Having ridden since the mid 1970s, that's a big call! But let me first clarify what I mean by "worst". I don't mean the "worst" in terms of it's design, or it's performance or handling etc. No, no, that wouldn't apply to this bike at all, because it was actually quite a good thing! And in a perverse sort of way, I'm glad I bought it! Because in the history of motorcycling it was quite a significant bike; being, arguably, the fore-runner of the current crop of 600cc sports-bikes. So in that sense, I'm glad I owned one. What it earns the "worst bike" title for is it's general condition and reliability.
The bike was about 14 years old when I bought it; not really a problem in itself (although considered as "old" in motorcycle terms), but the problem was it had been seriously lacking in the "TLC" department by it's previous owners. It was the sort of bike that could have been advertised as having "one careful owner" - but a lot of others who weren't careful! Also, the owner who sold it to me was less than honest about it's condition, including one major problem. So I got caught with this one! And that's what earns it the "worst bike" title! I'll tell you it's story.
We go back to the mid 1990s. At the time I was riding a 250cc Yamaha road-bike, having come from a background of owning mainly road-trail bikes. I'd had the 250 for a few years, using it as a general run-around thing to just get-out-on-a-bike on the weekends. It was strange though; I actually liked the bike, and had enjoyed doing it up a bit etc, but I never actually enjoyed riding it. It wasn't overly comfortable, and it was severely lacking in the "go" department! So I was starting to really want a bigger bike! I'd ridden bigger bikes on many occasions, but never owned one. So I began watching the classifieds in the local paper (as you do!), and ended up taking a couple for a test-ride (as you do!). And I decided that I wanted, (or even "needed"), a bigger bike; and I wanted it now!
The problem was, I made this decision at a time when I was a bit lacking in the spare-finances department. (Does that sound familiar to you?). So whatever I bought had to be cheap! So I started looking around more seriously. After considering a few options that might fit into my very limited budget, I decided on an early-model Yamaha XJ600. I'd owned a few Yamahas over the years, so the brand appealed to me, and a read through road-tests of the time also made it appeal. I also had a brief look at one (that wasn't for sale) that confirmed it was comfortable to sit on and looked like the sort of thing that would suit.
Looking through local papers quickly developed into looking through the Trading Post (remember this was around 1998, before the internet was as common as it is today). And I ended up finding one. It was a 1984 model, claimed to be in good condition, and was quite cheap. Only problem was it was over 100km away. I wasn't keen to do a 200+km round trip to look at a bike, especially as part of that 200+km was across suburban parts of Sydney. But I phoned the number (as you do!). The owner was a mechanic / spray-painter and also a collector of bikes. He sounded (and actually was) pretty knowledgeable with bikes. Apparently this bike had been sitting around unregistered for a long time and he bought it to do it up. He'd done a few cosmetic things, like re-spraying and replacing some parts. Because of the distance I'd have to come to look at it, he described it's condition in intimate detail; even down to the slight crazing marks on the decorative strip on the tank and the missing flap over the ignition switch. I was most concerned about the mechanicals though. I'd never owned a 4-cylinder bike, and I knew the potential for problems was pretty high. With 4 carbies to balance and adjust, even a tune-up could be quite expensive. However he assured me that mechanically it was excellent. He'd checked it over fully, including balancing the carbies and adjusting the valve-clearances. "Mechanically you won't have a problem!" he said. I told him I'd think it over and call him back.
A few phone calls later he made an offer. It turned out that his son lived quite close to where I live, and he would be visiting him in the next week or so. He offered to bring the bike to me if I was serious about buying it. This sounded good to me, and I said I would buy the bike provided it met the description he'd given me. It was a decision we'd both end up regretting!
