Thursday, November 24, 2011

Yamaha SR500 / SR400 Review

For five years I rode hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometers a weekend on my 1978 Yamaha SR500 and then Yamaha SR400. I eventually sold mine to a close friend and I still ride it now and then.

This review expresses what it is like to ride and own the SR.  What does it offer from a visceral, aesthetic point of view?  And what is it like to own the SR regarding maintenance and repair? 

In my case I motorcycled during those years on a shoe-string budget, so I am well-placed to answer the last question.

I hope that I am placed to answer the first question too. Motorcycling for me is a poetic activity. An engagement with place, nature, history, the elements, one's imagination, and the fire in one's belly.  An important element of this experience is the bike itself.

This post is a companion to my W650 review. Have a look also at my other blog where I write philosophically, as a cousellor.  



When you ride an SR, you pull into a country town on a Sunday and park alongside bikes that may be worth six times as much.  People walks past them to look at your bike and ask you about it.  There is something special about this cheap, simple bike.  People relate to it.  This is not a bike for unsociable people.

SRs are great to modify. They "look like a motorcycle should”. They have that classic appearance, like a 1960s British bike.  And so they can be modified in any direction you like, though I prefer them stock.  When those people walk over to look at the bike they usually assume it is older than it is. This is especially the case when they have heard you ride into town: with a nice exhaust it has a classic British sound. Putt putt putt putt putt. And it is kickstart only. It is elemental, old motorcycling. Motorcycling in its light-weight, stripped-down essence.

It is not only onlookers who sense something old and classic about the bike. I like British bikes most of all, and also Japanese bikes that remind me of them. I currently own a Kawasaki W650, and until recently commuted on an iron-barrel, right-shift Royal Enfield Bullet (soon to be sold). The only reason I do not ride a big Brit twin is the demand I make on my bikes to do many kilometers a year, often in the burning heat of Australia's summer, combined with the fact that I prefer to own few vehicles. What I want is a bullet-proof, cheap to buy and own, motorcycle that reminds me of those older British motorcycles. And like my Kawasaki the SR delivers on that.

Left, then right. Left, then right. Through tight corner after tight corner. A lithe, light motorcycle. Shifting skyward up a hill in low gear. Like a bike-boy of the 1950s. The engine a machine gun onboard a Spitfire, or a military drummer – a hammering staccato. Or perhaps, enjoying the quieter side of the bike, sitting upright, an English gentleman of old, the pulsations reverberating gently through your whole body. That big, single cylinder. The SR takes you back to a time before the ubiquity of Japanese multi-cylinder motorcycles. Back to a time when singles and twins ruled the road and Sunday sounded different – no screaming or bored humming, as a motorcycle went past you heard every explosion in its engine as a distinct event.  As a herald of the twentieth century, of the thrill of speeding iron.

Not everybody experiences the SR in terms of nostalgic imagination. For others it is the big single that is their focus, regardless of the age it evokes. There is something about a single cylinder engine that connects you to the bike like nothing else does. I once left for a ride on my SR but due to a mechanical problem decided to return home. At the time I had a Honda CB600F Hornet, and I jumped on that and headed off again. Up to King Lake, Yea, and thereabouts. The Hornet was so much more capable in the twisties. It raced through them effortlessly like they were nothing, whereas I would have had constantly to 'work' the SR. I was struck by how admirable and competent the Hornet was. ...And by how bored it left me. I moved to the city at a young age to work as a professional drummer. My passion was for jazz. Riding a big single well, is like playing a drum solo. The rhythm of the engine pulse is everything.  You ride according to the feel of it.  And it feels amazing to interact with your motorcycle in that way, to negotiate the road in that way. This is an experience you simply cannot get on a multi-cylinder bike.  I do not know how to communicate this aspect of singles, I think you need to experience it to understand what I am saying.  The staccato of the engine, the way you 'play' (ride) the bike, it is all so glorious, so energising.  You feel in such connection with everything.  



