In Thailand the Yamaha SR400 is a chick magnet that offers great handling, sensational styling and exclusivity. The Yamaha SR400 is a 36 year old classic that’s, slow and expensive. It’s a stone age relic that will take its proud owner back to the days of kick start only motorcycles. It comes fully equipped with just enough feel good vibration to become a fully addictive riding experience thanks to its having no counterbalancers or rubber engine mounts. Buy one here in Thailand and it will set you back 265,000 baht or $8300 U.S. For that kind of money you can buy a 650 Ninja that offers three times the horsepower with far superior capability on the superhighway. But the Yamaha SR400 will get you more attention than you will ever get driving a Porsche, Mercedes Benz, or practically anything less than a Ferrari. Not to mention it’s being a chick magnet par excellence–at least here in Thailand. So when you look at the Yamaha SR400 that way the $8300 looks pretty cheap. Since obviously there’s a lot to like about the SR400 it’s time to analyze what it is, and what it isn’t.
The SR400 is not meant for American interstate driving
Two weeks ago I returned to my Thailand home from a month long visit to the United States where I rented a car in Denver and drove it to Las Vegas and back traveling through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. I noticed something I had never seen before while traveling through this section of the American West. An 80 mile per hour speed limit that I had never encountered before in Utah. Having traveled a great deal throughout the American West I had noticed that the police never bothered me so long as I never went more than 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. That meant I could relax at speeds up to 85 miles an hour with no fear of the highway patrol. But now, at least in Utah, I could wind the rental car all the way up to 90. The problem with the Yamaha SR400 is it probably won’t even get past 85 on its best day which leaves it hopelessly under powered out West on the interstates. I had also noticed during this visit that my home state of Illinois had raised its speed limit from 65 to 70 miles an hour. Which meant that even at sedate Illinois major highway speeds the SR400 would be churning its guts out to keep up. Let me put this in perspective. My first motorcycle was a Honda 350 CB. I had bought it in the early 1970’s. Were this same motorcycle available on today’s market at 36 horsepower, it would still be outclassing my new Yamaha SR400’s 24 horsepower even though it had 50 cc’s less engine displacement. But I’d still not elevate the old Honda 350 CB to the level of being a good superhighway cruiser. The 450 Honda CB I wound up trading it in for, perhaps, with its 9 more horsepower and 100 more cubic centimeters.
But although I had traded up for a more potent highway bike, the 450 simply wasn’t as much fun to drive on two lane highways and the back roads of Illinois and Missouri where speeds rarely went much over 60 miles an hour. The 350 was just light and agile enough to make the most fun out of the kind of roads I found that were away from the well beaten path.
In those days a lot of motorcycle owners were driving 350 and 450 Hondas as well as 650 Triumphs and Yamaha 650 twins. But when such bikes went out of favor to be replaced by much more powerful four cylinder motorcycles, in my opinion, motorcycles started to get worse with each succeeding year. For one thing they started to get butt ugly. The horsepower race was on as each manufacturer vied to produce more powerful bikes than its competitors. Those four cylinder engines although renowned for their smoothness became excessively large while offering far more power than what was really needed. Even worse, if such a thing were even possible were the seating positions offered by such latest and greatest performance machinery. In most cases one was offered a choice between having a cruiser styled motorcycle offering a low seating position with handlebars set far too high to offer the best controllability and the crotch rocket lean forward positioning of the sport bike. Along with the Hunchback of Notre Dame riding style imposed by such new sport bikes came the canary perch passenger seat that sport bike owners now had to impose on their girlfriends.
In my opinion the motorbike manufacturers in their never ending search for bigger and bigger profit margins went on a crusade to sell the promise of ever greater performance to gullible buyers who would actually come to believe that they needed either the racer style of a sport bike or cocoon like seating position of the cruiser with engines far bigger and more powerful than they needed to be. Lost along with their far simpler engine designs and smaller engine displacements was that sense of style the old classics had as well as their simple long single level seats that allowed a man’s girlfriend to sit in comfort behind her driver boyfriend.
