This review is a companion to my W650 review and some of the more magical elements of the SR are referred to there. For instance I wrote that “What’s so charming about the SR is both what it evokes, and what it has of its own. It evokes for me the motorcycles of the middle of the twentieth century. Riding is for me about being in and moving through places, as an act of appreciating both what is before my eyes, as well as what my imagination hints at which is suggested in the scenery and objects. These imaginings often have a human-centred historical sensibility – I like to ‘feel’ the presence of the people who have made their lives there and imprinted something of themselves on the landscape, and who are no longer there I have a particular attraction to the middle years of the twentieth century, and to ride a motorcycle that evokes the machines of those years is to be more readily drawn into this imaginative sense of these places, to more readily connect with this implicit aspect of them.” Please read that review to see a description of these most central elements of the SR, in order to more fully appreciate (my sense of) the bike. That other review, however, was dedicated to my W650, and here I offer a reflection of other aspects of the SR that deserve attention.
Over the past four and a half years I have ridden fourty to fifty thousand kilometres on SR500s and 400s. I paid $3000 for my SR500 and it is now worth about $5000. The SR has been my ‘keeper’, a bike to feel passionate about, one which remains in my line-up no matter what other more capable bike I also own. It is cheap motorcycling for a poor boy. Yet it gets all the stares when parked alongside $30,000 bikes. It can be repaired under the shade of a gum tree, and it is great for commuting, for back roads thumping, and while less suited to the purpose it is a fun longer-distance tourer.
I will treat the 500 and 400 as interchangeable, which they mostly are, the main difference being a different crank. There is now a lot of interest in SRs, especially in the last few years since the café racer craze, followed by consecutive fashions for flat trackers then Japanese bobbers, all of which had much impetus from Deus ex Machina with their custom SR400s, and the consequent industry of grey import SRs. But the SR had a cult status long before Deus came along. The 500s were imported new into Australia from 1978 to 1981, and there is a club dedicated to them which attracts many characters including most of the country’s senior motorcycle journalists. Long before recent fashions, the SR was valued as the poor-boy’s Gold Star; and it was valued in its own right because it offers such a pure motorcycling experience.
The SR has a lot of character. That comes first of all from the thumping big single. It is an old-fashioned engine, meaning that it is harsher than a modern single, with less power and a smaller rpm range, but that suits perfectly the more vintage aesthetic that draws many people to this bike. The vibey engine is relatively torquey from a ‘seat of your pants’ point of view. When you accelerate you really feel the build up of revs and speed, something that much more powerful motorcycles lack. It's hard to explain but I've experienced it when jumping between different bikes. And that build up has a kind of snare drum crescendo, with anything beyond 4,500rpm making you feel utterly wild, like a racer from the ‘50s. The red line is 7000rpm. As I ride through the hills there is little need to change gears; I simply roll the throttle on and off. Not only is there the standard enjoyment of cornering – in this case on a very lithe motorcycle - which is central to any kind of street riding, but equally wonderful is the constant drum-roll of the engine reverberating deep inside my stomach. That’s a deep-gut feeling of torque and staccato hammering, which seems to bind you to the bike with a passion. It is joyful and incredibly visceral motorcycle. In generally I own two bikes at a time, and my previous Hornet 600 felt utterly uninspired and boring compared to the SR – four cylinders make for a distracted hum compared to the excitement and passion of a big single. (Clearly this is a subjective judgement! But for certain riders it is very true and important; for me nothing is anywhere near as exciting as a thumping big single.)
There is little that is different in 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 does however make a real difference to the way the engines feel. The 400 prefers 6-800rpm 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 café 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 is much nicer for chugging along while fantasising about the upright big singles those gentlemen of old rode.
At 100kph the 500 sits on about 4,200rpm, though this can be lowered slightly without problems by use of a 17 tooth counter-shaft sprocket, rather than the stock 16. The 400 does about 4,900rpm. Ironically the 400 feels less strained on the highway than the 500. This is important because both engines feel strained at 100kph. They are both capable of running all day at that rpm, but unless you’re a petrol head or are used to making bikes scream, you might find your sense of mechanical sympathy causes you to wince, and to prefer 90kph. For this reason the SRs are not great highway touring bikes. They can do it, they have done plenty of it over the years, and I have done 600 to 700km days many, many times. But I have to constantly over-rule the nervousness that the strain arouses in me with the knowledge of the cold fact that I’m doing no damage. And I find that my throttle hand feels over-worked by the day’s end, as though strained in sympathy with the tension of the bike. You have to remember that the SR is essentially the XT500 dirt bike tarted up with street-going clothes. It has the dirt bike’s gear ratios. To be fair however, I really only notice this on my long Mallee rides - on straight hot roads that stretch ahead with no change of direction or heat. The sensation of strain seems much less apparent on winding roads even when riding for a long time. The ambient temperature also makes a difference - the SR likes the cold rather than the heat.
