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Classic Motorcycle Review - Posted 2nd November 2008

Yamaha TX500

Klaus Werr didn’t set out to buy an elderly air-cooled Yamaha 500 twin. But sometimes the right classic bike finds you...

My father wasn’t one of those men who spout wise sayings at the drop of a hat. He didn’t wear one. Mostly his fatherly advice came in the form of little jewels, such as, ‘If something’s running right, the best thing you can do is put your hands in your pockets and watch it.’ My problem was, he’d never drop those pearls BEFORE I had carburetor bits all over the place.

One such saying which stuck with me is ‘sometimes when you’re looking for a job, a job finds you.’ I’m sure he meant ‘job’ as in ‘occupation’, not as in ‘mowing the lawn’, although that one finds me too. In my motorcycling past, there’s one bike that I really think found me instead of the other way around. I know the seller did.

I had a Kawasaki KZ550 that I loved. It was light, fast, handled well considering, and I was happy with it. But when you’re young, married with two kids, and you get into a jam, well sometimes the bullets that you have to bite taste like crap. I had to sell it.

By 1992, we’d moved to the country, had a third child, and it killed me to drive a car out here. Well maybe not so much in the winter… My wife caught me staring at newspaper ads one day, and suggested that there had to be some kind of bike we could afford. Just might have to work at fixing it up, she said. We figured that allowing some for fixing, I’d have $300 to buy my dream with. A bike that could handle a 120 mile round trip commute daily during the season, about half of that at 60mph (or better) without hacking its lungs out for $300. Does that give you any idea how much I wanted a bike again? Uh-huh.

The classic era for Yamaha four strokes?... 1974 Yamaha TX500 Brochure Photo

The best I could do was a 1974 Yamaha TX500. Wow. Old enough to vote. And flat rattle-can black. Pure rat bike. The tale that I got was that it had been bought second, third, (or ninth)-hand by a gentleman from England as his primary mode of transport in his new country. With the advent of winter (didn’t anybody tell him about the Canadian climate?), he didn’t have the scratch for a warmer mode, and lifted the ejection seat handles, returning to Britain.

The bike was being sold on his behalf by friends, with a corroborating letter of direction, and a pre-signed seller’s portion of the ownership. They’d been trying to sell it for six months. I surmised that the proper fool hadn’t come along to buy it. Yet. It was the only thing 500cc or larger that I could find after a month and a half of searching with my $300. And it even ran – kinda, sorta.

The classic era for Yamaha four strokes? Maybe not... 1974 Yamaha TX500, The Reality...

Yamaha reckon the TX was a breakthrough back in the early 1970s. At least, their PR says so: ‘Yamaha broke into new territory by creating a 4-valve per cylinder engine in a production streetbike with the 500cc, 4-stroke, twin cylinder TX500.’ Back in the real world, we’re talking about a 50bhp dohc air-cooled twin which revs to 9000rpm, equipped with electric and kick start, two carbs, a five-speed gearbox, single front disc and rear drum brakes. It was capable in its prime of reaching 110mph. This one was far from its prime.

The classic era for London key rings?...

I bought it against my feeble better judgment, and rode it home with the oil light glowing. Luckily, the switch was wired backward, and that tipped me off that there may well have been some experimentation going on someplace. The key fob that I’d been handed was a cute little bit of Lucite with a stereotypical policeman picture embedded in it, and some lettering saying ‘London’. I still have it.

The exhaust system was rotted – which was just as well, as I could tell there’d been a teenager in its past from the screwdriver holes punched into the mufflers, and the fact that every carb adjustment screw was buggered on BOTH carbs. And of course, it showed the benefit of this fine race-tuning by running dreadfully. My poor unknown Brit friend must have had his hands full just putting up with it. If you coupled that experience with the fact that we drive on the wrong side of the road from his perspective, then it’s no wonder he threw in the towel.

It took me a little while to work the bugs out. I bought new rubber, a set of tyre irons, and then went nuts wrestling them on. The rear wheel almost won three falls out of five, it was that close. On to the mufflers. I found a guy who sold replacement mufflers, shiny and cheap. He asked me if I wanted loud or quiet. I figured I didn’t have anything to prove, so I told him I wanted the quiet ones.  

Then there was the painting part. I decided on blue. The problem with rattle-can paint jobs is that no matter how well they’re done, well, you know… Some guys can get real beauty out of them, and um, I’m not one of those guys. But it did look better. After a month of sorting, the final wrench session was an all-nighter. I locked myself in the garage after dinner and by daybreak, I rolled it out and made myself a pot of coffee, since 6am is a bit cruel to be starting a bike on my street on a Saturday. After two full cups worth of unabashed pride, I unfolded the kick starter. Well it was almost 7am and the neighbours ought to be up by then anyway.

I was proud as hell when it lit off, and settled to a rough idle on the 64th kick. That’s when I clued-in that the muffler guy really only had one kind of ‘silencer’. Let’s just say it didn’t sound like a Beemer. I concluded that there are worse things than having it sounding like a Triumph with shiny mufflers that… uh, bark like straight pipes.

It was a great feeling to ride off on my new old twin. And a whole other feeling when I came right back on a heavy single with a plugged fuel feed. Man, the thing has the hardest clutch… I’d worked it over and lubed it with everything but K-Y. Hell, I’d have tried that, but I figured that I might have to ride in the rain a time or two… I eventually got the carb tuning right, and we had a lot of adventures together, most of them unplanned. My older two children got rides alternately to the school five miles down the county road. Not to be outdone, I’d perch our youngest on the tank with her bicycle helmet, and rumble gently down the street and back, an exercise in slow control more than anything.  

