Motorcycle Classics

All in the Family: 1972 Yamaha XS650

Join Andrew and Martin Dolcini as they revive a family heirloom.

In the 1960s, you could get old American motorcycles for next to nothing. The few eccentrics who were interested in these two-wheelers amassed huge parts stashes for less than the rent on a warehouse to store them.

By the late 1970’s, enough people were collecting American bikes to start prices climbing, but older British and European motorcycles, and parts for them, could be picked up by enthusiasts for cheap. Time went on, and by the turn of the millennium, prices for classic American motorcycles were often five and six figures, with British bikes not that far behind. At which point, collectors discovered Japanese classics — that is, some Japanese classics.

Looking back

Somehow, while older Hondas have acquired a following, Yamaha 650 twins from the 1970s can still be bought for a song. That isn’t to say that people don’t love them or that they are bad motorcycles, just that they have not become collectible — yet. Enter Andrew and Martin Dolcini. The Dolcini brothers have started a workshop for the restoration of 1970-1983 Yamaha twins, and have apparently hit pay dirt. They haven’t needed to do any advertising — word of mouth is bringing in customers.

The Dolcinis are historical all by themselves. They descended from one of several Italian families who emigrated to Northern California in the 1850s, shortly after the Gold Rush got underway. Milk products and fruit were short of supply in Gold of prices. Of course, there was also a roaring trade in alcoholic beverages. The Italians pooled their money, bought land North of San Francisco, and started farms. The rolling hills looked a lot like home, and the Northern California coast has a Mediterranean climate, enabling the newcomers to use the farming techniques they had learned back home in Italy. The California wine industry was started by these immigrants. Other Italian families, like the Dolcinis, opened dairies, and still others built boats, became commercial fishermen, and invented both cioppino (San Francisco fish stew) and the crab feed.

These hard working people prospered, as did their descendants. The Dolcini family still owns their ancestral land a few miles from the Northern California coast, and a neighbor, Donny Moreda, is renting it for his dairy operation. Donny is the current owner of this 650 twin, which used to belong to Andrew and Martin’s uncle, Leroy (“Lee”) Joseph Dolcini, Jr., who now is no longer with us. Andrew and Martin restored the Yamaha for Moreda, and the rebuild inspired the brothers to start their new restoration business.

Motorcycles, as well as farming, are a family tradition with the Dolcinis. Leroy Joseph Dolcini Senior was the original motorcyclist in the family. He started riding in the early 1940s, and bought a brand new Harley Davidson Knucklehead in 1947. The Knucklehead, with Leroy Senior and the soon-to-be Mrs. Dolcini aboard, went to the famous Hollister Gypsy Tour rally that sparked the infamous Life magazine cover and The Wild One movie. Being unmarried and respectable, they were only there for the day, and didn’t see any mayhem before they left. For the record, people who were there for the entire rally have stated that nothing actually happened outside of a couple of bar fights, and that the Life magazine photo was staged.

Leroy Senior encouraged his sons and their friends to ride. He bought a small displacement Yamaha for hunting in Nevada, and let his children ride it. Martin and Andrew’s grandmother tells stories about how their dad and uncle would fight over who got to go over the hill to bring their dad a Pepsi.

As the second generation got older, they got into flat track racing, along with their pal Donny. “Grandfather supported his sons’ racing,” says Andrew. “He liked to watch the two boys and Donny Moreda ride. He took relatives and friends to see them ride. There was a flat track and TT circuit nearby, and amateurs could race every weekend. Our father and uncle could only race nights because they had to be there in the morning to milk the cows.”

The Dolcinis rode Yamahas — 125s, 175s and 250cc machines. “My dad liked Yamahas. He felt that they were better machines, better built than other Japanese motorcycles,” Martin says. Donny and the older Dolcini brothers were fixtures on the AMA District 36 amateur circuit until the mid-1970s. Eugene Dolcini (Martin and Andrew’s father) remembers, “The first gas crisis pretty much ended amateur racing for us.” Andrew adds, “Dad wanted to continue, but it was getting too expensive. Racing was becoming professionalized. He was working at the dairy, and had limited time to follow other pursuits.”