The Yamaha SR400 is a sensationally well styled motorcycle that simply outclasses just about everything else you can buy in Thailand today regardless of price. But its gorgeous looks are really not much different from an early 1970’s Honda 350 CB or for that matter Yamaha’s RD 350 two strokes from the same time period. The RD 350 in particular was a compact little rocket that offered impeccable styling that could successfully compete against much larger 650 four strokes such as the Triumphs, Nortons and BSA’s. Yet, even such larger British built bikes shared a lot of styling similarities with the smaller displacement Japanese bikes that would soon take over the marketplace due to their offering superior quality at a much lower price point.
Combine the styling of a Honda or Yamaha 350 during the 1970’s with the larger British built 650’s with their longer wheel bases and you start to get a hint of what the Yamaha SR400 is all about. First off, those classic British 650’s had chrome fenders, just as the Honda 350 CB and Yamaha 350 RD’s had. And whereas the 350 Honda typically had a 52 inch wheelbase, a 1973 Triumph Bonneville had a longer 56 inch wheelbase which made the 650 seem to be a longer and larger bike, which it was. As for the Yamaha SR400, it has a wheel base of 55.5 inches which helps it look a lot like a vintage Triumph Bonneville. And like both Yamaha and Honda 350’s and the British 650’s, the Yamaha SR400 has chrome fenders along with the superior seating position of both the Japanese and British 70’s styled long seats that are on the same horizontal plane with the bikes’ handle bars. Such seats are infinitely more comfortable to what came later on while offering great visibility as well as a feeling of being part of the bike and therefore in much greater control of it.
Now take a look at how fat the tires have been getting on the “high performance bikes” that big manufacturers like Honda, Yamaha, and Kawasaki have been duping the public into buying today. A Ninja 650 has 17 inch diameter wheels whereas my Yamaha SR 400 has even larger 18 inch diameter wheels. But look at how wide that rear tire is on the Ninja 650. I suppose this is all in the best interest of offering great handling on the race track or getting the best zero to sixty or quarter mile times in a drag race.
Here’s some comparative stats between the wheel-tire setups of the Yamaha SR400 and the Kawasaki 650 Ninja. Tires on the SR400 are 90/100/18’s on the front and 110/90/18’s on the back whereas the front Ninja tires are 120/70/17’s and a whopping 160/60/17’s on the back.
Let’s now take a look at a bike I had once gotten to be very familiar with. This is the 1983 BMW K 100 RS. The BMW could do zero to one hundred miles an hour in 7 seconds flat on its 100/90/18’s front and 130/90/17’s rear tire. The Ninja’s got much fatter tires than the 1983 BMW had. It’s only a 650 though whereas the BMW 100 K RS had a 1000 c.c. four cylinder engine that produced 90 horsepower to the Ninja’s 71. I owned a blue BMW 100 K-RS exactly like the one you are looking at in the picture . I once had my BMW up to 220 kph although it would do more. The bike felt terrific cruising at 100 miles an hour.
My point is one doesn’t need monster wide tires to make a bike stable. The Yamaha SR400’s relatively long wheel base and its large diameter 18 inch wheels gives it excellent stability, especially in the speed range this bike was intended for. I doubt it will go over 85 miles an hour and I wouldn’t be surprised if it barely exceeds 80. And being a one cylinder 400 without any engine counterbalances whatsoever or rubber engine mounts to cushion the bike’s vibration, the bike’s vibration is noticeable at all levels of the rpm spectrum.
Yamaha’s been making the SR400 since 1978 which is why my SR400 proudly sports an emblem that announces “Since 1978″. This bike has been reintroduced in September 2014 (at least here in Thailand) with fuel injection and an engine decompression setup that makes it easier to kickstart than earlier models. Yamaha could have put in an engine counter balancer or at least rubber engine mounts to tame the bike’s vibration. Yamaha instead decided to reintroduce it as a timeless classic warts and all.
