Text: Joe Freer • Photography: Christa Neuhauser
A life is a warehouse of sensations and experiences best opened and shared with as many others as possible. Whatever we choose to stock the warehouse shelves with indicates our particular passions and often leads us back to our inner selves. For me, the vintage bike experience holds a prominent place in "the building." Each time I ride one my senses go into overdrive, hauling up recollections of time, place, smell, sound and even taste. Good, bad or indifferent, any time I set off on a vintage bike, I ride to recall the way things were.
I have been a motorcycle enthusiast since the mid-sixties and, as I've mentioned, I am particularly fond of vintage bikes. My timeline opens in Millbrook, New York. The year is 1972. Nothing much distinguished Millbrook significantly at that time other than the fact that it was the home of a very engaging individual, Dr. Timothy Leary. His influence in the town and on its adolescent populace was quite apparent.
A small town in Dutchess County New York, Millbrook was "a great place to grow up" or so the parental party line went; but we, the disaffected youth of the time, were eternally bored yet most creative when it came to entertaining ourselves. And, at the very least, the infamous tales of Doctor Leary and his eclectic entourage helped to stimulate our exploratory juices. We were a cynical group of devout partiers. A social revolution whirled about us and we wanted to participate in all of it, especially in the music, muscle cars and motorcycles. Vietnam weighed heavily on our minds as did all the typical questions about life. A close cousin had just returned from the "conflict" when he was killed in a motorcycle accident. It changed me forever. I became a man that year on a gold-and-white Triumph Bonneville.
Fast forward to a beautiful October morning in 2005 when I picked up the '72 Yamaha from Christa and Florian Neuhauser. I fell hard at first sight. As expected, Christian had kept it in immaculate condition and I was salivating like Pavlov's Russian wolfhound. Ok, petcocks on...choke lever down...let's get it cranked up! Not a problem - this honey was purring on the first try. While it idled to warm, I stood back and admired the lines and the red-with-white paint scheme so indelibly etched in my mind years ago. The exhaust note was so like my old Triumph's that my senses were spinning long before I mounted the machine. This was going to be one great weekend and I was itching to get on with it!
The bike, an engineering masterpiece, was an obvious attempt to gain a bit of market share from Triumph back then, and today, in terms of comparative perspective, my '72 Bonneville will have to serve as the primary referent. As far as mystique goes, the Yamaha didn't have much staying power when introduced, but it was absolutely well built with particular attention paid to addressing the flaws in the Triumph. It's no wonder this bike is so highly prized by today's vintage enthusiasts. While it feels like blasphemy to say it, this machine was a better bike than the period Triumph - better engineered and more reliable.
The handlebar stance is noticeably different and the tank is narrower than I prefer, but the Yamaha is one heck of a great machine, handling like a dream and absolutely as ride worthy as it was 33 years ago. Out of town and on the curves, it's light, extremely responsive, and unimaginably fun. The gauges are a bit out of whack (needle bounce) but once this bike is on the pipe it is all about exhilaration. It really takes me back, and the old song "Stairway to Heaven" plays in my mind as I get into the rhythmic motions in corners. Transitioning is fluid and the bike responds precisely to counter steering. A gentle push with either knee or hand immediately rewarded me with accurate response. This bike is every bit as agile as the Triumph I remember and I had to really hold back the urge to push it even harder. I suppose getting older has brought me to my senses in that regard, but grinding the pegs is hardly a problem on this machine.
As should be expected, braking leaves a good bit to be desired. In those days a front disk was just becoming the norm. The front disk on this bike is still very effective but I found it difficult to come up with the right combination of front and rear brake to load the front end in a corner. The rear brake just didn't have much left and a re-build is probably in order. In the meantime I found myself nose-diving from too much front brake when I didn't mean to. A major separation between the Yamaha and Triumph bikes occurred in 1972: The Yamaha had overhead cams while the Triumph was still a design dutifully bound to the thirties. The XS650 has plenty of pull at lower revs, but it's significantly snappier somewhere above 4,000 rpm. This bike imparts a very sensory ride and once I learned the harmonic between felt vibration and exhaust note it was even more fun.
When I'm in the comfort zone of the power band, smooth throttle roll brings great response and eliminates the drone of carburetor and air cleaner that I affectionately call a giant sucking sound. However, in tight turns, frequent shifts are normally needed if a real reduction in momentum occurs prior to exiting the corner. And though the bike is 33 years old, I was pleasantly surprised by its solid suspension. Even with two-up it is relatively comfortable by today's standards, and when I pushed a bit in corners the foundation of the bike never faltered nor did I experience any wheel hop or perceived mushiness in any situation. And, oh yeah - I did try!
