Restoring a 1980 Yamaha XS1100 Midnight Special

Follow Dale through his 1980 Yamaha XS1100 Midnight Special restoration.

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by Nick Cedar
  • Engine: 1,101cc DOHC air-cooled 4-stroke inline 4-cylinder, 71.5mm x 68.6mm bore and stroke, 9:1 compression ratio, 95hp @ 8,500rpm
  • Top speed: 129.4mph (period magazine estimate)
  • Carburetion: Four 34mm Mikuni CV carburetors
  • Transmission: 5-speed, left foot shift, shaft final drive
  • Electrics: 12v, mechanical centrifugal governor and vacuum advance, coil ignition
  • Frame/wheelbase: Double cradle tubular steel frame w/swingarm rear/60.8in (1,544mm)
  • Suspension: Air-adjustable oil-dampened telescopic forks front, dual oil-dampened shocks, adjustable for damping and spring preload
  • Brakes: Dual 11.7in (297mm) hydraulic discs front, single 11.7in (297mm) hydraulic disc rear
  • Tires: 3.5 x 19in front, 130/90 x 16in rear
  • Weight (wet, full tank): 588lb (267kg)
  • Seat height: 31.1in (790mm)
  • Fuel capacity/MPG: 4gal (15ltr)/42mpg
  • Price then/now: $3,699/$2,000-$5,500

“Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me

Let the Midnight Special shine a ever loving light on me.”

Traditional prison work song, recorded by Leadbelly, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others.

The Midnight Special in this song was a train that rolled past a Southern prison at night, filling the dreams of the prisoners with thoughts of freedom and travel. The Midnight Special in this story is a limited edition motorcycle built by Yamaha in the early 1980s — at the time, a bike of which dreams were made. Two Midnight Specials, a 1980 and a 1981 machine, came to Dane Berens in one piece, but with their glow badly dimmed. With a lot of work, the 1980 XS1100 has regained its sparkle and once again shines a light down a highway. “It also pulls like a train,” says Berens.

Neighborhood connection

“I like to restore motorcycles, and do the clean-up work in my driveway,” explains Dane Berens, a fan of classic Japanese bikes. “A neighbor daily walks his dog in front of my house. One day he came up to me and we started talking motorcycles. The discussion eventually led to two bikes that he currently owned. He didn’t have room for them in his garage and they were sitting outside. He hoped that they would be restored and wanted to know if I wanted them.”

The two bikes turned out to be the two Midnight Specials. Dane wrapped up a deal, then got into his pickup truck and brought the bikes home, one at a time. “They were heavy and the brakes didn’t work, but I managed. I started working on the 1980 because one of the tires was flat and it was impossible to move around my garage.”

Way back when

In the 1960s, the Japanese motorcycle companies concentrated on establishing themselves in overseas markets. In the 1970s, their spot in the marketplace established, the four survivors of the many small motorcycle companies that had gotten their start in Japan after World War II jockeyed for position in the world market.

At the beginning of the decade, Yamaha, like the other Japanese factories, tried to come up with an answer to the Honda CB750. The Yamaha XS650 twin wasn’t quite what the company was looking for, but American dealers soon learned that if they customized the 650s on the floor a little bit, they would sell faster and for more money. They reported this information to the factory. By 1976, U.S. based Yamaha Project Planner Ed Burke had put together a prototype 650 Special and sent it to Japan.

By this time, Yamaha was building 750s as well as 650s. The company put together a Special edition of both bikes, with trick mufflers, one piece wheels, buckhorn handlebars, a fat rear tire (and of course lots and lots of chrome) and sent them to dealers in late 1977. They sold like hotcakes. While Honda continued to be the industry sales leader, Yamaha was nipping at its heels.

Bigger and better

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, all four Japanese factories were engaged in a horsepower and cubic inch war, partially sparked by EPA emissions rules that made it difficult to get a lot of speed out of smaller engines. Riding high on good times and good sales, they rolled out the 6-cylinder Honda CBX, the Kawasaki 1300 and the GS series Suzukis. Not to be left behind, Yamaha came out with an 1,100cc four in the Summer of 1977. One of the engineers on the project supposedly said it was intended to be “the g@#$%m fastest street bike ever.”