I’ve been informed that this year Yamaha’s only brought 50 SR400’s from Japan into Thailand and just 500 total bikes into the United States. What this means is here in Pattaya I’m just about the only guy that will be seen driving a Yamaha SR400 which gives it far more exclusivity here than a Harley, a Ducati or practically anything else. Its second measure of exclusivity is it offers kick start only. So let me ask you, when is the last time you’ve seen a 2014 motorcycle of 250 cc’s and up that requires its owner to kick start his motorcycle? Probably never. So in the minds of many, it takes a real special kind of man to buy a motorcycle that he must kickstart. And by special kind of man I don’t mean a wimp.
The Yamaha SR400 is a chick magnet par excellence, especially here in Thailand
Okay, now that you have established yourself as not being a wimp, you still have several other things going for you with this bike that you won’t have with many other bikes. First off, the Yamaha SR400 is utterly gorgeous. And everyone loves a gorgeous bike, especially women. Second, it’s a big single. It has a single piston and just one big cylinder housing the piston. That means a lot of straight on torque at low engine speeds. The bike might not be very fast, but when you are driving at just 15 miles an hour at 2000 rpm’s and you suddenly give it the gas, it’s going to make that sexy woman riding behind you feel as if she’s being thrown off the bike’s seat by the engine’s sudden acceleration. It also has sexy engine sounds most other bikes will never be able to make. Lastly, there’s that vibration. It’s always there in some degree or another. And the plain truth to that is this vibration tends to turn women on in much the same way that having a fast horse between their legs starts to arouse their libido.
But there’s gotta be a downside to all that vibration. I suppose there is. But my home now is in Thailand where most of the drivers are so ungodly bad that a motorcyclist is on a suicide mission if he tries to drive his motorcycle very fast. The SR400 is made to cruise at slow speeds, say 30 miles and hour to 55 or 60. I am still breaking my bike in. The fastest I’ve had it is around 60. But I had a helluva good time driving it to Rayong and back, keeping it between forty and fifty most of the time. When I finally got home I felt no discomfort whatsoever from the tingling that is caused by too much vibration. I could drive my SR400 all day long as long as I kept my speed down. Its seat is supremely comfortable. And the bike’s erect riding position is the way God meant for a man to ride a motorcycle. Around town the bike accelerates very quickly, but out on the interstate the SR400’s acceleration is simply not competitive to practically everything else that’s out there that’s over 250 cc’s. Once I get past the break in period, I’ll no doubt get it up to 80 or so, but I expect the most limiting factor will be an uncomfortable level of vibration at the upper end of the tachometer.
But I really enjoyed the drive. My Yamaha SR400’s road manners were simply impeccable. The bike at just 380 pounds or so is a real lightweight to flick around yet its 18 inch diameter tires and long wheel base make it track like an arrow. And throughout the entire ride the bike’s single cylinder engine’s making some rather strange sounds that will oftentimes make you feel like you are piloting a World War II Spitfire fighter plane.
The bike’s got a 12 liter fuel tank which is just small enough to avoid impairing the bike’s gorgeous lines. A Honda CBR 250 for example has got that hump in front of you. And so does the Kawasaki Ninja which needs that big hump because it has to have a relatively large gas tank for the bike to get good range. But on my first check on my SR 400’s fuel economy I drove 202 kilometers out of just 6.16 liters of fuel for an overall average of 32.79 kilometers to the liter which equates to roughly 77 miles to the gallon. Back when I was driving my Honda 350 CB all I could get was around 50 miles to the gallon or so. This means the Yamaha SR400 should get around 390 kilometers out of its svelte gas tank before it runs out of fuel.
I think it’s a terrific bike for Thailand. It’s fast enough for the conditions I’ll be using it under. It has excellent range which means I don’t have to waste my time always looking for filling stations or if I am venturing out into unknown territory I know that if I get lost that I won’t be running out of fuel in an area where I will be unable to find a gas station. It’s gorgeous, and it just feels so good driving it.
The bikes in this slideshow are the Honda 350 CB, Honda 450 CB, Yamaha RD 350, Yamaha XS 650, the Triumph Bonneville 650, BSA’s 650 Lightning and the Norton 850 Commando. Try right clicking on each slideshow image of these beauties, choose “view image” to enlarge each picture, and you will understand that “They simply don’t make them the way they used to.”