This essay is an extended musing about various motorcycle models that I’m considering as candidates for “My Next Bike” (MNB). In other words, it’s a kind of speculative and comparative shopping exercise. As such, it is a messy rambling of objective motorcycle specifications, subjective impressions and vague associations.
Before getting too-far into this, there are two preliminary comments that are probably worth including. First, there is no particular reason to assume that I will actually follow-through on a MNB purchase. There are all kinds of practical considerations and hurdles that make such an undertaking unlikely. Despite this, it’s still entertaining to consider what I might choose to do. Second, none of what follows is intended to suggest that there aren’t all-kinds of bikes that I rather enjoy looking at or reading about…but any number of reasons strike them from the list of bikes that genuinely qualify as an MNB prospect. For this individual, at this time, the MNB list is genuinely and honestly narrow.
If you’ve read some of my earlier essays, or listened to the Zensylvania podcast, you may already know know the story of how I came to ride motorcycles and acquired my first bike – a 1983 Yamaha XJ550 Maxim. Purchasing that bike was largely a right-price-right-time situation. But it was also ended up being a happy situation that I don’t regret. While happenstance can sometimes have have happy results, often it doesn’t. So the MNB project is intended to take what I learned from a positive happenstance and turn that into a intended-to-be positive plan.
The (short) list runs (roughly) from what I consider to be the most-probable to the least-probable of candidates. The (non-ranked) factors that I included in this are: availability, cost, familiarity, design preferences.
Yamaha XJ Bikes
As a result of my experience with the Maxim XJ550, very near the top of the MNB list are are a few other Yamaha XJ models. Currently heading that group is the XJ650 Maxim. The 650 appeals as a kind of continuation of that original experience. The fuel tank aesthetics and seating position are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing. And let’s be honest, among the most visually striking features of a motorcycle are the fuel tank aesthetics and seating. The XJ motorcycles were sold as either this cruiser-themed model with the sloped tank or as a sporting-themed model, called a Seca. The Seca has a more squared-off tank when compared to what was standard with the Maxims. The Seca models are also nice-looking bikes and earn a place in my regard, though they seem to be a bit more rare in my area compared to the Maxims. The Secas have a significant advantage of dual-front disc brakes.
The 650’s engine is a bit larger than my first bike’s engine. This neither pleases nor displeases me as the difference is relatively modest. What pushes the 650 to the top of my list is that is comes with shaft drive. And the idea of that pleases me a great deal. I prefer the reputation of shaft-drive bikes as cleaner and requiring less ongoing maintenance compared to chain-drive systems.
Considering my long-standing affection for Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a bit of philosophy-oriented literature, it may seem inconsistent to prefer a motorcycle which requires less maintenance. In ZAMM, the books narrator makes an explicit point that John Sutherland’s preference for shaft-drive and less maintenance is a concerning issue. The narrator (a version of Pirsig, himself) is observed over the course of the book to undertake maintenance and repair protocols to ensure that his bike’s chain is appropriately adjusted. In essence, it’s fundamentally linked to themes of the book and Pirsig’s attitude toward life. But I don’t necessarily agree with all of Pirsig’s assessments. From a practical and perhaps pragmatic standpoint…if given the choice between a system which requires frequent, if not quite continuous, attention and one that doesn’t…it seems to the better decision to choose the less-likely-to-fail system. Of course, that is dependent upon all other things being equal. Which they may or may not be.
I think that is true of life whether considering the purchase of a motorcycle or any matter where one may genuinely have the opportunity to choose. Choosing to make one’s life more complicated and more likely to fail (than it necessarily needs to be) would seem, at least to me, to require specific and particular benefits that outweigh the increased burden. A more complicated and failure-prone life without specific and identifiable benefits seems to be perversely self-indulgent.
So…about those XJ motorcycles….
