Welcome to the Find of the Month, where we share some of the cool bikes we find for sale on autoTRADER.ca. This month, we’re checking out a 1978 Yamaha SR500 for sale in St-Jerome, Quebec.
How did the Japanese manufacturers sell a gazillion bikes, when they entered the market against long-established brands like Harley-Davidson, BMW and Triumph?
The Big Four did two things well. First, they built mechanically excellent bikes that were reliable, trustworthy, and superior in performance to the competition. Second, they looked around at all the existing bike styles on the market, and built their own versions of those machines.
Everyone remembers the Japanese attempts to drum Harley-Davidson out of the cruiser market (and they would have succeeded, if it wasn’t for those pesky lobbyists!), but back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Brit bike scene was also a target.
The Kawasaki W1 might have been one of the first successful bikes in this mold, followed by Yamaha’s XS-1, introduced in 1969 to later morph into the XS650. Yamaha sold piles and piles of those parallel twins, and by the late 1970s, decided to try the same thing with a single cylinder engine. The Brits had made lots of money selling thumpers, so why couldn’t Yamaha do the same? So, in 1978, we got the SR500.
What engine could they use? Yamaha already had a tough SOHC single-cylinder powering its XT500, so that was taken care of. It was reasonably competent, like the Brit bikes, with claimed crank rating of 31.5 hp at 6,500 rpm, and 26.8 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm. And it also rattled like crazy, as it had no counterbalancer, just like the old Brit bikes as well.
Also like the Brit bikes, there was no electric start. Although e-start was standard on street bikes by the late 1970s, the SR500 used a re-purposed trail bike engine, and kickstarters were standard in that scene. This wasn’t going to be an expensive motorcycle, and e-start would drive up the cost. It also would have made the bike more heavy, and light weight is important when you’re running a smaller engine.
Yamaha’s engineers put a sight glass in the head of the bike, which would indicate where the piston was. This helped riders figure out when the bike was at TDC, making it easier to start.
There were a few other changes from the XT engine; the valves were bigger, and Yamaha used electronic ignition (which also became standard for the XT).
So how was it received? It’s a tough question to answer, because the SR500 and its variants had one of the longest production runs in motorcycle history, but they’re a rare sight in Canada.
Not that they aren’t out there — Bondo had one that he’d built into a racer, and you can find one for sale without too much difficulty, as this autoTRADER ad shows. But compared to other mid-sized bikes of that era (Kawasaki KZ650, Honda CB350, etc.), you just don’t see many SR500s around.
It was well-liked when it came out, though, gaining lots of points with the journos of its day for its styling, its torque, and general rideability. Buyers in North America had tired of the bike by the early 1980s, however, and it disappeared from the Yamaha lineup in Canada.
Not so in Europe and Japan! In markets with, dare we say it, more discerning buyers, the SR soldiered on and on. In fact, it’s still in production today, sort of.
See, in 1978, when Yamaha introduced the SR500 into North America, it also brought an almost-identical bike, the SR400, into its domestic market. The 400 has the same bore, but a shorter stroke; it’s supposed to basically make the same power as the SR500, but at higher rpm.
Yamaha Canada hasn’t brought the SR400 into our market because it doesn’t figure it would have enough sales to justify it, but US riders have been able to buy the SR400 for a few years now, as Yamaha decided to re-introduce it there.
As it’s now more than 40 years past the original SR’s introduction, the newer 400 has some major differences: it’s got fuel injection, updated electronic ignition and some other tweaks. But at its core, it’s the same bike.
So — what about this bike, for sale in Quebec? It appears to be in gorgeous shape, thankfully not hacked up by cafe racer enthusiasts. It’s a 1978, the first year of production.
But it’s also “restored,” not original, if that matters to you. The only real information on the bike in the ad is that it has $4,700 worth of work done during the restoration. Yikes! Anyway, at $6,500, this is just insanely expensive for a vintage machine when you consider you can purchase an as-new SR400 from the US for similar money. However, if you’ve just got to have an SR500, then maybe this is the bike for you. The ad does say that financing is available …