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A Motorcycle to Remember, the Yamaha XS650 hits Pay Dirt on all Counts

Looking into the history of a particular make or model of motorcycle is fascinating. Not only does it provide a snapshot of the world at the time of its launch, but it can also reveal a rich heritage of design and development. The 1969 Yamaha XS650 hits pay dirt on both counts.

While Buzz Aldrin became the first man on the moon, former piano manufacturer Yamaha was preparing to launch a 650cc overhead cam parallel-twin motorcycle in Japan. Most times, bike manufacturers can’t wait to tell the world about their latest creations. However, Yamaha was so laid back about the XS-1 that it didn’t so much launch but sedately float out.

Maybe this isn’t so surprising for an engine left lying around in the workshop for almost a decade before finding its way into a frame! Still, delve a little deeper, and the XS650’s heritage is mind-blowing.

1955 Horex Imperator

In 1952 German manufacturer Horex designed a 500cc motorcycle called the Imperator. The bike was way ahead of its time. It featured a single overhead cam parallel-twin engine of unit construction. Unfortunately, when Daimler-Benz bought Horex, they discarded the engine.

Who Designed the Yamaha XS650 Engine?

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Japanese company Hosk acquired the license to build the Horex Imperator in Japan. In 1957, Showa bought out Hosk, together with the twin-cylinder engine. Within three years, Yamaha had swallowed up Showa and along with the acquisition, was the design for an overhead cam parallel twin (now 650cc) sound familiar?

At the time, this practice of acquisition and building under license was not uncommon in Japan. Don’t forget Kawasaki acquired the license from BSA to build an A10 look-a-like back in 1965. The Kawasaki badged pre-unit 650cc parallel twin was known as the W1.

1965 Kawasaki W1

It’s not surprising that Yamaha most likely used the prototype XS 650 engine to prop open the door to their R&D shop. The department was, at the time, busy creating two-stroke screamers.

When the engine, at last, found its way into a frame, it became the factory’s first attempt at a four-stroke motorcycle. The XS650 was also the largest displacement engine Yamaha made. From day one, though, the launch of the groundbreaking Honda CB750-4 swamped it.

Yamaha’s reluctance to make a huge song and dance about its launch was understandable. After all, they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that while other Japanese factories were going hi-tech, they appeared to be taking a step in the opposite direction.

Italian ad for XS-1

The company needn’t have worried. Compared to the other big-bore parallel twins on the market, when it came to technology, the humble XS-1 stood head and shoulders above.

Triumph also handed 1970 to them on a plate. Unfortunately, the delay of the new oil-in-frame 650 Bonneville meant the new Bonnies didn’t roll out of the showrooms until 1971.

BSA didn’t fare much better. The unit construction A65 engine also shared the new Triumph frame, which in turn caused a delay.

Did Triumph and Yamaha Ever Hold Secret Talks?

As for Norton, on paper, the 750 Commando looked like the one to beat. Yet, engine problems and a spate of frame failures in the USA led to sales taking a kicking.

Triumph was also busy drowning its sorrows over the T150 Trident catastrophe. The triple-cylinder superbike was ready to roll by 1967, but instead of launching, Triumph dragged its heels until 1969.

The 750-3 launched to great critical acclaim, albeit, four weeks later, Honda shook the motorcycle world with its 750-4. It blew the Trident into the proverbial weeds.

In an effort for a possible collaboration, secret talks and testing of the XS-1 had taken place between Yamaha and Triumph Motors America (TMA). Triumph sent the Japanese home empty-handed.

A pity indeed, as a Triumph framed XS-1 would have been a show-stopping motorcycle. It also would have ironed out the Yamaha’s one fatal flaw. But more on that subject later.

Many writers label the XS-1 as the bike responsible for killing off the British motorcycle industry. In reality, Yamaha launched the XS-1 against an opposition responsible for sabotaging itself.

Even though the British bike industry had a reputation for self-destruction, Triumph, BSA and Norton still had plenty of loyal fans. For this reason, when the Yamaha XS 650 (XS-1) hit the streets in 1969, its initial launch took place in the US and Australia.

Racing a Yamaha XS-1 in Australia. Photo: Old Bike Australia.

Was the Yamaha XS650 Popular in the UK?

Motorcycle magazines on both continents made obvious comments about a British bike with a Japanese tank badge. However, overall the engine was the star of the show.