The new XS Eleven featured, front to back, a double overhead cam transverse 4-cylinder engine rubber mounted on a sturdy duplex frame, transistor controlled ignition and shaft drive. Triple disc brakes did a good job of reining in the raging beast. Testers praised the bike for being both fast and civilized, noting the comfortable seat, good suspension and lack of vibration. They were not happy with the wallowing handling on a twisty racetrack, but hastened to point out that very few actual owners were going to ride the big Yamaha like that.

The one thing the magazine writers were careful not to mention was that the XS Eleven, while enjoyable to ride, was not enjoyable to look at. It was, in fact, pretty plain. Given that Yamaha was then selling a lot more custom look Specials that plain standard bikes, the question was not if Yamaha was going to trot out a Special version of the 1100, but when. The XS1100 Special turned up exactly one year after the debut of the standard 1100.

The new Special

The 1979 XS1100 Special was more than a rack to hang extra chrome on. The new Yamaha was 13 pounds lighter than the 1979 version of the Standard, ran the quarter mile under 12 seconds, had better selected gear ratios and improved front and rear suspension. Of course, the new model did have a whole lot of chrome, a king and queen seat (which was judged comfortable for both passenger and pilot) and a 16-inch rear tire. It also had stylish buckhorn handlebars that proved controversial with testers.

Most magazine testers liked the bike and hated the handlebars. “We only wish that an awareness of function had intruded on the decision to angle the handlebar ends so emphatically inwards,” Cycle said. Cycle Guide complained about the awkward riding position. Cycle World pointed out, “Motorcycles are supposed to fit people.” It didn’t matter — the looped over bars were what people wanted at the time, and the XS1100 Special sold — twice as fast as the more ergonomic, but less stylish, 1100 Standard.

For the 1980 model year, Yamaha doubled down on the custom image by providing a long list of accessories, from windshields to luggage racks. Top end alterations gave back some of the power lost due to compliance with additional EPA regulations. The company also came out with an extra-special Special based on the 1100 — the limited edition Midnight Special.

New Yamaha Black

The marketing team at Yamaha got the name from the song and ran with the image. Many of the components on the limited edition machine were black or black chrome. Although the Midnight Special was styled as a cruiser, it was equipped with advanced, adjustable suspension and a comfortable seat. The durable and reliable XS1100 engine, with surfaces blacked out, completed the package.

Assembly of each Midnight Special started with a team pulling a frame with smooth welds off the assembly line. The paint on the bodywork was “New Yamaha Black,” — extra deep black lacquer. The handlebars and exhaust, among other components, were black chrome. Touches of special gold plating adorned select parts from the headlight rim to the rear grab bar. A buyer could have their name engraved on a little gold metal plaque mounted on the Yamaha emblem on the fork cover under the headlight. The beast was fed by a bank of newly upgraded 34mm Mikuni constant velocity carburetors. “When I started working on the bike, I was flabbergasted by the quality of the paint and finish,” says Dane. “Very elite, compared to the basic assembly line quality of most vintage Japanese motorcycles.”

For 1981, changes were few: a linked braking system (similar to the one pioneered by Moto Guzzi) with one front disc and the rear disc operated by the foot pedal, different style mag wheels, a built-in wheel-locking chain, ball-joint type mirrors, a redesigned seat, a new engine starting system, and fully transistorized ignition, replacing the hybrid ignition system used in 1979 and 1980. At this point, the good times ended.

Honda and Yamaha had been fighting for U.S. sales for some time, but in 1980 and 1981 the war really heated up. Both companies deeply discounted their products, trying to get the other to blink first. The game ended when the U.S. economy crashed in July 1981. Harley Davidson, newly independent from its previous corporate owner, AMF, and feeling that it was being crushed between giants, applied for tariff relief from the U.S. Trade Commission. The Commission responded by imposing a tariff on imported motorcycles displacing more than 700cc. Yamaha responded by cutting its product line to the bone for 1982. One of the models that got the ax was the XS1100, both standard and Special versions. Eventually Yamaha came back with big fast bikes, but these were water-cooled. The end of the XS1100 was the end of the era of air cooled horsepower for Yamaha.

