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