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Cycle Magazine - March 1980 Print E-mail

Cycle Article

March, 1980


Daylight or Midnight, take your choice. The dress is different, but beneath the cosmetics, you'll have an XS11, which means you get flowing lines, abundant horsepower and quality construction. But if you want the After-Six version, be prepared to stand in line.

Yamaha was the first Japanese manufacturer to jump headlong into styling, and in the last year the company has gone high-style, straight to the bank. The form of this styling, generally known as "Specials," has been widely imitated, if not copied, by Yamaha's competitors, and this pursuit has led Yamaha into more elaborate textures laid over already successful forms. Witness the Midnight Specials. If buyers were originally attracted to Specials because they perceived these machines as highly individual and distinctive, then it behooves manufacturers to keep creating annual differences, in finish and detail, such as Midnight Specials, or in form and shape, such as Harley-Davidson's new Wide-Glide. Yamaha can't get too radical - no flames yet - and still Yamaha must try to stay out in front in the market mainstream. Moreover, no Japanese manufacturer can permit its cost accountants to trade away techno-refinements for a Gucci-inspired sissy bar.

Cycle found it hard to fault the 1979 XS Eleven Special, and despite the fact that Elevens aren't exactly world-class handlers the Special did all right, in light of two things. The first four-cylinder Yamaha Special had adjustable-damper shocks and an air-assist fork to improve it over the standard model, and it was the only real Special of its size on the block.

Our 1980 Special ran a 12.02-second, 112.07 mph quarter-mile, slightly slower than the 1979 model - but by less than 0.10 second and 1.60 mph. This difference indicates there is little change in the Eleven Special's characteristically stout performance. A twelve-flat motorcycle is nothing to sneeze at; the Yamaha is second to the 11.49-second Suzuki GS1100ET in our 1980 model tests, and it's faster and quicker than the 1980 CBX we tested in November 1979, although Honda has now taken steps to put the CBX squarely in the elevens.

The Eleven has wheel-spinning power, and an imprudent throttle hand will initiate wheelspin both when exiting corners and from a standing start. Tremendous mid- and high-range torque is evident when passing cars in fifth gear-the Special has truly impressive abilities as measured by the roll-on yardstick. Eight thousand rpm seems to be about the Eleven's breathing limits, at this point you're well advised to change up. At low revs, the four pulls smoothly, with nary a hitch from trotting to cruising speed.

Several engine specifications have been changed for 1980, but these are limited to the top-end: the cylinder-head combustion chambers have been altered to meet the EPA's emission specifications. Piston crown shape and larger valves give back a little of the performance lost to leaner jetting and a lower 9.0:1 compression ratio (down from 9.2:1). Yamaha designed the original XS Eleven with smaller valves than "necessary" and still got performance they felt was adequate. In anticipation of ever-more-restrictive pollution limits Yamaha elected to increase the valve sizes: intakes from 36mm to 38mm, and exhausts from 31 mm to 32 mm. Exhaust valve lift has been increased 0.5mm to 8.8mm; intake lift remains 8.8mm. A new cylinder head was fashioned to carry the bigger valves and revised combustion chamber. The slightly lower compression ratio allows the four-cylinder to run better on questionable gasoline - something to which high-performance machinery has traditionally responded with acute indigestion.

Apart from the top-end revisions, the XS powerplant remains virtually unchanged. Three-ring pistons move 68.6mm in 71.5mm bores; actual engine displacement is 1102 cubic centimeters. The Yamaha's crankshaft spins backwards compared to most transverse-engined motorcycles; this allows the gearbox and jackshafts to be placed conveniently. The crankshaft itself is a forged steel unit, and the rods join with bolts and caps between flywheels and around replaceable plain bearings. At the pistons, conventional wrist-pin bushings are utilized. Yamaha hasn't had trouble with the Eleven's crankshaft assemblies; in fact, the world record-holding Teson and Bernard dragster uses a stock Yamaha crankshaft modified only to the extent necessary for installing supercharger and power takeoffs.

Although ordinary by automotive standards, the XS Eleven's Hitachi ignition system is still innovative in the motorcycling world. The system uses both a vacuum and centrifugal spring-type advance. The advantages of joining these two systems is that the engine's ignition advance changes with engine speed and the load. A small change in the ignition advance curve has been made to give the Eleven better mid-range driveability.

A quartet of new-bodied 34mm Mikuni constant-vacuum carburetors has one-position needles and hidden air screws. The Mikunis' idle-speed air screws are in chambers near the carb tops, above the throttle butterflies. The screws are pre-set, then their chambers are capped, although imaginative owners can remove the caps without the benefit of dealer-only factory tools. Main jet size has dropped from 137.5 to 110.


