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Cycle Guide - Feburary 1979 Print E-mail


Cycle Guide Article

February, 1979

Yamaha XS Eleven Special

Big inches for Buckhorn Boulevard

by Steve Thompson

Why, yes. the CBX is wonderful. Trick, fast, techno-marvelous, in fact. And, yes, indeed, that Suzuki GS1000 is a fine motorcycle, balanced, responsive, powerful and intelligently designed. But if you're talking impact, if you're concerned about the social obligations of a motorcycle, if you want to make sweat pop out on the brows of entirely different demographic groups of Americans, why, then you'll need something a little less subtle. Something a little more like a 100-horsepower kick in the gut. Something, in fact, like this new-for-'79 Yamaha XS Eleven Special.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time wondering about the success of the look so successfully captured by Yamaha with its lineup of Specials (400, 650, 750 and now 1100. Various complex theories have been put forward. Long marketing discussions have been held deep within worried other-guy corporate headquarters. Motorcycle journals have ventured timid opinions and outright fantasies as explanations. But it really doesn't take anything that complicated to gt Special-think in focus. All you have to do is look at the thing.

Long, low, black. Massive engine. Arrogant handlebars. Exhaust pipes like chromed 105mm cannons. It doesn't take a sociologist to see what any kid from the urban DMZ knows as soon as this Yamaha wheels confidently around the corner. This is a bad moorcycle, man, and the dude slumped behind those buckhorns is not to be messed with.

Well, that's the image, anyway. In fact, of course, the people who buy Specials are just like you and me: motorcycle riders from the Great American Middle Class. Otherwise, sales of the bikes wouldn't have catapulted Yamaha into the catbird seat last year. And its selection of bikes that look and act like this new Eleven Special isn't so hard to understand when you realize that, bad-dude styling or no, the bikes themselves are pretty nice rides. Besides, when has an American been able to resist buying a Krome Kustom instead of the more mundane product? Never, that's when.

Opting for this Krome Yammie brings the optee some things a lot more substantial than peer awe, though. For starters, the Eleven Special's suggested retail bottom line of $3699 includes something not available on its, standard stablemate for any price - at least right now. That something is a fully adjustable suspension, comprised of a Kayaba leading-axle air/spring fork up front and a pair of Kayaba four-position adjustable dampers in back (which also have the obligatory five-position spring pre-load cams). This makes the Special the only street bike that can match the Suzuki GS1000 and GS850 in the exotic-suspension department.

Besides three square feet of chrome, that $3699 also buy's a 16-inch rear tire, the Special's 3.8-gallon gas tank (garden-variety XS Elevens get 5.3 gallons, proving that when style is concerned, less must be more) the aforementioned paint scheme (available in either basic black with a hint of gold metalflake overspray or Yamaha's dazzling Carmine Red), a slightly tweaked frame, different steering geometry, different tires and different fenders. The halogen headlight and self-canceling turn signals are round as are the tach and speedo - all unlike the XS1100F, which is still styled in the hewn-from-marble square idiom.

Largely responsible for the hefty tariff, of course, is the 1101cc four-cylinder DOHC engine that juts impressively out of the frame. Its massive appearance is matched, as everyone knows by flow, by equally impressive performance in all areas: with 73.4 dyno-verified rear-wheel horsepower oil tap and, perhaps more importantly, 54.4 lbs-ft of torque, the Eleven's engine qualifies for inclusion in the locomotive Hall of Fame. Fed by four 34mm Mikuni constant-velocity carburetors, the Eleven's valves are opened and closed by a single-row chain threaded over the twin camshafts. Hot sparks are flawlessly provided to the "quasi-spherical" combustion chambers by way of Yamaha's Transistor Controlled Ignition. The big news in this department when the Eleven bowed last year was the vacuum-advance mechanism, which was - and still is - novel for a motorcycle engine.

It may be stretching the point to call something of this displacement and drivetrain simply a motorcycle engine. Because even with a newly wonky power curve (courtesy of EPA-placating pilot jetting) and a different exhaust system (incorporating a balance pipe between the two large, short mufflers but behind the collectors), the engine is an absolute paragon of smooth, effortless power. It fits perfectly into the Special's personality.

