Photography by Tom Riles
Turn the key and killswitch on, toe the shifter into neutral and pry out the kickstarter with your right boot heel. Kick the lever until you feel resistance as the single piston approaches top dead center. Pull the compression release on the left handlebar, let the lever return to the top, then give it a solid kick all the way through its stroke until the thumper chugs to life.
When was the last time you kickstarted a motorcycle? How about a new motorcycle? Well, if the up-and-down ritual tugs at your heart strings, Yamaha’s SR400 might be for you. Although new in the lineup for 2015, it’s one of the most genuinely old-school bikes you can buy. Originally brought to the U.S. as the SR500 in 1978, even back then it was considered a throwback for being kickstart-only. America’s fascination with the big air-cooled single quickly waxed and waned, and after 1981 it was gone. The SR soldiered on in Yamaha’s home market of Japan, though its displacement was limited to 399cc to satisfy tiered license restrictions.
With retro-styled bikes all the rage these days, the SR has returned with an even more classic look than the original. The ‘70s-era SR500 wore cast wheels with tubeless tires and dual disc brakes, but the new SR400 rolls on 18-inch spoked wheels with tube-type tires and a rear drum. One of the only concessions to the modern era—apart from some unsightly emissions plumbing—is fuel injection, which, along with the handlebar-mounted compression release, makes kickstarting the SR400 a snap. Once you get the technique down, it’s usually a one-kick affair. And if you need to cheat, there’s a sight glass located on top of the cam’s right side that reveals a silver tab when the crank is ready to be kicked over.
The air-cooled single has an oversquare bore/stroke of 87.0 x 62.7mm and a single overhead cam with two valves. The engine is a torquey ‘lil thing for its size, but power is, as expected, underwhelming. Yamaha claims 26 horsepower at the crank, so not much more than 20 horsepower makes its way through the 5-speed transmission and chain final to the rear contact patch. With my 200-pound sack ‘o taters in the 30.9-inch saddle, the SR400 will chug its way up to an indicated 80mph, but not quickly. Lack of giddyup is one thing, vibration is another. There’s no counterbalancer, and the engine is mounted solidly within the double-cradle steel frame. Vibration through the grips and seat—the 3.7-gallon tank is too narrow to squeeze between my knees—rises to a furious peak at 60 mph, eases off for reasonably comfortable highway cruising at 70 mph, then ramps up again.
Freeway commuting may not be the SR400’s forte, but bopping around town, especially a seaside surf town like Ventura, California, where I live, sure is. Short, narrow and just 382 pounds full of gas, the SR is blessed with feather-light steering. Its flat, oblong seat is comfortable and can accommodate a wide variety of body sizes; there’s even a chrome grab rail for your passenger (load capacity is just 332 pounds). And it’ll run on the change dug out of your couch cushions. A 8.5:1 compression ratio allows it to run on regular unleaded and it sips fuel—I averaged 60 mpg even with a lot of wrung-out highway miles.
No frills here. Basic, softly sprung suspension, with no adjustment in the fork and only ramp-type preload adjusters for the twin shocks (5.9 and 4.1 inches of travel, front and rear), and basic, not-very-strong brakes, with a single 268mm front disc squeezed by a 2-piston pin-slide caliper and a rear drum. But I found myself not really caring about such things on a bike like this, one that is so effortless to ride, throttle and shift, even if the brakes do require firm pressure for authoritative stops. Instrumentation is simple, too, with dual analog gauges housing idiots lights (including a low-fuel light) and mechanical meters for odo and trip. The big, incandescent headlight, taillight and turn signals are straight out of the ’70s, the toolkit is well stocked and the centerstand comes standard. And the SR400 comes in just one classic color—Liquid Graphite (gray).
The SR400 looks like the real deal because it is, a living classic that hasn’t changed much since it debuted nearly 40 years ago. I’ve watched guys stop to admire it in the parking lot, assessing its clean lines and generous chrome, wondering how old it is. And if they’re of a certain age, they pause, close their eyes briefly and think back to more carefree days. Those memories are priceless. Creating new ones will set you back $5,990.
2015 Yamaha SR400 Specifications
Base Price: $5,990
Engine Type: Air-cooled single, SOHC w/ 2 valves & EFI
Bore x Stroke: 87.0 x 62.7mm
Transmission: 5-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: Chain
Wheelbase: 55.5 in.
Rake/Trail: 27.7 degrees/4.4 in.
Seat Height: 30.9 in.
Wet Weight: 382 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.2 gals.
MPG: 87 PON min. (low/avg/high) 57.4/59.8/62.0
I don’t remember big singles from time gone by they were ether inline twins or inline fours..
I think that all these big singles will fail. Even Hondas 300 should be a twin…
I love mine it’s the easiest bike ever to kick start nothing like my old kx 500 you won’t have any problem kicking it over. I don’t have any issue with the vibration my kx and sporties were wayyyyyyyy more intense I can ride this for a couple hours easyi it’s a bike you can do your own maintenance on easy also the valves are a cinch to adjust all two of them easy to change oil and filter. If retro is your schtick you can’t go wrong with this I ride mine all over the place I ain’t in no hurry.
How much engineering and cost would have a electric start and something to absorb vibration cost? I am disappointed. I really like the looks, seat and handlebar position, and 400 cc’s.
I am looking for a fun around town bike for my wife that has nice traditional looks. Just about Yamaha, but no, looks like a Suzuki TU 250 even though it is a little underpowered.
The bike is for hard-core vintage bike lovers. Back in the day the XS400 (twin) had electric start and along with the SR250 were Yamaha’s “beginner” bikes. but Yamaha chose only the SR400 to continue for 36 years.
