Big singles eh? All over the place now, but in the mid 70s they seemed like a justifiably extinct species - vibrating themselves to pieces, dripping oil, and being a general pain in the neck. If my experiences of a Matchless G80 and Ariel Redhunter are normal, the big 4 stroke single was just awful at anything over 55mph.

So - after the British bike industry commited suicide (slowly), there was a time when nobody bought or wanted a big single road bike.. then Yamaha (with hindsight you would have expected it to be Honda) brought out the XT500 trail bike, with an astonishingly different engine to everyone else- a great big 4 stroke thumper.

Rockaway Beach

I remember looking at the lovely colour ads in “Cycleworld” for the XT500, then SR500, and being amazed at this seemingly courageous change of direction from one of the Big Four.

Before this, Yamaha had only designed one 4 stroke, the XS650 range, so inevitably there were development problems - cylinders seized, broke, crank bearings failed etc - but the result was a sort of almost modernish big single.

Electric start, watercooling and balancers were ruled out in the quest for simplicity (cheapness in plain English), so a new generation learned to ease it over TDC before launching themselves at the kickstart.. The SR was slightly tweaked to make it “easier to use”- an automatic decompressor and CDI ignition helped starting woes.

“It came in fact from an accident! Mr. Morinaga, Yamaha Motor's Technical Director, tested the SR prototype and got a wrench to his ankle as he tried to kick it. Easy starting then instantly became a first priority!"

Yeah, never mind the thousands of punters with twisted ankles and barked shins...

Boiled beef and carrots

Everyone expected them to bring out a road version quickly, as the XT proved so popular (62000 sold in France alone) and 1978 saw the launch of the SR500, with wire wheels, front disc brake and normal slightly old fashioned styling.

The first design sketches showed the bike wearing 7 spoke alloy wheels, which were introduced a year later as an option.

1984 saw an 18inch front wheel and narrower handlebars, and in 1988 it gained the ultimate retro feature, an optional gorgeous TLS front drum brake, reversing history! And braking power!

Spring can really hang you up the most

The Japanese home market also got the SR400, still made today with fuel injector and chronic silencing to get past emissions tests.

But the elephant in the room is starting the thing. We've all had bikes with electric starts now, and to be honest there isn't much glamour involved with hacking away at a kickstarter any more, it's the main feature that might put off the older (most of us) biker getting one.

Up the lazy river

But if you are a hardy type of masochist, there are rewards. Power delivery is hearty and throbbing, economy is ok, sound is good.  The icing on the cake is that you can easily change everything into anything else - aftermarket parts are common enough for you to make a flat tracker, bobber or cafe racer with off the shelf parts - tuning and big bore kits are bolt-ons too, so as a simple basis for your special, there's nothing to beat it. Well, except bikes with a better looking engine like the W650 Kawasaki. Or an actual old bike, but I digress..

Fujiyama mama

Just google image “SR500 custom” and you'll see that what everyone really wants is a flat track cafe bobber thingy. Why don't Yamaha bring one out? God knows, they'd sell a container load in a day.

Some girls are bigger than others

Oversquare (not really British eh) 87x84mm stroke,
8.3:1 compression,
34mm carb,
35mm forks,
158kg dry weight,
90mph top speed.
Keep that up for 10 miles and you get a medal.

So actually in their efforts to keep cost down, and simplicity up, Yamaha ended up with an engine hardly different in most respects than the old British thumpers of the classic yesteryear bygone heirloom collectable vintage era. Theirs was all alloy, better made and more reliable, and didn't leak, that's about it.

Nowadays most off roaders, supermotos etc have big 4 stroke single engines, a trend definitely started by the XT and SR bikes, although today's engines are light years ahead in all respects, except they are still awful looking- why don't manufacturers style engines anymore? Aaarrggghhh! (that's a particular soap box theme of mine).

Little turtle dove

Remember the Honda FT500? (sounds of laughter and whirring starter motors not turning the engine..)

Honda brought out their own road 500 thumper, based on their own XL500 trailie, and made it look a bit flat tracky - what a winner you would have thought, but no. Oh no.

What a cock up they, Honda of all people, made of that. Amazing really, given their history with the 4 stroke and lovely road bikes of the past like the CB77.
Then they brought out the XBR500, which was ok, but styling didn't reflect what the potential customer wanted, so they developed more retro looking versions over the years, but none of them has had the impact of the plain Jane SR500. Not everyone wants to date a potential footballer's wife after all.

Bring it to Jerome

If a long life is proof of a decent design, then the fact that they as being made and sold 36 years later must mean something - with the Honda Cub, or the CG125, these sickles just keep on going.

There's nothing about them that would intimidate the average Metric weilding enthusiast, nothing too clever or complicated, nothing too faddish or unnecessary, and therein lies their strength.

Ed's note: Thank you Jerry for the not-related-at-all headings - songs of yesteryear - most enjoyable.

Any motorcycle comments to add to Jerry's story or favourite songs you''d like mentioned?

email us at: news@wemoto.com
Posted by Jerry Rulf
for Wemoto News on 06 March 2014 in Features

Edited By: Daisy Cordell



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