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Yamaha XJ650 Turbo, Part Two
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In the first episode, Roger Prosper introduced us to the XJ Turbo, This time he buys 'quite easily the ugliest bike I have ever owned'. So wot'll it do, mister?

My purchase of an XJ650 Turbo was determined more by financial considerations rather than a desire to own one. I had moved to Canada's capital city, Ottawa, Ontario, in late 2002 to return to school in hope of ameliorating my economic situation and leaving the grease monkey trade once and for all. Sadly, before leaving Edmonton, Alberta, and making the 2500km trip east, I had to part company with a very tidy XJ900 that I had resurrected from 13 years of hibernation. It was a nice bike, and I had something of an emotional attachment to it after working away many nights in my ninth story apartment, cleaning carbs in a dish tray and the like, but it was too much to bring with me, so my move rendered me bikeless.

Underrated XJ900, pre-Diversion... 1983 Yamaha XJ900

Unfortunately, Ottawa did not have much of a used bike market compared to Edmonton, and most everything was quite a bit dearer and in poorer shape (the dry prairie air in Alberta preserved bikes wonderfully, rainier Ottawa was not so kind). So after being bikeless for the summer of 2003, I resolved I was going to have another motorcycle by the fall, come hell or high water. I finally found a bike cheap enough for sale on a local biking website.

The ad was to the point: 'Seca Turbo. $500', along with the contact info.

Hah! Finally, something halfway interesting for a price a penniless student could justify spending scarce change on. I went to look at it, and it appeared to be in decent enough shape for the money. I could live with the flaws. The seat was ripped at the rear cross seam, the windshield was yellow and scratched, the right exhaust pipe was missing and the rear tyre was pooched, but it started and ran, thereby meeting two of my most important criteria for a motorcycle. My experience with the 900 demonstrated that the XJ series boasted a stout powerplant (I regularly ran the 900 up to 130mph for miles on end without incident, despite its widowmaker reputation) so I bought the 650 immediately. The seller (who had upgraded to a GSX1300R) agreed to ride it across the city for me, as it was still plated and insured.

Well, at least it looks comfortable. 1982 Yamaha XJ650 Turbo

The initial euphoria of once again owning a bike started to fade rather rapidly. I followed the previous owner to the nearest gas station so he could fill up the tank for the trip, and I noticed the bike was burning oil. I was somewhat disappointed, but seeing as how the bike had almost 50,000 miles on it, I chalked it up to normal wear and tear. I kept repeating to myself the low, low price I had paid. These bikes weren't bought for slow speed cruising, they were rev-happy, needing a lot of throttle to get the boost going, before waking up and delivering the goods. It was understandable if rings or valve seals were worse off for it.

A Cylon from Battlestar Galactica, yesterday.

The trip across town was uneventful. I kept looking in my rearview mirror to watch my newly purchased machine following me. My euphoria faded once again. It was quite was easily the ugliest bike I had ever owned, with styling a cross between a K100 BMW and the Battlestar Galactica (the 1970's disco version). One could easily imagine a Cylon in the saddle, and would be hard pressed to decide which looked more garish.

The XJ650 Turbo Owners Club meet every third tuesday.

'Pride of ownership' was not the phrase that crossed my mind after the first few rides on the bike. Whereas the 900 had felt rather refined, with a torquey powerplant, fairly supple suspension and tidy styling, the 650 was rough, edgy, buzzy, had origami-like bodywork, and handled heavily. The powerband was all or nothing, with off-boost performance being rather anaemic, due to the low compression motor and conservative cam timing designed to reduce valve overlap so the boost didn't run straight out the exhaust.

I'll give the bike its due, however, once the revs were up, and there was enough load on the engine (usually it had to be in second gear at least), the boost gauge would immediately redline and the bike would take off like someone had grafted two extra cylinders onto the motor. I could feel the rear tyre break loose, and the whole bike would lift straight up, almost like a matron hiking her skirts to run. This was great fun, and I soon sought out every opportunity to rev the snot out of the engine, just to experience the other-worldly feeling of having a rocket stuffed up the bike's rear-end and lit, sort of like riding the world's heaviest, most complicated two-stroke.

Turbo stuff on eBay.co.uk

One memorable ride saw the bike's front end come up ever so slowly while climbing an on ramp onto the freeway, before an upshift ended the giggles. Before long, I was rewarded with a slipping clutch for all this behaviour, as rising revs unaccompanied by any increase in forward momentum showed it was time for new friction plates. A set of EBC plates and heavy duty springs fixed the problem, with a forearm pumping clutch action as the only downside.

To be honest, however, inside the city the bike was usually going far too fast by the time this bit of theatre could be enjoyed. Most of the time you were stuck with the reality of owning a motorcycle that was putting out about as much horsepower as a contemporary 400 twin, coupled with an all-up weight on the wrong side of 550lbs, which was carried high as well. It was heavier than just about every 1000cc supersport of its era. Stop and go traffic was a nightmare, as the engine put off enough heat to make it feel like you were sitting on the sun, which precipitated the purchase of a shorty helmet just to keep hot summer days bearable.

For some, I guess the exclusivity and exotic nature of the bike made up for these shortcomings, but I would hazard a guess that the bike appealed more to techno-freaks and posers of the day, rather than to hard-core sports riders. It may have been the high mileage on my particular bike, but the handling was downright awful. It would bend into a turn ok, but once up to 140kph, it would start to weave annoyingly, taking up most of a full lane just riding in a straight line.

I think the fairing was the culprit, as the windshield was rather high and narrow and flexed quite a bit, no doubt producing quite a side-to-side levering force on the bike. The high centre of gravity, narrow tyres and dubious suspension didn't help either. The windshield did nothing for its touring comfort, as it produced so much wind noise I took to wearing earplugs even during city riding. A 2-inch-over replacement windshield made this worse, if anything, and did the styling no favours.

That's a shame really because the bike was really in its element at a steady 120kph. I had installed a boost gauge on the right console, and this showed the motor was producing a steady 3psi of boost at this speed, which put it right at the bottom edge of its powerband, This allowed effortless passing on the highway, and in this situation the bike would indeed perform like a full litre-sized machine. Slower traffic was dispatched in moments, with the bike easily hitting 160kph by the time it was through, although the weave was back in full force at this point.

You had to plan ahead though, since the brakes were about the worst I have ever used. The lever was at the bar before anything resembling perceptible deceleration was achieved. Despite my better financial judgment, I decided to replace the brake lines with steel braided Russell items, and threw on a new master cylinder with a bigger bore. This smartened the braking up considerably, allowing two-finger stopping. The soggy front end was helped by installing some aftermarket rising rate springs, which eliminated the loud 'thwack' when the bike encountered any bumps while braking hard.

But mechanically the bike was hurting from the mileage it had done. It would have to be looked at, eventually…

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Next episode: taking the spanners to the turbo...



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