Thursday, 17 March 2011

Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look....

 "Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights;
Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." 
Julius Caesar: Act 1, scene ii.

I found the Yamaha XS650 Special through a small ad in my local Free Ads and drove down to the Mumbles near Swansea late one October evening in 1995 to see it.

The owner was a very hairy young man living in  holiday chalet on a run down holiday camp, signing on for the winter with a selection of other hairy young men and and the sort of girls who had lots of beads and tattoos and not enough on, who I would have found very attractive in my youth but as I was at the sensible age of 34 they didn't even turn my head, oh dear me no...

The air of the chalet had an interesting herbal smell about it.
The bleary-eyed owner of the XS650 took me outside to show it to me.
It was a little the worse for surviving life on the South Wales coast, and had been fitted with a ghastly set of T-bar handlebars, but other than that it was standard – something of a rarity in itself as most of these machines had been customised in one way or another, and it was a European one, which meant it wasn't all bunged up with the ridiculous emissions regs nonsense the Yanks had to deal with.

It was supposed to come with spare set of forks and a pair of disc brakes and to my later regret I never be bothered to go and pick these bits up.

Of course I had decided the bike was mine before I even arrived and it took little in the way of haggling – I got him to knock £100 off the £950 asking price – before I straddled the XS and made off on it.
It is one of the most expensive motorcycles I have ever owned.

"I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you."

Riding the bike with its T-bars was, it has to be said, an experience. They made it feel as if you were riding on marbles set in ice. I ditched them quickly in favour of a set of flat dragster bars I had lurking in the back of the shed, giving it a lovely cobby look. The was way before XS650s were hip, and Bratstyle was but a glimmer in a Tokyo hoodlums eye.

There was plenty wrong with the bike.

The front brake master cylinder leaked fluid and was more than a little spongy so it was ditched in favour of a unit from a Kawasaki GPz550.

The back brake had seized solid in the off position and it took some hefty whacks with old copper/hide mallet to get it to work properly.

The side stand spring was missing, but a dead washing machine released a suitable alternative.

(old washing machines are great sources of bits for bodging. They're full of springs, bits of stainless, good quality fasteners,miles of strong wire, metal sheets, and the motors can make handy polishing wheels.)

The seat had so many holes in it, it looked like a doily, but a rummage in the bargain bin at a back street dealership uncovered a genuine Yamaha replacement cover.

I also fitted the greatest boon to motorcycling since the advent of electric lighting – the Scottoiler.

For the unititiated, let me explain.
There's this little plastic bottle you fill with oil. Using the vacuum pressure from the carburettor the Scottoiler builds up pressure in the bottle, which forces drips of oil slowly onto your drive chain – the faster you go, the more oil it drips. It’s genius – it reduces the number of times you have to adjust the chain and makes them last about six times as long – and as a Scottoiler costs about the same as a chain and sprockets, it does not take long before it pays for itself. I love it. Its such a genius bit of tech, but so simple.

The exhaust system had been – ahem – modified by the expedient of drilling holes in the end of it and had got very rusty in the sea air, so I whipped it off and bolted on a set of straight-through drag pipes which made it sound like a racing dumper truck. This was a bit anti-social, seeing as I set off for work in those days at six am, so I bunged on a pair of silencers from a Harley Davidson which I had picked up on my travels.

However the bike didn’t run very well, and at over 60 mph and it would misfire badly.

I changed lots of electrical bits – the coils, condensors – sourced from a Volvo – plug leads, points etc, before finding that it wasn’t an electrical problem at all, but that there were microscopic holes in the carburettor diaphragms. The bike having been out of production for many years they were obviously unobtainable from Yamaha, but there is a sizeable industry in aftermarket bits for the XS650 and a company called NRP in Manchester sold me some.

The bike got through cables for the throttle, speedometer and clutch at a rate of knots and left me stranded many times.

On one occasion I managed an emergency bodge by buying a bicycle brake cable, tying it to the throttle linkage and wrapping the other end round my wrist which I then had to wave in the air if I wanted to go faster. I did try using my teeth, but it hurt.

The gear shift shaft was worn out so I glued the lever back on with Araldite as a temporary measure -  that stood for nearly six years - before I found an engineering solution to the problem , and  drilled a hole through it and whacked a 6mm bolt through the hole.

Bits fell off often, including one of the side panels. This was irritating, as like many Japanese motorcycles, this one was made of that curious material “unobtanium”. I could not find another panel for years. After this virtually every component which might fall off was fastened in place with ratchet cable ties.

The fuse box fell apart and had to be replaced with a cheap auto spares shop alternative and I never found a mirror that would stop vibrating long enough for me to see what was happening behind me.

The drag pipes stated to look pretty grotty and so the Harley silencers, which weighed a ton,  were ditched in favour of two into one system bought from a bloke in Frome – he also supplied a pair of replacement side panels with curious, demonic-looking runes painted on the inside – I never painted them out – just in case.

Also rotted was the seat base which I repaired with glass fibre and I had to change the brake pipes for braided stainless steel items, just so the dreadful stainless dinner plate of a front disc would actually haul me to a stop – the forks and discs I hadn’t picked up would have come in handy as they included a pair of racing cast iron discs.

The shock absobers were replaced with something a bit less bouncy and the front mudguard with one from a BSA Thunderbolt.

The bike broke down in a number of irritating ways about ten times a year.

So, if it’s unreliable, why is it still in my garage?

"Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel."

Because it’s such a fucking cool motorcycle.

It has soul, looks mean, all shiny and slender and black, sounds cool, and there’s nothing like watching heads turn as you roll back the throttle and go brarrrrrpppp down a high street, all the while trying not to glance at your reflection in shop windows.
And it makes you feel dangerous, not in an erzatz 21st century buy-it-off-the-shelf way, but like riding a motorcycle used to make you feel.
Sworn to fun, loyal to none, the sort of motorcycle you should only ride if you own a black leather jacket, covered in scuffs and scars.
Like you've come out of a time warp from the 70s with nothing more than twenty Players number 6, a bottle of Woodpecker and a pocket full of dexedrine, and you're looking for a teenager to deflower, and you're  mad, bad and dangerous to know....

Cassius, as I call the him, is 33 years old, and he still has a "Lean and Hungry Look".  He needs a rebore, and the frame could do with a repaint. But for five hundred quid and a few weeks work, he'd be right as rain. I'd quite like to trim the back mudguard, cut the seat down a bit, fit a prettier zorst. If money was no object I'd bore him out to 840 and slap on a pair of slide Mikuni carbs. About once a week I go on ebay and search for random bits that would make him prettier.

We've been through thick and extremely thin together. He's taken me places you wouldn't credit, appeared on stage, and been my friend and boon companion for nearly half of his life and a third of mine. I could no more sell him than sell a kidney. I’ll probably be buried with him.

"A friend should bear his friend's infirmities."- Cassius, Julius Caesar 4.3.85

No comments: