Yamaha had the café racer set in mind when it designed the new-for-1981 Yamaha XJ550 Seca.
Steve Seidner, a motorcycle industry trendsetter and classic bike collector who has appeared on these pages before (The Magnificent Mustangs, Motorcycle Classics, January/February 2013), designs, manufactures, imports and sells motorcycles for a living, and he occasionally encounters interesting vintage bikes for sale. One such motorcycle is the brilliant red 1982 Yamaha Seca featured here. With only 1,776 miles on the odometer, as Steve tells it he couldn’t get his wallet out fast enough when this opportunity appeared.
Yamaha introduced the XJ550 Seca in 1981, with technology, performance and aesthetics that went way beyond the bike’s $2,529 sticker price. Before diving into the specifics of Steve’s Seca, it might be useful to understand the U.S. motorcycle market’s evolution in the years leading up to the 1980s. Business schools focus on the beer, aviation and automotive industries, but the great motorcycle marketing wars of the last century are far more interesting.
In the early 1900s there were more than 100 motorcycle manufacturers in the United States. To make a long story a little less long, the Depression and the marketplace shook things out, and going into World War II only two were left: Harley-Davidson and Indian. When the War Department told both to devote their full production to the war effort, Indian did as the Army directed and Harley told the War Department to pound sand. When the war ended, Harley picked up where they left off in the civilian marketplace and Indian went bankrupt a few years later. Tastes had evolved, too. Returning U.S. servicemen wanted lighter, better performing motorcycles and the British invasion began. Not the Beatles (they would come later), but marques like Triumph, BSA, Norton and Royal Enfield.
Across the Pacific, Japan needed cheap transportation. A guy named Soichiro Honda had an idea, and you know the rest. Honda brought small bikes to the U.S. in the early 1960s, and we met a lot of the nicest people riding them. Three more Japanese companies (Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha) piled on to form what would become the Big Four and the race (both literally and figuratively) was on. At first, it was all small bikes. Harley and the Brits (that almost sounds like a rock band) dismissed the Asian imports, a classic marketing blunder if ever there was one. Then, in 1969, Honda unleashed the nuclear option (the 750 Four) and the world hasn’t been the same since. The Honda 750 was a technology tour de force: A hydraulic disc brake, four cylinders, four carburetors, an overhead cam, electric starting, five speeds, a performance paradigm shift, and a sound more Offenhauser than John Deere. It was the beginning of the end for the British motorcycle industry as we knew it, and nearly the end of Harley-Davidson.
The path to market was changing, too. Before Honda, motorcycle dealerships were dingy, greasy outlets staffed by the kind of people Mom advised avoiding. The Big Four broke that mold. Hondas were sold by folks in clean, tidy and friendly stores. The other Japanese importers tried different approaches, including selling through bicycle shops. One of those was Bert’s in Azusa, California, a tiny bicycle and toy store owned by a visionary guy named Ed Seidner (we’ll come back to that in a bit).
The Big Four dealers thrived, with many evolving into megastores featuring all four Japanese brands (and more) under one roof. In those years, a young Steve Seidner worked for his dad, Ed Seidner, at Bert’s, moving through service, sales, parts and accessories, and on into general management. Brother Ron took the helm at Bert’s and it became one of the world’s largest motorcycle dealers, while Steve moved on to open successful businesses in custom VW parts, custom vans, big V-twin customs (the Pro-One line), motorcycle accessories, and finally, CSC Motorcycles, the North American importer of Zongshen motorcycles.
As Steve Seidner grew a business empire, the Japanese became masters of motorcycle engineering, manufacturing and marketing, defining and developing market niches at a dizzying pace. Harley screamed for protection as Milwaukee quality and pricing went in opposite directions. Ronald Reagan responded with tariffs on Japanese imports over 750cc; the Japanese flexed their manufacturing muscle and instantly responded with 700cc tariff busters. It was a rich tapestry, our market was. The industry and the market have continued to evolve, but never at the pace of that era, and going beyond the early 1980s would take us past the topic of this story, Steve’s 1982 Yamaha XJ550 Seca.
Yamaha’s first motorcycles in the U.S. were 2-strokes ranging from 50cc to a beautiful 305cc road bike. When Yamaha made their initial 4-stroke play in 1970, they entered the market with what would become a long-lived 650cc parallel twin (the beautifully named and Brit-like XS-1). Yamaha read the tea leaves well; the future in 2-stroke road burners was dim (although the tuning fork folks continued with 2-stroke singles and twins until emissions regulations dictated otherwise). With a second delightful nod to British inspiration, Yamaha introduced a big thumper, their 1976 TT 500. Yamaha knew they would need something with more than just one or two vertical cylinders to run with the big dogs, though, and that led to the XS Eleven in 1978. It was the horsepower king back then, with shaft drive and an engine so smooth you could stand a nickel on it at idle. Across the board, the Japanese motorcycle industry continued to offer stunning advances, with styling, engineering, marketing and manufacturing excellence that would be impressive in any industry.
