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Kawasaki W650 versus Yamaha SR400 : comparison, review....

Discussion in 'Bike Reviews, Questions and Suggestions' at netrider.net.au started by mattb, Nov 7, 2011.

  1. The title of this thread is purposefully misleading, for in this first post I’ll offer a review of my W650 alone, in the light of my first proper ride yesterday. At a later date I will add a long-term review of it. Before that, and very soon, I will add a review of the SR500/400 which is written from the perspective of my long-term ownership of one, and thereafter I will offer a comparison between the SR and the W650. So over time there’ll be a number of reviews offered. In the title I posed this thread as a ‘comparison’ because when people are interested in buying one of these two bikes they are often also considering the other, and so I hope this thread helps their decision-making.

    So, this first post is a review of my newly acquired 2005 grey import Kawasaki W650, which I picked up Friday last. There are a lot of very good reviews on the internet for the W650 such as this and this and this, and rather than repeat what others have said and give technical and performance information which can be found all over the web, I will offer my own impressions and reflections on riding the thing and why I chose to buy it in the first place (it competed in my heart with a Triumph Bonneville and Harley Sportster). The reviews is therefore idiosyncratic.


    Yesterday I rode the W for 430km out east of Melbourne, taking in the likes of Chum Creek Road and the Black and Reefton Spurs. For a start I will say the bike is proving itself a great all-rounder. It’s like I was allowed to take the best elements of some of my favourite current and previous motorcycles – the Yamaha SR500, Honda Hornet 600, Suzuki GR650, Kawasaki GT550 – and have them all into one bike. Like the SR it has lots of vibey character, looks beautiful, takes me back in time and attracts a lot of attention; like the Hornet it handles and brakes well and can chew up highway miles; like the GR it has the mixture of smoothness and character that a big torquey parallel twin can offer; and like the GT it is a comfortable touring bike for one or two people.

    Of course whether a bike is good or not has much to do with one's preferences. What I wanted out of this bike was something on which I could reliably commute, and tour for long distances. I did have had those two qualities in other recent bikes such as the Hornet 600 and Virago 535, but I found myself always choosing the SR to tour on as it is in itself is so charming: when I tour I am committing dedicated time to motorcycling in itself, and I want it to be on something that I’m in love with. However, the SR is such a harried motorcycle on the highway that touring is hard work on it. The W brings to the ride all the aesthetic qualities that I so prize in the SR, while being very relaxed and capable on the highway.

    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. Just like the SR500, the W650 does this to a degree that few other modern motorcycles do. You only have to look at it to see what I mean. Of course it would be best to ride an old machine from that era, but I could never afford to keep such a machine on the road and do the miles I do. The W allows me to ride without any concern for reliability.

    And so I chose the W650, designed as it was to evoke the parallel twins of yesterday. In the 1960s Kawasaki manufactured the W1, a 650 twin which looked like a BSA – it started out as a licensed 500cc BSA copy but evolved in Kawasaki’s hands into a mechanically superior machine by the time it became 650cc. Kawasaki pretends that their modern W650 is a remake of that, but we all know it looks more like a Triumph Bonneville. This makes sense: if you were to design a new bike that evoked the great British twins, would you not take inspiration from the model which many consider the most beautiful and exciting?


    So the W650 is a retrospective motorcycle, a tribute, an evocation. These terms make more sense than those pejoratively-used terms such as ‘copy’, ‘clone’ or ‘imitation’ with which some people criticise the W, apparently because it’s not as ‘authentic’ as their Thai-umph Bonneville. But regarding those people who are annoyed that others are riding around on a modern Japanese ‘clone’, I think they are missing the point in more ways than one. What is valuable about British mid-century motorcycles? Quite a number of things, depending on the eye of the beholder. One major quality is surely their beauty. To me, most motorcycles and cars became beautiful some time around 1920 and ceased being ‘beautiful in the majority’ during the 1970s. But this beauty is not the beauty of being British or historical, it is beauty in itself. It is not unrelated to history – for example the sleek lines of an early motorcycle contain an expression for us of that era’s optimism and thrill at their new-found experience of speed. But in some loose sense the beauty of these machines is also ‘beauty in itself’, distinct from - in the sense of irreducible to - a historical reason for valuing its beauty. The lines, proportions, colours just seem to be right, to be beautiful. This transcends any concerns for the nationality, age or history of the vehicle. To speak like the philosopher Plato I am saying that beauty transcends history, and that the W650 is beautiful, and that this trumps any objections on the basis of history or ‘authenticity’. Partly I am attracted to mid-century British motorcycle because they’re beautiful, and not (or rather less so) the other way around. And I’m attracted to the W650 in the same way.

    And this gets me to the next point. The W650 is not just a tribute to the 1960s parallel twins. It is its own motorcycle. It has different qualities, different virtues. It is a modern motorcycle. A piece of interesting engineering in itself (take for instance the bevel drive).

