Yamaha XJ650 Turbo: Reader Resto

Date 09.5.2013

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader


To try and understand why one would take on a project like restoring a Yamaha XJ650 Turbo, you have to go back in time to when they were released. Back in 1983 or thereabouts, there were basically two types of bikes you could buy. Ones that were made for racing and winning, such as the Honda CB1100R, and cruisers and tourers. But for a brief period of time, the big four went nuts and released a turbo each. These bikes were futuristic, space age and (apparently) cuttingedge.

I got my licence in 1982 right when the turbo craze hit. And I loved them. A good friend bought an XJ650 Turbo and we blasted about like we were on the space shuttle. It was like riding a rocket-powered sex machine. We thought that chicks immediately wanted to make love to us when they saw us on it. We even used to joke that the gloveboxes on the dash of the XJ were actually condom holders in case we got caught short! For about 18 months, turbos were the coolest bikes in the world.

Of course, it wasn’t long before we all worked out that they were actually heavy, slow, overly complicated and just didn’t ride that well. So for the last 30 years they have been largely forgotten and neglected – until now. If you’re into ’80s manbikes, I’m here to tell you, turbos are the future!

The Yamaha XJ650 Turbo was undoubtedly the worst of the turbos.

And for this reason it is the rarest. The Suzuki XN85 was numerically the rarest in production numbers, but was actually a pretty nice ride (I have one of these too) so there are more of them actually around. The XJ was, to put it plainly, crap out of the box, so when they broke, people just junked them. That means there are hardly any that are going and virtually none in good condition. This was my challenge! And so began my two-year odyssey of frustration, but ultimate ecstasy.

Finding one was not easy. They just don’t exist. Eventually, after about a year I found one in NSW and bought it for $2800 sight unseen. Brave. Apparently it ‘didn’t go too well but it had been started recently’. That must be code for ‘sometime in the last 30 years’.

When it arrived it was a debacle. The fairings were riveted together, the engine had dropped a ring, the turbo was blown, the electrics were fried and the many of the really rare parts were missing or broken. It was either junk it or find another. Of course I wasn’t to be defeated, so after looking for about six months, I found another – this time $5500. Time to make one good one out of two.

The second one was a lot better. All the rare bits were there, the mufflers, OEM seat, but it was still very rough. It needed a lot of love. Only one thing to do – a full nut-and-bolt resto.

I wanted this to be the best of its kind in Australia. So, time to call in Jack Ryan, my mechanic from the ‘old school’, and Indy, my mate who’s a Moto2 mechanic. Jack’s a cracker, but seemed to have forgotten that my knowledge on bikes is not quite where his is. Indy also seemed to forget that I am slightly dumb in this area. So Indy pulled the bikes – yes, both of them – apart and kind of put all the bits into one box. Then Jack pulled both engines down to make one good one. And put both engine bits into one box. That’s a box full of nuts and bolts, another full of wiring looms, dash, electrics and a third full of brakes, levers, grips etc. Right about now I began to wonder what on earth I was thinking…

Time to make a plan. I decided to break the bike down into its individual areas and focus on one at a time. The black bits were blasted and painted by Brian from Custom Colour in West Heidelberg in Melbourne, then the rear shocks were pulled apart, re-chromed and polished and put back together so they looked like new. The wheels were repainted by Brian, front fork reconditioned by Jack, repainted and put back together. The turbo was reconditioned and the fairing panels were repainted by Brian, who did an incredible job with decals from Bdesign out of Canada. I cherry-picked good bits from both bikes to make one good one. The fuel tank was rusted on one, not on the other; final drive had lost a tooth on the better bike, so I used the one from the dunger. The dash from the dunger, headers and collector from the good one. And on and on.

Jack got to work on the engine once it was repainted. A new gasket kit was sourced and away he went. I don’t know how he did it, I really don’t, but after few weeks he dropped the engine back to me, all ready to go. I then needed to sand away the edges of the fins so make it look OEM, fit reco kits for the carbies, re-chrome the tops and try and get the bastard back into the frame.

The build began with the usual enthusiasm, but also the usual headaches. What bit goes where?

Where is that other part? You know the drill. But it did (thanks to a tireless Indy) finally come together into a rolling chassis. Let me say at this point, I think the Yamaha designers must have sat around and made a pact to use the heaviest metal available in every part. And the crappiest plastic, for that matter. I mean, nothing on the bike is light or strong. That’s a real talent. Make it heavy and weak! Trying to get the engine back into the frame was a mammoth task – like trying to lift a planet. Finally, when it was in it went back to Jack to get it going.

After a few weeks at Jack’s house of happiness she was going – and what a sound! I am sure the Yamaha engineers tuned it to sound like a fighter jet. I mean, just look at it! It’s positively jet-like! The exhaust tips were made to look like jet exhausts, the nose like an F16, even the magazine ad from the release had it standing next to a jet engine! So cool.

On went the fairings – an unbelievably complicated process – and bam; we now had a finished XJ. We still had some issues with fuel starvation but after some thought I decided it was an electrical issue, so off to Jack from City Auto Elec in Coburg for an inspection. Sure enough, in this hideously complex bike, a few wires were incorrectly connected. It came back from Jack running like corn through a goose.

So you can see from the shots that she’s an absolute beauty now. Honestly, for me no bike sums up the ’80s better than the XJ650 Turbo. And riding it is just amazing. It’s bizarre: when you give it the berries, it’s like being strapped onto the space shuttle. Hit go, peer through the smoke, and noise starts screaming from the bike. Nothing happens for ages of course, until the glacial turbo lag clears its throat, and you slowly move off, gradually gaining pace, slowly but surely accelerating until it starts weaving uncontrollably and you become so shit-scared for your life you button off. Then you try and turn into a corner and find it’s determined to go straight ahead. You try and stop and it resists every effort. It’s an intergalactic ’80s death machine that only a man with big apricots need
apply to ride.

I rode to the MotoGP on its first outing and got serious respect. Costs? Heaps. Really, It’s ridiculous what I’ve spent on this bike. Just purchasing the two donor bikes cost over $8000. I reckon I’ve easily spent another $6000 to $8000 – $1200 on the turbo reco, another $2000 on the paint, and on and on. And there’s no way I’m seeing my money back soon. But if you’re going to do something, you do it right. And this is a turbo, after all!

So to sum up, yes: it might have the weight of an 1100 with the power of a 250; its handling may in fact be plain dangerous; a stick dragging on the road attached to a lever would stop it better than its brakes; it’s incredibly complex and probably very unreliable (it already has an oil leak from some darned place); but, it’s fun.

It makes me feel 18 again. It looks so cool. It sounds so cool. It’s the epitome of cool. People stare at it. Chicks stare at it! I’m not sure if they’re laughing, in shock or they simply wanted to test my condom supply in the glove box. I don’t care.

Yamaha’s XJ650 Turbo is the reason bikes are better than cars. And turbos are better than anything!