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Yamaha SR500 – The Subtle Survivor

A bone-stock Yamaha SR500 with an honest patina drew this enthusiast to a classic. A few subtle upgrades were in order.

red 1978 yamaha sr500 in a park sure angle

Ron Driedger took notice of the Yamaha SR500 back in the early 2010s and began looking for one as a project and rider. The SR500, and the related SR400, were niche bikes, a bit of an anachronism when first produced in 1978 and not common on Canadian roads due to the few years the bikes were available in Canadian dealerships. Yet the SR500 held an appeal that Ron may have difficulty explaining himself but he wanted one. The SR had become the target of customizers wanting to transform the dominant big single-cylinder street standard into a cafe racer. The idea might have crossed Ron’s mind but he felt the cafe racer approach didn’t enhance the look of the machine. His was going to remain stock with some subtle upgrades. 

What Ron found and brought home was a 1978 SR500E, the very first bike in the SR series and, at the time, a bike that was available in Canada. His SR was a survivor and, for better or for worse, as stock as it was when it came off the showroom floor about the time the senior Trudeau was wrapping up his first stint as prime minister. Even the bike’s red paint with gold stripe was original. Only two previous owners had seen the SR500E through its first 35 years and between the two had logged just 6,000 kilometres on the odometer.

There were a couple variables with the first year SR500s shipped around the world that created subtle differences between bikes on different continents. After the various paint options, the other big difference was the type of wheels. The Canadian bikes received cast wheels and as a crucial upgrade, a rear disc brake to match the disc on the front wheel. The US also received early model bikes with the cast wheels and a rear drum brake. The bikes offered in Europe and Japan featured spoked wheels and a drum brake on the rear with a disc on the front.

The cast wheels were the only thing Ron didn’t particularly care for and he set about installing spoked wheels on the bike even though it meant losing the very rare disc brake rear setup. After only a few years Yamaha would revert to a drum brake on the rear of all the bikes perhaps to save money or perhaps they came to the conclusion the bike with wire wheels and drum brakes just looked better. 

The challenge Ron faced when replacing the cast wheels is the SR500 had long been out of production and even longer out of the Canadian market. It was virtually impossible to find a set of OEM spoked wheels and any attempt to refit discs would have required machining. Fortunately Yamaha was building the XS 650 at the same time with a very similar setup although the disc was mounted on the opposite side. Ron was able to find an XS wheel and re-engineer it using parts from the cast wheel to finish the job .

The rear wheel proved to be considerably more difficult and involved a custom drilled Excel rim and spoke set, components from Yamaha’s YR3 and RD250. There were also clearance issues involved in the switch from disc to drum that required sourcing a drum brake specific swingarm from a US salvage shop. Ron has a background in lacing bicycle wheels and took on the task of lacing both the front and the rear himself and did the job admirably. When new rubber was installed on the rim only a small weight was required to balance the wheel. 

red 1978 yamaha sr500 in a park sure angle

Ron’s has used his Yamaha  SR500 as a daily rider putting 15,000 km on the bike since purchasing it. He says it has been quite reliable beyond a problem with the stator which caused a mysterious starting problem, one that took several attempts and several unnecessary new parts to diagnose. Fortunately a friend who was once a Yamaha mechanic came to the rescue. It’s good to know people.

Ron made several other changes to the bike to improve the ride and safety but they are subtle and almost unnoticeable upon first glance. The original bars were replaced with a zero rise set allowing for a more aggressive riding position, the rear shock were replaced with a set of Hagon period appropriate shocks and the front forks received Progressive springs. The front brake line was also replaced with a steel braided line.

Finding some generic parts in Canada is possible particularly those that were common to other Yamaha models but due the age of the bike most of Ron’s bike specific parts have come from numerous suppliers across North America and the UK.

As for kick starting his daily ride? Ron claims it isn’t too bad. When the bike is cold or hot it is usually not a problem with the use of the choke or the hot start button that allows for more air than fuel in the starting process. It’s when the bike is warm, somewhere between hot and cold, that the kick start can be more of a challenge finding the correct mix.

We noticed Ron’s survivor bike because it came up for sale when the SR400 story was being written for this issue. The price seemed very reasonable— maybe even too reasonable — for all the work and expense that has been put into the bike. But Ron acknowledges the bike falls within a very specific niche and buyers need to be looking for it. While he has upgraded the bike substantially, it is still a survivor with original paint and a motor that may one day need a rebuild.

 Ron appreciates his vision of the SR500 and when asked about the future of the bike with a new owner he would prefer the bike remain true to its original purpose and he even kept the old parts should the new owner wish to take the bike right back to off-the-floor stock.

 

Yes, there are new purposes for old bikes but after the friendships founded on building, restoring and riding his Yamaha SR500, Ron thinks his bike turned out just about right.

 

  • John Molony Canadian Biker #355

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