Find of the Month: 1979 Yamaha XS650 Special II

Welcome back to the Find of the Month, where we share some of the cool bikes we find on autoTRADER.ca. This month, we’re checking out a cool 1979 Yamaha XS650 Special II for sale in Sundridge, Ontario.


Here’s a pretty clean example of a Yamaha XS650 Special II, a bike that is often maligned by owners of “real” XS650 models (the standard-shaped version), but has some cool history to take into account.

These were sold until the mid-’80s, depending which market you were in (the latest Canadian model I’ve seen is an ’84). This particular example should have the older carburetors (desirable) but has been updated with a proper electronic ignition, and even better, a pro engine rebuild (although that was a few years ago). It has a new battery, newly rebuilt front brake, and some spare parts to go with it. The title photo shows it a few years back, after its rebuild; the other shots are more current, and you can see a video of the bike running below.

Although these are older models, there is still quite an aftermarket for them, as they’re easy to work on, and once upon a time they could be had at a very reasonable price (before the cafe racer/bobber enthusiasts started cutting them up). Still, at $2,500, this is an affordable buy for the rider who wants a simple vintage bike that shouldn’t be hard to keep running for many more years.

Wait, you say — isn’t this a “much-maligned” motorcycle, nowhere near as cool as a standard XS650? Why buy it?

Motorcyclists should be interested in this machine because of its historical significance. Imagine a time when Harley-Davidson was the only manufacturer building cruisers. Sure, Norton had the failed Hi-Rider, but aside from that, pretty much everyone else, when they went to build a motorcycle, they just built a motorcycle. Compare the lines from BMW to Ducati to the CB/GS/XS/GL/RD/KZ machines coming from Japan in the late 1970s, and they all basically looked the same, because they were built for the same purpose: all-around duty as commuters, tourers, and whatever other jobs a standard-shaped motorcycle could be pressed into. The ergos for those machines aren’t terribly different from what you find on a modern standard naked bike.

But by the late 1970s, the Big Four realized there was Big Money to be made emulating the factory custom look that was pioneered by Willie G and his MoCo associates. Suddenly, all the Japanese had some sort of cruiser in the lineup, with a stepped seat and buckhorn handlebars, and usually with a bit more rake and some funky wheels. Because none of the Japanese had proper V-twin engines until Yamaha introduced the Virago (the CX/GL line doesn’t count), they just went ahead and used the parallel twins and inline-fours they already had in the lineup.

So, this XS650 Special is Yamaha’s earliest take on the cruiser, and it’s one of the first Japanese cruiser models to hit the market. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary; it’s powered by the 654 cc air-cooled parallel twin that was Yamaha’s first successful four-stroke, with roots all the way back in Hosk’s 1955 SOHC 500 cc twin.

Ironically, this German-derived, Japanese-built engine has often been called the best Brit twin of all time, as it really did look like a UK design, but with overhead cam instead of pushrods. Combined with classic British styling, the engine was one of the keys to the success of the earlier standard XS-1 and XS650 models.

By the late ’70s, this was old tech, but trustworthy, even if the non-counterbalanced engine did shake, rattle and roll. This wasn’t the buttery smooth experience that Honda was offering with its GL1000.

What it did offer was a cheap way to look like a bikesploitation flick hero, until better Japanese copies of the archetypical American cruiser came along and gradually forced out most of the parallel twin and inline four cruisers out. Once the Japanese built proper air-cooled V-twins, they built ’em right, and they sold a crapload of them. There was no way your greasy one-percenter was going to ride a Virago instead of a Harley-Davidson, but for everyone else, it was a reasonable fascimile, until savvy MoCo marketing (and government lobbying) cast a shade on Japanese cruisers. By the 1990s, Harley-Davidson was back in the fight, but for a while, the Japanese copies had put the whole made-in-America motorcycle scene in serious trouble.

Now, the Japanese cruiser scene is pretty quiet; Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda all have a few cruiser models, but it’s arguably been Yamaha who’s put the most work into keeping its cruisers alive, and that’s a line with roots all the way back in the 1970s, when designers decided to take a reliable, proven parallel twin and drop it into a cruiser chassis, creating the XS650 Special.

 

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