May 7, 2013

This is why I love my SR!

From Cycle World in 1980 comes this (rather long) test review of my beloved Yamaha SR500. 

Road Test 1980
Soaking wet, forehead veins pulsing like the scoreboard at Daytona, our curious visitor leaned the Yamaha SR500 on its side stand, and sagged against the bike. "Now," he said breathlessly, "I remember why I sold my Gold Star."

One of our crew put the SR on the center stand. He rolled the throttle full open, eased the engine onto Top Dead Center and kicked. Once. Twice. Thre . . BLAPUKK! The exhaust pipe gave a mighty rumble. The would-be SR rider leaped back. Our man was calm.
"You were using too much choke. The fireball means all the fuel has been cleared out. Now we close the throttle, push the button, ease the piston into position and kick."
On the second kick, the engine fired up and settled down to a bouncy idle. Quick! Do you see yourself in this drama? And which of the two men are you?
If you're the man driven to exhausted desperation, the innocent victim of a stubborn, old-fashioned and probably treacherous engine, the rest of this test better be for entertainment only. Prophecies fulfill themselves; if you expect trouble, you'll get it. Riding a kick-start-only motorcycle wouldn't be fun. For you, there are several hundred other machines.

Did you imagine being able to cope with a starting drill? Is kicking the engine into life a normal thing? If so, welcome home. For you, the SR500 is nearly the only one of its kind.
And let's make it clear right now, nostalgia has darn little to do with it.
Yamaha's SR500 is unique in a couple of ways. It's a road-only Single, 500cc. Generations ago, that was a normal sort of machine. Now, the SR500 is the only one on the market.
It isn't a replica, nor is it old-fashioned. Got all the latest, i.e. breakerless ignition, tubeless tires on cast alloy wheels, self-canceling turn signals, front disc brake.

Nor—key point coming up—is the SR500 the product of market research. Yamaha has enjoyed great success the past few years by paying attention to what people want. Their researchers have quizzed and tabulated and come up with a complete line of bikes designed on the basis of what potential buyers believe a motorcycle should have, and on what they think motorcycles should look like.

The SR500, though, began when Yamaha dealers noticed that guys were buying XT500s, the dual-purpose version, and were modifying them into sporting road bikes. Lower, street tires, smaller bars, low exhaust, etc. So the dealers asked the factory to do a production model along those lines. The factory turned the designers, well, not quite loose, but free to work in a general direction. The designers in turn, being bike nuts, presented a motorcycle fairly close to the theme widely used by the English, in particular BSA although Matchless, Velocette, Norton and several others had models in the same vein. The factory was not unwilling to, mention these earlier 500s but never actually did after the U.S. press responded that the BSA was fine then, but that 1) many U.S. enthusiasts have never even seen one. and 2) those who did generally offer up tales of misfortune. Sell the SR500 on its merits. Yamaha was told, and so they have.
In fairly high numbers. Perhaps because the SR500 was done by men allowed to make it look right, as opposed to making it match what somebody in another country said he thought it should look like, the SR500 looks great. Clean. Rational. Functional. Every inch a machine.

Though the style is not Special. that is. it doesn't have bucko-bars and a barber's chair for a seat, it is not at all the same as so-called normal motorcycles. The tank is clean and purposeful. There is no excess plastic. The instruments and headlight are round and not molded together. There are fenders, both chromed. rather than tailpieces and plastic.
(By way of contrast, the new for 1980 SR250 has been styled completely in the Special theme, with bars and seat and tank done to appeal to people who are acquiring a look. And the SR250s are named. Exciter I and Exciter II, and they have electric start.)
At any rate. the SR500 has become a useful model in the Yamaha stable, and for 1980 it's been changed only in detail.
The major visible change is the rear brake. Formerly a disc, now it's a drum. with one leading and one trailing shoe. A drum reduces weight—the '80 SR500 is 6 lb. lighter than the '79—works better in the wet and in general, drum brakes require more pressure. which makes them less likely to be over-applied or locked up, something Yamahas have been subject to.

The SR500 is directly based on the XT/ TT500. The displacement is unusual, or was when it was introduced, but the design is not: Perfectly straightforward four-stroke Single. with overhead camshaft. two valves per cylinder, no counter-balancers. Because the road version needn't (or wasn't deemed to need to) be as light as the dual-purpose or the dirt models, the SR500 engine has aluminum side covers instead of magnesium. more fins for cooling and various minor tuning differences.

The SR used to have its own crankshaft. with a larger flywheel for more flywheel effect. For 1980, though. the factory decided they'd rather have a quick revving engine than one that gave itself momentum. so this year the SR has the XT cranks, 5.6 in. in diameter against the 5.9 in. of the old unit. Quicker revs, more obvious pulses.
The SR has its own carburetor. It has an accelerator pump. It also has a starting button: the engineers worked out exactly how much throttle opening was best for starting the engine when warm. They provide the button. Push it up and the throttle is cracked. precisely.