Although Eugene Dolcini stopped racing, he had no intention of stopping riding. “Dad was the first one to buy a 1972 Yamaha, which he got in 1974 or 1975, used, from the Petaluma Yamaha dealer,” says Martin “He would cruise around the countryside together with his brother on their matching 1972 Yamaha XS650s. They wouldn’t do anything crazy except ride fast.”

Eventually all the brothers stopped riding, and Lee sold his 1972 Yamaha to Donny Moreda. Donny stopped riding as well, and stored the bike at his ranch. Years later, Donny pulled it out and started looking for someone who could restore it for him.

German heritage

The 650 Yamaha twin got its start in, of all places, Germany. This is not actually so extraordinary, since many Japanese designers were inspired by German motorcycles. Horex, founded after World War I, restarted civilian production after World War II with two designs: a 350cc single and a 500cc twin. The twin had advanced features: an overhead cam, and a horizontally split crankcase that did not leak oil. Horex ceased operations in 1960.

A small Japanese motorcycle company named Hosk found a Horex twin and (probably) reverse engineered it. They also made several improvements, including enlarging it to 650cc. Shortly afterwards, Hosk was bought out by Showa (at the time a motorcycle manufacturer, now a suspension specialist) and shortly after that, Showa was purchased by Yamaha. Now in possession of the Hosk design for a 650 twin, Yamaha decided to shelve it for the time being to concentrate on 2-strokes.

Management changed its mind in the late 1960s and asked its engineers to design a motorcycle around the Hosk engine. The 650cc XS-1 appeared on American shores in early 1970. It was kickstart only, which in 1970 was not a problem. However, contemporary testers were not completely thrilled with the new Yamaha. Comparing it to contemporary British twins, they found the flywheels to be lighter than those on BSA’s and Triumphs, and liked the 5-speed gearbox, the four main bearing crankshaft, the “sporting but gentle” cam profile, and the constant velocity dual carburetors.

Complaints included loud pipes, “ultra quick throttle response,” a front drum brake that faded on twisty roads, vibration over 3,000rpm and handling problems. In 1971, Cycle Guide published a controversial report on this bike which, although it praised the low end torque and comfortable seat, gave thumbs down to high speed wandering and vibration.

Yamaha engineers read the articles and set out to improve the product. By 1972, the engineers had got it right, and contemporary testers were much happier. Road Rider magazine referred to the Yamaha as a “good horse.” They liked the dark red and white color scheme, and said that chassis oscillation, while still there, wasn’t a problem under 80mph. Vibration was either not noticeable or barely noticeable, and throttle response was smooth. A single front disc brake competently slowed the machine when asked, the mufflers put out a pleasant burble, and the bike handled well in traffic. A rider survey gave the XS650 top marks for reliability and oil tightness.

One upgrade was an unusual electric starter. The starting sequence begins with pulling a compression release that lifts the left exhaust valve. The engine goes rrm, rrm, rrm, catches on the right side, and then automatically reseats the left valve so it will fire on the left cylinder. Testers were pleased by how reliably it started the bike.

Time moves on

Yamaha continued to build the 650 through 1983, though the model designations changed a bit from year to year. A racing version of the twin powered Kenny Roberts to multiple flat track victories. Later road models gained a more conventional electric starter, mag wheels and electronic ignition. In 1979 the 650 was turned into a semi-chopper, the Special. The 650 continued to sell well through the early 1980s, when a recession forced a contraction in the motorcycle market.

Meanwhile, Andrew and Martin were growing up. Andrew says they “just kind of fell into” working on XS Yamahas. Their father, who had been out of motorcycling for a while, took a 1975 Yamaha twin as payment for a debt he was owed. It burned a hole in a piston, and the brothers took the engine out of the bike and replaced it with another one they found. In the process, they found a good XS, which Martin is now using as a daily rider, and a lot of cheap parts, which they have stored. Donny Moreda heard from their cousin Paul Dolcini that the brothers had done a good job on the repairs and decided to ask them to revive their uncle’s bike. Some years back, Moreda had taken it to a nearby dealer, who found a new seat, did the minimum to get the bike started (but not running well) and gave Moreda a hard sell on a new motorcycle. The dealer dropped off Moreda’s bike in a cow barn, where it sat for another 15 years.

