The Yamaha XS650 was praised for its reliability and criticized for its styling
Years produced: 1970-83
Total production: 500,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 53bhp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 105mph
Engine type: 653cc, four-stroke, vertical twin
Weight: 192.6kg (428lb) wet
Price then: $1,245 (1970)
Price now: $1,500-$2,000
If you’ve toured on a Yamaha XS650 for more than a sitcom’s worth of time, you probably fall into one of two groups in your opinion of the classic Japanese touring motorcycle.
Group one considers the experience as nightmarish as "Joanie Loves Chachi," thanks to the two-cylinder bike’s well-documented tendency to vibrate at highway speed.
The other group’s feelings are perhaps best voiced by Jim Griner, a longtime Yamaha XS650 owner from Hoopeston, Ill., and founder of the 1,000-member Yamaha 650 Society.
"At the right speeds and in good tune, there’s a cycle of vibration that seems to be very harmonious with the human anatomy," Griner says. "Those of us who are able to tune the engine correctly tend to think of that as the motorcycle’s pulse in a friendly sort of a way."
Okay, so maybe one man’s Mary Ann is another man’s Ginger.
But Griner is hardly the only rider who waxes a little poetic now and then over the Yamaha XS650, a classic Japanese motorcycle that has generated a deep fan base for its reliability, adaptability and classic lines.
In a production run that stretched from the Who to U2, or 1970 to 1983, the affordable twin hooked generations of riders. As a mainstay on the used-bike market for years afterwards, its appeal continues today.
"I thought it would just kind of fade into oblivion, but it didn’t," Griner says. "It had the phenomenon of the Model T or Model A, where just about the time you think it’s gone, things happen to make it pertinent and popular again. Vintage racing would be one example.
"They just keep being recycled," Griner says, "and that speaks to the bulletproof nature of them."
The XS650 debuted on the market in 1970 as the XS-1, the biggest bike in the Yamaha stable. Available in one color scheme, green and white, the first version featured drum brakes and was not equipped with an electric starter.
Reviewers of the era weren’t exactly bowled over by the XS-1’s classic design, regarded by some as being overly reminiscent of British twins. But the engine, with its horizontally split crankcase and chain-driven camshaft, drew positive reviews and helped make the entire package stand out. "Why, yes, it looks like a (fill in blank), sounds like a (fill in blank), and has an engine very similar to a (fill in blank) and (fill in blank); Don’t think it is, though, as the Yamaha XS-1 is in a class all by itself from stern to stern," wrote Motorcyclist Magazine.
The standard model’s looks would remain virtually unchanged until its discontinuation in 1980 in favor of a factory custom version with raised handlebars and a stepped seat. But the original edition underwent numerous changes, beginning with the addition of disc brakes and an electric start (with a compression release) in 1972.
Five years later, after adjustments to the frame, engine components, exhaust system, carburetor and suspension, Yamaha created what some collectors consider the masterpiece of the line.
"The ’77 has some mysterious quality about it where it seemed like everything came together," says Don Lawson, former director of the Yamaha 650 Society. "It was fast, powerful, smooth, reliable, a lot of fun. I had four of them at one time."
Lawson still owns a pair of ‘77s and doesn’t hesitate to hop on one for a weekend camping trip or even a backroads trip halfway across the country.
To those who think such an excursion would vibrate the green off of a frog, Lawson has one response.
"I can get really nasty and say if you want a car, buy a car. There’s just a characteristic with that twin, the pulsating twin, that adds another dimension to the pleasure of riding."
Lawson hadn’t been on a motorcycle since high school when he stepped into a dealership in 1971 to look around. By the time he walked out, he was a 650 fan.
"Listening to the mufflers, I said I want that," he says. "They brought out a box, opened it up and put one together for me. Got a speeding ticket on the way home."
The $75 citation didn’t curb Lawson’s enthusiasm. The Missourian has owned 10 XS650s and founded the Yamaha 650 Society’s annual gathering at Land Between the Lakes in Gilbertsville, Ky.
The bike that brought together Lawson, Griner and others in the society has long been praised for being a basic motorcycle at a basic price. It succeeded by solving some of the shortcomings of its English predecessors, including chronic oil seepage and fritzy electronics.
"It doesn’t leak, it doesn’t break, it doesn’t require much attention and it doesn’t cost much," Cycle Guide said.
At the heart of the bike’s long production run and enduring following is its rock-solid engine.
Thanks to a chain-driven cam as opposed to long pushrods, the pistons and valves can work at 7,000rpm with little fear of the engine self-destructing. The roller bearings for the cam- and crankshafts have proven to be remarkably durable.
"The 650 was designed before computers, so everything in it was built overly strong," Griner says. "I think in all of the years I’ve been around the thing, I’ve only heard of one person who spun a bearing in the bottom end. Overall, there just aren’t that many things that go wrong with it."
Another key to the XS650’s longevity was its heavy production, which has resulted in ongoing availability of parts and a reasonable — if not downright cheap — resale value.
"The old rule of thumb was you bought them for about $1,000 and you sold them for about $1,000," Griner says.
Inexpensive, available, adaptable and tough, the twin was popular among flat track racers. In recent years, the machine got another breath of new life through a popular street-track modification kit from an aftermarket manufacturer. Other parts are available to change the crank configuration from 360 degrees to 270, making for a smoother ride.
Such products have introduced the XS650 to yet another generation of riders.
"I put together a tech tips manual with tips from the society’s newsletter, and every now and then I’ll get a call from a kid who wasn’t even born when these motorcycles were being made," Lawson says.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Griner got his first good look at a 650 twin, but the bike still makes a concussive impact on him.
"It has that nostalgic, romantic Triumph look. It almost defies words to describe it. It’s like it’s dancing as it’s sitting still."
And when he pushes the start button or steps on the kickstart lever — the XS650 had both from ’72 on — the experience gets even better, vibration and all.
"There’s something that the Japanese know, and it comes through in some of the machines they make," Griner says. "Yamaha, in particular, because they were a manufacturer of musical instruments, knows the kinds of chords and resonances and energy cycles and vibrations that are melodious and harmonious with human energy." MC
“There is no question that Yamaha has achieved the classic Big Twin ‘feel.’ Start the XS650, sit on it and close your eyes and you could be sitting on any one of four British Twins.”
— Cycle World, March 1970
“In its introductory year, the XS650 must be considered a succes fou (crazy success), having supplied all the ingredients required to please the big Twin fancier in an up-to-date and beautifully styled package. It looks good, rides good, stays clean and shows few of the faults one would expect in a first-year model.”
— Cycle World, March 1970
“A ride on the XS1 Yamaha is quite a treat.”
— Motorcyclist, August 1970
“While the engine, transmission, electrics and brakes are ... admirable, the other outstanding characteristic — roadhandling — is staggeringly bad. No, not just bad, abominable.”
— Motorcyclist Illustrated, June 1971
“One feature we were not too pleased with was the vibration level of the engine.”
— Cycle Guide, March 1971
“The XS650 endures, and a lot of people in and out of the industry must sometimes pause to wonder why. We think we know: the XS650C is a Fundamental Verities motorcycle; a package of traditional virtues that are no less appealing for having been around a long time.”
— Cycle, March 1977
“The Yamaha XS650D is not a great, unforgettable motorcycle. It is a decent machine with a wide spectrum of potential applications and no absolutely unforgiveable flaws.”
— Cycle Guide, March 1977