Stuffing the rest of the Special into the standard bike's dimensions presented some problems, though. For one, replacing the Eleven's 17-inch rear tire with a lower-profile 16-incher threatened to alter the standard 1100's tried-and-proven steering geometry by lowering the rear end of the hike about three-quarters of an inch. And using a leading-axle front fork (to create the illusion of an extended front end) offered potential interference problems between the Special's overinflated-teardrop gas tank and the leading-axle fork's straight-across, small-offset triple clamps. But through some technical sleight of hand - such as re-angling the Special's steering head to compensate for the rear-end lowering job, and angling the fork legs more steeply than the steering head (28-1/2 degrees as opposed to 29-1/2 at the steering head) - the Special retained the geometry of the standard 1100, and the triple clamps do not foul the gas tank.

Considering the alternatives to these (complex changes - a 135-mph motorcycle with too little trail and thus lightning-quick steering, or a 563-pound motorcycle with too much trail and thus questionably slow and heavy steering - all the effort seems justified. What that translates to is a bike with an awkward riding position but generally excellent road manners. In fact, most of the things that irritated this staff in the way the bike rode and handled could be traced to the handlebar, which, although certainly as trendy as disco dancing, was not what the ergonomics doctor ordered for precise, comfortable control. Almost nine inches narrower at the grips than the standard bar, it loops up and then abruptly down so dramatically that the rider's hands are almost parallel to each other. Throttle, clutch and auxiliary control functions weren't too affected by the positions, but riders conditioned by other grip angles uniformly had troubles with emergency front-wheel braking, due, apparently to an awkward relationship between forearm and wrist. We're not saying the buckhorn bar is dangerous, just very hard to get used to.

The same was not true of the rest of the styling bits that make tile Special different; the seat was comfortable, though short in back and a little slippery. The step from rider to passenger seat is very gentle, as is obvious from the photos, and every Special rider appreciated that a lot, since it allows a better variety of riding positions than the more bucketed styles. Maybe more important, though, was the ease with, which short riders could handle the Eleven Special - something certainly seldom true of the standard bike, and traceable entirely to the difference in seat height.

Yamaha seems certain that the bike is destined for a lot of boulevard cruising, so pull-back bars and low seats make sense. What's surprising is that despite all the flash, this Special actually behaves nicely in the twisty bits too. Even with the air fork pumped tip to 13 psi (we ran around 11 most of the time) and the dampers set on Three (next-to-firmest), things got a little wobbly and slightly rocking-chairish in the hard-and-fast sweepers. But in low-to middle-speed turns, the Special wasn't much worse than its standard stablemate.

Don't get the idea that this means the bike is ill at ease off the freeway. The bigger-footprint rear tire aided in producing some of the most impressive stopping distances we've ever recorded, and the effects were obvious even on the street. Were it not for the buckhorns and the too-low pegs although identical to the standard versions, they drag easier than the stock bike's because of the smaller-diameter rear tire), this bike would be better at carving up mountain roads than its standard brother.

Back on the boulevard, of course, power counts. Not fancy lines through corners, nor trick suspensions. And only someone who's been asleep for two years will be surprised that the Special squatted down on its fat 5.00H16 Mag Mopus and blasted out an 11.976-second, 113.2-mph run through the quarter-mile, convincingly proving its status in Powerland. Even CBX owners should stalk Specials carefully, because in roll-on races, the massive torque of, this monsterbike will simply overpower any combination of tiny valves, cams and cylinders, on the street. Ultimate dragstrip numbers, aside, the Eleven in any guise is the easiest bike around to shrink time and egos with. It only takes a judicious hand on the throttle when coming out of the hole to keep the front wheel down and the tire from going up in expensive smoke - after that, all you do is squint your eyes and hold on.