Gasoline prices being what they are, you'll be pleased to learn that Cycle's XS Eleven test bike returned an average of 42.7 miles per gallon. Our best tankful went at the rate of 47.0 mpg; our worst was 28.7 mpg. You'll not obtain the latter figure unless you're bent on quickly carving your way up a snaky roadway or running flat-out between Missouri dairy fields. At 42.7 mpg, you can ride 141 miles before the Yamaha will need reserve, which will see you another 30 miles. You can supply the Eleven with regular, premium or unleaded gasoline without fear of damaging detonation - our test bike ran happily on each grade.

Yamaha Elevens have never been known for exactly smooth shifting, and nothing has been done to alleviate the bike's gear-change harshness. A forceful nudge will make the Yamaha shift adequately, up and down, but the gap-toothed gear engagement dogs consistently clunk if the gearbox shaft speeds are not fairly well matched before a shift. The gearbox ratio spreads take advantage of the generous on-tap torque and, considering the Eleven's finesse-less shifting, you probably will acquire the habit of riding in one gear. If you feel a need to abuse the clutch, go ahead; it's the sturdiest Superbike clutch around, providing good feel and heat resistance well beyond reasonable torture. The 1980 clutch has slightly thicker friction plates than 1979's, but the driven plates apparently are identical.

If you look closely you'll notice that the 1980 Eleven has no kickstarter: the lever, shaft and gears are gone - a tribute to Yamaha's confidence in the electrical system, commitment to economy in production and (we hope) interest in lower weight.

The 1980 Special carries suspension components identical to those used in 1979. They allow a wide range of adjustment but, to us, some of the settings did not seem particularly useful.

Yamaha offers four-damper-setting rear shocks, coupled with five spring-preload positions for a theoretical 20 combinations. The lightest shock rebound setting is all but useless - its damping is so slight that the Yamaha's rear end heaves up and down following bumps, with little oil resistance to calm it. The two through four positions are better, and a significant change can be felt with each. Number four's damping is suitable for packing heavy, taking along a passenger or traversing rough pavement quickly.

Certain road conditions absolutely give the big Yamaha fits. The most notable is one we find near Cycle's editorial offices: cement-slab freeways and roads. These seem to have slight elevation changes at each section, and these crests, or the troughs that follow them, give the Special a bad case of staggers. This annoying bounding can be downright unpleasant if you choose to put up with it for a long time. Speed barely changes how the bike works over these devilish spots, so unless you alter speed drastically the effect remains the same - you're in for a bumpy ride. The next-to-lightest suspension settings work best here.

The Yamaha heaves with considerable and diabolical intent if you accelerate on a bumpy road: you can actually be bounced from the saddle due to the stiffening effects of shaft-drive torque reaction on the rear suspension. When you're on the gas, the rear shocks and the fork extend, and the Special tends to leap over bumps instead of allowing its suspension system to soak them up. The result is a lurching, pitching ride, one that at 60 mph on full-throttle can actually make the rear wheel chirp. One tester's kidneys began to hurt after an unusually long stretch of rough highway. Adjustment of the shock dampers is easy, but the springs themselves are stiff and their preload collars hard to turn. The right shock's collar cannot be tuned to its firmest position with the tool kit lever; the rear brake caliper gets in the tool's way.

The fork is "allowed" a range of air pressure from zero pounds per square inch to 36 psi: zero is good only for the limpest highway ride; six psi offers plenty of comfort, with better control. The total range of reasonable effectiveness is six to 30 psi. Between these settings, the Special's fork provides a reasonable ride over most street- or highway- type terrains. Twenty psi makes the front end fairly dive-proof with little loss of bump absorption capabilities. Though equipped with reasonably stout-appearing sliders and 34mm fork tubes, two testers could feel the Special's front end flex fore-aft during certain highway conditions. This won't cause a loss of control, yet it serves notice that the front end components are a little too slim for the weight they carry. Overall, the Special's ride is less consistent than the Honda GL1100's, and certain road conditions do play havoc with it. Fortunately, suspension settings can be found to suit the majority of riding conditions.


High-speed stability is good, although the long handlebar requires a bit of tugging to get the Special flipping side-to-side through a series of corners. We tried substituting an SR500 handlebar for the Special's tillers, and our testers believed it allowed a better riding posture for all conditions. The SR handlebar definitely didn't add to the Yamaha's boulevard-ready appearance, yet we think it drew less from the bike's other flowing lines than the stock handlebar does.

