Under the Radar: Yamaha's XS750 was the company's response to it's flawed TX750
Years produced: 1976-79
Total production: 150,000 (est.)
Claimed power: 64bhp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 106mph
Engine type: Three-cylinder in-line
Weight (dry): 232kg (511lb)
Price then: $2,240 (1976)
Price now: $1,200-$2,000
Imagine it’s 1976 and you’re hearing two new sounds, trying to determine which will have more staying power.
One is the sweet exhaust note of the new three-cylinder Yamaha XS750; the other the chain-saw guitar on The Ramones’ debut record. The band is a galaxy away from the mainstream in a year when the Starland Vocal Band will win the Grammy for Best New Artist, while the XS750 has the motorcycle press going nuts.
"Certainly new and different, and most certainly bound for success," declared Cycle World in August 1976.
Fast-forward 29 years, though, and "Blitzkrieg Bop" is a standard while Yamaha’s triple has largely faded away.
Not fair, says Rob van der Touw, who’s been riding XS750s for more than 20 years and considers them works of art.
"What makes it unique to me is the character of the engine. It’s a very smooth-running, balanced machine. In fact, the whole bike is a statement of balance in many ways."
Driven from the big-bike market by the mid-Seventies when the Yamaha TX750 twin proved unreliable, Yamaha faced the challenge of producing a new bike that was unique but not too radical for the mainstream market.
The solution was a package of technical advancements and user-friendly touches designed to make the XS750 one of the smoothest, most comfortable and appealing bikes of its day.
"The triple was, from my standpoint, Yamaha’s response to cover up for the first 750 they made," says Jean Aker, an XS750-2D owner and motorcycle journalist who has written extensively on the bike. "When the TX750 failed so miserably, Yamaha had to come back with something special."
The company did just that.
While the dual overhead cam power plant didn’t blow anybody away with its claimed 64bhp at 7,500rpm, critics generally contended that the bike’s lack of muscle was more than offset by such features as triple disc brakes, self-canceling turn signals and cast aluminum wheels that provided more rigidity than wire spokes.
The bike was compared favorably with far more expensive competitors, with Cycle World calling it a "Bargain BMW" and rating it one of the world’s 10 best motorcycles.
"The exhaust note alone is worth the price of admission," the magazine gushed.
Yamaha boosted power to 67bhp in 1977 and made other alterations to increase performance, but the bike’s reputation eventually took a hit through a couple of long-term problems.
Owners discovered that second gear was prone to failure, as was the vacuum-operated petcock. The latter shortcoming is perhaps the bike’s biggest flaw, as it can cause fuel to leak into the crankcase and dilute the oil so thoroughly that engine seizure can result.
But triple devotees have found solutions to both glitches and are quick to praise the bike’s durability and reliability. For them, past problems are forgiven once the triple stirs to life with a sound that van der Touw describes as being as distinctive as that of a Porsche flat 6.
"The sound is something that even a Harley rider can appreciate," van der Touw said.
The triple’s voice has grown quiet, though, thanks partly to competition in its own stable. Van der Touw says Yamaha helped hasten the triple’s demise by introducing a larger sport-touring bike, the four-cylinder Yamaha XS1100, in 1978.
"After the bigger bike came out, the smaller one didn’t get the attention it deserved," he says.
Also in '78, the standard version started competing with a factory custom model featuring a teardrop tank and stepped seat.
In 1980, the 750cc engine was discontinued in favor of an 850 that was produced in 1980 and 1981. The four-cylinder XJ750E debuted in '81, and Yamaha would never release another three-cylinder, four-stroke model.
"It might have had a time of glory when it was the fastest thing on the street, but it only lasted a couple of years," Aker says of the XS750. "It was a trend-setting, technological breakthrough of a bike. But when its day faded, so did its luster."
As the XS750 approaches its 30th birthday, though, Aker knows from experience that it can still draw a crowd. He was at a charity ride recently when the bike’s signature sound drew the attention of the vice president of a Harley-Davidson club.
"He told me that was one purty rice burner I had," Akers says.
1976 Laverda 3C
- 80hp, 137mph
- Triple discs
In its day, the Laverda 3C was considered an absolute monster.
Whether fairly or not, Laverda’s three-cylinder bike developed a reputation as an animal to be tamed, thanks largely to its raw power but also its rather harsh ride.
None of which should be interpreted as damning, because the 3C was hailed as one of the world’s greatest thrill rides.
While its engine was rivaled by at least one competitor, the Kawasaki Z1, none of the big production bikes coming from Japan could match the sports-minded tuning of the 3C’s suspension or the stiffness of its frame.
By '76, the 3C had become a little easier to manage thanks to the addition of alloy wheels and dual front disc brakes that replaced a massive drum.
But the triple had another reputation that wasn’t quite so sexy. Early models were plagued by mechanical and electrical problems, and the Bosch alternators continue to draw criticism to this day.
Today they’re an acknowledged classic, with good examples hard to find and trading hands for an average of $7,500.
1976 Suzuki GT750
- 70bhp, 120mph
- Liquid cooled
- Dual discs up front
The Suzuki GT750 “Water Buffalo’’ was anything but a wallower when it was introduced to the motorcycling public in 1972.
Created as an answer to the Honda CB750 and the ferocious Kawasaki H2, the three-cylinder Suzuki GT750 was praised for its radical design and abundance of low-end torque, which gave the beast plenty of acceleration.
The bike had a unique look, with a smooth cylinder head (thanks to water cooling), four tailpipes and whoa-far-out-man colors such as Candy Lavendar and Maui Blue Metallic.
Underneath the bright wrappings, though, the GT was anything but frivolous.
The water-jacket cooling system had a four-stage operation that restricted the flow of coolant when the engine was cold and phased in liquid as temperatures rose.
Still, Suzuki’s flagship wasn’t without its faults. Some riders complained that the brakes — especially the drums on the early models — were no match for the bike’s acceleration and weight (507 pounds dry). The two-stroke triple’s fuel consumption also left something to be desired, dipping as low as 25mpg.
Produced for five years, the GT remains affordable. Presentable fixer-uppers can be found for less than $3,000. MC
Read more about the motorcycles mentioned in this article:
• 1973-1974 Yamaha TX750
• Yamaha XS1100
• Laverda 3C Triple
• 1973 Kawasaki Z1: King of the Road
• Suzuki GT750 LeMans
• Honda CB750 Four: A Classic for the Masses
• Kawasaki H2 Mach IV