When the bike arrived it looked even better than I'd imagined. (The cosmetic repairs he'd done very well). So it came off the trailer and he started it up and took it up the road and back. Then I rode it. It felt pretty good around the block; until it suddenly started spluttering! I made it back, but only just. The fuel gauge read "E"; so I siphoned some fuel out of my car and that fixed that problem. Riding it again was impressive enough; it performed well, although I thought the speedo was under-registering ("40" felt a lot more like 50 or 60). Listening to the bike when I got back though, I started having doubts. There was quite a loud rattle coming from the gearbox / clutch area. He assured me that this was quite normal for an older bike, nothing to worry about. Hmmm, maybe: the clutch worked okay, so perhaps it was just showing it's age? I was still skeptical though. But there was more. To me, the engine seemed to be idling a bit rough. He maintained that this slightly lumpy idle was natural for a bike like this. I knew high-performance engines usually idled a bit unevenly, especially ones with multiple carbs, but it still didn't sound right to me. So I was starting to feel very unsure about the whole thing. I actually said I wouldn't buy it; which was the point at which he began regretting his decision to bring it to me! But then I re-considered. I felt a bit guilty about sending him back with it when I said I'd buy it; and perhaps it was just in need of a tune-up? I negotiated on the price and eventually he agreed to drop the price to cover the cost of a tune-up;which made him regret bringing it to me even more! I decided I probably wouldn't get anything better for the price, so I bought it.
First job was to change the oil and filter; a natural thing to do with any 2nd-hand bike. Next job was to get it registered. There were other things I wanted to do (like replacing the tyres, which, while still legal, were obviously very old), but I wanted to get it registered before I started spending more money on it. Just as I was about to take it to the local inspection centre, the blinkers failed. No biggie, a new blinker-unit and it was ready again.
The inspection went well. There was a question over the mufflers (which didn't carry the factory name), but the inspector decided it sounded within limits anyway, and passed it.
I rode it home but then had to go to work. That night after work I just had to take it for a ride! I had already discovered, by having my wife follow me up our street in the car, that the speedo was under-registering by about a third. "20" was actually 30. "40" was actually 60. So I turned onto the freeway and sat it on about "70" (actually 100kph). It felt good! The old 250 was about flat-out at this speed, but the XJ was cruising easily! I went a few km down the freeway and then turned around and came back. And that's when I noticed it sounding rough. It was spluttering again, but I knew there was no problem with fuel this time. I also noticed the headlight seemed to be getting dim. While I was pondering this, something suddenly whacked me in the leg. I assumed this was probably just something that had flicked up from the road, and went back to worrying about the motor which by now was seriously rough. I reached my exit off the freeway, and it spluttered it's way to the end of my street before dying. The starter would hardly even turn the motor. I switched off the headlight (you could still do that with these), and tried push-starting it. After a couple of attempts it spluttered into life and I managed to get it home. Obviously being an electrical problem, I brought the car up and hooked up some jumper-leads. It fired into life and ran fine.
It was while inspecting the bike at home that I discovered what had whacked me in the leg; one of the side-covers had blown off! I put the bike in the shed and drove along the freeway in the car looking for the side-cover. Remarkably, I found it; and as it had ended up beside the road rather than on the roadway, it hadn't been run over by anything so was still in one piece. One of the retaining grommets was missing, so the next day I went in to the local Yamaha dealer, bought a new set and replaced the cover.
The electrical problem was harder to fix. The battery was claimed to be new (and it looked it), so I suspected there were problems elsewhere. After checking a few things myself, and not finding anything, I decided to take it to a mechanic. I charged the battery and rode it in to the Yamaha dealer; leaving them with instructions to fix the electrical problem, give it a tune-up including balancing the carbies and checking valve-clearances, and then replace both tyres. I also asked them to check the back suspension, as it seemed a bit harsh, and I couldn't move the adjuster. It was to spend the next couple of weeks in there!
The workshop was quite busy, but they'd brought in a semi-retired mechanic, Bill, to help out. He got the job of working on my bike. (And that was a decision that he'd regret!).
There was no charge getting to the battery, so Bill pulled out the alternator and took it to an auto-electrician. But it checked out okay. Bill phoned me to tell me the (non) progress. Eventually, after dismantling many things, they discovered a simple loose connection deep in the wiring-loom. Bill phoned me with the good news, and said he would start on the tune-up.
