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Cycle Magazine - January 1979 Print E-mail


January, 1979


Because of the success of the 650 and 750 Specials, an XS Eleven tilted in the same direction was inevitable. But somebody should pass the word to Yamaha. Specials don't have to be near this good.


If the Yamaha XS Eleven Special really is what it purports to be, then it is far and away the most overqualified motorcycle on the market, a Tomcat among turkey buzzards.

This grandest of all Specials comes to us as a result of research begun by Yamaha in 1971. A sampling of motorcyclists was shown five different riding position silhouettes: basic, mild lean-back, radical lean-back, mild cafe-racer, and radical cafe-racer. Most, of course, preferred the basic riding position-but the mild lean-back silhouette was the second most popular, drawing more than twice as many votes as the third most popular silhouette. A light clicked on in Yamaha's marketing department.

It was just as quickly switched off by Yamaha executives, both Japanese and American, who didn't like the shape of what they were seeing because of the image-chopperesque-it projected. But the executives had no such authority over the dealers. Throughout the period from 1972 to 1974 -the dealers were discovering that if they added some "customizing" to the 650 twin, they could sell it for $600 to $800 above its suggested retail price.

Not only were the dealers demonstrating in the most absolute bottom-line way the viability of the "Special," but in 1975 the Yamaha distributorship was catching a lot of flack about the European-influenced, hard-edged, "square" look then coming into vogue. By the end of 1976 Product Planner Ed Burke had finished building a prototype 650 Special, and it was on the way to Japan. Ed's first bike embodied two of the important "Special" elements: trick mufflers and one-piece wheels. Later on the pullback handlebars, the two-tier seat and the fat rear tire were added. It was determined that the 750 also lent itself to this kind of conversion, and by the end of 1977 the 650 and 750 Specials-coded with the SE suffix-were in the dealers' showrooms.

Both Yamaha Specials were successful beyond the dreams of practically everybody-everybody, that is, except Ed Burke and the people in Yamaha's marketing department. "Marketing" can be broadly defined as all the preliminary functions which cause the right product to appear before the consumers at the right time. Yamaha's marketing people had known for more than five years that the Specials would work, and had been able in 1976 to discern the basic magnitude of the bikes' potential market. When the various resistances to the concept - the European influence which works on home office management. The concerns of the Japanese about the reactions of magazine test staffs, their very deeply ingrained and affectionately guarded ideas about what a motorcycle should be, and look like-were overcome by Burke and the marketing guys, the bikes went on-stream and it was immediately evident that Yamaha had struck the mother lode. Within the first ten months of availability the 650 Special had accounted for just under 25,000 unit sales, the 750 Special had bagged another 18,000 customers, and Yamaha had come within an eyelash of knocking Honda out of the top market share position.

Inevitably Yamaha would apply what it learned about the American market to its top-of-the-line motorcycle, the Eleven. The inevitable didn't take long. The Eleven was introduced in December of 1977; here's the Special version, exactly one year later. How is it different from the Standard? Well, it's quicker, it's lighter, it handles better, its engine is more comfortable at acceptable cruising speeds and it has more sophisticated suspension equipment.

But all these are bagatelles when compared to the SF's main message: its looks. Close study of the SF indicates that Yamaha has elevated the styling of the "non-chopper chopper" practically to the level of an art form. The main elements, of course, have been seen to nicely: the limited capacity, monochromatic and stunningly-styled teardrop-type fuel tank; the high-kick buckhorn handlebars; the slightly swaybacked two-level "King and Queen" seat; a pair of seven-spoke one-piece aluminum wheels finished in black with buffed-out highlights; a high-profile ultra-wide 16-inch rear tire; and a cleverly done front end assembly which tricks the eye into believing it's somehow extended when it fact it is not. There is also, of course, the mandatory flash flood of chrome plate: both fenders, front motor mounts, the headlight and its mounting ears, instrument housings, air cleaner box, shock absorbers, taillight mount, and all four turn signal housings (these are rendered in chrome-plated plastic).