Comparisons were inevitable. The Yamaha was a kickstart only and had drum brakes. It also featured the same 360-degree style crank as Triumph twins and rattled teeth like one too! It’s safe to say, though, the comparison ends here.

The XS650’s crankcases were horizontally split, meaning no oil leaks and the engine and gearbox a single unit. With a much lighter flywheel than the competition, the pick-up was brisk right up to the ton and beyond.

Both the USA and Australia were fond of big, loud twins. So with favorable media coverage, the Yamaha won plenty of friends.

In the UK, during the later part of 1972 came the release of approximately 50 XS-2s. Because the engine was such a gem, the motorcycle press from other countries were happy to overlook the elephant in the room. But in Great Britain, bike journalists smelt blood and went for the throat.

The simple truth was, Yamaha had put that impressive lump of an engine into a poorly designed and heavy frame. The cycle parts such as the mudguards, seat, and exhausts were robust, adding to the weight, but the swinging arm (with its plastic bushes) was spindly.

The result was a 650 twin that weighed only 50-lb less than Honda’s 750-4. The frame, swinging arm, forks, and suspension were overwhelmed, and the XS handled poorly – like a pig on a skateboard. Without even pushing it to its limits, ridden at street-legal speeds, the lumpy, twisting British roads showed the Yamaha’s handling for what it was; atrocious.

How Did Yamaha Improve the XS650’s Handling?

Even if the collective executives of BSA, Triumph, and Norton weren’t capable of organizing a drinking competition in a brewery, they could build a frame. So while British motorcyclists had to put up with unreliable, noisy engines leaking like an oil tanker on the rocks, they didn’t ever have to live in fear of taking a corner.

The British press gave the bike a mauling, and sales of the Yamaha XS-2 took a nosedive. Yam’s so-called Bonnie beater got left to gather dust on showroom floors.

Back in Japan, Yamaha’s top brass listened to the criticism. But rather than fall on their corporate swords, they did the next best thing and called a sheep farmer in Leicestershire.

Percy Tait

Famed for his award-winning Bluefaced Leicester Sheep, this particular farmer was also somewhat famous for another of his skills; riding motorcycles very fast. Naturally, Percy Tait and his motorcycling pedigree had Yamaha chomping at the bit.

Tait was a test rider for Triumph and worked in the race department developing competition frames. His eventual move to racing was as inevitable as it was dramatic.

Within one 12-month period, Tait won two of Europe’s biggest endurance races, the British 750cc and Superbike championships. He also came in second to Agostini’s world-beating MV Agusta in the Belgian GP.

As well as developing Barry Sheene’s famous 500cc Suzuki GP bike, Tait’s resume also included working on and racing the most famous Triumph triple race bike ever, Slippery Sam.

Why did Yamaha Send for Percy Tait?

Tait’s racing prowess was beyond question. However, his ability to ride a bike once around a track and identify its shortcomings got Yamaha reaching for the telephone.

The fact that Triumph’s former race frame developer would whip Yamaha’s Bonnie-beater into shape was the icing on the cake for the Japanese company.

Tait’s exact comments about his first ride on the XS went unrecorded, but rumor has it he told them to scrap the frame and start again. As a new frame was out of the question, Tait got busy welding-in additional bracing and gussets to stiffen the frame and steering head.

The result wasn’t pretty, but Tait managed to hide most of the frame stiffening. When it came to handling, the Yam was still no Triumph but compared to its predecessor; it was a significant improvement.

The frame improvements of 1975 saw the model designation change to XS650-C. Meanwhile, the next two years saw alterations and upgrades to the forks, damping, and brake system.

At this point, for the second time around, came the Yamaha XS650’s official introduction to Great Britain. The original two models were kick start only and featured drum front brakes. The XS 650-C had twin discs up front with both kick and electric start.

In the following years, new emissions laws in the USA, the XS650’s biggest market, led to lower compression and smaller carbs. As a result, the performance took a slight hit.

Yamaha had a card up their sleeve though. And it was one that would have people clamoring to buy the big Yam. Enter the 1979 Yamaha XS650 Special. The Special was arguably the first-ever factory custom. I say, arguably because Harley-Davidson fans believe that title belongs to the 1980 FXWG.

1979 Yamaha XS-650 Special.

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, the XS650 Special was, without doubt, the first Japanese factory custom. Its look spawned the whole factory custom craze that is going strong to this day.