The next day he phoned to tell me that the tune-up was done and it was going well. The carbies hadn't been far out, and valve-clearances were fine. He said it was still a bit lumpy at idle, but nothing abnormal for this model. He also re-assured me about the clutch-rattle. Normal wear-and-tear for a bike of this age and nothing that needed urgent attention. "What I found though", he continued, now in a less re-assuring tone, "was that there's a crack in the cylinder-head". While I was trying to take this in, he continued, "Actually more than a crack, there's a chunk broken out of it". What?! He explained that the top ridge of the cylinder head, where the valve-cover sits, had a chunk broken out. "It doesn't effect the running of the bike, but it lets the oil out". He concluded that someone had probably been adjusting the valves and slipped with the spanner, hitting the side and breaking the piece out. It had been patched-up with a liquid-metal type putty. That was when I realised the seller had been less than honest! If he'd checked the valves, as he claimed, there was no way he wouldn't have known about this. And of course it could have been him that caused it; so, either way, he had to have known about it. Bill said he'd tried as best he could to plug it up with more liquid-metal putty but it was still leaking.
Replacing a cylinder-head (on top of what it was already costing me!) was really out of the question, so this oil-leak was something I'd have to live with. Bill said he'd replace the tyres, and while he was at it, adjust the back suspension.
The next day Bill phoned. "What I've found with your bike," he began, in a worrying tone, "is that the back wheel-bearing is worn. It needs replacing". Okay, if it needed doing, then do it. "What I also found", he continued, "is that the back brakes are dragging. The piston isn't releasing properly into the caliper". I'd noticed this myself actually; a bit of a squeal coming from the back, as well as being a bit stiff, as I pushed it into the shed. He said it wasn't too bad and could be left, but he'd recommend pulling the caliper apart and giving it a good clean. I told him okay, and suggested it would probably be best to do the other ones too. Best to be safe; but I was starting to worry about how much this "cheap bike" was going to cost me!
The next day Bill phoned again. "I've cleaned the calipers and they're all working okay, but a couple of the pads are down a fair way. I could put them back in, but you'd be needing new ones pretty soon". Okay, put in the new pads.
The next day Bill phoned to say he'd replaced the pads and all was ready, except he hadn't been able to adjust the back suspension. The adjuster was frozen solid. Disappointing, but I certainly wasn't going to add the cost of a new rear suspension unit at this point! Bill said he'd also checked all the switches, and lubricated the levers etc. So I went in and picked it up.
The list of what had been done to the bike ran into a few pages! The total at the end came to just on $900 - which was about the same amount I'd paid for it! The head mechanic said it should have been much more, but with Bill being a part-time addition to the crew they'd been able to keep the hourly-rate down a bit. I paid the money and thanked Bill for all his trouble. As I left I heard Bill telling the head mechanic never to give him a 14-year old bike to work on again!
Bill had done a great job though! The term "making a silk-purse out of a sow's ear" was one I applied to the bike's time in at the workshop - even if it had blown the budget! It still felt like a 14-year old bike in many ways, but I was confident now that it was safe. I got used to ignoring the clutch-rattle, but the oil-leak was annoying. I kept mopping it up but it continued to dribble down the front of the motor. And if ever the motor got hot - like idling in heavy traffic, or after a hard run up a mountain pass etc - the oil began to burn, producing a thin cloud of smoke. Quite embarrassing! But apart from that, it was okay.
Next thing was to replace the faulty speedo. The wreckers wouldn't sell me just the speedo so I had to buy the whole instrument panel. The face on the original was better than the one from the wreckers (which had faded quite a lot), so when I pulled the speedo off I took both of them apart and swapped the faces over. This was very fiddly, but worthwhile. Once assembled and back on the bike it read accurately.
There were other minor things that needed doing along the way, like replacing the fork-seals (another thing Bill had noticed when he had it), and the chain etc. Normal stuff. But in doing all this I kept discovering things; little things like non-standard nuts and bolts etc. Nothing drastic, but things that were further indications of it having had far less professional TLC than it should have had! I also discovered, while changing the oil one day, a crack in the frame. It had obviously been there for a long time, but I wasted no time in taking it to a local welding-shop to have it repaired. Then not long after that the exhaust had to be re-built. Yes, "cheap" bikes can get quite expensive! With rego and all the repairs, I had now spent about 3 times the original purchase price!