That tarting does count for a lot though, offering more than just good looks. The riding position of the bike and the seat shape – even with its 34 year old foam – is the most comfortable I have ever experienced. I can spend twelve hours on the bike and not feel even a hint of tension when I get off.
Another important aspect of the SR is its visual character – it is beautiful! The spoked-wheel version moreso than the magged wheel in my opinion (I have a ’78 model with mags and discs all-round). I find it a shame that so many people feel the need, almost as a matter of course, to customise the SR. It is a beautiful bike stock. But if customisation is your thing then the SR is one of the best choices. It is a very simple and stripped-down motorcycle. It is also a classic motorcycle in style – what you expect a motorcycle to look like. This is what makes it my first bike of choice even when touring. You park the bike for a photo opportunity and something inside always sighs with pleasure at how good the bike looks. Pull up in a small town and inevitably somebody will come over – including non-riders – to ask questions and talk about the bike. This combined with the feel of the engine makes for a very passion-worthy motorcycle.
The over-all package of the SR also makes for a bike which inclines one to relax. It’s no accident that as an SR-rider I’ve never had a speeding ticket. You just don’t feel like going fast. You feel like taking your time and taking it all in - the summery hills and shaded lanes through which you thump along. The SR was designed to evoke the motorcycles of the mid-century and it manages to do that rather well in my mind. How much of this is fantasy does not matter so much to me – a vital element of motorcycling for many people is the activity of the imagination. It’s that which fires the attraction to what we now call the ‘retro’ category, a movement in bikes which are "over-priced and over-rated" to those who don’t ‘get’ their appeal, while for those who do understand and are relieved and overjoyed at this turn in motorcycle design, such criticisms miss the point. You can imagine yourself back in time on the SR. It was designed in the late 1970s to appeal to that era’s nostalgia for the 1950s. But it’s also a ‘vintage’ classic in its own right. If you buy an SR I suggest you join the SR500 Club and come to appreciate that [I]sui generis[/I] aspect of the bike. It really does have the feeling, in every way, of a back to basics old-fashioned motorcycling. A kind of purity.
The SR is low-powered by modern standards. The real horsepower is in the high twenties for the 500 – about the same as a Virago 250 makes on Yamaha brochures. However the value of the engine, as I’ve said, is in the torque and the thump. I am 100kg and I do a lot of riding in a lot of conditions on my SR and I have no problems with the power (and the strain on the highway is due to the gearing, not the power characteristics). It is a bullet-proof engine, and there’s very little to go wrong. It is also very well designed in terms of mechanical simplicity as well as cleverness and quality with respect to, importantly, reliability and longevity. Speaking of simplicity there is not even an electric starter – it is kick start only. And by virtue of this some people even ditch the battery! I had a major disaster – I stripped the drive shaft, which put my bike off the road for a year – but this was completely my fault. $650 bought me a new engine that I and some mates spent a few hours beerily installing and I was away once more, and I put 12,000km on that donk without the slightest problem. The whole 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. A popular replacement for the 30 year old carb can be got for $100 from eBay. Now that’s cheap motorcycling! On this issue it does need to be acknowledge that an old unrestored SR can be a pain to live with. It can be a nightmare to start, and I’m not talking about the breezy difficulty of pushing a starter button without luck. But it takes little money and few replacements – such as a new carb and tune up – to turn the bike into something that’s incredibly reliable. My bike starts between one to three kicks cold and then first kick for the rest of the day. The 400 engine is much easier to kickstart than the 500. With my SR sorted (as opposed to the early days when it was a nightmare to commute on) I have no anxieties kicking it over every morning and getting to work on time.
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’s a romantic motorcycle, a stripped-down no-nonsense motorcycle, a motorcycle with a lot more character than most bikes on the road, making it one of the cheapest of the desirable motorcycles. It is now learner legal in Victoria, but when you ride an SR you’re not riding a 400cc learners bike, you’re riding a classic that speaks to your body and your soul.