Classic Motorcycle Mechanics

Steve Cooper on the daddy of the adventure bike.

Meet the motorcycle which started the trend for big trailies and adventure bikes… Yamaha’s XT500.


You really do have to admire Yamaha for the way it refuses to follow trends although – historical­ly – this has been both a blessing and a curse. Moving from two-strokes to four-strokes (XS650/XS1) was a massive leap of faith, but it paid off, only for the follow-up TX750 to become one of the biggest turkeys of all time. Since then, it’s been a pendulum of quirky or class-leading bikes. So with such a mercurial track record it makes you wonder how the Iwata factory was feeling in the run-up to the launch of the XT500. Arguably the company’s boldest venture to date, there must have been lots of anguish as the clock ticked down to launch day. Of course as we all know that end result was better than anyone could have hoped for and Yamaha’s XT500 opened up a whole new genre of dirt bike riding that also encompasse­d an even larger slice of longer distance Tarmac capability. Decades before the term was actually coined, Yamaha had invented the adventure motorcycle. Arguably there had been machines before the XT’S arrival that had the attributes and potential to be a genuine, dual purpose, longer range bike, but Yamaha went bravely into an area which everyone else had written off as an anachronis­tic backwater. Sitting pretty as a picture we have a one hundred point perfect Yamaha XT500G circa 1979/80. It’s been the subject of a full and total, no expense spared, get it exactly right, nut and bolt restoratio­n by The Motorcycle Restoratio­n Company. It looks good, in fact it looks better than good, it’s simply stunning and the owner has offered it to us at CMM before it gets delivered back to him. All I have to do is start the bike and it’s ours for the entire morning. Yes of course, alert CMM reader, you’ve already spotted the metaphoric­al

fly in the ointment. Starting lusty 500 singles isn’t easy if they don’t have an electric foot. With the XT, Yamaha thoughtful­ly provided a little window over the end of the cam cover and, in theory at least, I can use this to find top dead centre (TDC) via the decompress­or device that lives beneath the clutch lever mount. Pulling on this lever depresses the exhaust valve thereby making the process so much easier… in theory! I struggle, pant and wheeze, much to amusement of the TMC staff as they look on. Finally ace mechanic Mark takes pity on me and then he can’t get the beast to fire either. It’s my turn to smirk but eventually the bike fires up and then goes on to be a paragon of start-ability for the entire day regardless of being hot, cold or lukewarm. If you had any reservatio­ns whatsoever that motorcycle manufactur­ers have a large tank of bike DNA into which dip they their machines I can guarantee the XT500 will dissuade you of such doubts. The bike may be physically bigger than a DT175, it makes different sounds to its stroker forbears and it’s unquestion­ably heavier but it’s still a Yamaha trail iron through and through. Every single ounce of the XT500 reflects the company’s AT, CT, DT, RT heritage. This is essentiall­y a Yamaha DT250 that’s been consuming huge quantities of steroids. The wide bars and their positionin­g are intuitivel­y ‘just right’. Ditto the slim tank and seat which is also rather comfortabl­e. Of course it’s kind of obvious that Yamaha would have automatica­lly chosen to follow a proven route but at the same time it’s almost eerie how familiar a remarkably different bike actually feels. Looks wise the XT500 is a visual feast that is, initially, both restrained and striking at the same time. The stand-out feature of the G model is the anodised gold Takasago rims. These are exquisitel­y counterpoi­nted by the black paint used on the tank, frame and engine; you can’t be the shy and retiring type if you own one of these. The original XT500C of 1976 had been predominan­tly white and Yamaha endeavoure­d, with most of its 500s, to retain at least an element of this iconic colour scheme. On our G model the tank runs both black and white panels along with white guards and a startlingl­y bright and capacious alloy bash plate which looks like it would see off most potential threats. Clocks, indicators, lights and switchgear are all in various surface finishes of black which rather neatly minimises their visual impact. In fact wherever you look there’s a lot of it, black, about. If there’s one thing large capacity four-strokes are known for it is making a lot of attention-grabbing noise. The bangs per minute aren’t as manifold as those of a multi but what single-lunged motors lose in rpm they make up for in decibels. In short silencing a big single without strangling it is a peculiar science. Getting the resultant exhaust to look half decent is emphatical­ly something of an arcane art. With the XT500’S prime market,

America, becoming ever more obsessed with noise Iwata’s finest minds came up with a near perfect solution. The original C model was criticised because of its low-slung pipe routing and from the D models on, the pipe wends its way around the barrel, over the gearbox to arrive in a complex of steel pressings that wrap themselves around the right-hand vertical frame rails before entering the silencer. Accept that all road-going exhausts are a compromise­d between noise, performanc­e and ergonomics and then marvel that the XT500 goes so well without making an unholy racket! Elsewhere practicali­ty is the watchword along with the merest of bling: sprung loaded, serrated metal foot pegs that hinge upwards in the event of an off sit tight in against the frame and in line with the seat’s nose. The front brake cable is kept out of harm’s way via a retaining clip that’s also cleverly part of the lower left fork gaiter’s clamp. The speedo cable has a large captive wire guard that’s designed to keep the flora at bay. A small lockable tool-box lives on the left of the pillion seat and the tank’s breather pipe is firmly retained by its own dedicated one way cleat which in turn is held captive by one of the handlebar clamps. Chrome is kept to the minimum with just the gear lever, handlebars and a handful of bolts. With the engine running comfortabl­y and off choke it’s time to see how this, the fifth iteration of Yamaha’s brave gamble, behaves. The light clutch needs minimal effort and first gear selects just like you’d want. Pull away and the willing nature of a big four-stroke single is immediatel­y noticeable but it’s decidedly not akin to the older British analogues. Yamaha’s engineers sought to reduce flywheel mass in a bid to limit shuddering vibrations and in the expectatio­n of getting the motor to rev beyond previously ordained limits/expectatio­ns. The bike still pulls like a dumper truck but doesn’t have the so-called ‘plonkabili­ty’ history says is part and parcel of the concept: a big single that likes revs? This was exactly the characteri­stics that immediatel­y endeared the bike to its target audience. The front end of the big trail bike feels a little flighty even on neutral throttle and it’s a trait that’s exacerbate­d when you give the engine a large handful of throttle. It’s never dangerous or doomimpend­ing but it’s a foible that does take some getting used to. Despite this the bike feels nicely planted on the Tarmac which may be to some degree due to the excellent modern Continenta­l Twinduro tyres that give good feedback. Ultimately the handling is light and predictabl­e once you’ve dropped out of road bike mode and grasped what

 ??  ?? ABOVE: Even today the XT500 is still drop dead gorgeous.
ABOVE: Even today the XT500 is still drop dead gorgeous.
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 ??  ?? ABOVE: Does what it says on the tin: excite and entertain!
ABOVE: Does what it says on the tin: excite and entertain!

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