Custom Yamaha Motorcycles
Joe Smith’s lean, mean Yamaha XS650 street tracker.
Custom Yamaha XS650 Street Tracker
Years produced: 1970-1983
Total production: 250,000 (est., all styles)
Top speed: 105mph
Engine type: 653cc SOHC air-cooled parallel twin
Weight (wet): 425lb (approx.)
Price then: $2,499 (1980)
Price now: $1,750-$3,500
MPG: 50mpg (avg.)
Harleys may still be the kings of the modern custom crowd, but few bikes satisfy the creative fantasies of classic custom motorcycle builders better than a Yamaha XS650 Street Tracker.
Joe Smith agrees: “You can do anything with them,” he says. “They’ve been chopped up, they’ve been café’d, they’ve been tracked. They’re a good platform for just about anything.”
There’s no questioning that Kenny Roberts’ 1973 AMA Grand National Championship win inspired a legion of Yamaha fans to produce street tracker replicas of King Kenny’s Yamaha XS650 track bike. Although his subsequent exploits on the brutal TZ750 and the whiplash 500cc GP strokers overshadowed his earlier success, it was the Yamaha XS650 flat tracker that made Kenny king of the track in 1973.
So many flat track fans have sought to replicate the iconic Seventies XS specials that a whole industry has grown up for custom Yamaha motorcycles and Yamaha street tracker replicas. Companies like Omar’s in Concord, Calif., can supply period and reproduction flat-tracker goodies while shops like Mike’s XS in Brooksville, Fla., carry an extensive inventory of Yamaha XS parts. That means it’s not too tough to build a basic street tracker from off-the-shelf parts. So what makes the difference from one bike to the next? Attention to detail and the quality of workmanship. And that’s where Joe’s XS Yamaha street tracker stands above the rest.
People who’ve seen his bike agree, as Joe’s Yamaha has taken first in class in both bike shows he has entered it in: at the Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts Rally & Show in Kansas City, Mo., in June 2010, Joe rode away with the Best Yamaha trophy; and at the Capital City Motorcycle Show in Topeka, Kan., a few months earlier, his tracker stole first place in the Classic class.
So what inspired Joe, a school bus mechanic from Topeka, to build an XS650-based street tracker? “I’d been eyeballing them for quite a while online,” Joe says, “and I’d always wanted to do one. The engine has really nice styling. It’s a really good looking motor.” And it doesn’t hurt that late production XS650s like Joe’s (it started life as a standard 1980 XS650SG) are an affordable foundation — an initial investment of $500 got the project underway.
“A buddy of mine I work with had bought a whole bunch of Yamaha XS650 parts a few years back and he was getting ready to sell some of it. I convinced him to let me come over and sift through his stuff and pick out what I wanted. I pulled out a matching numbers engine, frame and title and just built it up from there. It wasn’t as though I had to have a Yamaha. And it wasn’t really that I had to build a street tracker. But in this pile of parts were a couple of tracker fenders, including the rear fender that’s on it. That came with the bike, so it sort of directed itself that way,” Joe says.
Joe started his build by sandblasting the frame and stripping off all the brackets and lugs that wouldn’t be used on the finished bike. He finished off any imperfections with a grinder followed by some filler, and then painted the frame himself. Joe hand-formed the battery tray and electrical box from sheet aluminum and made up his own wiring harness. After rebuilding the front suspension he refitted the fork into triple clamps powder coated gloss black. He molded the seat pan in fiberglass, then cut the high-density foam to shape before handing the job of fitting the seat cover to a local upholsterer.
The gas tank is a new aftermarket reproduction item that Joe found on eBay, which he credits as a major source of miscellaneous parts. Wheels are stock Yamaha XS650 — with a twist. “It’s got an Omar’s 19-inch rear wheel kit,” he says, noting that the stock rear wheel is an 18 incher. “That wheel is actually a stock front wheel from an XS650. It has machined aluminum spacers that allow for that.” Tires are vintage Goodyear Eagles supplied by Johnny Isaacs of Total Performance Racers in Tulsa, Okla.
Also fitted to the rear are vintage Redwing shocks one inch longer than stock, which combined with the taller rear wheel give the tracker a much sportier stance. To complete the bodywork, Joe used the flat-tracker-style tail piece that came with the frame and engine, but made up new side panels by hand.
“They’re made out of aluminum,” he says, “from a school bus stop sign!” Joe powder coated the side panels as well as the brake caliper mounts, fitted all new cables and brake hoses, rebuilt the brake calipers, and added a new chain and sprockets. The engine required remarkably little work. “The motor had really good compression so I didn’t touch it,” Joe says, adding, “I just resealed it with all new gaskets, cleaned it up and painted it. And I rebuilt the carbs — they’re BS38 Mikunis off a 1979 Yamaha XS650.”
Joe added a Pamco electronic ignition unit and a performance coil, and runs NGK spark plugs. The exhaust system uses Omar’s “Mile” pipes. The speedometer and tachometer are both from JC Whitney. The paintwork was entrusted to Travis Charbonneau of TC Concepts in Topeka — the same painter responsible for the Motorcycle Classics/Dairyland Cycle Insurance 2010 Triumph Bonneville Build (see more on that bike on page 48).
“The paint scheme was inspired by one of Richard Pollock’s motorcycles [Mule Motorcycles in San Diego, Calif.],” Joe says. “That’s where I got the inspiration for the paint, from his XR1660 100 Cubic Inch motorcycle.”
So what was the most difficult part of the build? “Coming up with the money!” Joe says without hesitation. He admits to having invested $3,800 in the project, in our opinion a meager amount considering the quality of the build. As remarkable as the build is, what really gets us is the fact that this is Joe’s first custom motorcycle build or restoration, although he has restored cars before.
Justifiably, he’s pretty happy with the finished machine, and with the notice custom Yamaha motorcycles get. “When you ride it around and park it somewhere it’s an instant magnet: everybody’s got to come over and talk about it. It’s really rewarding to get that feedback from other people, that they think it’s a nice bike.”
Unlike a lot of builds, Joe’s is no trailer queen. He rides it regularly (including a 300-plus mile ride through the Flint Hills with editor Backus), and says it’s a satisfying road machine. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I’ve put about 1,000 miles on it so far, and I haven’t gotten a sore ass yet. I wouldn’t want to go across country on it, but for a couple or 300 miles, it’s not bad.” XS650s are notorious vibrators, as Joe has discovered. “Yeah, they’ll shake the hell out of you,” he says.
So what’s on the horizon? “I’ve considered doing a café-style XS650,” Joe says, adding, “Also, a buddy of mine’s got a Triumph Thruxton I really like.” Joe thinks he could build something similar using an Yamaha XS650 as a base. He’s also considered a Guzzi 850T-based café. And the street tracker? Joe says he’s been enjoying riding it so much, he figures he’s done with the show circuit. “I don’t think I’m going to show it any more. I’m just going to ride it.” Having listened to its throaty bark and watched Joe hustle it through the turns, we’d say he’s got his priorities straight. MC