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Classic Motorcycle Review - Posted 21st August 2009

1983 Yamaha XJ900RK, part two

Roger Prosper gets his project 1980s Seca back on the road and it promptly springs a leak. Like they do...

The day finally arrived when I could take the $500 Yamaha for a spin. In Alberta, you can apply for a temporary road permit to enable you to transport machines you have purchased between point of sale and your home. I eagerly bought one and slapped the document in plain sight on the windshield. I took my bike for its first spin around the city. I was well pleased. The machine was wonderfully smooth, and while not nearly as powerful as my old GS, it did have a satisfying amount of pull, with just the slightest jump in power above 6000rpm or so. While listed as a 900, it was really more of an 850, as it was actually 853cc in displacement.

Returning home from my ride, I decided that the bike was almost perfect for what I wanted. The shaft drive inline four was a gem, smooth and quiet, giving off by a turbine-like whirr, a signature of Yamaha fours of the early to mid 80s.

Not Roger Prosper, but Mark Williams. *The* Mark Williams, in fact.... 1983 Yamaha XJ900RK

But what was this? There were some bubbles forming at the base of the tank. Stupidly, I picked at them and was rewarded with a small geyser of gasoline. The tank was rusted through. Damn! This was serious. I wanted to get the bike inspected and registered before winter set in, but this was really going to complicate things.

I looked for a cheap repair method, and settled on epoxy putty. I managed to create quite a strong gas tight seal, but when I presented the machine for inspection, the mechanic took one look at it and said it would not pass. Disappointing after nearly asphyxiating myself with methyl-ethyl ketone during the process of trying to coat the inside of the tank with tank sealer in my bathroom.

What to do? The bike had been sold only in 1983 here in Canada, so finding a replacement at the breakers was pretty unlikely. I enquired at the dealer as to the price and availability of a new tank. $800! Wow, that was a lot to spend on a 17 year old bike. I was already into it for about $1600, so I was getting near to the point where it was not going to make financial sense to keep on throwing money at the bike.

So what did I do? I threw money at the bike (ah the subtle joys of bachelorhood). The new tank arrived a few weeks later. I can honestly say that seeing that absolutely perfect new tank emerging out of that box that had come all the way from the motherland was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed in my biking career. I didn't install it till the spring, deciding I would let the old one bear the brunt of winter.

Also available in colour. Or even color.... 1983 Yamaha XJ900RK

When spring came around I installed the new tank and serviced the bike. The old oil came out looking like cocoa. Cripes, I had thrashed the bike good and hard the previous autumn on my temporary registration, I can only guess how much rust I had broken free during that time. Just goes to show how you can't judge the condition of an engine by looking at the outside.

New oil, new filters, new front pads, and finally I was ready to take the machine for inspection. Bad news awaited, the steering head bearings needed replacement. Now, I don't know about you, but I can't see how a bike can manage to wreck head bearings in only 18,000km of operation, or in 13 years of standing idle. Sometimes I think shops make stuff up to bring in work, after all, how can you argue with the guy who has the fate of your inspection in his hands?

I ordered the bearings myself to save a few bucks. Oddly enough, when I ordered them the guy at the bearing supply shop knew I was working on a bike, as the numbers included XJ in their designation. It wouldn't surprise me if this was the only application for these bearings, as the Japanese seem to like to do things a little differently sometimes.

Bearings installed, and with the Pirelli Phantoms levered on, I was finally legal and on my way. Naturally, I headed straight for a section of road where top speed runs could be carried out somewhat free of the threat of getting nabbed. There is a long bridge across the river just outside Edmonton away from homes and commercial areas which is about a half a mile long. There are two lanes one way, and two another, both on separate bridges. As long as things were clear behind you, cop-wise, there was very little risk of being hauled up for speeding, so I went there whenever I felt the need to wind something out.

The old 900 was good for 230kph indicated (that's 144mph in old money), which was certainly fast enough for anything I wanted to do. There was no sign of the mythical death wobble at ton-plus speeds that this bike was noted for. Apparently, the bar mounted fairing of the 83 model year was the culprit. Maybe I was lucky, or my bulk was enough to dampen out any misbehaviour, but that bike never once indicated it was going out of shape, no matter what the speed. The new shocks undoubtedly helped, as the originals had been leaking oil and needed replacement.

