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Adventure riding has a long history that traces back to as early as the 1920s. At the time, no specific bike appropriately fit the niche, not even Harley Davidson’s J-series or Yamaha’s own 1968 DT-1. It was not until the late ’70s that adventure bikes came into play – and Yamaha silently led the pack with the XT 500.
The Yamaha XT500 was an Enduro-styled motorcycle that laid the blueprint for next-generation XT bikes, including the highly lauded XT660Z Ténéré. Produced from 1975 to 1989, the XT500 dominated the Luxembourg Grand Prix, Paris–Abidjan-Nice, and Paris–Dakar rallies of the late ’70s.
Known for its nostalgic design, free-revving abilities, and responsive power, the Yamaha XT500 was the first motorbike to nail the idea of an all-rounder adventure machine. It may not have been every rider’s trump card. Nonetheless, the XT500 effortlessly won the hearts of 4-stroke enthusiasts in love with big-bore singles. Get to know more about “the best dual-purpose street machine available” (Cycle Magazine, 1976) in this article.
The First Adventure Bike
By function, the Yamaha XT500 classifies as a present-day adventure (or touring) bike, falling under a group of motorcycles ranging from dual-purpose Enduros to street-legal cruisers. Beefy frames, sizeable fuel tanks, and reliable performance on-/off-pavement are but some of their characteristics. They require minimal servicing and upkeep, are capable of long-distance travel, and sometimes even accommodate two passengers.
Many commuters and off-roaders find the need to categorize the bike as inconsequential. But for the purist, a clear description of the XT500’s competencies is crucial to understanding how it helped shape the sub-segment. Essentially, these bikes are the epitome of hybrids. Like Ducati’s Testa Stretta, an adventure bike (even back in the day) is four motorcycle types – sports, touring, urban, and Enduro – rolled into one.
As for which motorcycle spawned the adventure niche, contestations exist between the 1976 Yamaha XT 500 and the 1980 BMW R80 G/S. Ultimately, the R80 takes the credit for introducing the segment to the market in the ’80s. The public’s leaning towards BMW is expected since many riders feel the R80 had one-upped the XT500 in style and substance. Not to mention the G/S or Gelände/Straße in the bike’s nomenclature translates to “terrain”/”road,” which aptly summarizes the purpose of the two-wheeler.
Not Exactly Second-Fiddle
This is not to say that the XT500 Yamaha is less of an adventure bike than the R80. After all, it was the undisputed rally raider during its heyday. However, one other vehicle embodied Yamaha’s “spirit of adventure” better – the 1983 Yamaha Ténéré XT600.
The definition of the said category was not set in stone until the early 2000s. Furthermore, the qualities of adventure bikes then and now have a night-and-day difference – and this is true for both Yamaha and BMW and other name brands. Bikes of yesteryears had a rugged, unrefined charm, were less fallible, and were unsuitable for driving extremely long overland distances. Either that or they were an entirely different breed – as with the 1988 Honda Africa Twin XRV650 Adventure Sport.
Conversely, present touring bikes cover a broader spectrum and have a specific look and feel more geared towards the “adventure lifestyle” manufacturers use as a strategy to boost sales. These wheelers are feature-rich and user-friendly to a point where they potentially prevent a rider from truly experiencing the outdoors. Not that a hassle-free ride is a bad thing. However, it can only be an adventure if it provides spiritual and cultural gains – lessons that can only come from encountering some trouble or challenge along the way.
With this premise, the Yamaha XT500 comes to mind as the most suitable vehicle to render possible this type of life-enriching riding experience.
1976 – 1978 Yamaha XT500 Specs & Features (XT500C/D/E)
The dirt bike comes to life – thanks to an air-cooled, 4-stroke SOHC engine with an 87 × 84 millimeters (3.42 × 3.31 inches) bore-stroke ratio, 9.0:1 compression ratio, and 2-valve-per-cylinder design also found in Yamaha SR400 and SR500 bikes. Engine displacement is 499 cm3 (30.45 in3) delivered by a Mikuni VM34SS carburetor (32 mm for pre-production and ’77 models). The XT500’s engine configuration lends to its 100 mph (160.9 km/h) top speed, maximum horsepower of 30 (30.4 PS) – 40 bhp (40.6 PS) @ 5,800 – 6,500 RPM, and maximum torque of 39.2 Nm (4.0 kg-m, 28.9 ft-lb) @ 5,500 RPM.
(TIP: The power mill can be swapped out for a TT500’s, a same-size Mikuni flat slide pumper carb, Mikuni VMS36, round-slide 38-mm Mikuni, or Mikuni HS40. Some sell these carburetors pre-jetted, making for less maintenance.)