What made the Special so clever were the relatively few alterations that made it look and feel different from the standard model. The most significant changes were the wheels. A fatter 16-in back and 19-in front and a more inclined rear shock. The rest were pure cosmetics, including a stepped seat, smaller gas tank, and pull-back bars.

The Special was so popular that in 1979 Yamaha stopped producing the ‘standard’ version. However, the XS650 Special lived on until 1985 (two years after production officially ended).

Why was the Yamaha XS650 Big USA Hit?

It would seem that two main factors created a perfect storm. First off, in 1979, demand for motorcycles in the 600cc-699cc category jumped a staggering 300%.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Triumph, their closest like-for-like competitor, was in big financial trouble. For the British manufacturer, the forecast was bleak. Triumph was slowly collapsing under the weight of unsold bikes in the USA and loan repayments due in the UK.

As a last-ditch attempt to sell some units in America, Triumph introduced the T140ES. It boasted a 750cc parallel twin with an electric starter, an addition that Yamaha introduced in 1972. Worse still was the price comparison. The 1979/80 Triumph ES came with a whopping price tag of USD3995, approximately half that of the XS650 Special.

The motorcycle press of the day loved the Triumph for its heritage and character. Yet, out on the street, it was getting slaughtered on both price and reliability. So it’s fair to say that Yamaha didn’t entirely bring about the collapse of the British bike industry. It was just in the right place at the right time when it collapsed.

Is a Classic Yamaha XS650 Ride Worthy?

Yes, 100% and here’s why. First, the single overhead cam engine is bulletproof internally, even if the exterior finish isn’t as tough. Second, the original Mikuni carbs suffer from split diaphragms. Although they cause it to run like a dog, it’s an easy fix.

For the majority of motorcycle engines, vibration is often a precursor to self-destruction. Yet, when it comes to the XS650’s 360-degree crank running on four bearings and needle roller big ends, it’s business as usual. They vibrate, end of!

As with most bikes of this age, you’ll find examples with every nut and bolt restored. Prices are still reasonable at around USD4K-USD7K but opt for a bike that has only come out of hiding on a Sunday afternoon or owned as a second vehicle.

These motorcycles are often in average condition but with upgrades to the steering head bearings and swinging arm bushes. Ignition systems are often beefed-up, aftermarket suspension added, and exhausts swapped out for stainless steel versions.

Which is the Best XS650 Model?

The 1977 Standard is the one Yam connoisseurs say is the model where everything came together. But, any bike between’76-’85 should give you miles of smiles.

Go for a Special post-1980. Here, Yamaha kindly upgraded the electronic ignition. They also changed the carbs to Mikuni CV’s and vamped up the charging system, all free of charge.

The practicality of a vintage bike is only as good as the availability of the spares. Here, the Yamaha XS650 gets a high score, as estimates put the production run at around 500,000. Its solid motor, classic engine size, and sheer fun factor to own and ride means the model now enjoys a cult following.

Add to this, the popularity of bobbing, chopping, and tracking the bike means the spares and accessories market is huge.

This dependable vintage bike is capable of being a moderate daily ride with plenty of spares and custom goodies available. What more could you ask for in a 40-year-old motorcycle?

Best Bike for a Bobber, Chopper and Cafe Racer

Yamaha XS650 Bobber style.

Apart from being a fun bike to ride in stock specification, the Yamaha XS650 is one of the most versatile donor bikes. The classic lines of the big Yam make a bobber with plenty of retro vibe. It also provides a great base for a chopper.

The XS650 makes an awesome cafe racer too. Why? The 650cc parallel twin engine is the classic heart of every 1960s British cafe racer. As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Yamaha XS650 Cafe Racer. Photo: Stud Motorcycles.

Yamaha XS650 Timeline


Kick only, drum front and back brakes. Available in green and white

Electric start, compression release on exhaust tappet cover

Upgraded starter motor, engine loses de-compressor

Twin front discs, brake calipers moved behind the fork leg.
Frame gets major bracing thanks to Percy Tait

The best of the ‘standards’ return to single front disc and major revision of front forks

XS SE Special
The first Japanese factory custom, gets new tank, seat, wheels, rear disc, handlebars, Mikuni CV carbs, electronic ignition,and  angled rear shocks. End of the standard model 

Back brake goes from disc to drum then back to disc.
Yamaha develop a mirror black paint finish

Minor reshaping of the seat.
Production ends after a 14-year run

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