These motorcycles were manufactured from 1980-1983, which is something of a downside as they’re getting quite old and finding a dependable one that hasn’t been previously abused or decayed is getting more and more difficult each year. The 4-cylinder engine is rated at 70-ish horsepower – about 50% higher than my 550 was – on a bike weighing about 450 pounds…some 50 pounds more than my fist bike. All I’d really need is to recreate the (for me) iconic purple flames and make sure the right style of handlebar were installed to achieve an upgraded continuation of my first bike experience.
Second place in my esteem to an XJ650 is a 1985/86 era Maxim 750 or Maxim 750X. Again with the shaft drive as a leading mechanical feature. As may be seen at right, these bikes have a slightly different aesthetic when it comes to the fuel tank. The tank is rather angular and sloped compared to the original Maxim’s curvy teardrop. I’m not completely certain whether I prefer it. I do rather like the look of the Maxim X engine. That engine is a bit larger again than the 650’s. Living in Ontario, Canada as I do – the fact that the 1985 and 1986 engines are 50cc larger than the equivalent US-market bikes make this model appealing to me as being a “Canadian-thing”. The regular Canadian-market Maxim in those years was an air-cooled 750cc rated at something like 75-80 horsepower. Meanwhile the Maxim X is a 90-horsespower liquid-cooled bike. At about 474 pounds, they’re still not significantly heavier than my first bike. I have actually sat on one of these bikes. I had been tempted to buy a midnight-blue one that was for sale close to home back in 2015.
The XJ1100 Maxim (featured at the top of this page) is the largest-displacement version of the XJ range that came to Canada. At 95 horsepower and 560 pounds, it is a much larger shaft-drive machine. This model was only manufactured in 1982.
Focus on the XJ-family of bikes benchmarks my own satisfying experience of motorcycle ownership and riding from 2014 through 2016. Considering another model from the same family of motorcycles is a kind of acknowledgement that those first experiences were something that I wish to continue and extend. I’ve omitted mention of several XJ-family bikes not because I’m not aware of them (I am) nor because they aren’t terrific-seeming motorcycles (they are) – but because I don’t consider them to be genuine MNB contenders. They simply aren’t available in Canada. or otherwise don’t appeal to me.
Before continuing with the exercise, I must consider what is a “maxim”. The dictionary definition of maxim is that it is a general truth, a fundamental principle or a rule of conduct. It is interesting to me that Yamaha would assign a word of this kind as a name for the bike. It is an atypical name that draws on connotations unlike most (if not all) other motorcycles that I am aware of. What’s in a vehicle name? Well, when it isn’t a direct explanation of some detail of the vehicle – nothing other than connotations.
I enjoy the Maxim and connotation that a motorcycle purchase might somehow relate to a fundamental principle or rule of conduct. It seems in keeping with “motorcycle zen” that these notions should be present. “Maxim”, as a word also carries a slightly exaggerated masculinity; “maxim” connects to “maximum”. It’s a fullness. A most-ness. All-in. And then there’s the strange connection that Kelly-Jo (my wife) and I once owned a third-generation Nissan Maxima. We thoroughly enjoyed that car for several years. The three-litre VG30E engine was terrific and the car was the most luxurious we’d owned up to that point. Eventually there were problems (as there always are with cars) but it was an overall good vehicle ownership experience. All that to say – “Maxim” is a word that I rather enjoy.
Rounding out my list when it comes to the Yamaha XJ Bikes is the 1986-1990 Yamaha Radian. Another unusual name for a motorcycle – a term from mathematics for the measurement of an angle based on the radius of a circle. Why name a motorcycle this – other than that it sounds kind of cool and the fact that motorcycles are, at a deep level, a collection of circles and angles?
Radians weren’t called “XJ” by Yamaha – they were called “YX”. I’m not entirely certain what justifies the separate designation. Perhaps the same thing somehow resulted in the FJ1100 not being called an XJ. Whatever. The Radian has the Maxim 550’s frame, an updated version of the 550 engine (598cc), weighed about 435 pounds and carried 66 horsepower. If not for that darn chain-drive, the Radian would be my leader in the pack. Still, if the right one were available at the right price and in the right place….the Radian would easily be MNB.
