyril Neveu won the first Dakar Rally on one in 1979, and again in 1980, Europe went crazy over it too. Images of the XT flying across vast expanses of African desert, piloted by tough, dusty-faced men sealed the deal.
This was a proper desert racing machine that you could understand and fix yourself. It set the standard and pioneered the big enduro craze. And once BMW took the next Dakar win in ’81 with their flat-twin GS, Yamaha set to work on a more rally-focused XT, releasing the Ténéré in ’83. Sales rocketed; in the 10 years after its re- lease, Yamaha sold around 61,000 bikes in Europe alone. Everyone wanted a slice of the Paris-dakar pie and the adventure bike category was born.
But times have changed. Bigger is now better and electronically-controlled behemoths with huge power outputs and even huger panniers attract all the attention, even if their actual off-road adventure capabilities are harder to access.
But the single-cylinder XT has carried on quietly in the background, crossing continents without fuss. Overshadowed by bigger, more powerful machinery, the XT’S desert racing roots have long since been forgotten. Now, though, European regulations spell the end of the mighty XT single-cylinder’s bloodline. Here, we pay homage to the machine that took the first Dakar racers across the Sahara and sparked a passion for adventure in hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists.
‘Images of the XT piloted by tough, dusty-faced men sealed the deal’
The plan was to lead 20 riders 4659 miles from London to Timbuktu, turn round and ride the same distance back again. But somehow we were stuck under a veranda, sweating, a few miles from the finish line.
A minor violation entering Timbuktu meant our passports and keys had been confiscated by the military. We were stranded in diplomatic limbo, unable to return and at the mercy of our abductors – until I was eventually summoned to the commander’s barracks, deep in the desert. A quick chat and £600 later and we were off again on the final ride to Timbuktu.
The expedition was fraught with difficulties; my original crew abandoned the project two days before the start and a last minute replacement team saved the expedition from imploding. Midway, our truck got stuck on the banks of the River Niger, sinking up to its belly in mud – taking an entire night of digging to free it before the tide came in. Not an easy feat, considering it’s in the dark that drugs and arms are routinely smuggled vast distances by camel trains across the Sahara.
In Mauritania, the massive fleet of service vehicles supporting the Dakar’s last trek across Africa were heading north, the race cancelled due to armed robbers having gunned down a French family in a town we were about to pass through. Lightning doesn’t often strike twice – we hoped.
Mauritania was tough. The dry heat was hard work. Dogs lay curled in the dirt against corners of buildings. The saviour of grey tarmac had long since disappeared and bikes continuously crashed in the sand as we battled with the final 200km.
But despite all of the difficulties we faced, the XT never failed me. Instead it was the one thing I could depend on in a trip fraught with uncertainties.
Bike after bike crashed as riders wrestled with their heavy, overloaded machines. But my XT was nimble, lighter underfoot and perfect for simplifying a difficult crossing. Other bikes began to overheat, cables broke and over-developed technology began to fry and fail in the heat. But again, the XT, with its unnerving reliability has far less to go wrong, with no complicated electronics. It was built to be a bit of a donkey, geared up to take you wherever you want to go with minimum fuss. It skimmed across the desert like it’s been doing since the late ’70s. The thump-thump from its cylinder still powering away through the sand.
‘Bike after bike crashed, but my XT was nimble... perfect for simplifying a difficult crossing’
Nick says: “Timbuktu is like going back to the Middle Ages. Donkeys with carts stroll along dusty roads filled with mosques and schools made out of straw and mud. Terrorist activity stopped the Dakar from going near there and after three successful expeditions and several beheadings in the main square; I was warned not to go back too. Now people can’t freely travel there. My XT was just about the last bike ever to reach this mystical city, which, steeped as it was in mythology, was thought for many years to not actually exist.”
The XT’S desert dominance captured the imagination of the bike-buying public
S SINGLE SPECIAL
Jean-claude Olivier on the XT500 in the first Paris-dakar Rally
London to Timbuktu on the XT. So easy you can do it with no hands. Sort of.
With so little to go wrong with it, the XT was a perfect desert workhorse
SEE THE VIDEO
com www.motorcyclenews. Watch highlights of Nick and his XT en route to Timbuktu
The roads and routes were tricky, but the XT was solid
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS
Its desert heritage gave Nick’s XT an advantage on African sand