Built not bought, a romantic notion isn’t it. There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this you will either be one of the lucky ones who works on bikes for a living or has dreamt about flipping a middle digit to the boss and striking up a relationship with the Snap-On man. I count myself as one of the seriously lucky ones, reading about custom bikes all day, writing about them most days, assisting the Bike Shed crew in putting on custom bike exhibitions and I even have access to an amazing workshop where twenty-plus evening hours a week can disappear behind a welding mask. Sounds good right? It is but there’s one thing missing, and it’s quite a big thing. I rarely ride the bikes I’ve built and the desire to get all creative results in frivolous stints on eBay looking for the next fix.
Bought, is that such a bad thing? A question I’ve been asking as I juggle an unmaintainable schedule and begin to lust after a bike with a starter button, something that can cross London, and out the other side to the beach if required. More time riding with mates and less time trying to reinvent the wheel, make old tech do a modern job and break some new aesthetic boundary. This was highlighted when one crew member finally achieved his goal of buying a seventies CB550, a beautiful machine with a handsome air cooled engine, quad carbs and twin shocks, which could now spend months up in the air under the wave of the custom wand. A blank canvas or a money pit? Only time will tell if this dream Brat project graces these pages or frequents the back of the recovery man’s flatbed.
But what’s my point? Well, we all want to look good while riding a cool bike, that’s nearly universally accepted as part of motorcycling. But what if you’re not as lucky as me and you don’t have a workshop stacked full of tools and equipment, or been fortunate enough to have gleaned mechanical knowledge through two decades of taking stuff apart and willing it back together? What if you have just two short hours on a Sunday while the kids are at football practice, in-between cutting the lawn and watching the Moto GP, and you need that custom hit?
Manufacturers have woken up to this but some have been out of hibernation for quite a while. Yamaha could be considered as the first to pull their heads out of the sand and smell the custom coffee. Sports bike sales charts started to go flaccid a decade ago and before long everyone had jumped aboard Ewan Boorman adventure bikes. In the U.K. youngsters have been discouraged from two wheels through draconian legislation and extortionate insurance obligations, motorcycling in general was in dire straits. The global collapse of financial markets heralded the death knell for some models and product managers from Bologna to Tokyo scrabbled around trying to stem the bleeding. Yamaha though appeared to have an ace up their sleeve in the form of Shun Miyazawa, Product Manager for the Yard Built Series.
As certain parts of the world began to financially recover and society reused, upcycled and crafted their way out of recession, Shun and his team had witnessed Yamaha’s classic SRs, RDs and XSs being converted by talented shed and pro-builders into often stunning café racers, flat trackers, scramblers, brats and bobbers. This new market segment was named Sport Heritage and aimed squarely at the rider who liked the look and feel of older, simpler machinery but didn’t have the time to spend mopping up oil leaks or the wherewithal to chase down electrical glitches or mechanical recalcitrance. The Yard Built Series was born in 2010 and by 2012 The Wrenchmonkees released the utterly stunning and bar raising Monkeefist, using a brand new XJR1300 as the donor. The rest as they say is history.
So why am I telling you this? Well, lucky me got a whole lot luckier when The Bike Shed was invited to the launch of the brand new Yamaha XJR1300 Sport Hertage; in Sydney, Australia with an opening shindig at the flagship Deus ex Machina store. Hang on, before you get all excited and start shouting “commercial sellouts!” think about it. A mainstream manufacturer invited us, Pipeburn, Return of the Café Racers, BikeExif and a host of other bloggers and niche journalists to be the first to try out their new model, before MCN and the usual press pack got a sniff. Times are a changing, and for the better.
On offer were two models, the more upright and “superbike inspired” standard version and the café styled Racer. Both powered by the same motor but the latter with clipons. There were various connotations and colour ways to test and I swapped around throughout the day to try and choose a favourite.
Other road testers and mags will do a better job of comparing this model to the old one, against other bikes in the class, and no doubt have a greater breadth of knowledge when it comes to more modern machinery so I’ll save talking about power curves and metallurgy. Suffice to say that with the thick end of 1300cc and nearly 100hp on tap from the air/oil cooled in-line 4, the XJR can trundle around town in 3rd and pull smoothly from idle without stuttering making it docile and easy to handle in traffic. And boy did we experience some of that in Sydney’s rush hour. The spec sheet suggests clinical obesity but I found the bike to be perfectly nimble and easy to handle, in both Racer and standard form.
Blasting through the Blue Mountains, Royal National Park and along the NSW coast was a relaxing affair with bags of oomph in reserve, the lazy engine barely yawning in top was enough to maintain the national speed limit. When the need arose, the cams pirouetted like a Russian folk dancer from about 4500rpm and eucalyptus trees became a blur. Linear power, enough of it but nothing scary by any stretch and as with town riding, gear selection not critical to a decent corner exit.