    And so, how does it ride, this motorcycle which is both an evocation of an era and a wonderful machine in its own right?

    The W650 has two different personalities. For the bike to evoke a mid-century motorcycle it must have vibration, pulsation. ‘Silky-smooth’ and ‘sewing-machine-like’ do not describe those old bikes. Kawasaki did a wonderful job of offering both vibration from its long-stroke engine, as well as smoothness. The smoothness is of two kinds in relation to the pulses. First, the engine pulses are themselves smooth, as opposed to biting or harsh. They are very present, at the centre of the riding experience, which gives the bike a lot of character, but they have a ‘rounded’ quality that makes them pleasant. There is not that hard edge that makes you tense up or lose your fillings. And so the engine feels relaxed even as it’s thumping you up to speed. That is the first kind of smoothness present in the W. Second, those engine pulses are only present within a certain rpm-range, and otherwise the engine is smooth in the sense of being without those strong vibrations. On cue at 3000rpm the pulses start, and hit their climax at 3,500rpm. Then, again on cue, immediately beyond 4000rpm the pulses dramatically smooth out and the engine takes on a calm purr. What this means is that you can choose to ride in thumper-mode, or smooth mode. This is made even easier by the flexible gearing and the very useful torque.

    At an indicated 100kph the bike sits on 3,500rpm in fifth gear. But this bike could do well even if it had only three gears. To say that means something when coming from somebody who’s always ridden bikes that feel like they need another gear on the highway. The SR, as I will discuss in the next review, is harsh and overworked in fifth at 100kph (where the 500 sits on approximately 4200rpm which feels strained, and the 400 on 4,900rpm which, oddly, feels strained but less so than the 500). The W by comparison feels utterly, unbelievable, beautifully relaxed at 100kph in third, fourth, and fifth gear! Fourth gear is producing 4,100rpm and third 4,900rpm, and in either the bike feels easy – I’d happily ride the Hume to Sydney and back in third.

    My Hornet 600 would, if I remember correctly, sit just short of 5000rpm on the highway. But the Hornet felt like it had two modes: weak, or hard-revving. To be fair this assessment reflects my tastes – I hate revvy bikes which focus on hp rather than torque. The W by comparison, thanks to its lavish and even spread of torque, which begins just above 2000rpm, feels ‘in the zone’ in any gear at any rpm. There is little need to change gear through the corners or when over-taking: I just open up the throttle, and it pulls away. I don’t even know what hp the W is meant to produce, and neither do I care – hp has nothing to do with what is wonderful about this bike.

    All this makes for an engine that has character – especially between 3000 and 4000 rpm – and yet is relaxed, a real cruiser; a bike which is more or less smooth depending on your mood, which makes it an excellent long-distance tourer. Add to this that it is utterly beautiful, extremely well-engineered (you can read other reviews to see this), nimble yet stable, and that it evokes those old motorcycles that fire the imagination of so many of us, and you can see what first drew me to the W650 and now leaves me so happy and confident with my choice. I hear the W800 has more of what is great about the W650, although it lacks a kickstart, and has EFI (which might be a good or bad depending on your preferences). But my budget allowed for a 650, not an 800. Not that I care. I couldn’t be happier.

    The SR review can be found on page 2 of this thread.

    • Like Like x 3
  2. Very interesting Matt. It sounds as if your example has more "feel" to it than the dealer demo that is my experience of the model. Maybe a lengthy running in period has improved it.

    Your comments on the "beauty" of motorcycles prompts me to have another go at part of the PM that I lost to the ether the other day. I think I get where you're coming from, but also the position of the critics whose approach you reject. Maybe not surprising since I am, to an extent, one of them. A little ramble, if I may.

    Way back in about 1991 (I'm still rather worried that 1991 can be considered as "way back" BTW), Kawasaki launched the Zephyr. In spite of riding a CZ250 and due, shortly, to own a truly revolting Honda Superdream, I, along with my fellow inverted snobs, roundly condemned the Zeph for:-
    1) Being a parts bin special that played shamelessly on the nostalgia for the Z1 that was just starting to get big at the time.
    2) Being a styling exercise that was technically inferior to its more "authentic" cousins, the GPz550/750 and the GT550/750 (1100 Zephyr was still a while off).
    3) Being strangled and sanitized.
    4) Costing a good grand or two more than the going rate for a top-dog example of the real thing.

    Now that 20 years have passed, none of the above are really valid any more, if they ever were. I'm older, mellower, maybe a bit wiser and slower to condemn and I recognise the Zephyr for what it is, which is a useful and attractive bike in its own right. Besides, real Z1 prices are now orbiting Jupiter prior to heading for the outer planets :shock:. I was still quite surprised, a little while ago, to see a 550 Zephyr advertised as a "Nice old classic" though :LOL:.