You should at least let your wife check out the SR400. She might like it. Kick starting it is a piece of cake. At least mine is.
I love the UJM style with kick start, chain drive, and wire wheels. I almost bought the Suzuki TU 250, and probably would have if it came with a kick start. The Yamaha was really worth waiting for. Not only because of the extra 150 cc’s but because of the quality of craftsmanship. It’s just a flawless, beautiful bike.
It’s a shame Yamaha ended it’s $1000 incentive on the SR. But even if I would have had to pay full MSRP I don’t think there would have been any buyer’s remorse.
tube tires on street bikes, really.
come on Yamaha and bmw
Nothing wrong with tubes. They work just fine.
It didn’t take very long after stumbling upon the news of the bke’s upcoming availability in the U.S. for me to decide to buy one, and after one look I felt it was well worth its $5990 price tag. Why quibble. Vintage have increased in value $1000 above their original MSRP, unlike most multi-cylinder bikes of the era worth half as much. I picked up my new bike June 25th 2014 from the same salesman that sold me a new 1979 SR500. I started it a few times on the first kick (one time in two kicks). It idles smoothly, and there’s no choke or hot start button to fiddle with thanks to the EFI. Brought it up to about 65. Kept altering the speed, following the break-in procedure. The ride comfort and handling is awesome, The bike is well balanced and responsive, and the seat is noticeably more comfortable than the original model It was very windy on that first ride home but the bike was unaffected. With the threat of bad weather I’d have to show it off another day. The quality is top-notch and the bike looks even pricier than it is. The engine finish is high and the paint and chrome are flawless. The exclusive U.S. Liquid Graphite metallic paint job with Yamaha black side covers is decidedly striking in person. The aluminum spoke wheels are nicely finished giving the bike a classy, vintage look lacking on the original, while Yamaha chose function over form regarding tires and brakes. In lieu of retro treads (Metzler Perfect Me77) on the ’14 European model, sticky Bridgestone Battlax BT-45s are fitted to the ’15 U.S. model, as is a modern drilled front disc brake rotor. The bike is produced in small numbers. According to Yamaha’s Japanese web-site, 1,300 units per year are being produced for Yamaha’s Japan home market, while its been announced that 500 units will be imported to the U.S this year. Yamaha must be very proud of this model, building it as long as they have, because although the bike has remained virtually the same in design for 36 years, much refinement is evident and it looks and feels like t’s built, not to a price, but with a lot of care and pride.
I would be interested in how it compares to a new Royal Enfield 500.They are priced about the same and there is a dealer located close by in the Metroplex. I am a fan of big singles and would like to see more on the subject.
In 1978, the SR400 was born for motorcycle enthusiasts who valued more than straight-line speed and high-tech technology, and it’s clear purpose for being is still the same today. Nothing has changed here in thirty six years. Back in the day, the 1979 SR500 was grouped in a Motorcyclist comparison with the likes of 500/550/ 650 “middleweight” motorcycles) on its size alone, not for any other reason, as it was stated even then it was the ” odd one out” As such, the 2015 SR400 shouldn’t be referred to as a “beginner bike.”It wasn;t then and isn’t now, although it always has been suitable for beginners willing to forfeit electric start. Further, It doesn’t compare directly to anything new, so do not not compare it to the likes of a Suzuki 250. The new SR400 does compare of course to the SR500 and to a lesser extent, classic British Thumpers. It is, in a word, exclusive. The SR is a quality-built refined time machine that has pedigree, a history, and it’s a long
awaited new collectible that will retain its value (and eventually increase in value) more than ANY Japanese-brand motorcycle, so its $5990 price shouldn’t be regarded as excessive. You get what you pay for.
I would buy one if it had electric start. Very smart bike but with a MSRP of 6 grand why not give us both, kick and electric?
Having owned and ridden a lot of motorcycles from every part of the industrialized World; I think the SR has checked all of my boxes for a fun, simple and LIGHT motorcycle to putt around the city and rural countryside without all of the attitude, rumble and schtick that our Red-Blooded “fans” of the ‘Milwaukee persuasion’ seem to require?
I also plan keeping and riding my European 1200 V-Twin Sport-Tourer for long distances but think the SR 400 would fit neatly into my philosophy of minimalist rides.
Motorcyclist & Rider ( continuously ) for over 50 years
at 63 I am looking to become a first time rider and buyer of a cycle. This bike things I like: muffler under the foot peg so I won’t burn my leg, has more engine that the 250’s but I the drawback that will keep from this bike is the lack of a electric starter and belt drive. The other bike I like but also lacks a belt drive is the Honda 700ctx with auto transmission. Why can’t someone one build a smaller bike with a belt drive and muffler under the foot peg. I treat a lot of leg burns.. I know Suzuki S40 has a belt but no trip odometer and no feul gauge.
This article is older but rings true in all aspects. It is 2019 and I just bought the Yamaha SR400 and couldn’t be happier. I wanted a bike that was fun to ride and easy to hop around town. My father always taught me ‘never ride a bike you can’t pick up’. I can pick this up by myself which is a good thing since I ride alone everyday. I named my bike Thumper. People who know the bike get the joke, my friends think it is a cute name and don’t get it. I have had several people come up to me and ask about this bike. One man way so touched because he had one in ’78.
It has been love at first sight but the sales man thought is was going to be a drawback when he told me it was kick start only. He couldn’t be more wrong, that was the clincher. Each time I kick start, it reminds me of days gone by when I was a kid on my Dad’s dirt bike. Good times. Love this bike. Thanks for writing the exact facts about this bike.
Just saw a like-new SR400 for sale. I’m tempted!
I had an SRX600, kick starting it was never a concern and I imagine the 400 is even easier.
Is it true that Yamaha SR400 was discontinued?