Mr Visser, my PT teacher in high school, bought a brand new Yamaha XS650 in 1977. The reason that this is memorable is because it was the only new XS650 that I ever saw on the West Rand. South African motorcyclists have always been power hungry and the parallel twin 650cc did not stand a chance against the four cylinder 750cc and 1000cc models which were selling like hot cakes. It just did not make sense to buy a basic low performance motorcycle when a buffet of high performance motorcycles was on offer to be savoured. And then I heard it! A XS650 being ridden hard with open exhaust pipes. The bike belonged to Chris, my cousin Dana’s future husband. Being a Brit by birth, he had grabbed a second hand alternative to the beloved Bonneville, changed the paint job, stuck on some clubmans and gutted the pipes. He must have been one of the first guys internationally to start customising what was to become the most customised Japanese motorcycle model.
The XS650 is used as the platform for some of the best bobbers, choppers and cafe racers on our planet. Because it looks so British, the 650cc parallel twin is a natural choice when building a reliable retro custom. After all the Japanese did copy the British design, did they not? No! They copied the Germans! In 1955 a Japanese manufacturer by the name of Hosk launched a motorcycle powered by a 500cc parallel twin engine which was a copy of the German manufacturer Horex’s 500cc engine. The Hosk engineers had developed a 650cc version of the engine by the time Yamaha acquired the designs as part of a buy-out in 1960. In what turned out to be a marketing blunder, Yamaha did not use the design immediately and persisted with their two stroke technology. When Yamaha launched the engine in the XS650 in 1968, it was just in time to meet the better performing Honda 750 Four and the Triumph and BSA 750 triples head on.
Nevertheless, with its oil tight, horizontally split crankcase, 50 hp single over head cam engine and five speed gearbox within the engine casings (unit construction), the XS650 was still more advanced than other manufacturer’s parallel twins of this time. In 1972 an electric start was added to the original kickstart only system. The motorcycle’s styling is typical of the conservative styling of the late 60s and early 70s British made motorcycles. The XS650 retained these looks until 1979, with only subtle cosmetic changes and improvements to the brakes and electrics. After 1979 only the more cruiserlike “Special” models were manufactured until production ceased in 1985. I do not think Yamaha officially imported any of these later models into South Africa.
The lean and mean XS650 featured here was the first ever motorcycle built by Tiago from OneOne Customs situated in Germiston. Tiago’s first contribution on Retro Write Up was the poular Honda CB175 cafe racer with the whitewall tyres. He loves building XS650 bobbers and would focus on them if only there were more donor bikes available in South Africa. This bobber is a no nonsense, no frills attached, minimalist creation. The rear subframe, swingarm and rear suspension have been replaced with a rigid weld on section. The sprung saddle is now the only pothole protection provided for the rider’s backside. A triumph styled petrol tank and a bobbed rear fender are the only brightwork, a small headlight and taillight the only lighting. Tiago gives his bobbers a low look and feel by inverting the standard handlebars and using a bar-end mirror. As for the silencers, with an engine that sounds as good as a XS650, who needs them?
The current international demand for XS650s is huge. In South Africa, where they were always rare, you would probably have a better chance of finding a Horex 500. It was a very different situation thirty years ago. The last model year in the USA was 1983. Yet, due to lack of demand and over production, brand new 1982 and 1983 models were still available on some dealer’s floors in 1987. Unbelievable how times change!