10 Days with a Yamaha TX650

Richard Backus puts 600 miles on a 1973 Yamaha TX650

| March/April 2012

1973 Yamaha TX650
Claimed power:
53hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 105mph (period test)
Engine: 653cc OHC air-cooled vertical twin, 75mm x 74mm bore and stroke, 8.7:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 420lb (191kg) 
3.3gal (12.5ltr)/47mpg (observed)
Price then/now: $1,399/$3,000-$5,500

1970 heralded a new age of multis. Honda had its revolutionary CB750 Four, Kawasaki its fearsome Mach I triple — even the staid Brits had the Triumph/BSA triple. So what did Yamaha do? Why, introduce a thoroughly traditional 650 parallel twin of course — but with a twist.

Badged the XS-1 when it first went on sale as a 1970 model, Yamaha’s new 650 twin was an interesting mix of an old-school favorite — 360-degree, 650cc parallel twin — wrapped in new-school technology. Although it looked — by design — much like its British inspiration (specifically, Triumph’s 650 Bonneville), Yamaha’s new twin was not like twins of yore. Intelligent application of new technology meant it breathed easily (thank you CV carbs and overhead cam) and spun happily, a light flywheel accentuating the engine’s instant throttle response. It also didn’t leak oil, thanks to modern tooling unit engine/transmission construction with a horizontally-split crankcase, superior to vertically-split cases for controlling crankcase flex and subsequent loosening of critical sealing surfaces.

A model with legs

Yamaha’s new-meets-old approach paid dividends, and the 650 twin rapidly gained favor with U.S. buyers. Although it wasn’t really any more powerful than a contemporary Triumph Bonneville 650 (Yamaha advertised 53 horsepower versus Triumph’s claimed 52) buyers considered it a more modern, easier-riding machine. Brakes were simple drums front and rear, and it was a reliable first-kick runner (electric start and a front disc brake came with the XS-2 in 1972), which was appreciated by regular Joes and Janes who still liked a no-frills approach to motorcycling in an era of increasing complexity. While it generally required little mechanical attention, it was a bike owners could — and still can — easily work on.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, however. Early bikes suffered a multitude of electrical problems, including blown headlamps, failing batteries and faulty charging systems. Perhaps Yamaha copied the competition too well, as most of those problems were a direct result of to the new Yamaha’s one glaring fault: vibration.

A certain amount of vibration is to be expected from any big twin, but Yamaha received more than a little bad press on the issue. “The footpegs and handgrips fairly tingle,” Cycle wrote in a period review, adding: “Vibration shakes the tachometer, blurring the increment marks between the numbers.” It was an issue raised in just about every review of the bike, with testers finding it tiring to ride for any length of time on the super slab.

6/7/2012 8:10:22 PM

No kidding. I owned a '73 in '78, and loved its looks almost as much as I hated its shaking. Still, I have owned two more, the last one just in 2011. Yes, they still look "right." Yes, they still start and don't leak. And yes, they still shake -- and now it somehow feels like they shake worse. Guess my butt's just getting old.

4/12/2012 4:02:46 PM

I remember quite fondly the XS650 I owned for a couple of years. I sold my '73 CB450 and bought it a few months after getting married (though I yearned for a Bonneville or Sportster). It was a leftover new '77 in the summer of '78 and I picked it up for around $1,500. A couple of the friends I rode with had KZ 650's and could wax my behind on the straights. It was when the roads got crooked that the torquey twin, and of course my superior riding skills, made them look silly. Besides, my bike at least looked and sounded like a "real" motorcycle. I tolerated all of the "paint shaker" jokes and enjoyed the XS for the short time I had it. The only mods I made were Conti Twin tires, a new battery (by necessity), and a stepped seat. Even though Yamaha made millions of these, they're becoming harder to find in stock form. I occasionally see one converted to a street tracker or old school chopper.

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