When delivered to the Dolcini’s workshop, it was very obvious where the Yamaha had spent the last 15 years of its life — it was covered with what comes out of the back end of a cow. Andrew and Martin cleaned it up and stripped the bike down to the frame.

The frame passed a check for straightness, but a welded on tang for the sidestand had been completely worn down. The brothers noticed the later model bracket style, still available from Yamaha, had a tang on it. They cut the missing piece off the new part, and had it welded on by JRL Machine in Petaluma. The brothers painted the bare spots, but left as much of the original paint as they could. Martin explained, “Donny wanted to keep the original pitting and patina, but we cleaned everything up, and we even cleaned the rust out of the pits.” Andrew scraped the rust off the wheels, repacked the bearings and located new period correct Dunlop K70 tires.

Not having a machine shop, the Dolcinis sent the top end and cases to Engine Dynamics in Petaluma, California, where the parts were treated to cylinder honing, bead blasting and a valve job. Moreda’s cylinders showed surprisingly little wear, given the bike’s bad overall shape.

Engine parts back from the machine shop, Andrew and Martin dove into reassembly. Their farm background served them well. Farmers are used to making do, and, with so little available for XS Yamahas, they had to make do with what they could find. The clutch plates were unusable, and new clutch plates that fit a 1972 XS are unobtainable. The solution was to find a within-spec clutch basket from a later Yamaha that could accept locatable clutch plates. The transmission would not engage first gear. The brothers found a junkyard engine that had a good transmission, disassembled it, and used its gears and the bearing placement clips, which were missing on this 650. New rings for the bead blasted pistons came from Michael Morse of — one of the few sources for XS parts outside of junkyards. “Michael Morse is the guru of Yamaha 650s,” say Andrew and Martin.

The wires leading to the lights on the gauges were broken. Martin soldered in new sockets and replaced the wiring. Good original points to replace the malfunctioning points in the bike came from one of the junkyard engines. “We have developed a stash of parts stripped off engines from junkyards,” says Andrew. “That is the only source for many parts. For example, the indicator light was missing its reflector. We spent hours going through junkyards looking for that part.”

The existing front brake master cylinder on Donny’s bike was from a later model and would not accept the OEM brake light switch. Andrew found an older broken down master cylinder, and he and Martin drilled its bracket and used some parts from the old master cylinder to hook up the brake light switch.

Uncle’s Yamaha is now finally done and delivered to a happy owner, who has been riding the bike on sunny days. However, the restoration business, while gaining customers, has hit a bump. The brothers asked Jim Duer at Megacycle Cams to help them assemble an engine. The day after it was finished, Barbara, Jim’s wife, made Martin a job offer he could not refuse. He is now only able to work on restorations after hours and on weekends.

Martin rides to work most days on his own 1972 Yamaha. “It’s as reliable as can be. Just keep it clean. Be careful with electrical connections — they are a little fragile after all these years. Check the oil every time you get gas, and check the spark plugs on a regular basis. Look for leaks. I change the oil every 2,500 miles.”

“The charging system is a little complicated, and will only charge over 1,200rpm,” Andrew explains. “It works with an electromagnet and is designed to vary the charge as the bike needs it. Rotors are the most common failure in the system. Aftermarket rotors are available, but are not recommended. As I said, it’s a complicated system. Original ones are best, but are getting less available, especially since we have been buying them all up. 650Central has rewinds.”

“The parts are out there if you know where to look. We have nice bikes because we can get parts cheap. It’s possible to hop the engine up — after all, this engine was the basis of some very successful 1970’s flat trackers,” Andrew says.

“It’s fast, handles well and looks good. It has British style, but with German strength and a disciplined Japanese flair.” MC

  • Published on Feb 4, 2021
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