    Anyway, I feel the same sort of mental process occurring with the W. Since my initial test ride, I've been a bit scathing, mainly on the grounds that it was not one of the Brit twins that it purports to emulate. Added to that was the fact that, in 1999, it was still possible to get a roadworthy Brit twin for less than $5k (as long as it was something unfashionable) or well under half the cost of a new W, leaving the same amount again to spend on all the bits necessary to make it work properly.

    Of course Ws both new and used have come down in cost in real terms since then, and the $5k Brit is only a memory so the price comparison has gone by the board a bit. I'll concede that the Kwak is bloody good looking and I give Kawasaki all credit for producing an engine that manages to both be well engineered and to look "right".

    So whilst I'll probably never go so far as to own one, just as I've never owned a Zephyr, I'm moving to a point that I can see why others might.

    Keep us posted on how it goes.
  3. matt, while I pine for my old XS-650 Yamaha, I'm comforted to know that when the time comes that I've got some spare cash to start to grow a garage of 'must-have' bikes, the W800 is definitely on the list :).
  4. no kick starter on the 800 though! 650 is a must!
  5. The old XS had both, although I confess the electric foot was so reliable I never chanced my ankle on the kick-starter :LOL:
  6. Pat, the looseness of the engine might well be the difference. However I read somebody on the net complain about the strong vibrations at 3,500rpm and another replied that their carbs might be out of balance. If that's so then I'll be keeping mine out.

    Certainly your criticism, Pat, in another thread of the W compared to the Norton Commando, and in a PM in comparison to a GR650 such as I owned, have some truth. To be fair to the W it has to have the emissions nasties removed, the carb jetted for performance rather than emissions lean-ness, and a decent set of pipes and some proper lungs (all of which I'll do in time. And all of this appears to apply much more so to the strangled W800). But even so, what is wonderful about the W is also what is lacking when compared to certain other bikes. When I would accelerate hard on the GR it took on a deadly serious nature, the pipes really barking in a staccato crescendo that was very exciting. It felt like a fighter plane. The W does not have this. It is chilled out right up to redline. But that is different from sewing machine calm. It's a character-filled coolness. It feels fun. And it feels relaxing - this is a bike for riders who want to relax and cruise and do so with feel, soul; it is not for people who want to give it some stick and hear the engine cry 'More!' with a rebel yell. It's no bad boy; it's an English Captain America (you know, one of those long-haired hippy poms, with mini-apes fitted to his Bonnie).

    Hornet, one of the bikes I considered was an early XS/TX. But this bike is so similar and yet has the safety of being new (think of Ametha's negative experience with an older bike). A member of the SR Club with a thousand bikes says it feels like a cross between his XS650 and Meriden Triumph. I reckon you'd enjoy riding this, once you've ground your Hornet to dust in so many hundreds of thousands of kilometers. In fact, as I say, there are some similarities between this and the Hornet (aside from the CBR aspect of the Hornet). Next time you're in Melbourne, look me up and take it for a spin.

    While I place very limited value on 'on paper' comparisons, this is interesting:
  7. Thanks for the review, I'm looking forward to your impressions on SR400, a bike I don't really know... I rode W800 and I thought it was great in its own way. You've nailed it with your comments about vibration:

    ... although I'm less sure about your 'second kind of smoothness' - it seemed to 'thump' pretty much across the range. I suspect this is relative to your expectations; you are used to riding thumpers, I am not.

    And I still think it needs better brakes. Supposedly changing brake pads makes a big difference.

    I am seriously considering fully embracing my inner turtle and going with one of those retro bikes for my next ride. Triumph is really not in the running for me for some reason I can't quite explain but I'm definitely interested in W800. And now this caught my eye - the revised Guzzi V7, in this model with cast wheels and tubeless tyres, plus they got slightly more power from the engine...

  8. I'm happy with the (albeit very basic) stopping power of the brakes on the 650, but not the feel. I'll start with a steel hose and see what happens....

    Another lover of retros (Royal Enfield owner) whom I was speaking to about the W before buying, and who loved the W800, had this to say on the Guzzi (I'll quote him anonymously):

    "If you can, I would also highly recommend checking out the Guzzi V7 classic. I much prefer it to the W800, and it kinda sounds like it has an engine from a WW2 fighter plane, especially when its starting. The bike is just a bloody gem to ride and I cant emphasise how much you need to try it! The W800 engine has plenty of charm and character in my opinion, but its a different type of charm to the V7. It's a lot more "English" - tea and crumpets - calm - respectful. Its hard to explain it without making the engine sound boring, because it certainly isnt. The V7 is red blooded and Italian, and will probably give you a woody."

