I think it was the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus who said ‘Wisdom comes only through suffering’. You’ve got to hand it to those old ancient Greeks – they might’ve had some very dubious ideas about the education, in every sense of the word, of young boys, but when it comes to sitting about in a toga expounding profound truths they were, in the popular parlance of today, Da Shit.
Pictures: Simon Everett
Jethro Tozer, the owner and builder of this ’ere distinctly Brat-style XS650, is a man who, despite never having read any of the works accredited to the father of Greek tragedy, knows exactly what that old donkey-beater was on about. He has, you see, suffered and, because of it, has learnt wisdom. Allow me to tell you a tale…
He picked up his Japanese Triumph, as the XS was known back in the day, as a half-hearted attempt at a street tracker; it needed a lot of work, but had a few nice bits including powdercoated wheels and frame, a longer, heavily-braced swingarm with concentric adjusters, a big front brake conversion (Yamaha Fazer 600 discs and blue spot calipers on one-off caliper brackets with braided stainless brake lines and a KTM master-cylinder), and a set of brand new Mikuni VM34 carbs. He took it home and his own words, ‘took it to the chopping block’. A Visual Impact Brat-style frame kit was purchased and welded to the rear after he’d cut the original tubes away, and Burly Slammer shocks (shorter and beefier) were bolted into place to lower the back still further. He left the longer swingarm in, and lowered the front end with shorter forks, and new ’pipes were made by Antony at Pipesandstuff in Wales, while the motor was rebuilt by Howard at Smedspeed ’cos, basically, it was Donalded – Trumped even.
Actually, before I go on with the story, the engine itself is worthy of further discussion. As I said it was built by Howard at Smedspeed (www.smedspeed.co.uk), one of the best people in the UK to talk to about XS650s since the passing of the late, great Tony Hall of Halco Engineering fame. Jethro’s XS, of 1981 vintage, was stripped and everything that Howard wasn’t immediately happy with was thrown away. He really went to town on it, and it now runs an engine spec he’s found puts out good power and torque, but is still reliable enough; modified head with Yamaha XV750 valves and XS Performance valve springs, barrels bored to 750cc (and fitted with suitable pistons, obviously), a Megacycles Shell fast road cam that’s been rephased to suit the new crank (more on that in a sec’), and the aforementioned Mikuni VM34 carbs on new Smedspeed intakes with modified Pipercross air-filters. The crank’d seen better days, in much the same way as the Acropolis, to keep the Greek theme, has, so Howard replaced it with one of his specially made rephased 277 degree cranks. Experience has taught him, you see, that a 277 degree crank vastly reduces vibration (always a Good Thing on an XS motor), gives a significant reduction in inertial torque so that the engine revs faster, and a slight gain in midrange power, plus it also changes the exhaust note from traditional twin to an attractive offbeat exhaust note similar to that of a vee-twin. New rods, bearings and pins were fitted, along with a seven-plate clutch conversion with uprated clutch springs and a one-piece clutch push-rod to help with the XS’s notoriously weak clutch, and new gearbox bearings and seals and a new overdrive fifth gear sorted that out. A Pamco 277 degree electronic ignition ensures it fires when it’s s’posed to, and a three-phase alternator conversion provides the electrical power it needs. The result is a smoother, revvier, more powerful and sexier-sounding motor which, in the new lightened chassis, is a potent beast indeed.
Indeed, it may be a little too potent actually – shortly after it was built, Jethro took it out for a blast and, hooning into a corner, bottomed a ’peg out round a left hander. This, terrifyingly, picked the back wheel up and sent the bike (and him obviously) barrel-rolling down the road into a ditch – trashing, as you’d imagine, most of the bike in the process. “It came back in the workshop,” he says, making light of a horrific accident, “and went out again with even less bits on it. I put the stock length forks back in, and the stock swingarm, to lift it up a bit so it didn’t do it again, but it’s still running the same tank and pipes… now with added war wounds.
“This is the first bike I’ve done, and I’ve really enjoyed doing it and I’ve learnt a lot. The only real frustration was the same old story of waiting on other people to do stuff – the current tank, a Lowbrow Sportster one, is only on it because I’m waiting for someone to weld up the tank up I’d originally mocked up for it. I needed a quick fix to be able to use the bike on a run to France so I stuck it on and there it’s sat for nearly two years – I’m still waiting on that bloody tank.
“It’s a rough and ready bike, but it’s a blast to ride. It ain’t no show pony, nothing fancy or clever – built in Japan, and f**ked up in England!”
So there you have Jethro’s XS; not pretty, not shiny, but as cool as hell. Before I go though, just one last word about the old Greek geezer at the beginning of this article – if you’re wondering why the name is a little familiar, the reason is he had one of the most famous deaths in the whole ancient world; Aeschylus is the guy who was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, thinking it was a rock. Just think about that next time you’re having a bad day, eh, it could be a hell of a lot worse…
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