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 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