There is little mechanical difference between the 400 and 500 engines. Almost all parts are the same, the main difference being the crank, which in the 400 creates a different stroke reducing the capacity to 399cc. This however makes a real difference to the way the engines feel. The 400 prefers 6-800 rpm higher in most situations – whether it comes to getting the power on, cruising on the highway, or lugging along. It also revs more easily. If I was building a cafĂ© racer I’d seriously consider the 400 over the 500, as I have seen others do (who go out of their way to secure a 400 crank for their 500). It is a more revvy engine and arouses more adrenalin in me than the 500. It feels more sporty. The 500 (which is my preference) is much nicer for chugging along, and has noticeably more torque.

The SR500 and SR400 are not powerful bikes. I consider them capable but uncomfortable on the highway. You find yourself longing for a fifth gear. The 400 is buzzy too – you feel it through your feet. That said, I did about 50,000km on mine, and the bike held up fine on long, straight, hot highways through the Mallee. I did prefer to find backroads and to cruise along at 80kph. That is the sweet spot for the bike. It felt wonderful to spend a whole day at that speed, smelling the roses, and never fearing the policeman and his camera.

I find that the SR inclines me to relax. It is no accident that as an SR-rider I’ve never had a speeding ticket. You simply do not feel like going too fast. You feel like taking your time and taking it all in - the summery hills and shaded lanes through which you thump along. On supersports bikes I have the opposite experience. I consider this a virtue of the SR. However I was a member of the SR500 Club of Australia (which I recommend joining) and many of the members ride their SR s very hard and fast.  I did enjoy the spirited side of the SR when in the mood.

The engine is bullet-proof. There’s very little to go wrong.  I had a major disaster, I stripped the drive shaft, but this was completely my fault. $650 bought me a new engine with low kilometers. This is cheap motorcycling! It took only a few hours to install it, done by myself with some friends, all of us who had very little mechanical know-how. This is simple motorcycling! After sorting out carburation (which was easy) I was away.

The bike is cheap to maintain due to the aftermarket suppliers, the universality of parts from across Yamaha’s range, and the amazing simplicity of the bike.  For example, a popular replacement for the 30 year old carb can be got for $100 from eBay.  On this matter, it needs to be acknowledged that an old unrestored SR can be a pain to live with. It can be a nightmare to start, and I am not talking about the breezy difficulty of pushing a starter button without luck. Kickstarting an unreliable bike can be hell. But it takes little money and few replacements – such as a carb, or CDI, or coil depending on the particular bike– to turn it into something that’s incredibly reliable. My bike was originally painful to live with, but with the carburetor sorted it started between one and three kicks cold, and then on the first kick for the rest of the day. The 400 engine is much easier to kickstart than the 500. With my SR sorted I have no anxieties kicking it over every morning and getting to work on time. I am talking about 1970s SRs. The new SRs that Yamaha is now exporting are apparently a breeze to start.

I would highly recommend the SR, unless highway touring is your main activity, and unless you feel the need for a lot of power. It is a romantic motorcycle, a stripped-down no-nonsense motorcycle, a motorcycle with a more character than most bikes on the road.  It is learner legal in all of Australia (and members of the SR500 Club can register theirs for $100 a year, at least in Victoria) but when you ride an SR you are not riding a mere learners bike, you are riding a classic that speaks to your heart and soul.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks, a deeply thoughtful and insightful review. Love it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great review again. I'm actually a 400 owner and thinking about getting a w650, seems you went the same route based on your w purchase.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great review,most informative.I'm thinking of getting one myself,and you have comfirmed my own thoughts.Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  4. After four years of searching and waiting for sr400 in this motorcycle wasteland, I got one now a week back, every bit you say about the bike is super true. Thumbs up review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good on you! It is a charismatic and incredibly simple and sound bike. I miss its simplicity, even compared to my W650 and Royal Enfield. Few bikes are as fun as an SR being wound up and down the rev range in the twisties!