Fuel & Lubrication
It has a forced pressure (dry sump) lubrication system with an oiled polyurethane foam air filter (dry, form rubber for the ’78 model). Tank capacity is a bit miserly at 8.8 L/2.32 US gallons but gives off an impressive fuel economy of 59 mpg (3.99 L/100 km). Fuel capacity was increased to 12 L/3.17 US gallons beginning with the 1978 XT500.
Depending on ambient temperature, you may also go for other viscosity grades suggested in the manual. Otherwise, use SAE 10W-30 (20W-40 for’ 78) 4-stroke oil or its equivalent for best results. The manufacturer recommendation is an SE API-certified motor oil (now obsolete) – API-grade SJ+ oils meeting JASO T903 MA standards would work perfectly on the motorcycle.
A 5-speed constant mesh return system (left-foot operated) and a wet, multiple-disc clutch assembly deliver power to the ground. A 520 O-ring chain (with 103 links + joint) handles wheel spin, and a recirculating ball bearing steering system lends to its superb handling and maneuverability. The vehicle’s manual transmission has a four-up-one-down shift sequence (1-N-2-3-4-5). This powertrain combo makes low-speed wheelies easy to accomplish with a flick of the throttle on the Yamaha XT500. For reference, the stock gear ratios are below:
|Secondary Reduction Ratio||2.625 (42/16)|
|Transmission Gear Ratio (1st)||2.357 (33/14)|
|Transmission Gear Ratio (2nd)||1.555 (28/18)|
|Transmission Gear Ratio (3rd)||1.190 (25/21)|
|Transmission Gear Ratio (4th)||0.916 (22/24)|
|Transmission Gear Ratio (5th)||0.777 (21/27)|
Ignition & Lighting
The XT500 has a fully transistorized CDI (Capacitor Discharge Ignition) and requires pulling the compression release to position the ratchet-type kick-starter and wake up the big thumper. An A.C. Magneto with a rated output of 14.5V ± 0.5V 11A @ 5,000 RPM serves as its charging system and powers up the dirt bike’s lighting, horn, self-canceling flashers, and other electronic accessories (if any). Ignition timing is 7° BTDC @ 1,100 RPM (initial “F” mark) and 26.5° BTDC @ 6,000 RPM (full advance).
‘76 to ‘81 models required a 6N6-3B-1 battery (view on Amazon) with dimensions of 99 x 57 x 111 mm (3.88 x 2.25 x 4.38 inches – L x W x H), while later-year versions had a YB3L-B battery with dimensions of 98 x 56 x 110 mm (3.88 x 2.25 x 4.38 inches – L x W x H). You can interchange these batteries in the event one or the other is unavailable. Additionally, the bike required an NGK BP7ES or Champion N-7Y spark plug with a 0.7 – 0.8 mm (0.028 – 0.031 inch) gap.
A 12V upgrade kit and charging regulator work best with a battery replacement. If you prefer not to have a charging regulator, make sure your battery maintainer (view on Amazon) has a charging voltage within 0.5 to 1 Amp. Otherwise, it will end up frying your battery, as the current from the generator is well above the battery’s charging limit (especially true for AGM battery formats). Also, remember to keep the battery’s charge up during the off-season to prevent it from acting up.
You may include a battery eliminator with your conversion kit and run HS1 lighting with H4 reflectors (instead of stock) on the battery. However, I strongly suggest further research on these options to ensure the brightness of all your bike’s lighting systems is not compromised. Using H4 lighting throughout has been reported to cause dimness of the headlamps when other bulbs (for instance, brake lights) are utilized.
Tires & Brakes
Stock rubber consists of tubeless 3.00-21 4PR tires (view on Amazon) at the front and 4.00-18 4PR tires at the rear (3.50-S19 4PR/4.00-S18 4PR for’ 78), which lend to the XT500’s responsive steering and versatility on- and off-road. They mount on aluminum spoke wheels measuring 1.85×21 and 1.85×18, front and back. A hydraulically operated front single disc and rear drum brake comprise the wheeler’s tire-and-wheel assembly and provide the bike its halting power.
Releases outside of Europe have dual hydraulic discs and same-size tires on cast aluminum rims. Either setup makes the XT500 befitting of both cross-country and beaten roads. Across all models, recommended tire pressure for the front is 200 kPa (2.04 kgf/cm2, 29 psi) and 227.5 kPa (2.32 kgf/cm2, 33 psi) for the rear. Many desert racers consider Maxxis M7304D Maxxcross Desert Tires (view on Amazon) to be good replacement tires – should you be looking for recommendations.
