For a touch of old world charm mixed with rugged practicality to make daily commutes more liveable, look no further than Yamaha’s XT500, writes Patrick van Sleight.
by Patrick van Sleight
If the BMW R80GS was the Range Rover of motorcycles in the ‘80s, the Yamaha XT500 must have been the Land Rover; more simple, smaller, lighter and cheaper. Talk about crossing the continent, and these two bikes are the trailies of choice. Both have extensive Paris-Dakar Rally credentials and perhaps not surprisingly, the XT and its derivates have won the race a total of nine times!
Launched three years before the formidable R80GS, it is the XT that carries the mantle as the original big trailie, setting the template from which most other big trailies were moulded. At a time when dual-purpose bikes were lightweight two-strokes, the arrival of Yamaha’s four-stroke big single was a delight with its superior fuel efficiency and high torque.
Needless to say, the Yamaha 500 single-cylinder is highly respected among fans of thumpers, as the XT is also known, because of their compact simplicity and old-world charm. Called thumpers because of the unique "thump, thump, thump" exhaust note; with a loud, free-flow pipe, this sound is captivating.
For a cheap but trusty companion, the XT is hard to beat. Apart from the R80GS, the Honda XL500 perhaps comes closest, though it has been said that the Honda is not in the same league of simplicity and reliability as the XT and GS. It certainly has never developed the mystique of the XT and the GS, and the GS is in a different league in terms of in price and engineering anyway.
The XT500 had various offsprings and like a true classic was kept in production alongside its intended replacements, the XT 550 and XT600, up until 1988.
With its small and simple aluminium tear-drop tank, the XT oozes seventies romance and character, yet remains rugged and sensible. In a superbike age, it is a bike with surprising street credibility; not least because of its age.
You’re most likely to see this bike conscripted into daily commuting duties with its relative height providing good visibility in traffic. Cheap maintenance, good fuel consumption, sprightly performance and simple, robust mechanics with legendary reliability make it the weapon of choice to face the daily onslaught. However, a good number of them fortunately also retire to do duty on farms as well.
If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, the XT is perhaps too dull. Flat-out, on a straight road, you’d be hard-pressed to hit the national speed limit. And if you do, mechanical sympathy and excessive wind-blast will soon see you backing off.
Hit a set of flowing curves and things become a bit more interesting. The high centre of gravity lets it fall – rather than lean – into corners but tighten the twisties a bit and it becomes even more fun.
For all its reliability, owning an XT can be potentially laborious. Rebores seem to be part and parcel of any XT’s curriculum vitae, and it is a mildly contentious issue. Depending on whom you ask, rebores seem to feature highly on the list of XT owners’ gripes. Some feel a properly looked after XT should never to be rebored, while others feel it is perfectly normal.
The XT’s 499 cm3 engine has a bore size of 87 mm that can be enlarged about five times before a re-sleeve is needed. A rebore might have to be done every 30 to 40 000 km or every 10 years, depending on the riding style.
One Cape Town motorcycle shop owner ascribes the numerous rebores to the XT’s very thin cylinder iron which, combined with the lack of an oil-cooler, exaggerates wear