Less obvious are those small detail items which give the SF its traditional “roundness" and set it still more emphatically apart from the square standard Eleven. Its turn signals, headlight, instruments and reflectors are all circular, in contrast to the rectangular shapes of corresponding components on the Standard, and its dark-hued ("Black Gold") fuel tank flows easily into and out of the bike's shadows while the more crisply-rendered Standard tank, its contours accentuated by striping, has a far firmer, stiffer shape.

In Yamaha's view, there are two distinct street bike markets: that market to which "square" bikes appeal, and the market which is attracted to "round" motorcycles. The differences? The "square" crowd tends to be contemporary, inclined towards functionalism, concerned with all levels of motorcycle performance, actively or passively competitive, technically involved, and it responds with relish to change and development. Those who feature the "round" style are nominally traditionalists who proclaim the Specials to look "the way a motorcycle ought to look," do not relate to motorcycling in any particularly competitive way, don't much care about the intricacies of engine/chassis/suspension performance, and frequently consider movement away from the traditional visual disciplines to be movement in the wrong direction.

If in some vague philosophical way the Eleven SF runs in the same league with Triumphs and Harleys, it is there on looks alone. Klunkiness - about which an owner can feel a certain affectionate tolerance - distinguishes the motorcycles which form the core of this particular part of the market. The most successful replica “round" bike, the Yamaha 650 Special, is klunky to a degree which makes it functionally indistinguishable from a Triumph twin: it shakes, it quakes, it rumbles down the road in a fashion guaranteed to give its owners' tolerance a good workout.

There is nothing remotely klunky about the XS Eleven SF Special. As it was when it was introduced a year ago, the Eleven is state-of-the-art in almost all of its technical and functional particulars. Except for refinements in the carburetion undertaken this year to comply with emission control regulations, the Eleven's engine is the same velvet rock-crusher that powered the 1978 version.

The carburetor adjustments have taken only a modest toll. Last year's Eleven was an 11.82-115.38 quarter-miler; this year's standard version produces a 12.06 ET, while the Special is an 11.93 runner.

The SF is a tenth of a second quicker for three reasons: it's 13 pounds lighter, its 130/90-16 Bridgestone tire hooks up better, and it effectively has a tighter overall gear ratio. At exactly 60 mph, the Standard's engine is turning 3790 rpm, while the Special's engine is turning 3963 rpm. The difference amounts to 4.6 per cent; the Special's rear tire is shorter than the Standard's.

The effect the tire size difference has on the bike's acceleration performance is insignificant when compared to its effect on cruising comfort. Smooth as the big Four is, and as well as its fluted neoprene motor mounts work, the engine goes through cyclical resonances which are felt through the handlebar, footpegs and seat. At 55 to 65 mph the Standard version is operating in one of these resonance belts; you have to ride at close to 75 mph before you escape from it. But the Special settles into its maximum-comfort cruising zone right at an indicated 65 mph, or just over 4000 rpm. It's a speed that finds all of the bike's systems in supreme mesh, and the feeling the motorcycle transmits is one of both total ease and total potential. It's uncanny; the Special seems almost to disassociate itself from the laws of physics, and gravity. The SF's high-gear passing power is unmatched: give the fight-touch throttle a moderate tweak and the bike simply inhales traffic, time and distance.

There is nothing mysterious about where the torque comes from. With 1102cc, 9.2:1 compression, 284° of camshaft duration, 36 and 31 mm valves moving 8.8 and 8.3mm, and a rack of 34mm carburetors, there is no way the Eleven engine could be anything less than a powerhouse. Since the bike is a shaft drive we can't dyno-test it, but the factory's claims of 95 bhp and 66.5 lbs-ft of torque (at 8000 and 6500 rpm respectively) seem realistic. The Honda CBX achieved 52.27 lbs-ft on the dyno, and what the Special does to a CBX in a high-gear roll-on is practically criminal.