The mirrors are useful only at idle. The clutch lever pull is extremely hard and the engage point isn't great, but those are all tweaks that are easy fixes. From a technical standpoint, I really can't say enough good things about this machine. It has certainly aged more gracefully than I! Christian was a very caring owner and I can only imagine the hours he spent maintaining this historic piece of art.
I really didn't want to leave the twists but to get home before dark I had to give the freeway a crack - not one of the most pleasant experiences I have had of late. This is a light bike and, while going at 75 miles an hour with standard wind at my chest in traffic, it was pretty uncomfortable, a bit squirrelly even. Now I recall why I used to play leap frog and stay tucked in behind a tractor trailer for wind breaking! This bike was never intended to cruise six-lane roads at today's speeds and I regret having put it in that position.
Overall, the feel and performance of this bike are incredible attributes. The motor vibration travels from my core to fingertips and on to the top of my head. The exhaust note is perfectly in sync and it is exactly that feeling that I revel in as I head out again the next morning. If there is such a thing as becoming one with a bike, this old guy is a great candidate for getting "there." The synergy between the exhaust note and vibration is such that I found myself riding without looking at the gauges at all - speed limits be damned! This bike is best ridden "by ear" and "by feel." Trust, respect and enjoy it.
Hitting memory's replay button again, I remember a dirt floor garage on the Shunpike Road in Millbrook, New York, 33 years ago. The smell of earth and oil and gas combines as forcefully as the current of excitement coursing through my body. I had just dusted my friend Carl's '69 Harley Sportster in a quick race up the half-mile Wing Road straightaway, and the sounds of our race stayed with me all day. Today, the Yamaha has brought that electricity back. The bike's paint reminds me of a fine old Pinot Noir and its exhaust must certainly be as savory to other motorcyclists as the smoke from a fine Cuban cigar is to connoisseurs. It's a heady experience.
Susi's First Ride
My wife Susi works for RoadRUNNER and, like Christa, she's also from Austria. Christa had provided Susi with superb riding gear and I was excited about introducing her to motorcycling, particularly on a '72 XS650. As a first time two-up rider, Susi did extremely well on initial runs through the neighborhood and around town. She showed no fear and followed instruction really well, and she was beaming when we returned home the first night after an hour-long casual jaunt.
The next day was a different story. We left a March of Dimes bike rally in the early afternoon for what I thought would be a great run up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. NC 8 and 89 are beautiful country roads through the foothills with lots of twists and turns along the way. Based on Susi's earlier enthusiasm I thought she would really enjoy this scenic trip. I planned for us to be out about two hours on a perfect day of clear Carolina blue skies. At a rest stop we met another rider, chatted a bit and learned of a new vintage club just starting up in town. Taking to the road again, we were soon into the twisty section and I was in another world; but since Susi was a first-time rider I took things very slowly and smoothly. At least that was my impression.
Another mile of curves and all I could hear was "Oh, mein Gott - Jesus Maria!" directly in my ear. This same refrain of German expletives continued, increasing in volume and frequency at every turn as we climbed the mountain. Initially I thought she was sharing the bliss but then I realized she was in a panic. She needed to lean with the bike of course and, needless to say, she was hanging off the side and coming much closer to the surface than she wanted to be. Obviously, I could feel what was going on and didn't want to frighten her further, so I stopped the bike and we took a break. It wasn't so bad that she needed a paper bag to breathe into and I took my time talking to her about just relaxing and staying with me. I thought it best to save the lectures on Speed and Inertia for later.
We set off again, and magically Susi had transformed herself into the most comfortable two-up partner I have ever had! But only if I kept our progress to less than 35 mph in a turn could I avoid another hyperactive ear blast. At times we were going so slowly I thought the bike might not turn at all! If a tractor had come up from behind it could have blown right by!
Eventually, we made it home and we still laugh about how I lugged that poor bike through corners at a snail's pace. It was a tremendous bonding experience and I will remember Susi's first ride always. Most importantly for my own esteem, I don't have to live down the image of being passed by a vintage John Deere.
1972 Yamaha XS650
Engine OHC vertical twin air cooled, four stroke
Bore and Stroke 75 x 74mm
Capacity 653cc (39.8ci)
Compression Ratio 8.1:1
Spark Plugs NGK B8ES
Carburetors 2x Mikuni: BS38
Front single disc
Rear single leading shoe
Seat Height 31in
Dry Weight 427lbs