Long-time readers know that I stan hard for Yamaha. If you're new here, well, let me introduce myself. Hi, I'm Jason. I'm the boss around here and I love Yamahas. Love 'em. It's not the most popular opinion in motorcycling, I know, but it's the most correct one. My very first bike—a bike I still own, mind you—was a 1980 XS850SG, one of Team Blue's rip-snorting DOHC triples. That bike charmed the hell out of me with its quirkiness, looks, reliability, and sound. That glorious triple sound. Sigh... Anyway, it made me a Yamaha Man for life. You see where this is going, right?
The affordable classic bike I'd buy right now (if I wasn't spending all my money renovating a 90-year-old quasi-mansion in Detroit) is a 1978 Yamaha XS1100. Now, to be fair, I already have a bunch of the affordable classics that were on my list thanks to my poor impulse control, hoarding tendencies, and my abilities with a wrench and a can of brake cleaner. Aside from the XS850, my permanent stable currently holds a '79 XS650, a '72 Honda CB500K, a '76 Honda GL1000, and Project Firebolt, my FrankenBeezer. That's a lot of classic iron, but there's still an XS11-shaped hole in my garage (and in my heart). So, why do I want one so bad? Let's talk about it.
From its founding in the early-50s to the late-60s, Yamaha built and sold small-displacement two-strokes. They were pretty good at it too. Then, in 1969, Team Blue turned the entire motorcycle industry on its head by launching the legendary XS-1. That bike, a 650cc, four-stroke, parallel-twin that our colleagues over at Cycle World once called, "The Bonneville Triumph should be making", was both Yamaha's first four-stroke bike and it's first "big" motorcycle.
The XS-series grew in the mid-70s with the addition of the groundbreaking XS750 triple, which was supplanted in 1980 by the bored-out XS850. Those bikes were nice and all, but Yamaha execs wanted a piece of that 1,000cc superbike pie that Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki were enjoying. Enter the XS1100.
Released in 1978, the XS1100—The Eleven to its friends—hit the motorcycling world like a tac nuke. The engine, developed from the XS-series' triple mills, was a 1,101cc, air-cooled, dual overhead cam, inline-four that breathed in through a rack of four Mikuni carbs and out through a 4-into-2 exhaust. The big four (allegedly) put down 95 horses and generated a stump-pulling 66.5 pound-feet of torque. All that power got to the rear wheel via a five-speed gearbox and a shaft final drive. Braking was handled by dual discs in the front and a single disc aft.
In its first year, Yamaha sold a single version of the XS11, the XS1100E. That bike was a standard-style machine with a flat seat (complete with cafe-style fiberglass tail section), flat bars, a square tank with knee cutouts, and cast-aluminum wheels. It came in one color—the lovely, hilariously named Macho Maroon with gold pinstriping and badges—and had a now-controversial square headlight and boxy instrument panel (haters vacate, I love square headlights).
In 1979, Yamaha introduced the XS1100 Special, a "factory custom" variant with a stepped seat, teardrop tank, and (dopey, uncomfortable) buckhorn handlebars. The Special came in one color, Carmine Red with no details or accents (I got a lot of opinions about Yamaha's lackluster colorways in the late-70s). Along with the regular Special, there was a limited edition version called the Midnight Special that came in black with a blacked-out powertrain and gold trim. The Midnight Special trim showed up in the XS850 and XS650 lines, too, and was offered for all three models for the rest of their respective runs.
Despite being, shall we say, fashionably late to the big-bore, four-stroke, inline-four market, the XS11 made a strong impression right out of the gate. It was shockingly fast in a straight line and had a reputation for putting down sub-12-second passes in stock trim at the drag strip. It had torque for days and enough power on tap to get unsuspecting riders in a whole lot of trouble. In addition to its raw power, the big bike was also comfortable. It proved to be a smooth-running, long-legged, muscular machine that could eat up highway miles with ease.
The motoring press' reaction to Yamaha's new big-boy bike was enthusiastic. Many breathless, superlative-laden articles were written about the bike's stunning performance and good looks. Thanks to its size and power, most mojos considered the XS11 a sport touring bike akin to the first generation Gold Wing. Cycle Magazine, for example, called the XS11, "a Rolls Royce with a blown Chrysler Hemi motor", and it won Best Touring Bike in Cycle World's Ten Best Bikes in 1978 and 1979.
It wasn't all twinkies and sunshine, however, and the XS11 definitely had its faults. For starters, it was about a hundred pounds too heavy, tipping the scales at a portly 603 pounds (Yamaheavy, amirite?). In addition, like its big-bore competitors from Honda, Suzuki, and Kawasaki, it had a stellar engine but terrible handling. The XS11's handling is best described as squirrelly thanks to mediocre brakes, rubbery forks, and a frame that was essentially made out of paper towel tubes. Cycle Magazine advised readers that the big Yamaha could go, steer, and stop perfectly well, just never two at the same time. Another publication said the XS11 had, "a bulletproof motor and tea trolley handling."
Despite its rather glaring shortcomings, The XS1100 turned out to be a winner for Yamaha. It sold respectably well from its introduction in 1978 until 1981 when it was replaced in Yamaha's lineup by the XJ1100 Maxim. In the nearly 40 years since Yamaha axed it, the XS1100 has gained a devoted following of gearheads and weirdos for whom only Yamahas will do and Hondas and Kawasakis are, at best, pedestrian appliances. You know, weirdos like me.
That's a whole lot of words to say that I really want an XS1100. Specifically, I want an OG '78 E model that hasn't been too ruined by previous owners. If I can land one, it'll complete my dream of having an example of each XS-series bike Yamaha sold here in The Colonies. If you happen to see one, let me know.
PS: Yeah, yeah. I know I left a bunch out of this article. I could have gone on about the touring packages, the Euro and Aus-specific models, and even the XS11's various racing successes. This article's already long enough, so I left all that out. If you want to talk about that, feel free to do so in the comments.