      Delete
  5. I really enjoyed your review (& learned some stuff too!). I've just imported myself a nice original 1981 SR500H from the US to Melbourne. It is having some of those nightmare starting issues you mention (it will start fairly easily first or second kick but not when warmed up a bit) - and i wonder if you have any recommendation for the best carb for reliable starting ?

    I have no need for the bike to scream - like you i value good reliable starting and simplicity. The stock mikuni VM carb seems like a bit of a nightmare in terms of complexity. Would a slide carb be a better choice perhaps (and do away with the weirdness of the vacuum fuel tap etc) ?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Love it how you talk about the feeling and imagination it gives you. This is more valuable than tech specifications for a hack like me. Godspeed!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I own SR400 for two months and I want to use it for short-distance touring at weekends. Do you have a close-up photo of your side bags racks? I plan to build my own. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never actually used racks. I had each bag joined to the bike by two bolts. One bolt went in through the stock mount for the indicator. The other bolt held a leather belt that went under the seat to the other side, bolted to the other bag. I never had a problem with the bags rubbing against the tyre. That said, I do have a problem with the saddlebags on my W650 rubbing against the tyre, so it might depend on the bags.

      Delete
  8. Thank you. Interesting and enjoyable to read, to say the least. I live in Japan where I ride a Kawasaki W400 (which I think is a Japan-only option for the W). Bought it last year (2007 model) with 3,ooo kilometres on the clock for... a lot of money (600,000 Yen). Great to cruise on, but certainly not over about 90-100 kph, at most. Thinking of swapping it for a 400-600cc single, so I loved reading that the SR400 is a solid bike. Can I be tempted away from the Honda CB400SS if I do go for a single though? Thanks again (Matthew, Japan)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, Japan is full of W650s (mine was bought used in Japan and entered Australia as a grey import) and now, I believe, the W800. So maybe that route? The W650 is a sweet, relaxed bike at 100kph and more.

      I haven't ridden the W400 but I daresay it is probably better at higher speeds than the SR. An SR400 is best up to about 85kph, after which it can feel a little strained - it can do 100kph all day, but you'll wish there was a fifth gear. Surely the W400 twin revs more freely.

      Delete
  9. Hi Matt, Do you mind if I link this article about your SR to my blog? I am a Suzuki TU250X enthusiast and hoping Yamaha will import the new SR 400 to the shores of the US. Your article would be an appreciated link,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Matt, I finally got around to adding the link. Really appreciate your help. Have learned the new SR400s have made it to the US. It is planned to be a low volume bike, but at least they are here.

      Delete
  10. Hi Matt
    Thanks for your review.
    I was lucky enough to ride one of these machines when living in Thailand and fell in love with it. Wanted to buy one of my own, but grey imports in Thailand don't get paperwork and that leaves you open to a lot of hassle with the cops - especially as they would just love to confiscate your wheels for their own use!

    Now I'm back in the UK and there are some guys here who have started to ship them in from Japan. I don't think they were ever sold here from new. Your summary goes a long way to reassure me that my hankering for one isn't a just the onset of dementia.
    Cheers

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Apparently the SR400 will be sold in Europe from 2014

      Delete
  11. Hi Matt, Just read your excellent article, I live in Japan and I'm at the point of going for a W400 or SR400, was also thinking about Enfield 350 - love classic style..think you may have swung me...

    ReplyDelete
  12. Interesting comments about the differences between 500 and 400. As a former SR500-riders in the early 1980s, this bike is, in my memory, the one that I treasure the most. In the spring of 2014 the 400 will be back on the Norwegian market. Looking forward to see if my memory serves me right. Thanks, Matt!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Excellent read, so much so that I pull the trigger and bought a 1979 SR500. I've been yearning for one, and well now I see what all the hype is about. Your words created a romantic vision for me, and now that I own one, I GET the passion riders have for this two wheeled, thumping banshee of a motorbike

    ReplyDelete