If there is any trickery to be found in the Eleven's engine, it is in the ignition system. Its two heavy-duty twin lead Hitachi coils are triggered magnetically-there are no points to corrode or springs to weaken-and there are two interdependent "advance" mechanisms. One is ordinary: a centrifugal device which moves the timing from 5° BTDC at engine speeds below 1100 rpm up to 36° at 5400 rpm. But from there, with high-vacuum information coming from the inlet tract, the vacuum advancer pulls in another 16 crankshaft degrees of advance for a total of 52° in the highway cruise mode. When the throttle is whacked open manifold vacuum drops, and the ignition timing falls back to the setting which permits maximum power. In-between operation results in compromised spark timing; thus spark arrival is dictated by the requisites of the engine.

We would be dishonest if we pretended to notice the performance benefits of all this; we haven't, after all, ridden an Eleven equipped any other way. What we have noticed, after evaluating three different Elevens in the course of the preceding year, are these facts: Elevens don't seem to soot up their spark plugs no matter how dreary the engulfing traffic; Elevens produce fuel consumption figures of a magnitude that is in no way reflective of the engines' outputs (44.7 mpg last year, 44.4 this year; in contrast, a CBX gulps down gas at a rate of 35.3 mpg); and Elevens have a throttle response characteristic that is trigger-like.

This throttle business is good news, and it's bad news. The good news is that all the power is all there, all the time. The bad news is that the Eleven's rider has no reason to believe he's in sole charge of it. While a new top gear engagement system has had an effect on the Eleven's drive line snatch problem, those 34mm Mikuni CVs still produce a number of unpredictable - and unlikeable - tendencies. Low engine speed throttle adjustments frequently generate embarrassing little blasts of power when they're not called for-like when a parking lot U-turn is attempted. And brisk maneuvering through the mountains periodically convinces the rider that Mikuni ought to do more about damping the movements of the vacuum-operated slides. Blip the throttle for a downshift and every now and again the carburetors neglect to bring the engine up to proper speed. Delicate roll-off adjustments occasionally cause the slides to close more than is desired, then rebound upwards to the proper level, producing a discombobulating hitch in the Special's getalong.

This characteristic was noted on last year's Eleven, and while it is certainly no worse on the '79 Special, it seems more noticeable because the rest of the bike is substantially more at home humping through the hills than the '78 Eleven was (and the '79 Standard Eleven is). With the Special, Yamaha has followed Suzuki's lead and has fitted an air front fork (an update on last year's adjustable fork spring preload feature) and adjustable damper rear shock absorbers. The front fork itself is similar to the unit fitted to last year's (and this year's) 750 Special. It has sturdy 37mm fork pipes, 175mm of gently damped travel, uses SAE 10W20 oil and dual-rate springs (the second rate takes over after 4.3 in.- 110mm - of travel). The fork is completely different from that used on the Standard Eleven in every particular except travel. It has a forward-mount axle, 750 Special-type single-piston brake calipers which use an insert fitted to a boss on the slider to locate the upper portions of the bias-beveled brake pads (this is done, we're told, to better control brake squeal), and is designed to function with additional springing provided by compressed air. Standard recommended pressure is 5.7 psi; maximum is 36. Our test model was delivered with 13 psi in each leg (measured with the front wheel on the ground) and experimentation revealed that, for all practical considerations, 13 is just about right.

In keeping with the SFs trick-o front fork there is a pair of adjustable damping shocks attempting - with some success - to keep things under control at the other end. Thumb wheels located beneath the upper shock mounting bosses have four click-stops, numbered one through four. The higher you dial the stiffer the damping becomes. For all-around riding we set the spring preload in the third of five notches, and the damper adjustment on click number two.

We were a bit confused by all this, to tell the truth. Why would Yamaha fit these technically advanced suspension components to a motorcycle whose layout was not really conducive to the kind of riding which would most benefit from their superior action? There are several answers. The first has to do with value, real or implied. Last year's Eleven cost $2989 at its introduction: the '79 Special will whack your wallet to the tune of $3699 - a breathtaking $710 differential. The forward-axle air front fork and the superior rear shocks are the only components which significantly improve the function of the Eleven. Without them the price hike would be more difficult to swallow.

Second, the Special Eleven is a new model, and factories like to apply new developments to new models-especially if those new models are top-of-the-line. Third, the suspension components serve to distinguish the Special from this year's standard Eleven, which at $3449 is $250 cheaper. Fourth - and far from last in importance - the new parts work better.