Enclosed in the half-duplex cradle is a front telescopic fork and an inverted rear swingarm with progressive-rate Kayaba air/oil shocks – providing wheel travel of 6.2 inches (160 mm) and 7.6 inches (195 mm), respectively. Caster angle is 27.5° with a trail length of 117 mm/4.6 inches (later increased to 30.5° caster and 5.3 inches of trail after ’78). The distance between the axles (wheelbase) is 55.7 inches. The turning radius is 2.2 m (7.22 feet), and ground clearance is between 165 mm (6.5 inches) to 215 mm (8.4 inches).
Although seemingly unremarkable for some off-roaders, the bike’s ground clearance and long-travel front forks were enough to soak up the worst of terrains when riding off-pavement. The frame was lightweight and offered a low center of gravity, making for improved stability and handling. The oil reservoir within the large-diameter top tube was inside the chassis and worked perfectly well with a dry sump.
Overall vehicle dimensions are 85.4 x 36.6 x 44.9 inches (2,170 x 930 x 1,140 mm – L x W x H) for Yamaha XT 500s sold in Northern Europe. There are slight variations in length, width, and height across different markets, with non-European units having the smallest and narrowest version of the dirt bike. Seat height is ideal at 33 inches (830 millimeters). Curb weight is 159 Kg (351 lbs) for bikes sold in Europe and 163 Kg (359 lbs) for those marketed outside the region. Despite being a one-up, the XT500’s long, flat saddle can carry two passengers (including the driver) – but this is only advisable when cruising city roads.
The Honda ATC 350X frame is composed of high-tensile steel, the weight of which is compensated by other Yamaha XT500 parts made of lighter aluminum. Its framework was not outstanding but was still preferred, moreover its road-legal version – the SR500. The use of down-tubes as the bike’s oil reservoir allowed for a slimline and eradicated the need for an oil cooler.
There were three model series for the XT500 in the U.S. – the first one being XT500C/D; the second one XT500E/F; and the third one XT500G/H. These iterations each had different frames, meaning that their seats and fuel tanks are not interchangeable. The ’76 XT500 is especially rare partly due to its exhaust pipe sticking out a little. More notably, 1978 Yamaha XT500s in the U.S. received alloy tanks, while Europe received two-toned ones.
Yamaha XT500 Price
Auction listings for the 499-cc Yamaha XT range between $1,543 and $14,500. Most resale units are post-1980 models that are running great and with little to no bumps and scratches. Unused 1976 XT500s or those in near-mint condition are hard (if not impossible) to come by. If spotted, the least you can purchase them for is $8,000.
For reference, the table below consolidates list prices, retail, and trade-in values of all Yamaha XT500 models released in the U.S. and does not include units sold in Europe until 1989 (Source: Nada Guides):
|Model Year & Trim||List Price||Retail/Trade-in|
|1976 Yamaha XT500C||$1,408||$855 – $3,610|
|1977 Yamaha XT500D||$1,428||$815 – $2,425|
|1978 Yamaha XT500E||$1,548||$425 – $3,195|
|1979 Yamaha XT500F||$1,898||$425 – $5,360|
|1980 Yamaha XT500G||$1,898||$425 – $3,195|
|1981 Yamaha XT500H||$1,998||$425 – $2,010|
|1982 Yamaha XT500J||N/A||$730 – $3,195|
Conversely, there are numerous post-1981 units available online with a considerable amount of hours and very high mileage. A majority of these pre-loved vintage wheelers call for major cosmetic changes and minor engine and suspension work. Veteran owners suggest you do a thorough carb clean-up and replace all seals and bearings. Worst-case scenario, you may need to do a complete engine overhaul.
Yamaha Motor Company Limited is world-renowned for being among the forerunners of the ATV industry and for its class-leading personal watercraft, motorsport, and off-road vehicles. What had started as a piano/reed organ manufacturer in 1887 eventually ventured into motorcycle production. Since parting ways with its musically-inclined parent company, the firm had made huge leaps in multiple automotive industries and had not looked back since. Today, Yamaha continues to uphold and reflect its mission of “Kando” by creating life-enriching products and services.
Conclusion – Yamaha XT500 Review
Thanks to classics like the Yamaha XT 500, adventure bikes have evolved from 500-cc single-seater machines to posh, 1,000-cc big bikes on steroids. And although Japanese greats still have their commanding presence in the motorcycling industry, Austrian firm KTM is battling BMW as the new benchmark for the adventure market. This is nothing but good news for riders who are fortunate enough to have a good assortment of bikes with a road bias, sport orientation, or better dirt riding capacity at their disposal.
The question now remains – “Are you going for a performance-oriented dirt machine capable of traveling around the world or a dependable city cruiser that can take you wherever you need to go?” The answer to this ultimately lies on the rider, which determines the bike’s application. For the undecided consumer, know that the Yamaha XT500 has proven over time that it can be both.