Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Yamaha XS-2 650: The 150000 mile warbler


There have been many stories of Japanese bikes charging through the hundred thousand mile barrier. Some have even doubled that; but rarely. One of these high road heroes had almost everything replaced, only the frame stock. Another still had its original engine but most of its chassis updated. Rare indeed is the bike that survives high mileage in more or less stock form. Well, my 1970's Yamaha 650 XS-2 is one such marvel of Japanese technology.

The cynics amongst you all will by now be chortling with amusement at such an ancient device, one famed for its incoherent handling and easy to come by speed wobbles, surviving for more than 32 months let alone 32 years in the Californian coastal heat. Immediately, it must be admitted that the front forks ran to beefier springs and thicker oil, whilst the rear shocks were non-standard right from the day of purchase... only a fool with a death-wish would bother buying an XS with standard suspension; but so long have they tamed the wilful demons of the inner beast that in the whole to quibble at their providence seems entirely mean-minded. Well, that's my excuse, anyway.

Whilst we are on the subject of faithfulness to original spec, mayhem caused by age and decay also afflicted the silencers, which took a decade and a half to slowly decay from the inside out until all that remained was a facade of metal that disintegrated one sunny March day. The first I knew about their dissolution a military boom shortly followed by a disinclination to run above 3000 revs even with the choke fully on. It was kinda fun whilst it lasted but arrival home coincided with the overheated engine glowing bright red. But even that transgression failed to dent its basic indestructibility.

Again, okay, I am an old hand at Japanese machinery and would not even think about running an engine with the same lube for longer than a 1000 miles. Most times, 500 miles more like it. As anyone who has ever had a long term relationship with a Jap twin will tell you, there is one very obvious and disturbing intrusion into whatever fantasy land rules that makes such maintenance more or less obligatory. The dreaded gearbox intransigence. Oil shared between engine and gearbox suffers a very hard life. Enough said, ignore it at your peril.

Old Honda gearboxes most noted, many times, as anti-theft devices. And the XS very much in the same class. An acquired art very much an understatement, a plenitude of false neutrals and even some random jumping out of gears, but all stuff that you learn to live with and adapt to.

Brings me rather neatly to vertical twin vibration. No balancers, here, thank you very much – both the XS500 and TX750 twins suffered complex balancer systems that fared even worse than the 650, thanks to rapid wearing chains throwing things out of kilter. The XS a fairly hefty device that helps soak up the vibes and a fair old bit of precision engineering that doesn't really suffer from what vibes get through. Only really noticeable as an old hack when leaping off a newer bike straight on to the XS, when, yes, it does a fair impression of a pneumatic drill, especially above 5000 revs. But long term owners end up admitting such nastiness as merely character.

I am also of the school indentured in leaving well enough alone if it's working okay. The valves only ever get done when the tappets start rattling loud enough to drown out whatever rather loud pair of (British imitation) silencers are infecting the back end. Which means they maybe go for 10,000 miles without being touched by human hand. 50-odd horses from 650 cc's aint really touching on the ability of Japanese engines and consequently it's a rare year when I have to do the timing and set the points. A weekly chore on British tackle – chortle with incredulity.

The Yamaha did need a complete rewire to sort out poor starting and flickering light bulbs but it does run to the vintage quaintness of a voltage regulator with its own set of adjustable points. Bear in mind, the motor is impossible to start with a dead battery, and the latter seems to have a very hard life; wisdom comes with age and one thing I have learnt, monthly top-ups and yearly battery replacements are mandatory for peace of mind.

A friend (I always thought of him as such anyway) recently described the engine as sounding like a very large lawn-mower and it is true that there are sufficient rattles and pings and tremors to make you think that the mill is about to explode or seize... it's sounded like that for more than half its 150,000 mile life!

Top speed's around the 120mph mark but the bike is much happier cruising at 75-85mph. The suspension changes have quelled most of the speed wobbles, but it does shake its head a bit at 105mph when two-up and I haver experienced some frightening tank-slappers around the 110mph mark... never fight back or try to slow down, just relax your grip on the bars and the wobbles die out!

I can well understand that a modern rider would be thrown into a total panic and thence down the road. Certainly, buddies on following machines have described the bike as having a frame that was trying to break up and I gained no end of street cred for my nonchalance.

Braking basically stock but the front calipers need a lot of attention, these, days, and it is a long way from the standards of modern bikes. Tempted to replace the whole front end with something modern but the opportunity has yet to arise.

To be perfectly honest, it's a very rare day when I go above 85mph, it's rather too much like abuse on the old girl for me to inflict on such a good friend. The bike has been repainted and polished, looks almost like new in contrast to the brutal sounding motor, whose tune I have grown to love. To me, it's an easy ride but I can appreciate that someone leaping on to the XS off a newish bike would find themselves somewhat shaken by the amount of effort needed and just how rough the bike feels and sounds.

With the freer flowing exhaust, rejetted carbs and aftermarket airfilter, the old girl actually turns in 60mpg most of the time. Okay, a fairly moderate hand on the throttle, but still enough to put nearly all auto drivers in their proper place – eating my exhaust fumes. Tyre wear is moderate, more than 10k, anyway. The final drive upgraded with new sprockets and O-ring chain which made a hell of a difference – infrequent adjustments and more than 15k compared to about a third of that on the stringy original fare. Money well spent. The bike is cheaper to run than the vast majority of modern tackle!

With 150,000 miles done, the XS is probably due for semi-retirement but that leaves me pondering a potential replacement. Kawasaki's W650 looks possible, a bit of tweaking here and there to adapt it to my riding needs and maybe I am looking at a serious motorcycle for the highway of life.

Ben K.

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