In Europe, the United States, and Japan around 2010, it was becoming more and more common to see enthusiasts finding, restoring, and customizing classic motorcycles. The culture around restoring these motorcycles to bring them back to ride the road once more had itself been around for quite some time already. But with time, a new movement began to emerge in which owners would treat these motorcycles of yesteryear more as a canvas on which to bestow their own new interpretations, broadening the genre to include customized café racers, choppers, bobbers, and others.
Why are people naturally drawn to classic and vintage motorcycles? Yamaha believed the answer lies in how such motorcycles offer riders the freedom to do whatever they choose with them, and that it is time to once again create a vehicle truly close to people.
This was what spurred the development team to take up the challenge of creating Yamaha’s own neo-retro-styled naked, but from the outset, the idea was not one of revival, i.e., to simply throw a modern engine into a body styled to resemble a bike from Yamaha’s past. The chassis and engine combination is what determines a motorcycle’s ride and performance, and the team was committed to creating a naked that would behave like a state-of-the-art machine even with a classical appearance. But more than anything else, it had to be authentic in its execution so that it would be properly appreciated and loved as a motorcycle on its own.
The MT Series—which was then still under development—was the project that caught the development team’s eyes, with the MT-07 mounting an all-new CP2 engine in a tubular steel backbone frame, and the MT-09 featuring the groundbreaking CP3 engine mounted in a CF die-cast aluminum frame. These were Yamaha’s newest platforms, set to offer not only a lightweight, slim, compact chassis but also an exciting, torque-driven riding experience. The two engines were developed based on Yamaha’s Crossplane Concept in order to provide a character different from the typical sportbike engine of the time, which made high-revving horsepower the main selling point.
The real issue to tackle with this new neo-retro model was its handling and exterior form. For inspiration, the development team dug deeper into the neo-retro concept and understood that what they sought did not fall under the “vintage” nor “classic” labels—it was “heritage.” Carefully studying the forms and contours of historical Yamaha racers and production models, they asked themselves why each was shaped the way it was and searched for answers.
It eventually became clear that, from the exterior bodywork to the various components, these older models were packed with their developers’ creative touches and ingenuity. Models that they scrutinized included Yamaha’s first 4-stroke naked sportbike, the XS-1; the RZ250 and 350, which lived up to their reputation as road-going racebikes; the SR400 and 500, whose simplicity made them fixtures of the lineup for 50 years; the SRX400 and 600 that went against the grain of the replica racer boom in its heyday; or the mighty Vmax that occupied a truly unique spot among motorcycles in general. Common to all these models was the fact that their forms clearly illustrated their functionality and performance.
The ride itself comes first and foremost, and since the frame is key to a motorcycle’s handling, it had to come from the new MT Series. This resulted in a clear break from the quintessential teardrop fuel tank seen on many vintage and retro models.
What exactly does “heritage” mean in this case? One model that provided a hint was the SR. It’s simple in design and hides nothing, and this fact won it the lasting adoration of riders even 50 years after its launch. This realization actually freed the development team from the shackles of words like “retro,” “classic,” or “vintage.” In examining the racebikes in particular, they could see that not only were there no superfluous elements to their forms but the finish was also somewhat rough and rugged, with the aluminum parts left exposed and holes drilled into places to reduce weight. These are some details and design touches the team would later incorporate into the XSR Series. The round speedometer on the first XSR700 and 900 was also reminiscent of Yamaha racing machines of the past like the TDs and YZRs.
In summary, the design of the new XSR line was not an overnight affair but rather an in-depth study into the development of both experimental and production models. This first bore fruit with the XJR1300 Racer released for Europe in 2015 as a “Sport Heritage” model, particularly with the styling emphasizing horizontal lines, the deep knee pockets in the fuel tank, the shape of the seat, the side covers, headlight fairing, and various stays. This redesign of the XJR1300 within the heritage context gave the development team a real feel for executing the on-ko-chi-shin concept to completion.