Durable and easy to maintain, the Yamaha SR500 became a cult favorite among classic motorcycle fans
The British single that wasn't: Yamaha's SR500
Years produced: 1978-81
Total production: 15,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 33hp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 96mph
Engine type: Overhead cam, air-cooled single
Weight (dry): 160kg (353lb)
Price then: $1,898 (1980)
Price now: $1,000-$2,500
Doug Ratliff is a happy person. Or maybe he's two or three happy people when it comes to his 1980 Yamaha SR500.
Doug Number One believes he was born an artist. "I've always been into art," he says. "My high school ceramics teacher was my idol. He set me on my course."
Doug Number Two (sometimes known as Flash) is an aficionado of fast new Triumph motorcycles. "As a child, I gravitated to Fox minibikes. My brothers were the ‘Gasoline Alley' kids — they were both into engines. I broke my leg at age 13 with a friend on a Honda. It healed up, and I wanted more bike. I bought a black 1978 Yamaha SR and rode it all through college."
Doug Number Three is a collector of classic motorcycles. "I found a Norton, bemired in dirt, and fell in love. To this day, the smell of shellacked gasoline and a beat up motorcycle, and it's love."
The Norton led to a job at Hall-Burdette, a British bike dealership in Northern California, and another mentor, John Burdette. "He was the best, the man. He's now in his 80s and he's still great."
Luckily for all the Dougs, he discovered he was good at teaching. "I looked around for options. I was interested in survival, but I also wanted to give back to the community. I've been teaching since 1984." Now on his third Triumph triple, Doug rides almost every day. "I ride to work unless it's snowing or I have to truck in a load of clay for the kids."
Doug now owns a collection of 20 classic motorcycles (in addition to his three new bikes), an eclectic group of whatever has taken his fancy at one time or another. One of them is this 1980 Yamaha SR500, and it's a bike that all three Dougs can agree on.
Americans became enamored of single-cylinder 500cc motorcycles after World War II, when BSA Gold Stars, Norton Manxes and Velocettes became widely available on this side of the pond. The Gold Star worked wonderfully off road, and many competitors desert raced and flat-tracked them during the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties. Multi-cylinders started to take over in the mid-Fifties, and by the mid-Seventies, thumpy singles were something of an anachronism. Enter the Yamaha XT.
Yamaha, a builder of musical instruments since the 19th century, became interested in building two-stroke motorcycles after World War II. Building inexpensive transportation was one of the sure bets in the uncertain world of occupied Japan. The company made several missteps in the Seventies (namely the ill-fated TX750, Yamaha's first foray into the land of Big Twins, and the XS500, whose early reliability issues gave it a poor reputation that extended beyond its grave) and started looking for a way to regain lost ground. When salesmen in the United States pushed for the development of a four-stroke with off-road capability, Yamaha decided that here, perhaps, was a niche to be filled.
The XT was only the fourth four-stroke Yamaha motorcycle had developed, and working out the bugs was, according to project leader Shiro Nakamura, a nightmare. It finally appeared at Yamaha's September 1975 dealer's convention, and was an instant success, both in sales and in the long distance African races (Paris-Abidjan-Nice and Paris-Dakar) where the XT was a repeat winner.
The compact, short-stroke (87 x 84mm) engine had a stiff crankshaft carried in large ball bearings, and a chain-driven overhead camshaft. Lubrication was dry sump, with oil carried in the frame. Starting was by kick, as to be expected on an off-road machine, and the drum brakes were adequate for the dirt.
Buoyed by the success of the XT, Yamaha decided to bring out a street version of the single. In order to save space and weight, the design team decided not to add an electric starter. The SR, with electronic ignition and an automatic decompression system to ease kick starting, debuted in 1978. It had larger valves than the XT, for better performance on the street, and the all-aluminum alloy engine now sported larger fins.
The frame was new, and cast wheels and disc brakes were fitted fore and aft. There was very little chrome or ornamentation. As Doug Number One says, "It's a minimalist design for clean and efficient performance. As an artist, I see the overall lines speaking of simplicity, directness, and purpose."
Like the XT, the SR500 was also a hit. Contemporary magazines liked it because it was different than the then ubiquitous and characterless Universal Japanese Motorcycle. As Cycle World enthused in the March, 1980 issue, "Though the style is not Special, that is, it doesn't have bucko-bars and a barber's chair for a seat, it is not at all the same as so-called normal motorcycles. The tank is clean and purposeful. There is no excess plastic. The SR500 is a motorcycle for enthusiasts."
Cycle World must have really liked the engine, and described it in almost sexual terms as "... a great pulsing beast, a flood tide of torque, a muffled throb and a willingness to pull." Doug's reaction? "That description is way over the top, but it is a torquey little beast."
Testers liked its instant throttle response, handling, gearing, and low weight. They claimed it sipped fuel at a rate of 62mpg. (Doug says this number is a little optimistic.) They noted some vibration, but said it wasn't bad. There were complaints about the not-quite-sticky tires and the boring drag strip times. But what really got test riders' attention was the kick-starting drill.
Up until the late Sixties, it was unusual NOT to have to kick-start a bike. After 10 years of electric starters, a kick-start-only bike was a real anomaly. Doug doesn't mind it at all — as a matter of fact, he got this bike at a bargain price because of it.
Ten years after Doug sold the SR he had in college, he had a fit of nostalgia and decided he wanted another thumper. He found this one through his friend Paul Brown, a Yamaha field rep. A dealer had died, and Brown had liquidated his dealership; all save two SRs, one red and one silver. The silver bike (our photo bike) was at another dealer, shoved in the back. Another bike had been pushed against it, breaking the trip meter. Aside from that, it was in near new condition, with only 174 miles on it.