On the standard bike, flicking corner to corner required little more than a push-pull on the wide, tapered bars. The fully adjustable forks and Öhlins piggyback shocks dealt with the changing road surfaces and at times spirited corner entry speeds. The cops knew about the launch, and the route, so flouting the law was kept under control by our lead rider, so trying not to brake added a pinch of excitement. The Racer set up was a bit long for my 5′ 10″ frame, but steering light and easy, generated mostly from the waist down. The hunkered down position made adhering to the speed limit feel more sporting. So, you get the picture, good handling plenty of power, well mannered but thats not really what you’re here for. And you certainly don’t want to know about our clifftop lunch of sea perch on a bed of Asian greens, so I’ll refrain from adding detail about the superb hospitality laid on by Yamaha’s delightful crew.
This could easily have been an attempt by a manufacturer to roll out an old model, add some carbon fibre, Öhlins shocks, clipons and a pipe to try and hoodwink new customers into buying the retro dream, but that isn’t the case. Yes there are a host of thought-out and well made accessories available to individualise the XJR, much like buying a Harley-Davidson and using the 2 inch thick book to add your own style. But it goes deeper than that. Looking closely at the stock parts, the forethought is obvious, to the untrained eye or cursory glance the XJR looks good, looks right. The idiot lights are neatly hidden under a simple, black anodised dash. Clipons aren’t some nasty cast affair but clearly machined from billet, with the tool marks left rather than rumbled smooth. The fuel tank has been nipped and tucked so that it not only looks great but is more comfortable to splay one’s legs around and importantly blends into the rest of the machine rather than dominating. During the pre-ride presentation a photo overlay of this bike over the original XJR showed that the designers had reduced bulk considerably and created a neat new profile.
So much of motorcycling enjoyment is derived from the harmony between man and machine, the Yamaha designers acknowledge this whenever possible; look down at the tank whilst riding and you see chunks of the beefy engine and machined cooling fins poking out. The HT leads are thick and red, the cylinder head bolts domed and of decent quality, there’s even an option to have an oil filler plug with a lockwire tab. The headlight brackets are built to a price, but from a pace away appear to be billet. The number board side covers are aluminium, not plastic. Exhaust headers are coated with a really nice, ceramic style, matt black finish, and fork stanchions are DLC coated; less friction for performance, black in colour to minimise the visual disturbance, allowing the sexier components pride of place. The tail tidy is laser cut, anodised aluminium and provides home to LED indicators and tail light, negating the need for much modification, if at all.
Where legislation and and bureaucracy try and spoil the party the designers have that covered too. The horn for instance can be relocated without leaving an unsightly mount. The plastic guard behind the cylinder heads that keeps heat away from the rider can be popped off and discarded to leave more beef on display. A lyrical waxing to placate the providers of my decadent surf & turf dinner and posh hotel suite? Nope. Having spent hours and hours in workshops and listened to customers who want to make changes to a stock bike, Yamaha have covered a lot of bases, left room for Joe Average to wield a spanner and provided a canvas for pro builders to achieve a myriad of different styles without having to modify subframes, send a whole bucket of parts to the powder coaters or munch profit margin machining parts that can be ordered over the counter.
Whilst sitting in the traffic jam it was easy to look at one of the other bikes and conjure up some simple mods that I’d make, given the time. I’d take a standard handlebar version, with a matt grey tank and do the following: Lose the clocks and replace with a Motogadget Motoscope Mini, a near perfect match in anodised finish, fit a smaller headlight and maybe a number board. Swap the front mudguard for the carbon one from the Racer, and also the carbon seat cowl. Then have shotgun style double muffler made up, I checked, there’s plenty of room and a perfect mounting point. Fit some racing rain tyres and boom, there you have an individual looking street tracker that doesn’t take 6 weeks and half the savings account to put together. OK, so Yamaha offer a similar bike, the MT09, but if you grew up playing MotoX Madness on a monochrome Game Boy then you’re at least old enough to have heard of Kenny Roberts and know that old school cool is the coolest.
The last thing I want to suggest is that we celebrate doing bike builders and customisers out of work, or that people should lay down their tools and vacate sheds, but what is important is that those who would otherwise choose a more Gore-tex friendly, middle of the road motorcycle could now be welcomed into the custom world so we can have more friends doing more riding, on more varied bikes, more of the time. For this reason Yamaha have hit the nail squarely on the head.
And as if by magic the Wrenchmonkees have a host of trick parts ready to celebrate the XJR’s 20th birthday.