The Yamaha TT500
The big Yamaha single
Gordon found our feature bike, a 1976 TT500 through a newspaper ad. The prior owner claimed it was the second TT500 sold in California, and while there’s no way to confirm the claim, it is a first year, low serial number — no. 42 — TT500. It was all correct except for the exhaust, which had been swapped for a more powerful aftermarket item. Gordon bought the bike, rode it around a little, and put it in his collection. Several weeks ago, he was idly trolling through Craigslist, and came across a beautiful, very lightly used stock exhaust. “This is a very rare item — it was one year only,” Gordon says. The pics here are the bike’s first outing with the correct exhaust.
Years made: 1976-1981
Claimed power: 27hp @ 5,500rpm
Top speed: 90mph
Engine type: 499.4cc SOHC, air-cooled single
Weight (128kg): 282lb
Price then: $1,398
Price now: $500-$2,000
MPG: 35mpg (approx., offroad)
Gordon Mizuhara was an unusual teenager: He was never, ever interested in motorcycles. But he did want his own wheels, and carefully saved his money to get a set, at some point realizing he had enough for either, (a), an old beater of a car or, (b), a cherry 360T Honda motorcycle. He bought the Honda.
Naturally enough, after owning the little Honda for a few weeks, Gordon was suddenly an enthusiast. Then he started noticing the hotshots in his ocean-side neighborhood in San Francisco, many of them riding Yamaha 500 singles. “People would race them up and down the Great Highway. The Yamaha TT500 has stump-pulling torque, and some people could wheelie a TT500 for blocks. It was the Wheelie King,” Gordon says, and that got him hooked on the big Yamaha single.
Although the Yamaha TT500 was last imported into the U.S. in 1981, the lightweight, fun single still has tons of fans. “I don’t remember when I got the first one, but I’ve definitely been bit by the Yamaha 500 bug,” Gordon adds. “I have been collecting all three varieties — the TT offroader, the XT enduro bike and the SR road machine. I own eight now, and this bike is the earliest one in my collection.”
Rise of the machine: The 4-stroke motorcycle
Although Yamaha got its start in the 1800s building instruments, it turned to motorcycles after World War II, when producing inexpensive transportation was one of the sure bets in the uncertain world of occupied Japan. Exports fueled the company’s growth — particularly to the U.S., where the company established an export arm in 1961 — and by the late 1960s Yamaha’s American market was probably bigger than its Japanese market, and possibly Yamaha’s single biggest source of income.
A lot of that success came from paying attention to the market. The Yamaha DT-1 scrambler introduced in 1968 was specifically built for the U.S. market, and was a huge success. “It was reliable,” explains John Reinhard, a former Yamaha USA employee and now owner of Ken Maely’s Hot Shoes (famous for its custom dirt track racing boots). “The levers would stay on the bars. Everything would work,” he says in obvious reference to the less-than-reliable fare coming out of the U.K.
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