Somewhere deep in its gut, this engine has a counter-balancer. It really does a wonderful job of counterbalancing as long as it’s working. Just one of those things that you take for granted – until it stops functioning at 100kmh. The vibrations then were beyond anything I’d ever experienced before or since. Many of my own parts went numb inside of half a minute.

As I set about pulling over, the speedometer disassembled itself before my eyes, the little screws spinning madly out of their holes, and bouncing off the inner surface of the glass. It would have been hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that I was busy hanging on at the time.

Consulting the shop manual, I opted for the easy way out, and bought another whole bike, since the engine swap could be done in less than 20 minutes. It looked to me to have been beaten to near-death in a field, but it was cheap as dirt, had a good engine, and gave me another set of carbs. I’m pretty sure the farmer’s wife just wanted to get rid of the thing while her son still had all of his teeth.  

I got off afternoon shift one cold, rainy night, and as an 18 wheeler passed me, his tyres threw water in a sheet of spray – right under my tank and onto the ignition coils. The old engine didn’t die, but I spent a cold hour under an overpass nurturing the faltering spark until the coils had dried out some.

Classic Stuff on Now...

Another night, I came around a bend and really tested the brakes, since the seven white-tail deer standing in the middle of the road didn’t seem to be able to hear my shiny mufflers. I was going to use the little horn, but they’d have probably blocked the road completely falling down with laughter. We all just stared at each other until I got pissed, and asked them if they could just have their union meeting someplace else. A motorcycle didn’t bother them, but a human voice… and I was alone.  

That first summer was unseasonably cold and wet. I often came home freezing at 1:30am. It took a long time to get my gloved hands off the grips then. I’d get off, and stumble stiffly to the garage to open the overhead door. Turning around to walk back, I was always taken by the way the bike sat on its sidestand, grumbling away in slight disapproval that it had to be put to bed. ‘Yeah, well I see that you’re fine, but I’m done for tonight, ok?’ My comment evoked nothing other than the same disappointed grumbling. I’d ride it into the garage and shut it off, wondering vaguely if perhaps I ought to thank it for getting me home. Those nights my dog looked balefully at me as I ran a tub full of hot water. Ever seen that look? It says, ‘Yeah, I love you, but you’re stupid.’ I get that one all the time.  

If the filter fits...

Yamaha had long ago stopped supplying an oil filter for the thing, offering an adapter, and a smaller spin-on. But you couldn’t get the cover plate back on without beating the top of the filter flat, so I countered by using a spin-on filter for a Hyundai V6 that was plentiful, and cost 75% less. I’d grown tired of the dealer’s sad smile whenever I asked for parts anyway.

I overhauled the bike years later and repainted it. This time, I recognised my lack of ability, and made a stencil of a Chinese dragon for the sides of the tank where I always had trouble. It actually looked cool. My neighbor once asked me about the dragon. I told him that according to all of the legends, dragons were usually pretty old and cantankerous. ‘So which does the dragon represent,’ he asked, ‘the bike, or you?’ I laughed for the requisite length of time as I contemplated pouring my coffee on his foot.

If the image fits...

The first time I rode on the highway after that, a cager next to me slowed down and paced me. I looked over, and he was waving his camera phone at my bike. It never occurred to me that he’d want to take a picture of the thing. I looked around real quick in case my bike was on fire or something. Well, you never know.

Then suddenly it seemed to me that there must have been an explosion in Harley sales. They were every damn place. Shiny. Nice. Dependable. I did my best to ignore them. I also ignored the sleek and sultry sportsbikes that I lusted after in my heart as they were out of the question. I saw the most beautiful and dramatic set of purple thunderclouds one day, and pulled over to get my rain gear on. As those clouds tried to drown me and beat me down with hail, I looked around and laughed. ‘I’m the only biker out here! Where are all the shiny Harleys now?’ An 18-wheeler went by two miles later, and I had my answer as the ignition coils shorted out again.  

Eventually I found an as-new tank, but it was brown so I refinished the bike yet again. I went to a bike show with my friend, and while he was drooling over some accessories for his Tilt-A-Glide, I wandered around the corner, and found the same bike that I rode every day exhibited in the Vintage/Old Timers section. Ouch. I’d actually never really thought about it, but here I’d been concentrating on keeping the old derelict alive, and hopefully not looking too clapped out. In actual fact, I’d kept an old commuter horse in fair shape, and it gave me pretty good service on balance. Maybe that was just gratitude for arresting the decline, and giving it a second life. I’d like to think so. I reminded myself that I’d be looking for something to hide behind when it got late in the riding season so I bought myself a bikini fairing, and felt a bit better as well.  

Definitely a classic era for something.... 1974 Yamaha TX500, The Reality Continues

I stopped for gas one day, and there was a beautiful H-D land yacht on the other side of the pumps. Suddenly, a voice behind me asked what year the bike was. The land yacht’s captain began to answer, but the voice said, ‘Sorry sir, I was asking this gentleman.’ At the pump behind me was a young couple in a pick-up, and I saw the desire in their eyes. Uh, not for me. Yes, I’m pretty sure. For the freedom, for the open road, etc, etc, and for some reason, they liked my Yamaha, stiff clutch and all. If I had any brains, I’d have sold the thing to the young admirers right there, and taken a cab home, but I didn’t. After all, they’d never done anything to me…

That bike is now 34 years old, and I’m sure I can get it to start, I’m just afraid to. I’m troubled by random daydreams of re-doing it in a sportier vein. Let me know if you’re interested in a rolling hand exerciser/kidney stone preventative. Ride it a week, and you can crush a SmartCar left-handed…

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