The Autofabrica Type 7X pays tribute to a legendary Paris-Dakar Yamaha…
It’s 1977. French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine is missing in action in the Libyan desert on the Abidjan-Nice Rally.
“I realise that my situation is uncomfortable, difficult,” Sabine later wrote. “Two days later I have no compass or clock, which broke down in a fall while trying to find the lost route. It is now two days and two nights that I am lost in the desert, under a sun that begins to make me lose my mind. The total absence of shadow is an oppressive sensation, which engenders a feeling similar to that of claustrophobia. Then I decide to get away from my bike. In socks and sucking the stones to give me saliva, I realise my life is worth less and less.
And that is when I promise that if I come out alive from this experience I will sweep away as much superficiality as my existence contains.” Luckily his friend Jean Michel Siné spotted him from his helicopter, and rescued him. Most mere mortals would take this lesson and move on to less heroic things. But Sabine was made of sterner stuff. Years later he correctly described what he created as a result, as “a challenge for those who go, a dream for those left behind.”
What he created was, of course, the legendary Paris-Dakar Rally. Launched in 1978 with an entry fee of 4.50 francs — about $1 at the time — at the start line at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris, Sabine told the entrants, “In this test, you come to seek strong emotions, not perishable memories. I offer you all that, but I don’t want to hide the risks you’ll be taking. You accept it and you are also the ones who have to assume it.” 192 vehicles started the race that first year. Only 74 finished. Over two continents, six countries, 10,000 km and 16 days, more than 60% of the entrants crashed out or broke down. The overall winner would be a 21-year-old Frenchman, Cyril Neveu, riding a Yamaha XT500. Neveu later commented that, “I was 21 years [and] I was just like everyone else, a simple guy grabbing onto the handlebars of his XT 500 without any leather satchels.” But his strategy was different. And the Paris-Dakar was not his first North African rodeo.
He had competed in the same Abidjan-Nice Rally as Sabine the year before. And decided he would take Sabine’s lead for the upcoming Paris-Dakar by investing in a Yamaha XT500. The XT500 wasn’t fast. But it was strong. And it was reliable.
In a true rendition of “The Hare and the Tortoise,” Neveu was careful and slowly made his way up the ranks gaining positions as other entrants broke down; closing the 19-minute gap to leader Patrick Schaal when Schaal fell and broke his finger somewhere between Gao and Mopti in Mali. He crossed the line first overall. And did the same thing again the next year, again on a Yamaha XT500. Securing his place, and the XT500’s place, in history. Neveu went on to win five times. And the Yamaha XT500 went on to become one of the most legendary production bikes of all time, in the form of the road going version, the SR500.
What had made the XT500 perfect for the Paris-Dakar was its mule-like unbreakability and reliability in tricky terrain. Fancy it wasn’t. But beautiful in its simplicity it was. The XT500 was a new foray for Yamaha — into the world of “enduro” bikes. At home both on and off road. They were well thought out, designed, and tested, with magical simplicity.
A 499cc single cylinder motor with one cam, one inlet, one exhaust, and one carburetor produced 28bhp at the rear wheel — enough to catapult it to nearly 100 mph on the road. The engine casings were vertical like British bikes at the time. But, unlike the British bikes, they were almost leak-proof. Two oil pumps ensured the moving parts were always well lubricated, with the oil being stored in the frame itself so the bike was slim and agile. Precision bearings were used liberally to reduce friction and heat. And the 15-plate wet clutch would take more punishment in thick sand than the Sahara could throw at it.
Perhaps the coolest little touch was the inclusion of a kickstart with a button on the handlebars to release compression, and a window to see where the piston was so that even a novice could start the engine, sandstorm or snow, in a few kicks. The XT500 was the personification of the right tool for the job when it came to going off-road in the late 1970s and early ’80s. So when Yamaha wanted to create their own version of the British thumpers like the Manx Norton, they decided to use the XT500 as a base. And turn it into a proper road bike. Thus the SR500 was born.
The SR500 relied upon the same basic, reliable engine as the XT500. It was so enjoyable to ride that Motorrad, a German motorcycle magazine, voted it Moto of the Year in both 1978 and 1979. The SR500 went on to slowly win hearts and minds across the globe, remaining in production until 1999. Its smaller brother the SR400, originally created for the Japanese market in 1978, still remains in production today. So you can still buy a new one. Or you can buy one of these. The Autofabrica Type 7X. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And I’m a superbike kind of guy. But you’d have to be blind not to take in the seductive lines of this marvel of machinery.
Pay particular attention to the upswept exhaust. And moreover the attention to detail and rider experience engendered by the extremes the Autofabrica team visited to stop you scorching the family jewels as you dismount: Ceramic coated pipe, enveloped in a cooling air-channel crafted into the fuel tank, and covered by a heat shield and a perforated guard. Make no mistake, these guys are leaving nothing to chance.
The London-based bespoke restomod shop takes the SR500 to what may be its ultimate evolution. With their handmade bespoke ethos, keen eye for proportion, color and ergonomic design, coupled with a strong sense of timeless style, this just may have been the bike Steve McQueen should have used to jump the fence in The Great Escape. And at the very least it shares the DNA of perhaps the greatest desert bike of all time.
Commission yours now. Before we beat you to it. ■
Base model: Yamaha SR500
Frame: Lightened, de-lugged and rear loop modification
Engine: Fully rebuilt
Electrics: New wiring loom, uprated headlight and taillight LED indicators
Exhaust: Hand bent steel with ceramic coating
Suspension: Front uprated internals, rear uprated shocks
Wheels: 18” front, 18” rear, replaced with stainless steel spokes
Bodywork: One-off hand made aluminium tank, hand trimmed seat, hand made aluminium front and rear fenders, hand sculpted aluminium exhaust guard
Colour and Trim: Unique grey/green paintwork, black suede seat with brushed aluminium detail
By DUNCAN QUINN