Also available in different colours...
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Top speed established, I now concentrated on simply riding the bike normally. It was a peach. Although somewhat top heavy due to its over 20L capacity fuel tank, it was comfortable, with a broad, flat seat and sensibly located footpegs. Layout was upright/sporty, with adjustable bars allowing you to customize the reach to the controls. The dash was a handsome affair, all business, with fighter jet style gauges, which included a digital clock, the usefulness of which is sadly underestimated. The only flaw was a tachometer that sometimes needed a few blocks of operation before coming to life. Braking was a bit of a weak point, with feel and feedback being somewhat numb, and generally being a bit on the weak side. Triple vented discs promised a lot, but delivery came up a bit short. I also feared for the longevity of the thin walls of the discs.

Long haul trips were a joy on the big Yamaha, with ample range (well over 300km between fill ups) and all-day comfort. It was really in its element as a long haul sports touring machine. Perhaps that's why it had been found wanting in that bike magazine article I had read a few years earlier. As a sporting machine, it would have had to compete with the likes of the mighty GPz1100, GSX1100, CB1100F and the all new VF750S (Interceptor here in Canada). Lacking the big bore clout of the 1100s, and the technical sophistication of the 750, it was neither fish nor fowl as a sporting motorcycle, with the shaft drive being the final nail in its coffin in such a role. It probably sold poorly compared to that set of machines.

That's a pity, because it is a refined, capable machine when ridden sensibly. The fact that it sold in other markets up until 1992 when it was replaced with the 900 Diversion is testament to the good taste of riders in other parts of the globe. It gained a few more ccs (891) and a better frame mounted fairing, also mounted on the XJ750RL, a 750cc powered version of the same bike sold in Canada and Australia, and a rare bike indeed. Why Yamaha thought reducing the motor by 100cc would improve sales is beyond me, although it compared quite favourably to Honda's CB750SC which had almost identical specifications.

Maintenance was easy, except for the usual shim and bucket hassle of valve adjustments, but at least the shims were on top, which precluded removing the cams to change them. Shaft drive was maintenance free and largely unobtrusive in operation. The front forks included anti-dive (it was the 1980s after all), but changing settings seemed to alter their operation imperceptibly, so I left them alone for the most part.

The bike proved its worth to me on one memorable trip back from Calgary to Edmonton, which is about 300km (190 miles roughly). The weather was looking iffy on the trip back, so I decided to pick up a pair of cheap nylon pants to break the windblast and fend off any moisture I might encounter on the way. I figured I might see a few mild rainfalls along the way, so I was somewhat disheartened when the skies opened up with a truly torrential downpour about 20km outside of Calgary. It was going to be a long three hours.

Halfway between the two cities there is a town called Red Deer where my brother lived. I decided I would have to spend the night there, as it really was treacherous going. Sadly, my brother had decided to spend the night at his girlfriend's place (well, sadly for me anyway), so I was forced to bite the bullet and finish the ride. I am not kidding when I say the gutters were flowing like rivers that night. I went to a small gas station-cum-convenience store and bought a few issues of the Edmonton Journal and stuffed them down my pants and lined my torso under my coat. I picked up a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves and slid them inside my leather gauntlets. For better or for worse, this was how I would take on the rest of the trip.

I pulled out of Red Deer and back onto Highway 2. I could barely make out the road through the blur and, when I was stuck behind a tanker truck for 10km, it went from bad to worse. Pulling out to pass blinded me completely, so I was forced to pull back in. Only after convincing myself that if I hit anything in the passing lane that it would be a quick enough demise not to hurt, did I screw up enough courage to go completely blind for the 10 seconds or so it took to get by.

Naturally, when I got back to Edmonton, the skies were completely clear and starry. Only the rider on a Blackbird which stopped next to me at the stoplight on the south edge of the city knew what we had just ridden through. When I parked the machine that night, I couldn't help but respect it. Nearly 20 years old, brought back from the dead and it passed through a nearly solid wall of water for three hours without so much as a hiccup. There is more than one way to measure performance. Yamahas crap? Hardly!

I rode that machine for three years before selling it to help finance my move to Ottawa and a better life. I still remember the twinge of regret seeing it being ridden back into the Yamaha dealer's shop. A bit of me went with it. I had toured on it, thrashed it, cruised the city streets, commuted with it and loved it.

It would be a few more years before I owned another example of a Yamaha XJ. Despite my newfound respect for the marque, owning that bike would turn out to be quite a different story.

Also available in colour... 1983 Yamaha XJ900RK

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