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Classic Motorcycle Review - Posted 28th July 2009

1983 Yamaha XJ900RK, part one

Skint and bikeless in Canada, Roger Prosper was desperate for wheels. So desperate that he pushed an early 1980s Seca the six miles home...

Summer 2000 saw me in the market for another motorcycle. It had been almost a year since I had sent off my black-on-black GS1000S to a dealer in Calgary, Alberta in a moment of financial peril. A trip back there in the early spring to buy it back saw me leaving the shop disheartened, as the machine had been sold just two weeks earlier. Summer was ending, I had no bike. Clearly, something had to be done. I put the word out to my friends that I was in the market. Come hell or high water, I'd be back on two wheels once again.

Edmonton is a pretty good place to look for a bike. There seems to be no end to the types of machine you can find sitting around people's yards and in barns. Sitting in a coffee shop one day, my friend Mel (who had built my GS1000S) told me he had found a guy with some old motorcycles for sale. He said he had a few Yamahas that were in need of a bit of work that were going cheap. There were two words at odds in that sentence, 'cheap', which I liked, and 'Yamaha', which I didn't.

Also available in colour... 1983 Yamaha XJ900RK

You see, Yamahas had always had a reputation as being somewhat crap when I was growing up. To be fair, a lot of that was caused by the local dealership, which was somewhat below par. Indeed, Honda had such a hammerlock on bike sales when I was young that it seemed like the other big four brands barely existed at all. Combine this with the fact that some of their early four-stroke designs had indeed been mechanically deficient, and you could understand why I had a less than favourable opinion of the brand.

Still, there was that word... cheap. I asked what there was to be had. He mentioned an XS650 and a XJ900 Seca, along with a TZ250 roadracer. The XS was interesting, but I wasn't really a twin type of guy. The 900 I vaguely remembered from reading a road test in an old magazine years earlier. I remember the writer being somewhat ambivalent about the machine. Still, a 900cc four certainly had some entertainment potential, and it was cheap, as in $1000. It might be worth a look.

I drove around to see the bike. The guy selling it was in a bit of a financial bind due to health reasons. I saw the 900 standing in line with the other machines. I wasn't impressed at first. The headlight was missing, the tyres were flat, the kill switch block was gone, and it was a Yamaha after all. I had to admit it looked kind of nice though. The three gauge dash, the long, curvaceous gas tank, the small headlight fairing, the red/white/blue paint scheme. There were no oil leaks, and the chrome pipes looked solid. I dunno, a Yamaha? Weren't they crap? And this particular bike, hadn't it disappeared from the market after one year? Must have been a pretty duff model. I hesitated for a bit. I still wasn't working yet, but the need for a bike was strong. I asked how much he wanted.

'$500', he said.

Done.

Also available in different colours... 1983 Yamaha XJ900RK

It was the cheapest bike I had yet bought, not counting the GT380 I bought at a pawn shop a few years earlier but had sold on after a month. The paperwork was missing, but I took a chance that the guy was legit and bought it anyway. I figured $500 wasn't much to risk. The deal got sweeter when he threw in a pair of Pirelli Phantoms for free, and offered up a complete replacement exhaust system, which I declined due to the poor state of it. I was happy, I had a bike again, even if it was a Yamaha.

Being a cheapskate can get you some good deals if you are willing to wait for the right deal to come around, but it can also bite you in the ass when you push it. I had to get my 'new' bike home to my apartment building, but I couldn't justify hiring a tow truck to get it there, being out of work and all, so I decided I could push it there without much trouble. I wasn't far from home, and the tyres held air nicely after pumping them up with a 12V compressor. Why, I'd be home in no time, with no money out of pocket…

Well, driving a car can sometimes deceive you as to the distances travelled. What takes a few minutes in a car take rather a bit more time when you are walking, especially with a 500lb-plus motorcycle. The first few blocks were OK, but after a while, I found it very difficult to keep my arms straight and to hold the bike upright. Hell, I must be getting old, this thing weighs a bloody ton! I pushed that damn bike for a couple of hours to get it home. My arms were on fire, I was sweating from head to toe, and I fell onto the grass next to my apartment building for a good 15 minutes before I could recover enough to bring it into the garage.

Looking at the odometer, I found I had pushed the bike for 10km! Christ on a crutch, was I mad? I'm sure the effort expended was far greater than what I would have had to put out to make enough money to pay for the tow truck. To add insult to injury, I had left my keys in my jacket, inside my car at the seller's house, so I had no way into my apartment, or the garage. I went into a local pub and called a cab. So far, so bad...

Also available in different colours...
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While waiting for the cab, I examined my bike a bit more closely. A front tyre half flat and dragging brakes had made the push all the more difficult. Live and learn I guess. That wasn't the end though, as I managed to tear a calf muscle pushing it up the ramps to my parking space on the third level of the garage. It was a funny feeling, like someone cracking you across the back of the leg with a billy club. Triumph owners with over-advanced ignitions can probably do a fair impression of the gait I had for the next few weeks.

During the next few days, I began to get a handle on what the bike would need to be made roadworthy. There were the obvious things like the missing headlight, but there were the mechanical issues like the seized-solid throttle that would require some serious disassembly and repair to make right. I had never worked on carburettors before, but I knew that the summer riding season was pretty much a write-off, so pulling the carbs and getting stuck in didn't worry me too much.

I pulled the airbox and removed the carburettors, bringing them up to my ninth storey apartment for disassembly and cleaning (ah the subtle joys of bachelorhood). They were in quite a state, as the bike had been parked since 1987. The insides looked like they had been coated in caramel. It took a fair bit of scrubbing, poking and spraying to get them clean, and it was disappointing to say the least after all the swearing and sweating getting them back on the bike that I discovered I had neglected to clean the pilot jets, with the bike refusing to fire being the result.

I found out at the same time that my gearbox was locked, as attempts at bump starting the bike resulted in only a skidding tyre. It took a few tries before the wheel would turn normally. Nothing like brute force (sometimes) to get things operational. The second carb cleaning had been carried out a bit more carefully, with an old door sitting on cinder blocks behind a warehouse in an industrial estate providing the necessary workspace for a thorough job.

I met with success. The bike started and idled fine, with a new battery doing wonders for the health of the bike. It warmed up to operating temperature for the first time in 13 years, a wonderful scent of old oil, burning spider webs and evaporating condensation. I could now concentrate on the cosmetic aspect of my resurrection.

To my relief, almost all of the parts I needed were still available from Yamaha. I ordered various bits and pieces to bring the bike back to a roadworthy state. They arrived in dribs and drabs, a headlight one week, a switch the next, an air deflector the week after. It was looking like a proper motorcycle again. I didn't worry about the cost, as I was working again, and the expenses were spread out enough that I was keeping ahead. The fact that the bike had only 18,000km on it seemed to justify expending a little cash. It would be almost a new machine!

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Next Episode: riding it. Wot'll it do, mister?


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