Thursday, May 27, 2010

An XS Of Enthusiasm: A 40-Inch Blast From Jerry Smith's Past Rumbles Back Into His Life

New motorcycles can take you just about anywhere. Old ones can take you anywhen.

When I first got into bikes, there was an engine tuner named Jeff who worked at McCoy Motors, the Kawasaki dealership where I bought my first bike, an F3 Bushwhacker. He later went out on his own, rented a wing of a machine shop next to his house, and did two-stroke porting.

A number of people—many of them kids like me—hung out at his shop. Some of us brought our cylinders and heads for him to work on, while others just wanted to soak up the backyard speed-shop ambience and talk bikes. Most times when I stopped by, I’d find Jeff bent over like a big question mark above a cylinder clamped in a wood-jawed vise, poking a Dremel tool into a port, the metal chips bouncing off his safety glasses. He worked day and night; one time he invited me to his house, and as we entered the kitchen his wife looked at both of us with the same puzzled expression: Who are you, again? He seemed to subsist on Camel straights and chocolate milk; at least that’s all I ever saw him ingest.

Jeff loved Yamahas. He rode a 180 twin for a while, then got a 350 twin; both had ported cylinders, of course. Two-strokes were his passion, and so the day he bought a four-stroke XS-1 Yamaha 650, the world almost spun out of orbit.

In those days, moving from a 90cc bike to a 125 was considered a big step up. A 350 was a middleweight many riders toured on. A 650 was a big bike. A really big bike. We were in some serious awe of Jeff’s 650 Yamaha.

Now and then he liked to take off for a few days and ride. He’d come back with tales of running his 180, or his 350, wide open for hours at a time, of re-ringing the engine by the side of the road, of all the bigger bikes he passed. Those Yamahas, he’d say, they’re great.

One day after he got the XS, he left his shop in San Jose, California, and headed for Twin Falls, Idaho. (Why Twin Falls? Shrug.) He bungeed a slab of that yellow foam rubber they put in cheap sofas onto the seat, lit up a Camel, put on his sunglasses, buttoned up his denim jacket, and left. No helmet, no gloves, no luggage except an extra pack of smokes.

He came back several days later, looking like a strip of beef jerky, sunburned and wind-burned and bug-stained from head to toe. He hadn’t had to rebuild the engine, or work on the bike at all, he said, except to lube and adjust the chain. This Yamaha, he said, is great.

In subsequent model years the XS-1 morphed into the XS-2, with a disc front brake and an electric starter, and eventually fell victim to the nascent custom craze. The clean and classic Triumph-looking model vanished, replaced by what to my eyes was a hack job, an abomination with a buckhorn handlebar, a stepped seat, and a chopperesque gas tank. The original versions remained, to my eye, what real motorcycles looked like. The others were impostors, of no importance.

One of the perils of trying to recapture the thrill of bygone motorcycles is that when the fog of nostalgia that surrounds them burns off, as it eventually does, sometimes you find yourself in possession of just another old motorcycle; slow, crude, and kind of sad. So when I learned my friend Larry had an XS-1 with 15,000 miles on it, a bike he'd bought new 38 years ago, mixed in with my desire to see it was the knowledge that I’d probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

I got to the coffee shop before Larry, and as he pulled up I recognized the sound of the big twin even before I saw it. The bike wasn't perfect, but it was in exceptional shape for one that old. Larry said he was thinking of selling it, and that someone had told him $4,000 was a good asking price. If I’d had that kind of money to spend that day, he might have had to take a taxi home.

After coffee and a chat we parted, and on his way home the XS died on him, right at the end of his driveway. He suspected an electrical problem, which I guessed might be traced to the local mechanics who had tuned it up never having seen a set of contact points in their short lives, and who probably left a wire loose somewhere. Or maybe the unbalanced twin shook the battery to pieces.

That’s another one of the perils of getting snared by an old motorcycle—sometimes they just up and leave you stranded. But I can’t think of a classier bike to be pushing along the highway when the fire goes out. —Jerry Smith


  1. Hi Jerry,

    Here's an update for you, the problem that stopped my old XS-1 was nothing more than a new battery gone sour. After fussing around with it to the extent of my capabilities I trailered it back to the dealer and that's what they found.

    At first they couldn't believe it as I'd just come off having to replace another bad battery that was new, that one in the Ducati. What are the odds of having two new batteries go away within a couple of months?

    Anyway to make things easier and knowing I'm leaving on my annual summer ride they gave me a coupon good for one free battery. That will keep until I get back, then I can wake it up and start all over again, maybe revisit 1970...

    Keep the fires burning,


  2. My dad (who subsited on Salems) taught be to keep a close eye on new batteries for the first few months. Apparently it's not uncommon for them to go bad. If they last the first four months you'll likely have no problem until the end of their life cycle.

  3. Jerry

    I to have just had a close encounter of the XS650 kind.

    But first let me back up a little and tell you that I to lusted after the XS as a lad. We had a Small Yamaha shop make that tiny in our small town. Maybe having Two or three bikes on the floor at any one time All of us fledgling gear heads would stop by at least once a week to drool over these Chrome and candy apple beauties. If they just didn’t go ring ding ding. As if Yamaha had been listening to us talking There she was Beautiful, shiny, and FOUR STROKE XS1. I was in love. But just as in real romance a buddy beat me to the punch. He came up with the money first riding off with the love of my life to parts unknown. Broken hearted I ended up buying a used Triumph that I pushed as much as rode. Thank you mister Lucas.

    A couple of months ago an old friend called and offered me a 1979 XS Special. He had sworn to never sell the bike but hard times can make us go back on our words. The price was right the color was the original red and I had to have her. Like many who have lusted after a prize I saw what she could be not what she was. Excluding the rust, torn seat cover, wiring mess and oh yea frozen brakes she was a beauty. How to get my long lost love home? Well I rounded up some buddies and we slid a couple of 2x4’s thru the spokes and carried her to the truck like Cleopatra.

    I’ve scrubbed and cleaned until the ends of my finger are too sore to push the buttons on the keyboard of my computer. I’ve fixed her wiring replaced her seat cover with a better then original Saddleman’s seat cover and got out all of that nasty gelatin that used to be brake fluid and replaced it with fresh. I’ve since gotten rid of the buckhorn bars putting on a set of dirt track style handle bars.

    She started without much coaxing cleaning the carbs a couple of times, filing the points, fresh gas and a new battery. I’m ridding the crap out of her whenever I can. She’s not to fast and shows a little age but to me she’s still the same bike I fell in love with so long ago.

    As you mentioned about leaving you stranded she refused to start( switch gear had a little crud on it) at the local burger gag the other day making me look foolish in front of the local lunch crowd.

    I just wish I could have gotten there first so many years ago when I fell in love with here the first time.