After the demise earlier in the year of the legendary V-Max and R6, it might be easy to overlook the end of another iconic Yamaha product that will cease production with the 2021 model year. The Yamaha SR400 was offered in the Japanese market in “Final” and “Final Limited” guise in celebration of an astounding 43-year run for the nostalgic air-cooled single. It isn’t simply that the name remained the same for those 40-plus years as with other bikes with long pedigrees, the SR400 is remarkably identical to its earliest iterations right down to the motor, the gauges and the spirit. So very true to its own origins, the SR400 still utilizes a kick starter — and only a kick starter — to get things rolling.
The kick starter is an appropriate vantage point to look back at the early development of the SR400. It started in the dirt and, as with many of Yamaha’s offroad initiatives, was driven by demand and riding styles in North America. In the 1970s Yamaha was building dirt bikes but they were primarily two-strokes, quick and fast yes, but there was demand for a style of bike with the ability to span greater distances and blessed with more bottom-end torque. The result was the development of the TT500 and the XT500: big single-cylinder, two-valve bikes to plow across miles of empty desert and sagebrush. The XT500 proved to be a durable off-road machine with its big, torquey thumper — the first Paris-Dakar rally was won by an XT500 mounted rider. As the race became more successful and competitive the XT500 eventually morphed into the XT550 and eventually the XT600, which as a Tenere would fly the Yamaha flag, as today’s Tenere still does.
But back in the 1970s there was this big reliable single that needed another purpose — the street. This led to the introduction of the SR400 and the SR500 with the powertrain including the kickstart remaining a part of the package along with headlights, taillights, and a drum rear brake.
The long term success of the SR400 and SR500 did not go unnoticed by other Japanese manufacturers although the love SR owners felt for their bikes did not always translate to other brands. Honda introduced a bike called the Ascot FT500, again powered by a big single that began life in the dirt. The Honda offering came equipped with modern attributes including a counter-balanced engine, electric start and standard disc brakes at both ends of the bike. While the bike did get some good reviews, the Ascot single made only a brief appearance in the market before returning with a V-Twin which departed just as quickly.
For longevity—in an odd appropriate parallel to the SR400—is the Suzuki Savage, AKA the S40. In a wild departure from tradition, Suzuki took its dirt originated big thumper motor and put it in a cruiser back in the mid-1980s and unlike the SR400 it remained a constant presence in North America for over 30 years with a rear drum brake! Did the Savage ever attain the cultish love of the SR400 – you’d have to ask an owner … if you can track one down.
Considering the impetus for the SR400 and SR500 came from the United States, American riders quickly tired of kicking their street bikes to life and the model left the US market until nostalgia and rose coloured glasses brought the SR400 back in the mid-2010s. By then anything with even a shred of hipster-cool was fodder for the marketing mills.
While the original SR400/500 lost favour in the US, it was a constant cult favourite in Europe. Slow, basic, inexpensive, and devoid of technology more sophisticated than an electric headlight (and late fuel injection) it oozed authentic character and due to the absolute dearth of hoses, clutter and weight that liquid cooling requires, the SR400 became a darling of the custom world where it was converted into everything from cafe racer to choppers to bikes much closer in spirit to the XT500 originator.
What ended the SR400 for good? The new European standards for emissions likely did not help. The hipsters might have grown tired of kick starting motorcycles again. The hipsters might have grown tired of kick starting motorcycles again. Forty-three years is a long time and everything must come to an end but what can be lamented is the pure simplicity of the SR400 for it is —in this high tech, electrifying world —a bike we most surely will not see the likes of again.
Canadian Biker Issue #355
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