We paid for all this power with pretty poor fuel economy: a low of 33 mpg and a high of 36. Considering the similarity between this engine and the one in the Eleven we tested in November's issue, that's puzzling - and right now, anyway, unexplainable. Because this engine, if anything, ran smoother, quieter and better throughout than its earlier counterpart. Perhaps it's simply a matter of use; we never managed a long trip with this Special, confining our activities to the drag strip, SoCal freeways and mountain roads. What with our previous experience with Elevens, it's a pretty safe bet you could expect over 40 mpg consistently from yours.

The question is, should you buy one? Is the Special worth four hundred bucks more than the bog-standard Eleven? If your attracted by the adjustable suspension, compelled by the styling, hold on awhile. Yamaha promises it for all standard Elevens soon. And if you think the eyeblink's difference in quarter-mile time between standard and Special is worth the money, look again - the difference isn't great enough to mean much.

There are some interesting mechanical differences that could prove decisive. The Special is 10 pounds lighter than the standard bike. And since one of the most irritating things about XS Elevens has been their amazing lack of storage space, the cleaner, simpler styling and tidier configuration of the Special makes sense. Most intriguing of all is the fact that with the Special, you don't have to use the standard Eleven's Rube Goldberg wire-and-lever tool to pull the rear wheel up far enough to let the rear axle clear the mufflers when changing a flat: the Special's mufflers stop just short of the axle.

In the end, all this mechanical-tradeoff stuff may be so much (consumerist maundering, of course. Because what makes the Special special is the way it looks, even though the irony of a factory-produced "custom" call hardly be lost on anyone. In functional terms, the Special is about as good as the GI-issue Eleven, with slightly more awkward low-speed steeling and slightly better breaking. Its exhaust noise is pleasantly modulated, so the neighbors won't have an excuse to call the noise police. Overall, it's an amazingly pleasant, admirably competent motorcycle. A socially acceptable outlaw bike; Butch Cassidys' town mount, if you will.

When you think about it, that's quite an accomplishment. Building a single motorcycle able to meet the EPA regs, the unwritten-but-demanding performance criteria of the American big-inch riders and the peculiar social tenor of the times is something, well, special. No wonder Yamaha dealers are smiling.


Ride Review

Since I'm the only guy around here who believes the standard-brand XS Eleven looks just wonderful, it's no surprise that I think the Special looks something like a cartoon in comparison.

I like the XS750 Special a lot, but that motorcycle has a hint of hard-edged meanness that complements its custom-cruiser silhouettes - a lumpy idle and ragged exhaust note, for example. There's nothing mean about the Eleven Special. Barely a quiver escapes from the rubber-mounted engine and the air fork flattens the roughest road. Its only uncivilized trait is a tendency to steer like a wheelbarrow at slow speeds because of the pull-back handlebars.

As far as I'm concerned, the regular Eleven is superior to the Special in terms, of being a restful place to ride. That makes the Special accessories on this bike as appropriate as a sissy bar on a Peterbilt. - Michael Jordan

Every so often the coming of a particular motorcycle has to be greeted as a cultural event rather than as simply another machine rolling off the line; the XS1100SF is such a motorcycle. There is a palpable defiance in the sweep of the chopper-inspired lines that challenges all comers to reject the concept entirely. In short, the complex styling treatment was a complete success for me. Not that the SF is inherently better than the stocker, just different. More than any other of Yamaha's Specials, the 1100SF projects the self-assurance of a motorcycle with its own well-defined character. It doesn't come off as a gussied-up version of something else. With the intensely satisfying emotional trigger the SF offers, whether or not it makes sense on the street probably won't be as important for its riders as how good it makes you feel. - Larry Works

Somehow, Yamaha has managed to take the Bulk-King Edition XS1100, and make it look term and compact - almost light. The Special treatment on the Eleven is carried off beautifully. The chubby rear wheel, sawed-off pipes and pseudo-chopper front end provide more pleasing proportion without significantly changing the Eleven's basic personality. Even with this year's EPA-pleasing carburetion, the Yamaha still has an extremely satisfying powerplant. The slightly stepped seat isn't far off the mark, and neither is the basic riding position. The Eleven Special does what all the other Yamaha Profilers do - give people the appearance that sales figures show they want, without making them pay for it with the performance inadequacies that normally come with custom machines. I just wish it didn't come with those ridiculous pull-back handlebars. - Jeff Karr

Guest Editorial

Styling the American Motorcycle

The look of tomorrow, yesterday

Kawasaki calls it an "LTD," Yamaha calls it a "Special" and Honda calls it a "Custom." I call it traditional American.