Doug remembers: "The kids back there said, ‘You don't want this bike. You can't start it.' Well, I knew how to start it, so I ran through the drill with the compression lever and it started on the first or second kick."
In case you want to amaze young salesmen at Yamaha dealerships and/or impressionable persons of your favorite sex, the starting drill is fairly easy to commit to memory. It's also easier to work than the starting drill for a BSA Gold Star.
As Doug explains: "Most people put the bike on the centerstand, but I don't have to. Prod the kick lever until the piston is at top-dead-center. Yamaha provided a little window in the engine for novices, and when a silver metal tang fills the window, you are in the right spot. Pull in the decompression lever on the left-hand bar near the grip. Kick half way through, let the lever out and then ratchet back up to the top. You will hear a distinctive clack, meaning the kicker is at the highest point. Kick as hard as you can, and it will start."
Doug's SR is the second-generation model. Debuting in 1980, the SR500H weighs six pounds less than the original, largely due to its rear drum brake (replacing the original rear disc) and smaller flywheel. "From my experience, my 1978 had a propensity for the rear caliper to lock up on the disc. One time I was actually stalled by the disc locking up on the caliper, producing smoke and a red-hot disc. It's my belief that Yamaha went back to the drum due to problems with the disc." Other modifications were tubeless tires, a smaller carburetor, and increased oil capacity.
By 1981, apparently everyone in the United States who wanted a SR500 had bought one, although sales in Europe and Japan continued to be strong. Yamaha stopped exporting SR500s to the U.S., but continued making them until 1999.
American owners hung on to their SRs, and it became a cult bike, favored by motorcycle messengers, bohemians and aspiring artists. Unlike the earlier British singles, the SR500 is durable, easy to maintain, and will put up with a fair amount of abuse. As Doug explains: "I grease the chain, and put air in the tires. I change the oil every 3,000 miles. I occasionally clean the air filter. The spark plug gets changed every year. It's a really durable bike — I've ridden it 9,000 miles and haven't had to fix it."
With extra time and money due to the lack of fiddly bits to fix and maintain and no chrome to polish, SR owners tend to tinker with their bikes. There is an aftermarket company that makes bolt-on kits to disguise a SR as a replica of one of several classic British motorcycles. Alloy tanks, replica seats, clip-ons, and exhausts are all easily obtainable.
Joe Minton wrote an article in the August 1986 issue of Motorcyclist describing a list of modifications to the bike that add several horsepower without making the beast harder to start. These suggestions have been so popular they have become known as the "Minton Mods." A stock SR is very rare.
Doug's SR has only been lightly customized. It sports drag handlebars and a bar end mirror. A 17-tooth countershaft sprocket and a Supertrapp header pipe and muffler add top end speed. Dual overhead oil lines add needed lubrication to the exhaust valve rocker, and Progressive Suspension fork springs stiffen up the front end for better canyon carving.
As per Minton's suggestions, Doug installed a K&N air filter and shimmed the carburetor needle. "The engine breathes better and the shimming allows more gas flow to the engine. Without the shimming, the engine would run too lean and burn a valve. I also changed the pilot and main jet," he says. Doug has also recently added a drilled front disc rotor and braided steel brake lines.
Doug likes to ride the SR around town and on twisty mountain roads. "It does vibrate a bit. Above 55mph, it smooths out, and it's wonderful. Its forte is around town — short hops and canyon carving. It is really, really good on twisty mountain roads — the tighter the better.
"The SR is not only a lot of fun, it is also practical transportation. I have a magnetic tank bag for the SR so I can go grocery shopping on the way home. I get 45-50mpg, depending on how hard I've been thrashing," Doug says.
Each of the Dougs has their own perspective on life, but all enjoy the one-lunger. "I don't know what to say about the old girl. She's been a good bike." MC
"When all is said, done and forgotten, the SR500 will stand on its own, and will stand proudly. The concept of One Big Cylinder and no extras is good enough to not need any frills. Handling? Flawless. No kidding. Imagine the unlikely mixture of the jack rabbit agility of a Yamaha RD or Ducati GT and the locomotive stability of the Laverda Jota or Kawasaki KZ1000. Or, at the risk of salting and emotional scar, the feel of, yes, the classic English roadster. By Gads Sirs, it works."
— Cycle World, January 1978
"For the Cycle Guide staffers who had never before sampled a four-stroke street thumper, the SR500 was an education, a revelation, and a stimulation. And for our testers who were familiar with those classic British singles, riding the uncomplicated, down to earth SR500 was like coming home again — and finding that home is better than ever."
— Cycle Guide, April 1978
" ... the Yamaha SR500E is a gut machine. It's appeal is to the soul, not necessarily the senses — common or otherwise. ... The secret to one-kick starting is to leave your cotton-picking hands off the throttle throughout the drill. With this as my guiding inspiration I seldom needed more than one or two pounces on the inoffensive kicklever to get things thumping."
— Road Rider, September 1978
" … I like the SR500. Not despite its shortcomings, but because of its strengths. It's an elemental machine that doesn't try to hide the fact that it is a motorcycle. And that honesty alone is enough reason for the SR500 to exist."
— Cycle Guide, December 1978
"For those who accept the SR500 for what it is, the rewards are worth the effort. For them, this is the most satisfying bike on the market."
— Cycle World, March 1980