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Classic Motorcycle Review - Posted 7th December 2009

Yamaha XS750 - 1979 US Custom

Jim Peace can usually spot a good old bike, but there are times when even he lands a lemon...

Many years ago, in a previous life, I used disposable cars. I'd go to the car auction at Guildford cattle market, or ask around at dodgy dealers and for fifty quid or so would come away with a perfectly usable vehicle. Sometimes a few hours of bodging and fettling might be needed but the result would be a car that ran for several months -- sometimes over a year. Eventually it would fail an MOT too badly to repair economically -- in one case the list of failure points required a continuation sheet. My friendly scrap dealer would then give me a few quid for the remains and I'd catch a bus home. Of the 60-odd cars I've owned to date about half were bought for less than a hundred quid and most of them ran pretty well. In the early days I never called out a rescue service, mainly because I didn't have one.

I mention this to show that, when it comes to vehicles, I have a pretty good instinct about what will work. I'm quite good with people, too. But instinct, in reality, is simply a combination of knowledge and experience, so I steered away from Austin Allegros and towards Peugeot 204s, for example.

And so it was with motorcycles. When I 'came back' to biking in 1986 I had built up a level of knowledge by loitering around the local dealers and reading magazine articles. When the last of my children, bless her, got a job, and I no longer had to pay my ex-wife huge sums in maintenance I was not completely in the dark when it came to choosing a motorbike. I bought a Yamaha XS250. A dog, right? A lemon? Well, no. I was aware of the bikes history and knew it was a good 'un. Also it was a sensible bike for getting back on two wheels. OK, it only put out 27bhp but it took me on several long runs, including trips to Sweden and France.

Eventually I realised it just wasn't powerful enough and bought a Suzuki GN400 which also put out 27bhp but there is all the difference in the world between a 250 twin and a 400 single. Torque. The GN was a cracking little bike and took me to the North Cape in Norway and over the Col de Restafond in France. Several bikes followed, some of them cheap and others relatively expensive - my fortunes tend to fluctuate somewhat - but all of them great fun, and very reliable.

One or two of these machines were complete impulse buys; a combination of available credit - I never save up for anything - and being in a dealers at the same time as a desirable bike. Other purchases were the result of long and detailed studies, reading everything I could lay my hands on, searching out actual bikes at shows and grilling the owners, and, again, hanging out at dealers. I can honestly say that of the fifteen bikes I've owned since the XS250 only one - an elderly BMW R100 - was a clunker, but I knew that when I bought it, and even that was terrific fun to ride. Mainly because of the interesting braking system.

And then I bought a dog. A lemon, a heap of junk, a disaster.

I'd just sold a Moto Guzzi; there was nothing much wrong with it, I just wanted a change, so I had a look round, and found what I was looking for. It didn't look like a bike to avoid. It was clean and tidy; it wasn't an early model so any teething problems had been sorted and it fired up quickly and sounded fine. The mileage was a bit low but as it was an American import I was not unduly suspicious. I realised later that it might have been round the clock. It would come with a year's MOT. I'd been looking for one of these bikes for some time so I bought it. Bought what? Well, A 1979 Yamaha XS750 triple - a US 'custom' model.

Doesn't look too bad... Apart from that topbox... 1979 Yamaha XS750 US Custom

Then I got the advice. When I told him what I'd bought, my daughter's fella, a former biker, ace mechanic and thoroughly good bloke simply went pale. With the respect due to someone who might, one day, become his father in law he advised me,

'Actually they're not very good, in fact they go wrong a lot, at least the one my mate had did'.

A certain magazine publisher, whom I shall refer to as Ms H, was more dramatic. She clutched her throat, rolled her eyes and went, 'Aaarrgghh…'

Which I took as a negative comment*.

I looked up a few websites and while one or two were quite positive, others were not. Even worse, there were some that damned the model with faint praise. I started to worry. Then I collected the bike. On the thirty mile ride home two things went wrong. When the engine got hot it wouldn't tick over below 2000rpm and also the clutch cable broke. I found a new cable at Dennis Heath's place in Twickenham; ace breaker and very helpful bloke. The tickover turned out to be a lot of things. For some reason manufacturers go all secretive about pilot screw settings but Haynes gave the game away. I re-set them to two turns out instead of four and a quarter, one and a half, and three. I then lined up the butterflies and tweaked the tickover knob. The result was a bit lumpy but quite acceptable.

