You cannot imagine my disappointment upon first seeing BMW’s new R Nine T model, which has been launched to celebrate BMW’s 90th anniversary of motorcycle production. When we did an article on 12 September featuring a lovely BMW R100RT, I was unaware of the R Nine T’s imminent launch. In the article I suggested that BMW were, for various reasons, in the perfect position to offer a truly great retro cafe racer. I was even presumptious enough to suggest that the Germans would avoid the pitfall of making the bike too modern in look, feel and specification; a pitfall that the Japanese retro motorcycles currently seem to fall into. The R Nine T, we are told, is BMW’s best attempt at a retro cafe racer. We need to be told because we could never have guessed. The BMW designers have obviously never seen one of the thousands of beautifully built BMW cafe racers which are gracing our planet’s roads and cyberspace traffic. After producing conservatively styled motorcycles for at least seventy years of their ninety years of production, BMW should have known better! I am sure it is a very good motorcycle, too good in fact to attract a true cafe racer enthusiast.
Why discuss BMW’s not retro, not cafe racer motorcycle in an article featuring a very unusual Yamaha SR500 street tracker? I will explain. The SR 500 was built to be a no frills classic even though more modern technology was available. It was, is and will always be a classic. In contrast the new BMW model tries in vain to combine modern features and design without any classic elements. It will never be a classic. Rayell from Pretoria East, who built this SR500 in his home garage, is a great fan of the French builders, Blitz Motorcycles and the Spanish crew El Solitario’s style of building custom motorcycles. We featured Rayell’s father Jose’s very rugged BMW R50 bobber, which was built very similarly to a Blitz original. El Solitario build some of the most original looking motorcycles and are an inspiration to many a prospective custom creation. They have been commissioned by BMW Germany to use their creative flair in customising a new R Nine T for BMW’s marketing campaign. I think this could be one of their toughest builds to date and we look forward to seeing the end result. They normally base their work around proper retro motorcycles like the Yamaha SR500, not a GS with a bumstop!
The Yamaha SR500 was launched in 1978 in the footsteps of the already successful XT500 scrambler. The XS650’S twin cylinder engine was Yamaha’s first production four stroke. The SR/XT500’s single cylinder engine was their second four stroke engine design. Yamaha had initially considered building a more complicated double overhead cam engine with an oil cooled head, but they wanted their motorcycle to be simple and reliable and so decided to stay with an air cooled single overhead cam design. These engines are legendary for their reliability. It is no coincidence that both the SR500 and XS650 look familiar to any lover of 1960s British motorcycles. They were designed to look a little British and for this reason became instant classics internationally. In South Africa the SR500 never sold anywhere near the volume that the XT500 sold. The 500cc engine was the biggest available in any scrambler and was therefore deemed to be cool. Unfortunately the SR500 did not meet with the same favourable response. It was completely out of its depth in a large capacity, multi cylinder, power hungry South African motorcycle market. Not having electric start did not help its sales. It was destined to be sold here to a small group of classic single enthusiasts and commuters. Thirty five years later and now everybody wants one. Its a funny old world we live in!
SR500’s are being turned into cafe racers, bobbers, street trackers and everything in between. Rayell decided that his first attempt at building a custom motorcycle, with a little help from his experienced father Jose, would be his own interpretation of a street tracker. The influence of Blitz and El Solitario are also apparent in this build. Rayell is a creative director by profession and wants to build motorcycles that are different and invoke a response from all who see them. As you can tell from the photographs which were taken by Rayell, this motorcycle has two petrol tanks that can be changed whenever a change of look or personality is desired. The white tank cleverly combines the instantly recognisable old school Yamaha branding with the sugar skull pattern. I love this design! The second tank’s design is more complicated and took eight months to perfect. The tank was stripped to bare metal and then dremel cut aluminium sections were bonded on the top and sides of the tank. Some areas, like the bottom section of the tank have been allowed to show some rust whilst the black sections with the red pin stripe are placed to give a more classic feel to this 1980 model “thumper”. Rayell did all the aluminium routing, painting and vinyl application himself.
Generally builders remove or modify the rear subframe of the original motorcycle to accommodate the new seat. Rayell has chosen not to cut the subframe and has created this seat accordingly. A short mudguard from a Yamaha XS400 replaces the original on the rear whilst a mudguard from an unknown model is fitted in the front. Thie SR500 can run without a battery, so keeping the look bare is easier with the sidecovers removed. Flat tracker bars are fitted with an imported, simplified switch cluster on the left side only. A mini speedo has also been fitted. The large steering damper knob is decorative but really looks classic. The wheels and front shocks have been powder coated black. Rayell wrapped the header pipe of the locally made aftermarket exhaust which was on the motorcycle when he bought it. He has the original invoice for when it was fitted in 1980. I think it is a Powerflo.
Rayell recently sold this SR500 to Denzel. Lucky Denzel! The next project Rayell will undertake will be based on a BMW R60 or R75. He wants to build a motorcycle which must be indescribably different from anything else. This is probably the same thing that El Solitario will attempt to achieve with their BMW R Nine T creation. Perhaps they will shock corporate BMW and turn it into the cafe racer it was supposed to be in the first place. Oh well, even if they don’t, at least BMW have ten years before their motorcycle’s centenary to rethink their design.