Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Yamaha XS250

"Look, mate, I don't know anything about the heap, I just want it out of my garage, like yesterday." There were worse ways of being introduced to a used motorcycle, at least it promised cheapness. The bike turned out to be a Yam XS250, covered in rust and refusing to start. He was vague about how much he wanted, so I offered fifty quid, eventually settling on £70.

It was a long push home, but a little less hassle after I'd removed the front caliper and drive chain, both of which were later to be found beyond help; no great surprise there. The rest of the chassis looked in just as rotten a state, but to my surprise responded well to my cleaning efforts.

The engine turned out to have no spark at the plugs. Something was very definitely getting through to the HT leads judging by the shock they gave me. It reminded me of my mate's highly illegal stun gun, which put out a 6000 volt shock. He amused himself by attacking stray dogs, they usually ended up on their backs, twitching wildly, kicking their paws in the air. The shock from the Yamaha was not quite that bad, but it persuaded me that a new pair of HT leads, spark plug caps and plugs were necessary.

Once these were fitted, after about fifty kicks. the motor finally stuttered into life on one cylinder. A bit of frantic effort with the choke and throttle turned the engine into a twin, albeit a rather reluctant one. The smoke out of the rusted exhaust finally cleared and the engine settled down to a 1250rpm tickover. Next tricks, track down a used caliper and buy a cheapo chain.

The first outing was startling for the sogginess of the ride and the paucity of power below 6000rpm. Wringing the engine's neck finally extracted some go but it felt more like a restricted 125 than a 28hp OHC vertical twin. I thought, what the heck, at least it was still running without any nasty noises.

Beggars could not be choosers. The first weekend I was ready for a gentle amble from London to Birmingham and back. Minor roads all the way, naturally. The Yam had other ideas, refusing to start for half an hour until I took the plugs out and warmed them in the oven. Once clear of the great city, we settled down a reasonable 70mph along some deserted A-roads (it being only six o'clock in the morning).

The first trauma was running on to reserve only to find that it didn't work. Much shaking of the bike back and forth put just enough in the main tank to get me two miles down the road to a deserted petrol station. The owner rolled up ninety minutes later and hoped I hadn't been waiting for too long!

About fifty miles later, the second problem turned up, the bike cutting out on the right-hand cylinder. Riding a 25mph, 125cc single didn't exactly fill me full of the joys of life. Combined with the wrecked suspension, it made for some wild wobbles through the bends when the second cylinder chimed in. I poked around at the HT leads to no avail, but after ten miles of anarchy it started to run properly again.

The handling was predictable in that every time the front wheel hit a bump it would cause the Yam to bounce all over the road. I had already noted a little play in the swinging arm bearings, so was not surprised to find the back end joining in, especially in the bends. There was nothing especially frightening about all this, it was just a matter of keeping hold of the bars and piloting the heap through the worst of the shakes.

Birmingham eventually came into view at about midday. My body was in a pretty wretched state, I had to stagger around the city centre for about an hour before I fully recovered. The Yarn refused to start when I returned and there was no-one I could ask to borrow an oven. It took about two hours of wandering around to find a bike shop that stocked a new pair of plugs. I wasted another hour when I found I'd forgotten to pack the spark plug socket.

With new plugs fitted the motor fired up first kick and l collapsed with relief over the bars. It was nearly five o'clock by then and l would have to ride home part of the way in the dark. The first bit of the journey, around 70 miles, was a breeze, with the engine running with remarkable eagerness at the top of its rev range. With a bit of a following wind, it was able to put 90mph on the clock with no sign of any strain.

When I switched the lights on, one cylinder started cutting out again. As darkness tell I was not amused to find that the lights were pathetic, hardly fit for warning other drivers of my presence. I was down to a 25mph crawl for most of the journey. Eye strain soon set in, making me imagine there were dead dogs in the road and nearly running off the tarmac when blinded by oncoming vehicles. By the time I reached my abode, the rear bulb had blown — the first I knew of it!

