Best bets on tomorrow's classics: The Yamaha SRX600 got positive reviews but was ignored by American buyers
Years produced: 1986 (for U.S. market)
Total production: 19,000 (worldwide)
Claimed power: 41bhp @ 6,500rpm
Top speed: 106mph (est.)
Engine type: 595cc, four-stroke single cylinder
Weight (wet): 176kg (387lb)
Price then: $2,599 (1986)
Price now: $2,500-$3,850
The mullet. Miami Vice jackets. Those ridiculous electric shavers that left behind a few millimeters of stubble.
The Eighties and fashion sins went together like the Ice Age and cold, and the motorcycle world wasn’t immune. Case in point is the American motorcycle mainstream’s indifference to the 1986 Yamaha SRX600.
While factory customs poured from showrooms like Falco albums from record bins — yes, even sludge like Rock Me Amadeus could become a No. 1 hit in the Eighties — domestic buyers ignored the tough and bold SRX like the 55mph speed limit signs of the day. Yamaha claims to have sold 19,000 units of the single-cylinder SRX, but it’s clear that all but a tiny fraction of those sales were in Europe and Asia.
The SRX, with throwback design cues such as clip-on-style handlebars and lack of an electric starter, was imported only one year to the United States.
"No one wanted a single, and no one wanted to kick-start a 600," says Tulsa, Okla., resident Phil Schreck, who camped out on his local dealer’s doorstep in 1986 to buy an SRX. "It was an oddball, but I couldn’t have cared less. It had beautiful lines, it handled well, it was light and it always did everything I wanted it to do."
Nearly 20 years after it hit the domestic market, the SRX600 has developed a long-overdue but well-deserved cult following in the United States. Vernon L. Curren, an SRX owner from Ohio, is among those wondering why Americans didn’t embrace the bike during the Eighties.
"It does everything right," says Curren, whose secondhand SRX has just under 24,000 miles on the odometer. "When starting it warm you can’t even look at the throttle, let alone touch it, or it’ll flood. Other than that, it does everything perfect."
That’s high praise, but it’s not out of the ordinary for the 600cc retro machine, which some rank among the best singles of all time. Designed by an engineering crew bent on putting a modern spin on the café racer theme, the bike combines a nearly unbreakable engine with handling about as good as anything that wasn’t a racing-only machine, outstanding braking and bare-knuckle styling.
"It’s almost like an enthusiast got into the boardroom and said, 'We’ve had a good year and Yamaha’s in good shape, so let’s make this enthusiast bike and see what happens,'" says Jack Robinson, founder of the Four-Stroke Singles National Owners Club (www.fssnoc.org). "Those bikes didn’t make sense. But once in a while in the industry, passion and enthusiasm wins for a short time instead of just bucks."
The bike stood out among the street bikes of its era, with a slim, pistol-grip tank, a minimalist instrument panel and, of course, no "Start" button. "A real man’s single is a kick-started machine, even if it means extra effort," Yamaha’s P.R. machine said. An enlarged version of Yamaha’s XT/TT engine provided the power, and the bike boasted triple disc brakes. Engineers raided parts bins from high-performance bikes such as the FZ600 for much of the chassis equipment, including the brakes and suspension.
The package was a huge technological improvement over the SR500 of the late-Seventies, but only the niche market of thumper enthusiasts embraced it.
Schreck put 75,000 miles on his SRX before donating it to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Ala. "It was wonderful, far ahead of its time," he says. "It had good brakes and good suspension, and it was counterbalanced so it didn’t shake like the old singles."
In 1995, Sport Rider declared the SRX one of the best bikes of the past decade. "By almost all definitions, the SRX is a fantastic all-around motorcycle," the magazine said.
So why the brush-off? It certainly didn’t help that in an era ruled by multi-cylinder street bikes that produced triple-digit horsepower numbers, the SRX offered a claimed 41bhp and a 14-second quarter-mile time. Compounding those numbers, the bike doesn’t breathe particularly well thanks to restrictive factory exhaust and carbs. To bring out the bike’s true kick, it’s necessary to replace the original equipment with aftermarket parts.
For Curren, though, the stock version is more than adequate. "I’m not Freddie Spencer, anyway, so it’s fast enough for me, and it handles great."
The SRX is becoming a better investment all the time: Low-mileage units recently drew winning bids of $3,500-plus on eBay.
Loafers without socks are optional.
1983 Honda FT500-35bhp, 91mph
-Single discs front and rear
The Ascot was originally conceived as a modern version of the BSA Gold Star, but the final product showed how much a bike can change going from drawing board to production line.
Instead of offering a new twist on the classic British single, Honda adopted a street-tracker design — FT stands for Flat Tracker — with cast wheels and an electric start. The chassis was a bit heavy for the engine, which produced a claimed 35bhp, and performance was more ho-hum than jolly good. The ride was comfortable, the styling inoffensive and the handling acceptable, but the package fell far short of providing the thrill of a classic British single.
Sales were slow despite good initial reviews, and the Ascot was imported for only two years in the United States.
In the ensuing years, the Ascot became a bargain leader on the used-bike market. Good units still go for less than $1,000, a low price considering Honda’s reliability. Still, potential buyers should be aware that problem areas include fritzy electric starters and rust-prone exhaust systems.
1986 Suzuki LS650|-31bhp, 79mph
-Disc front, drum rear
With cruiser styling, an electric starter and belt drive, the Savage was geared to the American mainstream much more than either the SRX or Ascot. And although it couldn’t hold a candle to Yamaha’s thumper from a performance standpoint, the LS650 sold well while the SRX and Ascot gathered dust at dealerships and were quickly dropped in domestic markets.
Fans of the Savage are quick to point out that their machine is a terrific beginner’s bike; the 650’s low seat height (25.8in) and mild handling characteristics support their point.
On the other hand, even those with a soft spot for the bike say its brakes are iffy at best: The single disc in the front is okay, but its effectiveness is offset by a rear drum that had a tendency to lock up, according to press reports. And with only 31bhp, the engine didn’t exactly have people lining up for test rides.
Still, American buyers didn’t seem to mind that the Savage was hardly a beast. The bike remains part of the Suzuki stable as the Boulevard S40.