Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha SRX

April 15, 2010
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha SRX
Frank takes a ride on the Yamaha SRX, our vintage motorcycle expert referring to the big Single as ‘the best British bike the Japanese have ever made.’

The Yamaha SRX generates an ardent passion amongst its fans. Listen to a group of SRX owners and you could be forgiven for thinking that every third bike sold in the 1980s was an SRX: it wasn’t! That Yamaha’s big Single remains a minority interest is proof positive that Yamaha made the same mistake as many other manufacturers: they came unstuck by following the demands of vociferous customers – who then didn’t buy the bike they had been so stridently demanding.

Throughout the 1980s there was a consistent call for a true, classic, big Single – a bike drawn directly from the same gene pool which spawned the BSA Gold Star and the Velocette Venom. The arguments for the sporting Single are strong and persuasive. With a wafer-thin engine, the Single concentrates all its mass immediately down the center line of the bike and provides the most elegant and graceful of riding experiences.

Yamaha had already had one stab at the exercise, with the desperately flaccid and dull SR500 – the sort of bike Trainee Accountants would ride on their way to a seminar on tax allowances for worm breeders in Social Priority Areas. The SR had middle-aged styling, didn’t go, didn’t stop and had soggy handling which reduced it to the role of a Sunday afternoon potterer – or worse still, “sensible motorcycling.” The SRX was intended to be a completely different beast.

When launched in 1985, the bike was completely new in the sense that it bore little, or no, relation to the earlier SRs. For a start, the engine was sourced from the proven XT600E. This was, and is, an excellent motor with foolproof starting, a sweet six-speed gearbox, light clutch and willing power. In the XT/SRX trim it was also lightly stressed since basically the same power unit was used in the TT600 enduro bike and had a good reputation for longevity even when hammered off road. It was, after all, a successful Paris-Dakar race engine.

Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha SRX
Yamaha decided to go for the twin-shocks in the rear as opposed to their trademarked monoshock for its SRX.

The chassis was new too and, depending on which side of the fence you stood, it was either inspired by Yamaha’s TZ race bikes or the British designed and built Seeley Suzuki. Either way, it was a neat piece of engineering which enveloped the motor so tightly that the bottom frame rails had to be made detachable.

Other bits of the first bikes were the result of raids on Yamaha’s parts’ bins. The front forks and brakes were lifted straight from the YPVS 2-strokes and the electrics were common to many of Yamaha’s bikes at the time.

Strangely, since Yamaha actually pioneered single shock suspension with their YZ motocross machines, the SRX was a twin-shocker – with a swingarm which owes more than a nod to a Seeley.

If you like big Singles, there is no question that the SRX is stunningly beautiful: not simply attractive but a pure work of art. The petrol tank looks as if someone has poured liquid plastic over the bike as it curves its way sensuously round the frame. Neat touches abound everywhere. Being a dry sump engine, the oil tank is separate and fabricated from alloy. The clip-ons are neat and precise and the instruments cafe racer-ish in a way which is completely authentic. In short, Yamaha got the SRX completely right.

Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha SRX
The Yamaha SRX still delivers real world performance fit for a modern roads and traffic.

The riding experience is as good as the bike’s looks. There is something utterly addictive about the thump of the huge, 96mm, high-compression piston banging away in the heart of the metal horse. Nothing else can match the Single in the spine-tingling emotion stakes. With the standard silencer replaced by something more fruity, the SRX is a Manx Norton or Matchless G50 with lights. As the single overhead cam, 608cc, four-valve engine sucks in lungs full of air and exhales them with window-rattling enthusiasm, it’s back to real GP road racing in the ‘60s. Where’s my pudding basin helmet and black leathers?

The six-speed gearbox is sweet, the clutch light and the motor bursts into life with one half-hearted prod of the kick-start. The only thing it doesn’t do like a British classic, is leak oil.

The frame too is every bit a classic. Equipped with modern tires, the handling is excellent with all the neutral predictability and stability of my Seeley Suzuki race bike. Put one of the “Continental Circus” stars of the ‘60s on the SRX and it would have won GPs.

Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha SRX
While it may not win any drag races, the Yamaha SRX will get you down the road in a hurry while returning great fuel mileage.

The SRX is also a thoroughly practical motorcycle. The four-valve head is equipped with twin carburetors and this gives an effortless, fuss free performance on the road. There is none of the hesitation of a sporting big Single from low revs. Instead, the SRX just gets on with the job all the way from 2000rpm to around 5500rpm, when vibration begins to make itself felt. Peak power, a genuine 33 hp at the back wheel, comes at 5500rpm and maximum torque a thousand revs lower.

Despite the apparent lack of horsepower, on paper at least, a standard SRX will cruise effortlessly at 75 mph and will just about crack the magic “ton” – all while sipping petrol at a miserly 80mpg. This performance, and frugal petrol consumption, makes the SRX a very pleasant, if unusual, classic touring bike.

Unlike classic British bikes, it has excellent lights and the inevitable vibration which comes with any big Single is never intrusive. The only modification to watch for is that the thinner saddle, fitted to all Japanese market imports, needs replacing by the inch thicker, American-spec design so that the riding position is not too cramped. Otherwise, the SRX is a bike which will handle 300-mile trips in a relaxed classic style – and still have the reserves of power, handling and braking required to deal with modern traffic.

Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha SRX
The SRX may have been what buyers demanded, but they didn’t actually buy the bike. The Yamaha a disappointment on showroom floors.

So, in summary, Yamaha built an outstandingly clever motorcycle which exceeded its performance brief in every respect – and looked the part too. A bike which is completely faithful to its original concept, meets the customers’ demands and works to perfection must clearly be a guaranteed success? Well, no.

First, Yamaha tried a re-vamp of the bike by introducing a modernized front end with a single disc and a 17-inch front wheel. In some ways, this was a retrograde step, because the original SRX had completely neutral, and very stable, handling. The 17-inch front gave quicker but slightly more nervous handling, more suited to sporting riding.

All the twin shock SRXs suffer from the myth that they are hard to start – and myth it is. An SRX will fire-up first kick, hot or cold – even after a six-month lay up. None of this meant anything to riders brought up on electric buttons: kick-starters were simply intimidating.