    The V7 was out of my price range but also the Guzzi is somehow not right for me right now. Perhaps it's because, although they're certainly not ugly, they're not classically and Englishly beautiful, which is what I want.
  9. True, but they are classically Italianishly beautiful and that's also worth something :)

    But I get your point. Speaking of Enfields, have you heard of Australian guy named Paul Carberry? He basically takes two Enfield engines and glues them into one, to create a twin-cylinder (V-twin) Royal Enfield... this creates a bike that is still very 'classic' in its performance, but since it will now top out somewhere around 160km/hr, it is a lot more relaxed at legal speeds. Judging by a couple of youtube clips, they sound great, too!
  10. Yes I've heard of him, but never met him. He lives out at Launching Place. I can't remember what he charges - close to $20k? Which is not bad if it's a reliable bike, as it's about the same price as a 1200 Sportster. If I'm ever in a situation to spend that much I'd look very seriously at it, in fact for that money (assuming its quality, and I very much suspect it is high quality as Paul will no doubt have overcome any of the Indian sloppiness) it's probably the best thing out there (for my taste). Especially as it's Australian. Are you considering it?
  11. As soon as my numbers come in :) Seriously though - probably not. It's a fantastic thing but not really suitable for me, cost is the obvious problem but also the fact that while I believe Paul's craftsmanship to be of the highest order, this is still a Royal Enfield with all that involves.
    And I am not a Royal Enfield kind of owner - oh, I do enjoy the classic styling and my ideal ride is just ambling along at legal speeds through quiet countryside... but I am not in the least interested in maintaining, tinkering or fixing my bike - I want nothing to do with any of it. So I think I best stick to modern mainstream offerings like W800 or Guzzi or Triumph...

    Still, I do love the idea of this bike... Yes, it's supposed to be around $22,000 or 15,000+ the donor bike. His website has been updated since I've seen it last, it has some decent pictures and don't miss the very informative review from 'Old Bike' magazine available from the front page. They seem most impressed with the torque his engine produces.

  12. Given the engineering involved to make one at all, I'd certainly expect a reasonably high standard of fit, finish and engine building in the motor. That would eliminate a goodly chunk of any quality control issues the Enfield might have. I'm not sure how much it would help with material quality though (if that is one of the Enfield's problems).
  13. Certainly, I am struck by the thought that I could get a bullet-proof mid-90s HD Sportster 1200 in great nic for $8k on the road. Compared to $20k that leaves a lot of money to play with in getting whatever style of bike you want out of it, while being able to walk into any bike shop and order standard HD engine parts. Not that I'm arguing against the Carberry, but this would create a dilemma for me.

    RT, as time goes on I'm increasingly like you - I just like to ride bikes, I don't like to tinker (basic servicing aside - I just can't justify paying for that). That said, I might sell my SR to get a Bullet (because I'm a romantic idiot).
  14. seriously boys, talk to an owner before being seduced by the V-Twin....

    I had a long talk with an owner in a servo in Moss Vale. The thing was leaking oil all over the exhaust pipes, and it was running like a stuck pig and rattling like a bucket of bolts. I asked him what was wrong and he said the fueling had been wrong from day one and they didn't know how to fix it.

    for that sort of money you can buy two decent bikes that aren't lash-ups of a bike you'd not buy anyway....
  15. An actual owner of Carberry Enfield? Wow, you're lucky - those things would be rarer than the unicorn! But I'm surprised he had ongoing problems with fuelling, they use the old Bullet engines with carbs - technology that's pretty well understood by now I'd have thought.
  16. yes, seriously, he was an older gent who obviously could afford the device, but he was profoundly disapppointed
  17. hi mattb
    i have read your posts over some time and liked them
    but this one sums up it all
    i have owned an enfield happily for 5 years 23000 km
    have had a bonneville for the last 6 years 39000 km
    had a trophy in my youth
    loved your summary
    like your attitude to bikes and life
    stay upright
    regards champ
  18. Thanks mate! :)
  19. Interesting, 'cos looking at the photos I was intrigued to note that the inlet tracts are of apparently different lengths which is going to make balancing the carburettion an interesting task. I assumed that it would have been sorted but maybe not.
  20. The SR500/400 Review

    This review is a companion to the OP 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 an evolving fashion line-up of 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 is popular for a reason than fashion, and it had a cult status long before Deus was dreamt up. 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. On the 500 I find myself rarely leaving the 3000-4000rpm range, and on the 400 I'm more inclined to sit between 4000 and 5000rpm.

    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 sui generis 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 - indeed it is a marvel of Japanese mechanical simplicity, quality and cleverness with respect to, importantly, reliability and longevity. Yamaha outdid themselves in the way they over-engineered some of their bikes of the 1970s. 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.


    This is not my video, but it communicates a sense of what it's like to ride the SR:
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