Some bikes just get at you the first time you see them, and you become a shot dog – the rest of your life is devoted to acquiring one. For my sins, I’ve always fallen in love with bikes I couldn’t afford and so it was with Yamaha’s XT500.

It was displayed for the first time at the 1975 Las Vegas motorcycle show and it was clearly designed to appeal to American riders after the fashion of Steve McQueen and the On Any Sunday crowd. It was a proper (for the time) enduro bike and it had a stunning four-stroke 500cc single cylinder engine that turned out to be a major game-changer.

Its glory days in competition came early in its life with Cyril Neveu winning the endurance-testing Paris Dakar Rally on one in 1979 and 1980. In fact, in 1980, the XT500 took the top three positions.

The turning point was in 1981 when Hubert Auriol beat XT500s into second and third on his new BMW R80G/S.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

By then it wasn’t just BMW catching up. Honda and Suzuki both suddenly had competitive bikes in the marketplace.

Regardless, the legend of the XT500 had become firmly established and there was no sharper statement of your masculinity than not only to own one but to be able to start it.
Kickstarting a 500 single successfully can be a painfully acquired skill.

My desire never went away, and I waited patiently watching the price for second-hand XT500s slowly fall. It got almost to the point of being achievable before they started attracting the interest of enthusiasts and collectors and I had to watch the prices start to go up again.

I had about $3000 set aside, which I finally sank into an ex-museum Honda XL500, thinking when I finally found the XT500 I wanted, I could sell the Honda and be able to cover the cost of the Yamaha. Ha.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

The value of XL500s stayed at $3000 while XT500 prices continued to climb. They were appearing in the classified section with the really nice ones hovering around $8000.

In the meantime, I’d joined the SR500 Club of Australia and was being regularly taunted by fellow member Dale Lindrea who would turn up to meetings and rallies on his super-clean but not concourse XT500.

Every time I saw him, I asked to buy the bike. It’s called ‘pester power’. It works for kids so I thought I’d try it myself. Finally, he cracked and we started to talk money. He wanted $6000 and I wanted to pay no more than $5000.

I’d harboured this desire for 40 years so the compromise $5500 price would at least get this monkey off my back. Finally, I owned a legendary Yamaha XT500.

Apart from loving the look of Dale’s XT, I’d paid no attention to its provenance, so step one of ownership was to try to work out how original it was. According to the compliance plate, it was manufactured in August 1978, which should have made it a 1U6-type which was fine – that was the best looking and most widely sold model.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

Checking the frame, though, revealed it was a 1E6-type, the first model to appear in showrooms in 1976. Helping to confirm this was the original exhaust that Dale supplied with the bike. The header pipe went under the engine and then climbed up through a baffle at the back of the engine to the muffler.

The 1E6 was replaced in 1976 by the 1N5 that had a similar exhaust system. It wasn’t very practical for hard bush work as the location of the header pipe made it prone to getting crushed by rocks and logs.

For the 1U6-type launched in 1977, the exhaust system was routed so the header ran alongside the engine rather than underneath it and was well out of harm’s way.

So, was my bike a 1E6 or some kind of hybrid? The 1E6 didn’t have the sight glass at the top of the camshaft to help punters find top-dead-centre to assist in the kickstart process, but one is fitted to my engine. The beautiful alloy tank on my bike didn’t appear until 1982 so it’s definitely not original.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

One explanation is that the original 1978 1U6 was crashed at some stage and the frame was replaced with a 1E6 unit. It’s possible but there are other equally possible explanations.

There was no such thing as Yamaha Australia in 1978.

There were different distributors in most states with Milledge Yamaha looking after distribution in Victoria. The various distributors didn’t ‘bulk buy’ models and share them but had developed their own supply chains.

It was common to have particular models only available in some states. My XT500 has an Australian compliance plate (or at least my frame does) but it wouldn’t have been unusual for an order to go to Yamaha Japan from an Australian distributor and be filled with whatever Yamaha had hanging around the production line, which might have included the older 1E6 frame and the newer 1U6 engine.

I’ve had three dogs in my life and they’ve all been pound bitsas. They were all great dogs, so I won’t love my bitsa XT500 any less for it not being 100 per cent original.

Here’s my conundrum. The XT500 I now own is too good to ride in the bush.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

I don’t want to dent the alloy tank or crack any of the plastic bodywork as this stuff is hard to find and expensive.

Dale obviously felt the same way as the XT is set up as a road bike with flat bars and road tyres. He used it as a soft tourer with the possible advantage that it wasn’t too bad on dirt roads.

I have an inclination to fit higher ’bars and off-road tyres but I also have a feeling I could never ride it seriously in the dirt.

The few rides I’ve had on it so far have largely been for registration inspections to change ownership and a couple of soft and short blats around Victoria’s goldfields area.

There’s absolutely something about 500 singles and there’s a lot of pleasure listening to them work.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

The chassis specs were changed by Yamaha for the 1U6 after mild criticism of steering that was too heavy for fast bush work. Certainly, by today’s standards, the 1E6 feels a little heavy for serious offroading.

My bike is strong, straight and still fast. But it’s come to this: I’ve waited 40 years to get the bike I so desperately wanted and now I’m reluctant to ride it as nature intended.

I’ll ride it to the SR500 Club rally in at Bethanga but it will mostly be on sealed roads and probably at about 85kmh so I don’t wear the engine out.

Yamaha XT500 Spannerman

People will admire it, but Dale will get all the credit. I’ll ride it home again afterwards and it’ll sit in the shed where I can admire its fine lines but ponder if this is really how I expected the story to play out.

Don’t feel too sorry for me. Next to the natty XT500 is a ratty XT600, which I can flog without mercy in the bush and lean up against the wall of a country pub when I’m having a counter lunch.

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Drew Jean Jackson
Drew Jean Jackson
6 months ago

Why worry about wearing out the motor? They aren’t expensive to rebuild and parts are available. Only one of everything. My SR shares most of the XT engine bits and now has many killing metres on it. It has been to the Bethanga Rally on several occasions and around Tassie on a club ride, as well as several outback adventures up in NQ. My estimated total distance is >100 000kms so far. If you don’t put the Ks on it the next owner will.

Ken Mansell
Ken Mansell
6 months ago

Just to add to the confusion, I bought mine in April 1980 with the white tank like yours but had the high engine pipe, and I still own it. The frame and engine numbers match at 1E6 -311319 with a 12/78 compliance date. There was a black one on the floor at the time I bought mine but the white one looked better to me, and still does.