The next day I found that the bulb hadn‘t actually gone, one of its wires had fractured in half and l was lucky it had not shorted out on anything. This led me to the conclusion that rotten wiring was affecting the ignition circuit. An afternoon was spent putting in some new wires, but it also revealed a battery full of white corrosion, so more money was blown on replacing that. I was beginning to think it was impossible to win.

I was encouraged by the way the engine roared into life first kick. On the test run everything was fine, so it was time to use the bike instead of public transport for getting to work.

The next morning I ambled down to the XS - yes, you guessed, refused to start until I did the spark plugs in the oven trick. Luckily, I made up time on the run into work so didn't turn up late. Dinner time I bought a new set of plugs in case they were needed in the evening. Plugs with a life of less than a 100 miles was going to work out expensive.

Typically, the damn thing started first kick. It ran out of fuel again, but I was near to a petrol station this time. Economy worked out at around 65mpg, which, as l was thrashing the machine most of the time, was OK by me. That night I took the petrol tap apart and cleaned out the crud in the mesh on the reserve half of the tap. It was still dangerous, though, reserve not good for more than five miles, but it was better than nothing.

For a couple of weeks the engine settled down, starting from cold reliably and not cutting out on the road. After a really vicious rainstorm all the hassles came back. Three days later not even new plugs could persuade the engine into life. I simplified the ignition wiring and put in a pair of car coils, not willing to pay the ridiculous prices demanded by the Yamaha importer. It was still a reluctant starter from cold but ran reliably enough once warm.

My problems didn't end there. The suspension had become even more worn, the wobbles threatening to throw me off each time I tried to run the bike through a bend. New swinging arm bearings helped but it was the forks that were in a really bad state. The stanchions were pitted beyond help, the fork seals long since dead and the springs so soggy that all the travel disappeared as soon as I sat on the bike.

An RD front end with a similar wheel was on offer at the breakers for a hundred notes. After I'd explained that this was more than l'd paid for the XS, he let me have it for sixty quid and threw in a pair of shocks off an XS400. I had some fun and games fitting them but it was worth it.

I can't say that the XS felt like a thoroughbred but most of the wobbles had disappeared and it actually felt safe to lean more than a few degrees off the vertical. If anything, it was a bit too stiff, giving my spine a real going over when the road turned very rough? I could live with that in exchange for the improved handling.

The next few months went by without any spectacular incidents, although I was not too overjoyed to find that the new battery had boiled itself into a premature death.

Then I had an accident. I had perhaps become overconfident, as the RD's disc was brilliantly effective, compared to what I was used to. I had developed a spectacular cut and thrust technique in town traffic that drastically reduced my commuting times whilst giving indignant car drivers heart palpitations. One of these cagers did an unexpected right turn that not even the most powerful front brake in the world would have avoided.

The result was that the XS's front wheel was embedded in the side of the car and l was thrown off the bike with such force that I cleared the offending cage to land on top of some other poor fool's roof. Judging by the size of the dent my helmet left this absorbed most of the shock. I was a bit dazed but still coherent enough to refuse to go to hospital for a check-up, much to the annoyance of the ambulance crew and police.

The car driver reckoned it was obviously my fault for riding down the middle of the road at an obscene speed. I protested my innocence, naturally. but have to admit I was doing 50 to 60mph! The XS had wrecked its front end but was otherwise OK, so after all the details were taken I let the AA take the wreck home. There I put on the old front end and decided to sell the bugger before it did me a permanent injury.

I was lucky. insurance rates had just shot up to ridiculous levels for the big stuff. making 250s suddenly popular. I put the XS up for 350 sovs and was deluged with desperate phone calls. Had no problems off-loading the Yam, despite the way it shook its head and wandered all over the road. I didn't feel the least bit sad to be shot of the heap.

Terry Collins

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