Kawasaki EX 500
Competing for top-ranking with a Yamaha XJ-model motorcycle on the My Next Bike list is the Kawasaki EX 500 Ninja. Despite the campy name and the integrated fairing, this is not a supersport-type motorcycle. Like the Yamaha bikes, this model is a modest “standard”. Most of the self-proclaimed experts on the internet describe the bike as a beginner’s motorcycle.
My experience with the 550 Maxim standard was very satisfying. The upright seating position which allowed me to literally stand on the pegs (dirt-bike style) informed me that sport-bike (pegs back) and cruiser bike (pegs forward) seating just wouldn’t be my thing. So I’m content with the seating position of a standard. This is another matter of practicality. As I’ve already hinted, being able to stand on the pegs is a feature that may seem un-necessary…and probably is…but can also be useful. Otherwise dirt-bikes would be designed differently. There are probably paragraphs of commentary I could add. But I’ll leave it there for now. Pragmatism suggests that a standard is sensible.
The Ninja 500 was built from 1987 to 2009. That means, a lot of them were built and a reasonably tidy and newer one may easily sourced. The newest XJ-bike on the other hand is more than 30-years old.
These bikes have a parallel-twin engine at about 50 horsepower(as far as I can tell). The weight is about 440 pounds. But again, chain drive. Given that Zensylvania is a project all about Motorcycle Zen, we can benchmark the Ninja 500 (and all of the bikes on the list) not only my 83 Maxim 550, but also to Robert Pirsig’s late-60’s Honda Superhawk which had about 28 horsepower and weighed-in at 350 pounds. The SuperHawk was also an inline-twin engine.
There seems to be several of these available in my areas as of Spring 2022…and it is likely that this is a perennial situation. Note those production years!
The BMW K75 is similar to the Yamaha XJ bikes in that they are shaft-drive bikes made in the 1980s. The BMWs were actually made from 1986 to 1995, which means acquiring one may mean a obtaining a bike slightly newer than an XJ-family bike. The K75 has a three-cylinder engine making 75 horsepower and the bike weighs 520 pounds.
With a fairing, the k75 can look rather nice, but honestly it’s not the best looking motorcycle I’ve ever seen. Remove the fairing or put the wrong fairing on and you’ve got a pretty odd-looking machine. Apparently it’s been nicknamed The Flying Brick in acknowledgment of the brick-looking motor hanging at the bottom of the bike. Aesthetically, it is distinctive.
If I found a clean-looking K75 that seemed like it wouldn’t require a bunch of money spent in get-it-on-the road maintenance work, it would definitely be an MNB option.
Moto Guzzi V7
Continuing with my stated thesis that shaft-drive makes more sense than chain-drive (yes, I have ignored belt-drive), a Moto Guzzi V7 is my top pick if I were willing to put down dollars for a brand-new (or significantly newer than thus-far reviewed) bike. It’s just about the only new shaft-drive bike that makes any kind of sense to me.
The v-twin motor is mounted such that a cylinder pokes-out on either side of the bike. It’s about 470 pounds and 52 horsepower.
When considering the Moto Guzzi benchmarked to my first bike or even an XJ650 – the numbers are comfortingly similar. The Moto Guzzi goes on the list largely because “it’s new” and therefore less likely to have decayed. But I’m very far from convinced that being new justifies the extra thousands of dollars that acquiring one would required. In 2020s-era dollars, an old XJ or EX can be purchased for $2k-$3k. Meanwhle, a Moto Guzzi would cost two to three times that money. And then there’s that whole “why buy something that will be more likely to fail” notion. Moto Guzzi is not known to be the most reliable product that one might purchase. Newness does not guarantee trouble-free-ness.
Still, I put it on the list as a rather improbable MNB candidate.