Cult of SR

‘800 SRs gathered and soon the sound of singles resonated around the track'

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Yamaha’s SR400 and SR500 always enjoyed massive popularity in Japan. So much so that even though the bike was launched in 1978, Yamaha is still producing an SR400 model today. The original kick-only SR500 was a huge success in Europe too, except in the UK where journalists, unable to see the charms or potential of a lightweight, thumpy single-cylinder four-stroke dismissed it as an underpowered inconsequence. At that time magazines raved about 1000cc superbikes so any basic machines, no matter how nimble or fuel-efficient were lost in the maelstrom.

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Thankfully though, the SR’s popularity elsewhere generated a cottage industry of custom bike shops and marque specialists. In Europe there was a Supermono race series for modern single-cylinders and Germans embraced the SR because it got an insurance break thanks to his lower horsepower. In Japan SRs were raced in the Sound of Singles but also became the focus for custom builds.

A massive range of aftermarket bolt-ons meant you could turn your SR (or XT/TT – the off-road derivatives that appeared two years before the road SR) into virtually anything: trad cafe racers, street trackers, scramblers, bobbers… Japan was (and still is) so in love with the SR there were big rallies and special trackdays for SR owners. There were even entire magazines devoted to the marque and even today the interest is massive. Check out sr400times.com to see for yourself.

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Each May sees an annual gathering of SR owners in Japan. Last year’s was held at Daytona, a performance parts company with a 700m test track at their Shizuoka headquarters. Around 800 SRs gathered and as soon as the gates opened the sound of singles resonated around the test track. Many riders had travelled for more than three hours to get there – a good ride on any bike, but especially so on a big single. Customised SRs attract a different crowd to the standard bikes, which are generally ridden by older guys. The average age of the custom SR riders was around 30, and there were numerous women riders, with one riding from Tokyo with her five-year old young son on the pillion.

More than 50% of the SRs at the event were standard, and there was one gent who came with a first year SR that he had bought new when it was released in 1978. He didn’t ride it for 10 years due to his work abroad but kept it in the shed and the silencer was the only modified part on the bike which was still ‘as-new’ condition. Even the tank bag was in period. Though not treated with the same kind of passion as classics like pre-unit Triumphs or Norton Commandos, the SR has its a rightful place in Japanese classic bike culture. Twenty years ago, nobody paid attention to the small letters on the cylinder stating ‘499cc’ or ‘499cm3’, but now a growing band of SR nuts pore over the details, matching bits and original paints.

Choppers and bobbers are now a less popular style choice than cafe racers. There was an SR which was customised to look like a AJS 7R – in traditional black and gold livery. The crankcase was painted gold and there was a high level exhaust. The pipe was released as a scrambling type but the owner adopted it as the high mounted racing mega – nice idea.

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Interest in the BSA-SR has been picked up too. Released in late 1990s as a collaboration between BSA Regal in the UK and Daytona in Japan, the SR engine was carried by a special frame which looked like a Norton Featherbed with the engine mounted vertically and a winged BSA logo on the crankcase cover instead of Yamaha. When the model was released, it wasn’t a big success in Europe due to the high price tag – the majority of them were sold in Japan.

Young guys who didn’t have enough money to buy real classic British or American bikes bought SRs and customised them as cafe racers or choppers they really wanted. So 20 years ago in Japan the big scene for SRs was British cafe racers. The bikes were built with clip-ons, rear-sets, Lucas-style headlights, Lytastyle alloy tanks and hump seats. The owners also slapped British decals on them without considering the irony of such iconic emblems on Japanese-manufactured bikes. Back then it was a cool thing to do but these days not so much.

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Then Yamaha TW200s and Honda FTRs arrived which inspired a street tracker style – and owners found that the Yamaha four-stroke singles made great tracker reps. After that the big scooter bubble burst in the late 2000s, and motorcycling became driven by social media, custom motorcycles were back in vogue. The SR has been in the spotlight ever since, thanks to the way it can morph into so many different styles. The cost of boltons is easy to calculate with so many aftermarket parts to choose from. But, as with any custom builds, the pro-built bikes can cost a fortune and some owners have taken things to an extraordinary level.

At the SR meeting, shops displayed one-off machines and ranges of bolt-on parts – among them an all-new springer fork, produced as a direct bolt-on without any hassles. Another astonishing product was an alloy one-piece full fairing. With thousands of parts in the market the SR seems to have a long-term future. It’s a reliable little motorcycle, responds well to tuning, handles like a dream, doesn’t leak oil and even the kick start is now considered a charm. Long live the SR.