The legacy lives on

The XS1100 powerplant had a reputation for being bombproof, and many of these big Yamahas have survived. The first owner of this 1980 machine was a mechanic, and may have massaged the top end and suspension a little. Period test reports noted that the Midnight Special was cold at heart, due to an extremely lean fuel system, and took quite some time to warm up, but Dane says that this bike will idle nicely after two minutes. The second owner rode and enjoyed this bike and a 1981 machine he also purchased, but eventually stopped riding both of them. Three years ago, he ran out of room in his garage and put both bikes outside. When Dane got them, they were both pretty crusty.

Dane is a big fan of Ace Hardware Lub-E, similar to WD-40, as a first step bike cleaner. He sprayed down the 1980 machine with it and let the Lub-E work while he started looking for items that were not going to clean up. While tune up parts, brake pads, brake rebuild kits, and Mikuni carburetor rebuild parts for Midnight Special XS1100s are easy to find, good quality drivetrain parts are few and far between. Sheetmetal and exhaust components are completely unobtainable in the online marketplace. After some searching, Berens was able to find new brake caliper pistons. “Brakemasters by Powerhouse in the U.K. sells rebuild parts and remanufactures brake pistons for this bike and many others in stainless steel. They were VERY helpful. I inadvertently corrupted a couple of the brake piston seals during the rebuild process. Brakemasters promptly responded to my email inquiry and patiently helped me work through this issue.”

Another source of information was the XS Eleven Webpage ( which provided loads of great information, plus leads on parts and all sorts of rebuild tips. A forum member gave Dane a lead to Techna-Fit, which provided a full set of bolt on stainless steel brake lines. Dane also found Liberty Motosports in Yuma, Arizona, which had some NOS parts, including fork seals. “They sent the fork seals to me for the cost of shipping, because they thought the seals were too hard to work properly. They were fine.” The clutch was slipping around 6,000rpm, but friends and the forum helped Dane work through a fix. “It’s now been 350 miles and no matter how much I flog it, I can’t get the clutch to slip!”

As a result of the care taken by the factory in building this bike, Dane was able to clean off the dirt and surface corrosion without taking the whole thing apart, although he had to spend hours meticulously scrubbing the machine from stem to stern, cleaning electrical connections, and refinishing some parts. The tank had a couple of minor dings, which were massaged out by Joe at in Campbell, California. Dings and Dents specializes in paintless repairs, important, since matching the deep-black color and quality of original paint on this bike is difficult and expensive. Repairs to the original seat cover were done at Howard’s Upholstery by Ken in Salinas, California. The welting on the inside was coming loose, but Ken fixed it, and also a puncture hole. Seat covers that are an accurate reproduction of the original are among the items that are hard to get, so repairing the existing seat was a priority.

On the road

Dane will have put more than 350 miles on the odometer by the time you read this. He likes riding this bike, nicknamed Godzilla. “It’s a great road bike. They used wide straight-cut gears on both the crank and jack shafts connected by a 10-row Hy-Vo chain, and as a result, it’s got a hum like a 747 in the distance, although the engine is generally quiet. One amusing item is the speedometer — this bike is good for more than 120mph, but the speedometer only goes up to 85mph. I suppose the EPA thought this would get people to slow down.”

“I really like the road manners — it is so smooth and has so much power and low-end torque. I am getting used to the riding position, with the extended forks and buckhorn bars. I am so used to the UJM all purpose bike, and this is different. The factory built custom look is kind of fun. After two rebuilds, I am now very happy with the brakes — the bike will stop using two fingers.”

“The bike has a very wide powerband with great throttle response and starts to pull like a train at about 3,500rpm. It will loaf along at 30mph, but when the pointer on the speedo is at 3 o’clock it is just doing 75mph. The XS1100 is a great, durable motorcycle. I like to imagine my handsome, albeit sinister, black and gold Midnight Special back when it was created in 1980, and now as an iconic tribute to times gone by — Godzilla with Saturday Night Fever dressed for the disco.” MC

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