Thursday, November 24, 2011

Yamaha SR500 / SR400 Review

For five years I rode hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers per weekend, on my 1978 Yamaha SR500. I eventually sold it to a friend and still ride it now and then. This meandering collection of thoughts - or 'review' - is an opportunity to reflect on what I loved about the bike, and why I think it is worth owning one.  

This post is a companion to my W650 review. Have a look also at my other blog where I write about philosophy and couselling. I will soon add a review to this blog, of the new Royal Enfield Bullet, for those who are deciding between these bikes.  



The heart of the SR, that which attracts most people, is the engine: the "big single" or one cylinder. Instead of the hum of multiple cylinders firing, there is the beat of just one. There is something about that sound, that feeling in your stomach when astride the bike, which is unlike anything else. I found it deeply 'soul-soothing'. I once went for a ride on my SR, but due to a mechanical problem (my fault) decided to return home. At the time I had a four cylinder Honda CB600F Hornet, and headed off again on that, up to King Lake, Yea, and thereabouts. The Hornet was so much more capable in the twisties. It raced through them like they were nothing, whereas earlier that morning I had to 'work' the SR through those same corners. 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 is like playing a drum solo. The rhythm of the engine-pulse is everything.  You ride according to it. It feels wonderful to interact with your motorcycle and negotiate the road in this way. The staccato of the engine, the way you 'play' (use) the engine rpm, it is all so glorious, so energising.  You feel in such connection with everything. It's quite enlivening. Left, then right. Left, then right. Through corner after corner. Light. Lithe. Shifting skyward up the hill like a bike-boy of the 1950s, laying down on the tank and discovering that it makes a difference to top speed, the engine a machine gun on a Spitfire. Or perhaps, enjoying the quieter side of the bike, sitting upright, a gentleman of old, the pulsations reverberating gently through your whole body. For those who want it, the SR takes you back to a time - in your imagination - when singles ruled the road and Sunday sounded different: no screaming or bored humming as a motorcycle went past. Rather you heard every explosion in its engine as a distinct event, glorious symbol of a speeding mechanical century.

All thrill-seeking aside, it is the latter mode that I loved, the way the SR made me relax. It is no accident that I’ve never had a speeding ticket; for the most part I did not feel like going fast on the SR, rather the bike made me feel like taking my time, head up and taking everything in - the summery hills and shaded lanes through which I would thump along. On modern sports bikes I have the opposite experience - I want to speed - and I consider its relaxing side, or its within-speed-limit-thrills, a real virtue of the SR. This has the added benefit of rendering one's license, and one's limbs, much safer. 

I did about 50,000km on my SR and the bike held up fine, with plenty of those kilometers on long, straight, hot highways through the Mallee. Having owned an SR for five years, and as a motorcyclist in his late 30s who rides a lot of kilometers and does not own a car, I can confidently say that were it not for the Kawasaki W650/800 I would seriously consider buying one of the new SR400s as my main transport. That would mean commuting on freeways and along 400km of highway to visit family, so I am essentially praising the capability of the bike for the real world regardless of its power limits. But it is true that the SR500 and SR400 are not powerful bikes. They can sit all day at 100kph, bit you will probably find yourself longing for another gear. The 400 is buzzy too – you feel it through your feet. But he bike really comes it to its own on backroads, cruising all day at 80-90kph, even for very long stretches. 



I also rode for a long time on an SR400. There is little 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 two engines feel. The 400 spins 6-800 rpm higher in most situations. 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. 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 engine is essentially bullet-proof. In my opinion, certain motorcycles of the 1970s hit a height of simplicity, robustness and real-world capability. The SR, along with the XS650, stands pre-eminent among them.  I had a major disaster and stripped the drive shaft, but this was completely my fault. $650 bought me a new engine with low kilometers from the wreckers. It took only a few hours to install it, done by myself with some friends, all of us with very minimal mechanical know-how. And I was away! This is cheap motorcycling! I have to admit that I really miss the simplicity of the SR. 


The bike is also cheap to maintain due to aftermarket suppliers and the universality of parts shared across Yamaha’s range. Another important factor here is the sheer simplicity of the bike.  A popular replacement for the 30 year old carburettor can be bought for $100 on 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, nor kicking over the short kicker on my Royal Enfield Bullet. Kickstarting an unreliable big Japanese dirt bike can be hell. But it takes little money and few replacements – such as a carb, or CDI, or coil depending on the particular issues – to turn it into something that’s incredibly reliable. As I say my bike was originally painful to live with, but with the carburettor sorted it started on one to three kicks cold, and then first kick for the rest of the day. It got me to work without question everyday. It never stalled. Remember that we are talking about a 1978 model. Later model 400s are a breeze to start by comparison with the 500, and I strongly suspect that the EFI removes any concerns about starting the bike. 

I would highly recommend the SR, unless highway touring is your main activity and you need a relaxed, powerful engine for the job. The SR is a romantic motorcycle that favours the backroads. It hints at even older British bikes, but it is a classic in its own right. Indeed it is a motorcycle with a more character than most on the road. It draws forth a deep passion in many owners and is the sort of bike you can keep for decades. Indeed a friend of mine bought his new in 1980 and still rides it with passion.  It is now learner legal in all of Australia, 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. 

20 comments:

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

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  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.

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

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  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.

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    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!

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  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) ?

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  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!

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  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.

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    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.

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  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)

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    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.

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  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,

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    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.

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  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

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

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  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...

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  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!

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  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

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  14. I, too, pine for my old SR-500 (1978), which I at one time I rode from Salt Lake City, Ut to Wichita, Tx to the USAF NCO Academy and then back to Utah. Got a speeding ticket, also, north of Moab. Back then my cost was one penny (US) per mile. LOVED IT!

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