For 1980 EPA rules have caused the carb to have a smaller venturi, 32mm against 34, as well as a fixed idle jet, a one-position needle and smaller main and pilot jets.
Oil capacity in the frame backbone for the dry sump engine is increased. to 2.5 qts. from 2.3.
Tires are newer than they appear. One place Yamaha did homage to the past through imitation was the SR500's tires, by Bridgestone and with an aggressive tread very like the sporting covers of 20 years ago. The tires are used only on this model.

So for 1980, in keeping with other road Yamahas, the SR500 gets tubeless tires. That means different rims, because tubeless tires require a rim that will keep the bead in place. The wheels are shared with other Yamahas.
The tires aren't. They are tubeless and they have the same bold footprint as seen previously. Obviously Yamaha has gone to some trouble to keep the tread. To what end. we cannot imagine. unless somebody in a position of authority deeply believes the way the tread looks is an important part of the motorcycle.

Uh. one other little hint of character by intention. The spec sheet says the muffler has been shortened and revised to give more of the sound of the old Singles. And it does. In a way. Sort of. First, we now have a far more stringent set of regulations for exhaust noise, so the sound level of the SR500 is less than it was for the bikes of the Fifties. Next, again because of the law, the sound is softer. less clear. Third and worst, the SR500 sounds much better when you're not on the bike. When you ride it, you can't hear it. We didn't understand what Yamaha was talking about until we rode behind the new model. Your pals. if they like the sound of the old thumpers, will get more pleasure from the revised muffler than you will. Good marks for the attempt.
But then. we aren't talking about nostalgia here.

What the SR500 is, is a motorcycle for enthusiasts. Not just riders. they can get motorcycles anyplace.
Begin with the starting procedure. In a way it's too bad the kick-start-only question gets so much attention. In daily use. it isn't a big thing.
Technically speaking. there is no electric start because it would add weight. and cost, and because deft design has made the electrics unnecessary. Honest.
Honda uses a compression limiter linked to the kick starter. Suzuki provides a piston position indicator. Kawasaki sidesteps by using electric on the road KZ200 Single and by not making a four-stroke Single larger than 250cc, that is, not of a size requiring caution or technique.
Yamaha fits a piston position indicator. Next. there is a compression release so one can easily turn the engine until the piston is where you want it. For cold starts there's a choke with an extra notch of fast idle: you can move off full choke with no fear the engine will die. For hot starts. the carb button.
Thus, starting the SR500 is no more than a matter of doing it right. Use choke when cold. button when warm or hot. always get the piston in place before leaping on the lever and under no circumstances touch the throttle! If one kick doesn't get it. the next one will.

It takes effort'? So? Doesn't riding a motorcycle take effort?

Time? Yeah, kick starting takes longer than pushing the switch. But this is 1980 and many new bikes are cold-blooded, leaned out. They like a few minutes before getting under way. The SR500 is immune. When it's running, rock it off the center-stand, pull on your gloves and go. We'd bet the total elapsed time, from turning the key to clicking into gear, is no longer than any other new motorcycle. To bad the kick start lever is shaped to hit the rider's ankle when it's kicked, though.

Comes down to temperament, of the rider, not the machine. Age isn't a factor. There are older riders who didn't like kick starting then, and wouldn't have it back under any circumstances. There are younger men who feel threatened by the removal of the lever. Batteries do go dead, y'know, and that useful back-up is nice to have, just in case. And some of the staff kids, the ones old enough for licenses, were kicking by the time they learned to walk. They have no trouble with the SR500. Rather like it and don't know why all the fuss. Of course you start it by leg. Flow else?

Enough. Motorcycles are made to ride. not to start. Either you like kick start or you don't.
The SR500 is as demanding and as rewarding to ride as any machine there is. A 500 Single isn't like other engines. A Single is inherently in imbalance. The long stroke limits revs.
The 500 doesn't have a lot of torque. Well, it does have torque. But it's rough at low revs. It will pull. It will even trickle along. But at any speed below 3500 rpm it shakes, and nobody with any mechanical empathy—and surely nobody lacking that quality would be on this bike in the first place—will let the engine work against itself.
At the other end, the stroke and piston weight dictate a redline of 7000 rpm. This adds up to a terrific mid-range, great thumping pulses between 3500 and 7 thou.
What great mid-range means is a gearbox that earns its keep. All Fours and Triples and most Twins will run well between 2000 and 9000 rpm, or even into five figures. With five or six speeds, closely spaced. the engine drops a few hundred or gains a few hundred. The engine has two or three times the span it needs. You can keep it at peak power and you can get maximum performance at strip or track but in daily use, you don't need that much shifting. You could even skip from first to third to fifth.
The SR500 won't accept that. First is nice and low, for starts and creeping through traffic. Second is for rolling and normal traffic, third gets you around town and through school zones, fourth keeps it on the cam in the city and whips you around dawdlers. Drop into fifth and say, it's nice not to have the engine whirling like mad down there. At an indicated 60, the engine is turning 4500. There are bigger engines that spin faster for the same road speed.