Somehow, all American males know what the ideal motorcycle should look like. Something from our cultural past makes us like teardrop gas tanks, massive engines, low seats and fat rear tires. So why do most motorcycles look like something else? Simple. Most motorcycle design is controlled by foreigners, and a foreigner's idea of styling come from his area of the world. To him, his motorcycles look good.

Until recently, motorcycle styling hasn't been overwhelmingly important. American riders just bought the-biggest and fastest bikes available. Japanese bikes sold well because they were road-burners, not because they were stylish. Things are different now; every brand of motorcycle is big and fast, in fact, we've probably reached the end of that road, and other qualities have begun to take on major importance; qualities like styling.

In 1978, someone at Yamaha had the foresight to Americanize a few bikes in its line. Yamaha was way behind Honda in sales at that time. Yamaha called these restyled bikes "Specials," and just added a few cosmetic touches to bog-standard Yamahas. The differences were all styling, but just the sight of one set the American male longing to slip behind the pullback bars. What is so extraordinary about a Special is that it is traditional American. Yamaha used shapes that have been a part of every Harley-Davidson and Indian for 60 years.

So based on looks, Yamaha moved into the No. 1 spot, and probably could have stayed there if enough bikes had been available. The whole thing took the industry by surprise, including Honda, which had just introduced the Hawk 400, CX500 and CBX. It didn't take Honda long to react. Friendly visits with magazine editors, dealers and members of the aftermarket led Honda to believe that it had better change its ways, and a new record for a styling about-face was set. The CM400 and CX500 are offered with the teardrop tank, low-seat/fat-tire treatment for 1979, and probably more styling licks will come in the future. Suzuki has just followed with its L-series street bikes.

Oddly, Kawasaki appears to have ignored the styling trends; the basic Japanese lines were Americanized just enough to get by. Although the LTDs were the industry's first experiments in responding to American styling wants, Kawasaki seems to have taken it rightly. The majority of its 1979 bikes totally ignore the successes of the LTD styling. The KZ1300 has come out chunky and massive. While it is attractive in a non-motorcycle sort of way it is no match for the good-looking XS1100 Special, one of the most attractive motorcycles made today.

But what makes it attractive? Who knows why a 1928 Indian gas tank looks good? It's just a reflection of our times.

Harley-Davidson has had its styling down pat and has never had to change its appearance radically. The 1979 "80" looks just like the 1936 "61." While other manufacturers use styling to make their bikes look "different," Harley figured out what Americans like years ago. Throughout the past 15 years of the Japanese motorcycle invasion, H-D has been methodically upgrading the reliability and quality of its machinery. Now, with the dollar-yen relationship bringing up the cost of Japanese motorcycles, there isn't much difference between the cost of a real Harley-Davidson and a lookalike. I suspect that Harley will do very well.

It's taken 15 years for the foreign manufacturers to rediscover American styling, and the return to tradition is having an unexpected positive effect. Reportedly, the Yamaha Specials are attracting new first-time buyers. If that's the case, Americanized styling may be responsible for healthy new growth to our sport, which has been decreasing in overall popularity of late.

This may make you wonder if we've reached the end of styling innovations. Will it be Harley-Davidson lookalikes forever? No, because even though we like traditional American styling, it doesn't quite solve all our problems. American motorcycling has come to include streamlined protection from the wind and rider conveniences like storage and radios. But fairings and saddlebags don't seem to look right on bikes like the Specials. Does all this spell the end for the U.S. aftermarket?

Perhaps, but I don't think so. However we will see a lot of changes in how things look. And I am certain that American designers will be more influential in the styling of motorcycles for the United States. The industry is shooting, new signs of life. The American motorcyclist is going to get more of what he wants, and it's exciting to be in the middle of it all. - Craig Vetter


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