1978-83 Yamaha XS Specials

1978 Yamaha SE

During 1978, the XS650SE was released alongside the XS650E. This was the first of the Specials. In 1979 came the XS650F and XS650SF with the XS650F being the last of the standard XS650s. These were the only two years that you had a choice of two models. The XS650SE and the XS650SF have smaller tanks with the cap offset to one side; much shorter pipes; cast wheels with a fat 16 inch rear with a disc brake; a steel grab-rail; steel side covers; and a slightly stepped seat that was hinged at the side.

By the end of 1979, cruiser bike sales were booming and Yamaha saw no reason to continue making ‘standards’. The XS650SG of 1980 had an alloy grab-rail, plastic side covers and a removable, even more stepped seat. The XS650SH of 1981 was the same as the XS650SG except for a return to a drum brake at the rear but still with cast 16″ wheels.

This was the last model sold in Australia but they continued for another two years in North America, as the XS650SI and XS650SJ Heritage Specials. These models returned to wire wheels, but with 72 spokes instead of the usual 36; steel rims but still with the 16″ at the rear; black chrome; and electronic ignition fired by the crank whereas all previous models had points, driven by the cam.

By the time it was all over, the XS/TX/XS-650 was Yamaha’s longest running and biggest selling model – a title it still holds today. So good and so popular was it, that Yamaha readily admits the 650 saved it from total collapse during and after the TX-750/500 fiasco. Unfortunately however, it’s generally acknowledged that the only way Yamaha could ensure the success of the XJ range was to discontinue the XS-650. Put simply, it was so good that it had to be killed off for the company and it’s products to further evolve. It really was the goose that laid the golden egg, and everyone knows what happens to those.

This time however, they misread the market. Most owners would not trade their 650s in on an XJ and even when it came time for a change, many deserted the brand and looked elsewhere. Yamaha spent the rest of the ’80s and the early ’90s out in the woods. Though they later went on to produce some cutting-edge bikes such as the R-1, we can look back and see how Harley-Davidson stayed with a winning formula, once they’d discovered it. As well, Triumph has resurrected the Bonneville, at least three of the Japanese factories have since produced a “retro” of some kind and all are still making cruisers. It’s not hard to imagine that within the company, the axing of the XS, whilst thought to be necessary at the time for the sake of progress, is now regarded as a monumental blunder.

As for which one to choose, it all depends on your personal taste, and what you want the bike for. If you like the Americanised look of a “factory custom”, then go for a Special. The only choice after that is a disc or drum rear brake. You could also import a Heritage from the USA. They are not hard to find, and we have connections there.

If the more traditional “Bonneville look” is more appealing, then it’s a Standard you want. Of those, if you want a bike that has historical value and collectability, then an XS-1 or XS-1B, in that order, is for you. If you prefer the styling of these early models but want the extra braking power of a disc, and the convenience of an electric starter, then look for an XS-2. The ’73 TX is also very collectable as it’s tank was only produced for that one year and so the model’s overall appearance is quite unique. Bare in mind though, that owners say the early models are quite un-nerving to ride at any great speed.

If you’d like to modify the bike for better performance, the motors are all the same in that regard, but you’ll need good handling. A ’74 TX-650A or later is the go here, though the ’77s and on also have the better forks. By the way, all manner of performance parts are available for them and they can be made to produce unbelievable power. The motors can be taken out to over 1,000cc, though 750-850cc is most suitable for a road-bike. So, if you intend to make a hot-rod out of it, anything ’77 or later is your first choice, followed by the ’76C, the ’75B, and the ’74TX-A, in that order.

As far as spares go, most parts are still available new. The only things in short supply are cosmetic items, tank badges and the like. If these sort of things are important to you, buy a bike that is complete. If that’s not possible, there are many used parts around. Several of our members have accumulated huge stocks over the years, and many parts are now being reproduced.

If the styling of one particular model doesn’t quite grab you, it’s possible to fit most parts from other models to create the look you want. For example, if you want performance and so buy a ’77 model but you don’t like the big tank, a Special tank fits straight on. If you like the styling of the Specials but prefer wire wheels, they are a bolt-on affair, though you’ll have to have a drum brake at the rear. Therefore, you’d buy an ’81 SH. Say you bought a ’76, but wanted cast wheels. The wheels of a Special will fit, and if you don’t like the fat 16″er at the rear, an 18″ wheel from an SR-500 or an XS-400 is an easy swap. Both are available with disc or drum brakes.

As with all bikes of that era, the XS has a couple of things that can be improved. The ignition system is a known ‘weak link’ and is unduly complex. It works OK, and has powered every 650 for eons, but an electronic unit is now available and is a great improvement. The voltage regulator can become mal-adjusted causing a flat battery but a solid-state regulator/rectifier is now available for them. The steering-head has ball bearings, which can be replaced with tapered rollers and the swingarm’s bushes can be replaced with needle bearings. The carbs work OK for a stock motor, but the diaphragms can perish and even the smallest pin-hole renders them useless. They can’t be repaired and are horrendously expensive to replace. Mikuni round-slide carbs bolt straight on. The oil filter is prone to tearing, letting all manner of crap go through the motor. A much better, external unit is now available. Now, none of this needs to be done and your bike will run just fine in it’s standard form, but if a part needs replacing, check with us to see if there’s not something better out there before buying the standard part.

XS650 SG Road Test from Cycle News - November 1979

New Wave / Traditionalist Statement or Just a Neat Scooter?

As stated in the Yamaha XS650SG brochure: “The 1980 XS650 should gladden the hearts of traditionalists everywhere. Here is the only sport/touring vertical twin currently in production today.”

Yet for all its classic charm and British mystique, the XS650 features all the contemporary Yamaha special styling so especially popular with the American rider. A perfect blend of image and technology brought even closer to perfection in 1980.

A plastic spiel, for sure. Sort of like buying a miniature Tower of London souvenir in England and finding a “Made in Japan” label stuck on it polystyrene bottom.

It’s a shame the British can’t return the compliment and produce an XS Eleven replica Triumph or BSA or Norton or…

Yamaha’s pitch has its flaws. While there’s a certain amount of (what shall we call it?) Triumph hangover getting around; the 650cc twin has been relocated, image-wise, in the motorcycle hierarchy. Some of its mystique lost in that relocation.