We have vivid memories of the 1978 Eleven's high-speed handling performance in the mountains. For all intents and purposes the bike was acceptably accurate all the way up the middle of "brisk," and deteriorated sharply beyond that level. Chase the '78 Eleven a whisker past its limits and the impression was that all hell waited just beyond the next bend in the road.

While we hesitate to believe that that bike's handling characteristics were solely the by-product of its suspension, there is no doubt that the Special's fork and dampers do a terrific job of quelling the symptoms. The front fork springing can be stiffened to the point where geometry changes, ordinarily induced by braking deep into a corner, can he minimized - and so can clearance-stealing fork compression. Too, air-reinforced springing can reduce travel, and often the less travel there is the less pronounced are the high-speed effects of under-damping.

The Eleven's torque production works a terrible hardship on the rear suspension. There is so much torque that the back of the bike rises and falls dramatically as the throttle is opened, closed, opened, closed. The situation is complicated by the engineers' desire for comfort, coupled with (or opposed by) the sheer weight of the rear wheel assembly. Any motorcycle could benefit from high-quality, adjustable rear dampers; the Eleven cried out for them. The Special's got 'em. And they work.

We do not mean to imply that the SF can now blitz down Racer Road like a Suzuki GS-1000; the conspiracy against that is simply too intricate. But the Specials limits are a full order higher than those of the Eleven Standard. The Special is stable where the Standard was queasy, queasy where the Standard was into oscillation, and into mild oscillation where the Standard was on the verge of being uncontrollable. The SF never reached its absolute limits of stability during our testing - never, in fact, broke into anything resembling a full-glorious, four-color wobble. The overriding impression of the Standard's moderate-to-high-speed handling was that it was loose, floaty - a bit like speeding along in a very comfortable bed. The Special retains a large measure of the Standard's ingratiating comfort, while adding a taste of firmness and tightness that nicely complements the devastating capabilities of that monster of an engine. We once described the Eleven as a Rolls-Royce with a blown Chrysler hemi in it, the Special is more along the lines of a NASCAR stocker.

If you've studied the specification sheet you've noticed that the SF has the same rake/trail dimensions as the Eleven Standard. You have also noticed that the Special has a forward-mount front axle, and we'll tell you that the chassis are identical. Under normal circumstances offsetting the front axle would reduce trail by the exact horizontal amount of the offset. That hasn't happened here, because the fork pipes are carried at an angle 1.5 degrees steeper than that of the steering head, thus retaining the Standard's 130mm (5.11 in.) trail dimension.

There is one curious side-effect: the Special is peculiarly unstable at very low speeds (below 10 mph). By moving the axle forward, the mass of the front wheel and all that brake apparatus creates a pendulum effect that is not nearly so noticeable on the Standard. Too, both bikes run a ton of rake - 29.5 degrees (by contrast, the CBX's fork is raked at 27.25 degrees, the Kawasaki KZ1000's at 26 degrees. This angle adds to the pendulum effect - which disappears as soon as the motorcycle achieves enough speed for the front wheel's self-aligning properties to take over.

Perhaps the Special's most important and certainly most immediately noticeable-styling element is its buckhorn handlebar bend. High-arching handlebars have been central to the theme since the days of the Norton High Rider. Working with footpeg locations and tank/seat layouts, the handlebars establish the rider position that Yamaha's survey found to be so desirable back in 1971. In the case of the Special, we would only wish that an awareness of function had intruded an the decision to angle the handlebar ends so emphatically inward. The grips pull the rider's elbows close to his sides and introduce an outward angulation of the wrists that we found to be extremely uncomfortable (especially so in the case of one staffer who has suffered four broken right wrists). Too, despite the fact that the Special's handlebar is rigidly mounted to the top triple clamp and is made from tubing with a heavier wall than that used for the Standard's bar, the sheer distance between the rider's hands and those parts which pivot the front wheel gives the bike's front end a feeling of torsional flexibility not wholly attractive in fast left right-left work.