During the whole time I owned it, there was a weird starting problem. Occasionally, particularly if the bike hadn't been ridden for a while, it would refuse to start. It would just sit there turning over on the starter with not a hint of going! Despite many investigations into this, including checking ignition output, replacing the plugs, cleaning the fuel-tap, and anything else I could think of, I could never find the cause! Whenever it did this, there was no obvious reason why it refused to start, and then no obvious reason why it eventually did start! I'd try to start it until the battery went flat, re-charge the battery and try again until the battery went flat, recharge and ... suddenly it would kick a few times and then splutter into life! A couple of seconds to clear the excess fuel and it'd run fine! I discovered that starting it up, even for just a minute or so, at least once a week seemed to prevent the problem from occurring. Thankfully, it never happened while I was riding it; although I always held my breath when I went to start it!
There was a lot that I enjoyed about that bike! I enjoyed the performance. The slightly peaky engine characteristics weren't entirely what I would have preferred (there wasn't much under 4,500rpm); although being used to peaky 2-strokes this wasn't really a problem. The acceleration, good cruising speed and even power on hills were all very enjoyable! I also enjoyed the handling; although was unhappy about the too-hard rear suspension. But sadly, there was much more that I didn't enjoy!
I'd tried to ignore the clutch-rattle, but it was always there and always made the bike sound "old". The oil-leak in the cylinder-head (which I tried a few times, with varying success, to improve) was a continual annoyance! I considered buying a 2nd-hand head and having it put on, but the cost of that didn't seem like a good investment in a bike that old. The starting problem was a continual frustration, as well as promoting a general lack of trust in the thing. And just the age of the bike; it was the oldest bike I'd ever owned, and it really felt it! The "silk purse" still had signs of the "cow's ear", despite all the good work by Bill and subsequent repairs afterwards! So I decided to sell it and up-date. But even then it frustrated me!
I put an add in the paper, but when people called up I was more honest about the bike than the previous owner had been. I told them about the oil-leak in the cylinder-head; and that turned a few potential buyers away.
The first person to come and look at it seemed interested until I went to start it. Despite having taken it for a good run a few days before, it decided to pull it's no-starting trick again! And the guy left. After the usual many attempts, and recharging the battery, cleaning the plugs etc, it still refused to go. This time I bought a can of stuff, appropriately called "Start Ya Bastard". (A chemical comprised mostly of ether). A spray of that into the air-box and it burst into life; and proceeded to run like nothing had happened! Infuriating!
The next person to look at it was also quite keen; until I went to start it! This time it started, but was running extremely rough. We soon diagnosed it was running on only two cylinders. So, a new little trick to add to it's repertoire! And the guy left. Although he said he would still be interested if I could get it running okay. After much testing and trying a few things I still couldn't cure it, so I took it to a mechanic. (Bill wasn't working at the shop any more and they were too heavily booked, so it ended up going to another guy). Again it proved difficult to locate, although he had experienced a similar problem with an XJ900; nothing obviously faulty, but a problem caused by a combination of several connections in the wiring loom being not as clean and tight as they should have been. So he went through all the ignition wiring and found a couple of connections that were a little loose. Tightening those cured the problem.
I called the guy and he came to have another look. This time it was much more better-behaved. A few days later he was back with the cash, and the bike rode away out of my life.
It was the worst bike I've ever owned, and I was glad to be rid of it! But what did I get to replace it? An up-dated version of the same model! An XJ600 Seca. As I said, there was a lot I had liked about the bike; and during my time with it I had decided that the later model was something I really wanted. So how did that turn out? Well, you can read my comments about that in the "More" section. In terms of it's condition and reliability and the way it encouraged me to ride more often and further than I had for a very long time, it was probably the best bike I've owned! I paid a lot more to buy it, of course, but then you get what you pay for, don't you!
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