Retrospective: Yamaha XJ900R Seca: 1983

(This Retrospective article was published in the April 2008 issue of Rider.)

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY CLEMENT SALVADORI

This was a good bike at a good price, as $3,700 (MSRP) would roll this 900 Seca out the dealer’s door.

The performance was not too shabby, with an 11-second quarter-mile and a chassis that could out-handle 90 percent-plus of America’s motorcycling public.

And a clean, maintenance-free shaft final drive meant that the rider did not even have to get his or her fingers dirty adjusting a chain.
Should have sold a gazillion; instead it bombed.

This was definitely a last-minute fill-the-gap model—Yamaha USA needed a bike larger than its 750 to show the sport-riding world that it was indeed running in the big-bore class. In 1982 Kawasaki had its GPz1100, Suzuki the GS1100E, and Honda the CB1100F—fast machines, chain-driven, and not bad in the corners. Whereas all Yamaha offered were some shaft-driven models, rather sneered at by the chain aficionados; there was the 650 Turbo, the 750 Seca and the cruiseresque XJ1100 Maxim, the last gasp of the once-vaunted XS1100. Designs were on the drawing board, new equipment in the factories, but nothing to put on the dealer’s floor.

Ergo, the XJ900. Yamaha had been taking its cues from the European market in the late 1970s, where the average motorcyclist was just as interested in practicality as performance, and had begun this XJ series supplanting the XS models, with the XJ650 of 1980. The 650 engine was a typical UJM, having four air-cooled cylinders, each with two valves and two overhead camshafts run by a single chain coming up between cylinders two and three. A very nice feature of the engine was its narrowness, the engineers having positioned the alternator behind the crankshaft, rather than at the end of it. This was spun by a Hy-Vo chain running off the center of the crank. Nobody could fault the motor, nor the five-speed gearbox, which also had a new design with the input and output shafts one on top of the other rather than behind, thus shortening the whole engine/tranny unit.

1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.
1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.

Yamaha was convinced that after the success of the shaft-driven XS1100/850/750 that shaft final drive was the way to go on the larger
models. It stood to reason, as shafts required virtually no attention, and the great majority of American motor­cyclists could barely tell the difference between the two drive systems. In Europe shaft-driven machines were held in high regard—witness the BMW R100S and Moto Guzzi 850 LeMans and MV Agusta 750S. But the pleasure of seriously sporty riding was coming to the United States, and any buff who read his magazines knew that a shaft took up quite a few horsepower; can’t have that.

In 1980 Europe got the sporty XJ650 while we got the cruiserish Maxim version, but the next year we also got the sporting model, dubbed Seca for the American market in an effort to evoke the racing lure of the Laguna Seca track. For 1982 Yamaha joined the abortive rush-to-turbo using the XJ650 as a basis. That year the factory also bored and stroked the 653cc 650 to 748cc, put it in a pretty good chassis and called it the XJ750R Seca. This was greeted with polite enthusiasm from the moto-press, which unfailingly pointed out that the shaft really put it in a different class, and not in the same league as Suzuki’s GS750E and Kawasaki’s GPz750. However, the European market was kinder, prompting Yamaha to take the engine one step further.

1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.
1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.

In the construction of the 900 Yamaha kept the costs down by using as much from the parts bins as possible. The transmission came right out of the 650 Turbo, as did many of the drivetrain bits and pieces, since they had all been reinforced for the turbo power. The 900 used four 35mm Mikunis, a good leap up from the 32mm Hitachis found on the 1981 Seca 650, and had the redline set at 9,500 rpm. The exhaust was a four-into-two, although the reader will note that the owner of this 900 has put on a Supertrapp four-into-one.

The frame was a conventional cradle, with the engine solidly mounted, giving a noticeable tingly feeling to the rider when moving briskly along. At 58.3 inches, the 900’s wheelbase was 1.3 inches longer than on the 750. The suspension was state of the art, with a pair of remote-reservoir shock absorbers at the back that could be tuned for spring preload and rebound damping. The front fork had air adjustability, with a convenient crossover tube. Plus an anti-dive mechanism that nobody seemed to like. The triple brakes were excellent, using ventilated discs and opposed-piston calipers. Eighteen-inch wheels were cast alloy, with a 100/90 tubeless tire on the front, 120/90 on the back.

1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.
1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.

The ergos were quite good, with a long saddle, slightly rearward footpegs, and two adjustable handlebars. A little bikini fairing surrounded the headlight, which Americans seemed to like but Europeans felt caused instability at high speeds. The gas tank held 5.8 gallons, giving a touring range of well over 200 miles. Weight, when fully fueled, was a relatively light 530 pounds.

When the big two-page ads for the Seca 900 appeared, Yamaha was claiming 97 horsepower and an “exhilarating 49-degree banking angle,” saying that the machine was “designed as much on the racetrack as it was on the drawing board.” The ad hype closed by stating: “All things considered, this may be as close to the perfect high-performance motorcycle as anyone has ever come.” Pretty brash… and quite unconvincing.

Especially when Yamaha unveiled a far sportier bike, the FJ1100 (Retro­spective, February ’03) the next year, with a new frame, single-shock rear suspension, chain-drive, 16-inch wheels and four-valve cylinder heads. And a genuine 100 horsepower at the rear wheel at 9,000 rpm. Also, a rather pricey tag of $4,999. The 900 Seca was pulled from the American lineup, though it continued to sell well in Europe—with a frame-mounted half fairing.

1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.
1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.
1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.
1983 Yamaha XJ900RK Seca.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I had the ’83 Canadian version, in white. Beautiful bike, I liked the added displacement and the shaft drive and wanted a bit more power than my Virago had on offer; but I sold it with more enthusiasm than I had in buying it – it speed wobbled very badly. So not just the Europeans, but any bike that had that damned fork-mounted fairing.

    Conclusion: the biggest POS Yamaha ever made. And that will probably make it a collector’s item.

  2. I loved mine but after one accident and at a later date in the 80s riding through and around Chicago with all of those bumps they had in the highway, three of the bolts holding the pipes onto the manifold broke. Issues were starting to mount up on the bike and I moved on to bigger and faster rides. But I did love my Seca.

  3. Had mine from new out if the box and to this day is still the most reliable and easy riding bike! Like wearing an old pair of slippers. Still like new and rock solid!

  4. Bought my ’83 xj900 in’86 and just love it. The signature ‘whine’ turns heads and the couple minute exhaust crackle-pinging when you shut it down wows people. It is a fairly big sport/ touring bike but my legs cramp up a bit when riding. A younger rider will love it. Yes the fork mounted fairing causes high speed wobble and is dangerous (it was recalled back in the day). Will be for sale soon.

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