Which is a criticism that can serve to point up the somewhat confusing nature of this particular beast. Beyond being an absolutely terrific motorcycle, what the hell is it, anyway? If it's a boulevard chariot built for people who like to cruise contemplatively and in style, does it need state-of-the-art suspension, an engine strong enough to lift the mortgage right off your house, triple disc brakes, better than-average cornering clearance, and sticky tires (which, by the way, don't last long)? If it's a sport bike what's it doing with that George Roeder Replica crypto-apehanger handlebar? If it's a touring bike how come it doesn't have more cruising range, and a fuel gauge instead of that little red light that comes on just before you have to switch to reserve?

This brings us back to our statement at the beginning of this test: If the XS Eleven Special is what it purports to be, then it is the most overqualified motorcycle on the market - the world's fastest Triumph Bonneville, the world's best-performing Harley-Davidson Low Rider. But the SF can not only make the connection with the people who use a motorcycle as a stage and care deeply how they look when they're on it; the bike also appeals to those who are committed to performance and function. To be able to touch both groups demands from a motorcycle a rare broadness, an almost magical capability. The XS Eleven SF has what it takes.


Make and model - Yamaha XS11 SF Special
Price, suggested retail - $3699

Standing start 1/4-mile - 11.93 sec. @ 113.63 mph
Engine rpm @ 60 mph, top gear - 3963 rpm
Average fuel consumption rate - 44.4 mpg.
Cruising range, main/reserve - 146.5/29.3 mi., 175.8 mi. total
Load capacity (GVWR less curb weight) - 500.0 lbs.
Maximum speed in gears @ engine redline - (1) 50.9, (2) 69.8, (3) 88.4, (4) 110.1, (5) 128.7

Type - Four-stroke inline four, air-cooled, dohc with roller chain cam drive
Bore and stroke - 71.5 x 68.6mm (2.82 x 2.70 in.)
Piston displacement - 1102cc (67.2 cu. in.)
Compression ratio - 9.2:1 (full stroke)
Carburetion - (4) 34mm CV butterfly-throttle Mikuni
Exhaust system - Four-into-two
Ignition - Inductive, magnetically switched, battery-powered
Air filtration - Foam element, washable
Oil filtration - Paper element, disposable Oil capacity - 4.0 liters (4.3 qts,)

Type - Five-speed constant-mesh, wet clutch, shaft final drive
Primary drive - HY-VO chain and spur gear, 1.66:1
Final drive - Shaft with spur and bevel gears, 3.26:1
Gear ratios, overall - (1) 12.08 (2) 8.78 (3) 6.94 (4) 5.58 (5) 4.77

Type - Tubular full cradle, forward-mounted front axle, air-spring-assisted front fork, adjustable rear springs and dampers
Wheelbase - 154.5mm (60.8 in.)
Rake/trail - 29.50/130mm (5.11 in.)
Brake, front - double hydraulic discs, 298mm (11.73 in.) outside diameter
Brake, rear - single hydraulic disc, 298mm (11.73 in.) outside diameter
Wheel, front - One-piece 1.85 x 19 cast aluminum, 7-spoke
Wheel, rear - One-piece 3.00 x 16 cast aluminum, 7-spoke
Tire, front - Bridgestone Rib, 3.50H19-4PR
Tire, rear - Bridgestone Lug, 130/90-16-4PR
Seat height - 805mm (31.7 in.)
Ground clearance - 155mm (6.10 in.)
Fuel capacity, main/reserve 12.5 liters/2.5 liters (3.3 gal./O.66 gal.)
Curb weight, full tank - 590.0 lbs. (267.6 kg)
Test weight - 755.0 lbs. (342.5 kg)

Power source - Alternator, controlled field
Charge control - Alternator output regulation
Headlight beams, high/low - 60/55W
Tail/stop lights - 8/27W
Battery - 12V 20AH

Includes - Speedometer, tachometer, odometer, trip-meter, fuel level warning light, oil/brake/tail warning light, headlamp warning light
Speedometer error, 30 mph indicated, actual 30.08 mph 60 mph indicated, actual 60.85 mph

Customer Relations Department
Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A.
6600 Orangethorpe
Buena Park, Cal. 90620


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