I decided to give the bike a 'shakedown' run. This always involves a café, so I headed for 'Loomies' at West Meon in Hampshire. Good grub and biker friendly. After thirty miles the bike started to splutter, so I switched the fuel to 'reserve'. It picked up. Three miles later it cut out again so I switched the second tap over. Nuffink. We coasted to a gentle halt. I was completely out of fuel, and several miles from the nearest petrol station. No problem, just a bit embarrassing. By now I'd been with Britannia Rescue for many years, and all I had to do was ring them. After I'd walked several hundred yards up a hill to get a signal, that is. Eventually a nice man turned up with van. He didn't have any petrol, which seemed a bit odd, but he did load up the bike and took me to a garage where I filled up and got going again.

The next day I set off up the M1 to see my kids. I was just thinking how well the bike was going when it started to run roughly. Glancing down I could see petrol spraying over my left leg. I pulled onto the hard shoulder. With vacuum taps the flow should have stopped when I cut the engine. It didn't. I got the tank off in, I kid you not, less than twenty seconds, at which point a Highways Agency van pulled up behind to protect me. They couldn't have been more helpful, relaying my phone call to Britannia Rescue, as I couldn't hear a thing on the mobile with the motorway traffic. Another nice man turned up with flatbed truck and took me to the next services. A quick inspection by the two of us showed that the drain screw had fallen out of Number One carb. The rescue man then found the screw wedged down the front of the transfer box; I'd never have spotted it. He certainly earned his tip. Five minutes later I was on the road again.

Subsequent investigation showed that both petrol taps had been assembled wrongly. I bought a third tap at an autojumble and a repair kit from Wemoto. Eventually I managed to assemble one working tap, which was all the bike needed. Sorted. Sort of.

I then managed two uneventful runs to the VJMC shows at Uttoxeter and Lotherton Hall. I combined the Lotherton run with a visit to the new Squires Café and had the best carvery lunch I've had for years. I was just beginning to think the bike was OK when it stopped starting.

I was on the way to Shepton Mallet when I pulled up in a lay by for a few minutes. On pressing the starter button nothing happened, not even a clunk or a click. I checked everything and tried again. Nope. Luckily I was on a hill. I don't like bump starting a shaftie as the back wheels tend to lock but this time it was OK and the engine fired up.

I turned back and went home; I just couldn't face the thought of calling out Britannia a third time. When I got home it stopped and re-started all right, but the starter motor sounded a bit sluggish. I put the bike away and went off on holiday.

It never ran again.

Classic Stuff on Now...

Two weeks later, refreshed by a wonderful break in Orkney, I got the bike out. The starter motor ground over a few times and gave up. I charged up the battery. I checked and re-made all the connections. I tried a jump start from the car and started to melt the bikes battery terminal. Eventually I removed and dismantled the starter motor. It was full of black gunge. I cleaned everything up, re-cut the commutator, sprayed everything with WD40 and re-assembled it. Dead. Well, a healthy 'CLUNK' but it clearly wasn't going to work. I gave up.

Yes, the bike did have a kick-start but it only engaged at the bottom of its travel and was worse than useless. I made a half-hearted attempt to find a used starter motor, and actually found a new one on special offer in West Virginia. There is a bus at the end of our road which goes to Heathrow so I decided to fly to Washington, hire a car and drive down to the dealer, a mere couple of hundred miles. When I mentioned to my wife that I was off to the States on business she simply raised one eyebrow. Which meant that I wasn't. I know I could have asked them to send me the starter, but I was wasn't prepared to spend any more money.

By this time I'd decided that the bike was a no-hoper and even if I fixed the starter motor, something else would go wrong. I just wanted to get rid of it, so I gave it to my daughter's chap - previously mentioned - who reckoned he could get it to work. He hasn't yet. He and my Becky came to collect it in their old VW van which they rescued from a skip. Or possibly a tip. He managed to make that go.

I'm not disheartened; this was just a glitch. There's plenty of good cheap bikes out there. With winter coming on, I'm not in a rush to buy another one, but roll on next spring…


Avoid This Angst

If you want to buy a Japanese classic bike without going through this kind of pain then you might like to check with the VJMC first. If you're lucky then a local club member will be able to steer you around the reefs to calm waters…


*I so told you so. Ms H

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