This is all plus. Despite not having counter-balancers and the like, the SR500 isn't bad at all. There is vibration. but lavish use of rubber for the bars and pegs and even for the head steady isolate the rider from most of it. At legal speeds the mirror is reasonably clear, your feet don't tingle themselves to sleep and although the grips do begin to grow, as it were, this is more a result of hard grips than of the buzz from the engine. Not bad at all, especially for those who don't mind knowing there's an internal combustion engine at work.
The gearing (and tune) make for efficiency. The best way to use fuel is to have large pistons, moving relatively slowly, with the throttle relatively more open. You don't have the pumping loss that conies from lots of tiny pistons pushing like mad against a barely cracked throttle. The SR500 returned a delightful 62 mpg.
Better than the multis, better even than the average 400 Twin and as good as most 250 Singles, which are beginning to run out of breath at highway speeds, just when the 500 gets into its torque hand. The shapely tank only holds 3.5 gal.. but because each gallon goes so far the SR500 rolls up at least 160 miles before going onto reserve. When it comes to frugal travel. the SR500 does offer what the old 500 Singles offered.

Performance? Entertaining. Brisk. As the figures show, the SR will keep ahead of the car pack. pass at will and pull any hill in top gear. It won't dust off the multis at the drag strip, nor win box stock on the road course. You don't get speed, or impressive numbers.
You instead get the illusion of speed. The light flywheel, the distinctive exhaust note, above all the feeling that the engine is willing to run while you watch the tach and work the controls, all combine into good times, for the heart rather than the clock.

Handling is excellent, for much the same reasons. The SR500 isn't as light as it looks. By the time the engineers beefed up the frame and brakes and added the alloy wheels and generating equipment and 12-volt battery, etc., they had 60 more pounds than the XT500 carries. Still, it's light for a road bike, you can get a multi tipping the scales at twice as much, and it's compact. Perfect dimensions for the motor. Where the XS400 and no-longer-supplied RD400 always seemed a bit small, even nervous, the SR500 is just right for one person. The wind doesn't move you, everything is balanced.

The limit here is the tires. They are -different. Not grippy, they instead offer a wide band of disengagement, as it were. They begin to slide earlier than most, while keeping enough of a grip to tell the rider that the limit is just about reached. The entire machine is narrow and this is one of the few motorcycles that runs out of stick before it runs into scrape. You want sparks? Grab hold of the spark plug wire.
We suspect the tires limit the brakes. The front disc and rear drum have plenty of area. And the SR isn't heavy. On the street, the brakes work well. At the test track, we were surprised to learn that the stopping distances for the SR were longer than for several current 750s. Why? The brakes have limited power. Presumably because the front tire isn't sticky, the leverage has been set so you can't lock the front wheel. The rear will skid, if enough foot power is applied.
We can appreciate the thought here, as skidding the front tire isn't something one wants to do. But. To limit braking under some conditions means you don't have the braking power you can use safely under other conditions.

The controls are nicely laid out, and it's refereshing to look at the dials and not see a row of figures and blinking lights. The seat is usefully flat. No step. Although a flat seat isn't always better than a stepped one, and although this particular seat isn't the best shape of flat in our experience, having too much edge and not enough padding, what it offers is a choice of places to sit; up front, in the middle or back in the Café style, with feet on the passenger pegs and chest on the tank bag. There is no SR500 Special, by the way, Yamaha's decision makers having realized that such would be completely out of keeping with the rest of the machine.
The seat is best described as 1 + 1, or occasional. There are passenger pegs, but
the seat is short and the aft section thin. Errands, yes. Kids, yes. Two up for two weeks, no.

A short collection of little quirks. The shift on our test bike was smooth, except that it didn't like to engage first from a stop, and needed to be persuaded down the pattern if you stopped while in fifth.
While the exhaust note was restrained, the SR backfired loudly and frequently on deceleration.
During its stay at CW, the SR managed to burn holes in the legs of two riding suits, a jacket laid on the seat and a shop rag. At first it seemed that it was running much hotter than other motorcycles until a reformed BSA 441 Victor rider said, No, he had the same problem on the BSA because the pipe was more exposed. The problem is actually a combination of factors, with the pipe a bit hotter, sticking out more to the side and not having a heat shield where the pipe is exposed, unlike most modern cycles.
Well, nobody ever said the SR500 was intended for the careless.
The bike demands attention. It returns response. The reasons for the 500 Single mounted in a compact frame with firm suspension and no frills come clear on the first ride.

The SR500 is a delight. You pick the right gear for conditions, and keep the engine running where it likes to run. The SR will turn with kness pressure, zip from side to side, keep the intended line through a corner or tighten, or widen, at the rider's command. No excess weight, no wobble. What the tires are doing and how the steering will react as you angle across the change in pavement, it all comes through. As the racers say, you get the message without confusing noise. Plainly, this is a motorcycle to be controlled and enjoyed.
Mind, we say nothing against multis, or heavyweights, or electric starting or people who don't want quite so much character as the SR500 offers.
For those who accept the SR500 for what it is, the rewards are worth the effort.
For them, this is the most satisfying bike on the market.
Source Cycle World 1980

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