Low suspension settings tend to allow the Special to sway a bit while cornering, even in relatively smooth turns. With the units on full-soft, you can induce a real tail-wobble by shutting off the gas while heeled over. The 1100 has adequate, if not trend-setting, cornering clearance, but there are a number of large displacement street honkers that will show their license plates to the Special on a mountain highway.

The Yamaha's frame is mild steel and uses tapered roller bearings at the steering head and swing-arm pivot. Twin front and rear downtubes drop fore and aft of the powerplant, and a full cradle protects the engine from below. The swing arm is tubular on the drive side, and it's square-sectioned on the right.

The tires are tubeless Bridgestone Mag Mopus, 3.50 H 19 front and 130/90-16 H rear. Our test bike cornered and braked well on these treads; their only deficiency became apparent when bumpy corners were taken at intemperate speeds. This made the bike wiggle slightly, causing momentary but repeated losses of traction.


A trio of 298mm discs and single-piston calipers stops the 588-pound Special. Front wheel braking performance is good, especially with the fork set stiff; at the rear, the tire can hop during abrupt stops, making braking control difficult. Even after you release the brake pedal, the tire may continue to hop for a second. At any operating temperature the front stopper requires one or two fingers to slow you rapidly, and neither it nor the rear brake fades significantly when hot. Slots punched in each stainless rotor purportedly help wet-weather braking - and set up a light, non-offensive buzzing when lightly applied.

Little engine vibration gets to the rider, thanks to the engine's inherent smoothness and to the fluted rubber bushings in its mounts. The four remains acceptably smooth to its 8500 rpm redline, but its happiest range is between 3600 and 5700 rpm, or about 55 to 87 mph in fifth gear.


Though appearing thin at its front, the 31.4-inch-high saddle is quite comfortable and not too short-sectioned for taller pilots. There is a good deal of area you can move back onto - instead of finding yourself against an immovable abutment. The passenger portion of the seat is about three inches above the pilot's sector and equally well padded.

In contrast to the uncomfortably high handlebar, the Yamaha's other comfort and convenience equipment is placed nicely. Nineteen-eighty's footrests have larger rubber pads, and they're beginning to resemble a touring bike's floorboards. We didn't feel that the pegs on the 1979 Special were inadequate, and the ones on the 1980 Yamaha add nothing to the pilot's riding comfort. Your passengers, however, will wish for more buzz-free footrests. The mirrors, though hard to adjust without tools, provide excellent backside coverage, and the grips are soft, complementing a light throttle pull. The gas cap on our test bike wept when the fuel level was high - enough to be a knee dampener.

Yamaha reports the 1979 XS Eleven Special outsold the standard Eleven by a 100 per cent margin - which convinced Yamaha engineers no great harm would come if they monkeyed with the cosmetics a little. Few differences are evident, yet they serve to better integrate the Special's design.

DOT-type reflectors have been enlarged and relocated, and a bigger twin-bulb taillight is located just behind the seat and new alloy grabrail. The Yamaha has a large selection of niceties in its electrical department. Two-tone horns replace last year's single hooter, and these are much better at keeping offensive traffic from crowding your flanks. The headlight, like last-year's, is a quartz-bulb unit that throws a brilliant white beam. And an automatic switching device connects the second light filament when the other burns out, while lighting a display warning light on the dashboard.

Emergency flashers (not DOT-required) are provided, along with an automatic engine-stop pendulum switch that interrupts the ignition circuit if the Special falls past 60 degrees from the vertical. A parking position on the ignition switch sets parking lamps blazing - the taillight and two front running lights. The Yamaha is blessed with self-cancelling turn signals. And they're great.

An accessory wiring terminal and fuse are located near the other fuses under the right side panel, and it can handle loads up to 10 amps. One interesting addition to the Special's instrument panel is a low fuel level warning lamp which works by a temperature-sensitive resistor that hangs inside the fuel tank. When the gas level drops below the resistor, its temperature rises, its resistance changes, and that activates the low-fuel circuit. We found our light first flickered on when we were eight miles from needing reserve.

Next to the Midnight Special, the "Standard Special" is still far and away the King of Specials, although as a sport or touring motorcycle we think it leaves something to be desired. The suspension components are tunable, yet some of their settings are practically unusable. The bike has a comfortable seat, yet its handlebar is awkwardly shaped. The Special is fast, yet it handles comers uncertainly. For $3879 Yamaha should offer an Eleven Special with a more agreeable gearbox and better manners on the cement - slab and in bumpy comers.

Nobody at Cycle actively disliked the Yamaha XS Eleven Special; it's basically an agreeable and obviously well-built motorcycle. We'd just like to see it more refined.


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