Like other Big Four folks, Yamaha sensed an unmet need in the midsized 4-cylinder niche, and in 1980 they introduced a shaft-drive 650 cruiser. It was an immediate success. In a rapid display of engineering and manufacturing excellence, Yamaha introduced cruisers and standards in parallel-twin, 3-cylinder, 4-cylinder and V-twin models, and even larger standards and touring models, all while continuing to offer dirt bikes in both 2-stroke and 4-stroke flavors. It was a dizzying display of talent, the likes of which have been seen in few other industries.
In 1981, one of these motorcycles was the XJ550 Seca, a motorcycle with a decidedly café-racer, sport bike flair. Named for the Laguna Seca racetrack in northern California (laguna seca means dry lake bed in Spanish), the bike, to borrow a phrase, looks fast standing still. With a gorgeous quarter fairing, a snappy taillight cowl and brilliant colors (white with red accents or red with silver accents), the bike commands attention. Steve’s bike is a bright red that has to be seen in person (trust me on this, the photos don’t do it justice).
Compared to their 650 4-cylinder model introduced only one year earlier, Yamaha’s 550 was lighter and incorporated numerous improvements. The new Seca 550 had a 6-speed transmission, hydraulically tensioned Hy-Vo chain primary drive, a jackshaft that provided power to both the alternator and the clutch, and a lighter and better-performing chain final drive. There were many new-in-the-1980s touches: self-cancelling turn signals, a sidestand interlock, an adjustable-reach front brake lever, and an oil level (rather than pressure) warning light. The new 550 engine had the Yamaha Induction Control System designed to increase combustion chamber swirl for increased power. Notwithstanding the Seca’s flair for displacement hyperbole (the engine’s 57mm bore and 51.8mm stroke actually produced 528cc), the YICS concept worked and the Seca was a runner. The little 550 produced over 50 rear-wheel horsepower, and that was good for quarter-mile times in the high 12s and a top speed of 110 miles per hour. That kind of motorcycle performance was unheard of when Harley and the Brits ruled the roost in the 1960s, and the Seca’s numbers rivaled 750cc and 900cc Japanese bikes of the prior decade.
On the road
I rode Steve’s Seca in Southern California on the magnificent roads of the San Gabriel Mountains on a beautiful, sunny day, and it was a trip through time for me. Having come of age in that era, the motorcycle felt about as I remembered bikes from the 1980s. Handling was good, but not great, and certainly not as planted as today’s motorcycles. Part of that was 40-year-old frame and suspension technology (conventional steel tubing, nonadjustable front forks, twin rear shocks adjustable for preload only, and a 424-pound curb weight), and part of it was the bike’s old-school shoes (3 x 19-inch front and 110/90 x 18-inch rear tires). The bike didn’t feel heavy in the corners, but it didn’t track like a modern motorcycle, either. Brakes (single hydraulic disc front and a drum rear) were good for the day, but only adequate compared to modern motorcycles. The controls were easy to operate and familiar. Clutch action was light, shifting was smooth, carburetion was spot on, and the gears felt perfectly spaced for my brisk mountain ride. Ergonomics (seating, reach to the bars, and peg position) were perfect, as were the instruments (a dual pod analog tachometer and speedometer with big, easy-to-read numbers). In preparation for my ride, Steve had his CSC motorcycle maestros make sure everything was adjusted, aligned and synched, and the motorcycle (with its 1,776 miles) literally felt like a new motorcycle. The Seca was comfortable and it felt profoundly right. Riding the Seca through the twisties on a sunny Southern California morning was everything a motorcycle ride is supposed to be. All was well with the world that morning.
The condition of Steve’s Seca can only be described as stunning, and the styling and colors work for me. In giving the bike a closer examination while I was photographing it, I unlatched the hinged rear seat and was more than a little surprised to find the original owner’s manual and toolkit tucked underneath. It just doesn’t get any more original than this. I asked Steve to trace where the bike was originally sold, hoping that the original dealer might have been Bert’s back in 1982 (it’s possible, as Bert’s is a huge dealership). That would have completed an interesting Seidner circle, but it was not to be. This peach of a motorcycle first sold in Georgia.
The XJ550 Seca retailed for $2,529 when first introduced in 1981; adjusted for inflation that becomes $7,530 today. A quick online check shows that used ’82 XJ550 Secas go for asking prices of $1,800 to $3,500, but it’s not likely you’d find one like Steve’s with only 1,776 miles on the clock. I asked several times, but Steve is keeping the Seca in his personal collection. It’s not for sale. But if it were ... MC