Take a moment to think of your favorite big dual-sport or adventure bike of all time. Got it in your mind’s eye? Ok. Now, repeat after me: “Thank you, Yamaha XT500, for making my (insert bike here) possible.”
If you don’t like the sound of that sentence, we can argue about it in the comments below. But before we do, here’s why every BMW GS, Honda Africa Twin, Suzuki DR650, Triumph Tiger, and KTM Adventure can kiss the ring of Yamaha’s first big four stroke enduro.
History Of The Yamaha XT500
By the end of the 1960’s Yamaha was on a roll with their new line of street-legal trail bikes, which started with the DT-1 and continued to expand into the 70’s.
Dirt bike sales were booming, the film “On Any Sunday” was a smash hit, and throughout the American west, customers were taking to the wide-open deserts and public lands on two-stroke motocrossers that also happened to be street legal.
But something was missing in the off-road market…
The two-strokes were powerful and light, but they were hampered by their on-road manners and comparatively high maintenance.
The four-strokes of the day were fairly popular, but bikes like the Honda XL250 just didn’t have the power customers wanted for flat-out enduro racing or long trips on mixed terrain.
All that changed in September of 1975, when Yamaha debuted their new XT500 Enduro and unknowingly released the blueprint that would one day evolve into the modern adventure motorcycle.
Now obviously big air-cooled single cylinder engines aren’t what we consider modern, nor are the Yamaha XT500’s dual drum brakes or twin rear shocks. But it wasn’t the design of the motorcycle itself that set the adventure genre in motion, it was what Yamaha accomplished with their new enduro.
So what common ancestor does a Yamaha XT500, Triumph Tiger and BMW 1200 GSA have in common? Simple: The Paris Dakar Rally. Specifically, the first-ever race, run in 1979, from which all modern adventure bikes are derived.
Paris Dakar Rally
See, nowadays the Dakar Rally is run in multiple categories: Motorcycles, cars, trucks, quads… you name it. Everyone gets their own race.
Back in 1979, everyone lined up on the starting grid together, and whoever managed to finish the race shared the same podium as well.
The Yamaha XT500 took that very podium in 1979. It took second place as well, leaving third for “the other” four-stroke enduro competing at the time, Honda’s XL250.
Tales of the brutal rally quickly spread, and in 1980, participation grew from 182 entrants to 216. The XT500 took first and second-place finishes for the second year in a row, and went ahead and grabbed third and fourth place as well for good measure. The Yamaha seemed unbeatable, and its reputation for reliability and performance was further cemented as an unstoppable desert racer on the world stage.
With the public eye now squarely aimed at the sensational new rally, 1981 saw factory-backed teams entering the race for the first time, and the pressure was on for motorcycle makers to dethrone the legendary Yamaha.
BMW wheeled a brand new model to the starting line that year that had been built to outrun the unbeatable Yamaha XT500. Care to guess which one? (Spoiler: It was the R/80 GS)
From that year on, factory teams pushed harder and harder to build the next great desert bike. If you weren’t racing the Dakar, you weren’t to be trusted.
Manufacturers built bikes to take podiums in the desert, and then rake in money at the dealerships as the newest, fastest, “Dakar-proven” dual-sport on the market.
And thus, the adventure arms race commenced, from which all other large-displacement four-stroke adventure bikes were born.
Whether in style or in spirit, the Africa Twin, Yamaha Tenere, KTM Adventure, Honda “Rally” series, Triumph Tiger, Moto Guzzi NTX and whatever else you can think of all share a family tree.
Their lineage is Dakar, and the XT500 was the seed.
Now…. Kiss the ring so we can dive into the details.
For a big four stroke single made in the 70’s, the XT500’s 499cc SOHC powerplant makes some pretty modern-looking figures, all things considered.
Peak horsepower is rated at 32 ponies while torque is nice and linear, spending most of its time around the 29 ft-lbs peak.
My big “modern” DR650 only manages another 10 or so in both categories, and weighs in about 30 pounds heavier than the XT’s 328-pound curb weight. Realistically, they’re not far off from one another performance-wise.
The Yamaha doesn’t quite have the ground clearance of modern dual-sports but the XT500 holds its own over anything but the biggest jumps and whoops, and Yamaha was kind enough to include a rugged aluminum sump plate from 1976-on.
Fueling is spot-on, which means the big single makes great torque in whatever gear you feel like cruising in.
Speaking of gearing, first and second both give plenty of low-end grunt for plowing through just about any trail, and the remainder of its 5 speed box are all exceptionally well-suited for street duty on anything from twisty roads to open freeways.
The Yamaha XT500’s top speed was originally rated at 84 mph, although they’ll run up to 90 mph+ without issue, making it a pretty comfortable ride at cruising speed.
Buying An Original
Slowly but surely, XT500 owners are starting to catch on to the growing popularity of the big single, and prices have been on the rise for the past few years.
Unrestored but running bikes typically go between $3000-5000, while restored but ridden models can fetch $7000 or more.
The XT500’s sturdy frame and simple, reliable engine made it a favorite of the custom crowd over the last decade or so, and I’ve been able to find a few not-so-ruined garage customs selling around the $4000 mark that could be easily reverted back to stock.
Original 1975 and 1976 Yamaha XT500 models with the classic red and white paint scheme are the most popular for their styling and historical significance. As they creep toward the 1980’s XT500s get more affordable and less iconic, but make great daily riders for anyone interested in getting into Yamaha’s first big thumper.
Restoring A Yamaha XT500
The Yamaha XT500 remained popular all its life, which was a long one spanning roughly 14 years between 1975 and 1989.
Untold thousands of these bikes have been bought and sold, and finding just about anything from the wheels to the engine doesn’t require much more than a quick Google search.
All 14 years of the XT500 were practically unchanged as well, with a few small exceptions starting in 1979, so 95% of the parts are interchangeable between year models from any country.
Of course hard-to-find items like an original gas tank or side covers fetch premium prices, but everything else from nuts and bolts to engine internals can still be found for relatively cheap as old-stock OEM parts or gently used bits on eBay.
As far as the restoration process itself, the XT500 is about as simple as they come, and would honestly make a great first restoration project for anyone with some patience and a workshop manual.
Are They A Good Investment?
I don’t expect prices for anything other than the most collectible and well-kept 1975-1976 version to appreciate in value in the future, but if you’ve got a knack for getting old thumpers back up and running, snatching up a well-priced Yamaha XT500 might be a smart move.
The adventure segment is growing leaps and bounds every year, and the XT’s “godfather of enduro” status guarantees its place in the history books long after the first generation of buyers stop retelling their XT500 stories.
If you can pick up a solid runner for $2,500 or so I’d say go ahead and pull the trigger. The engine and frames of these bikes are desert-proven, and if you find one that’s well-sorted, shining it up and throwing a set of tires on top might be all you need to make a turn-key investment.
Verdict On The Yamaha XT500
The Yamaha XT500 is undeniably important, both for its storied Dakar past and its impact on motorcycling history.
On top of that, it’s one of the bikes that made “Yamaha reliability” an agreed-upon benchmark, and it’s still a ton of fun to throw a leg over even today.
If you’ve got a love of vintage offroaders and want to add one to your collection, the Yamaha XT500 is a no-brainer. Go ahead and pick one up, but just make sure you take it out and get it dirty for me on any Sunday you get the chance.