In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a war that was brewing right here on our shores. It wasn't geopolitical, no. It was a war for horsepower and the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers of the day were duking it out for ultimate power supremacy.
At the center of these power wars was a venerable class of bikes known as "Touring" bikes. Yes, the Superbikes of the day were getting all of the attention in the marketplace, but Touring bikes spoke to a unique type of enthusiast rider. Everything about these machines was about speed in a straight line, and comfort out on the open road. Soft suspension tuning with insane power? Sign us up!
Yamaha produced one of the most iconic bikes of the era, known by its appropriately conceived (more on that later) nickname as the Eleven. A nickname it earned for it’s ability to run an 11 second quarter mile. Yes, the Yamaha XS1100 was one hell of a bike, with one hell of a herculean engine that could both terrify and delight riders who dared to ring out the throttle.
Ready to dig into what makes this bike worthy of it’s unique nickname? Let's get into it.
History & Development
Yamaha was duking it out with Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki for a slice of the ever growing American motorcycle market. To compete, manufacturers had to offer a range of motorcycles that could do everything from conquer a dirt track to ride across the country and comfort. Each manufacturer had seen success in unique sectors, and Yamaha was looking to cement it’s claim to fame in the hearts and minds of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Modern 4-stroke engine technology was a bit of a novelty at the time, but Yamaha had already honed this technology in their ever popular XS750 four-stroke triple. Top brass at the company knew that they needed a bike to take on the hot selling CB750 from Honda, and it needed to be iconically good to do so. Perhaps it didn’t need to be a perfect overall package, but it did need to have a standout feature that would bring curious riders into the showroom.
Like any good bunch of rowdy engineers, Yamaha simply decided to add more power and displacement to it’s new motorcycle. Growing to a whopping 1100 CC, the XS1100 was not only larger displacement, it was also the first four stroke, 4 cylinder motorcycle engine from the team at Yamaha. This was a big move and immediately set the stage for success in not only the minds of enthusiasts, but it the press as well.
The rest of the bike was designed to be big and comfortable, fitting it right into the Touring motorcycle class that it was trying to compete in. The difference was that the motor under the seat was more akin to something found in superbikes. In essence, the Eleven straddled the line between Superbike and Touring bike like nothing else on the road and it was that unique combination of elements that truly took it over the edge. This bike was one of a kind.
Let's just talk some numbers for a second.
The 1100 cc engine in this incredibly unique motorcycle pumped out a stunning 95 horsepower and 66 lb-ft of torque. To put that in perspective, that's half the amount of horsepower found modern commuter car like a Honda Civic, stuck into a machine that weighed several thousand pounds less. If that sounds like a handful, you’d be right. Yes, this Yamaha could move!
The design of this engine was a conventional, air-cooled, transverse inline 4 with DOHC technology. The super long 5 ft wheelbase left plenty of room for this ultra long engine, along with its quick shifting 5-speed gearbox. Primary drive was a Hy-Vo chain, and there was even an automotive style U-joint being utilized on this monster machine for the first time at the driveshaft.
Power was down low and easy to access without having to rev out the bike, yet it could easily scream to redline without concern. This would become the hallmark of the XS1100 riding experience and why this bike was so popular with riders and the press.
Straddling the line between Superbike and Touring bike is no easy feat but the XS1100 did it with ease.
This machine was meant to be comfortable over a long ride, and that meant a soft suspension that was not exactly tuned for taking on the corners. Although this mean machine received the title of best Touring motorcycle for 1978 and 1979 from Cycle World magazine, it was really more for the prodigious power plant then it was for handling. Plus at 603 lbs, it’s hard to mask that sort of weight when you’re rolling on two wheels.
Telescopic forks and shocks along with the conventional shaft drive swingarm comprised the suspension components of the Eleven. Special attention was paid to the frame of the motorcycle which utilized a double cradle support and was conventionally wider than most other bikes of the day. Braking duties were performed with a single rear disc brake and dual front disc brakes that, let’s just say, got the job done but didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Overall, the chassis was compliant and soft but no one really cared once they pegged the bike to the red line. Plus, it was a joy on a longer ride.
Legacy & Impact On Motorcycle Culture
There's just no way to put this other than to say that the Yamaha XS1100 was an absolute stalking beast of a motorcycle in a straight line. Cycle World magazine didn't even have a drag strip that was long enough to properly extract the power out of the Eleven! Even at a trap speed of 114 mph in the quarter, and clipping along at 126 at the half, this motorcycle had more to give and there was not enough track to push it.
Remember, this thing could be purchased off a showroom floor and ran on pump gasoline! Riders describe an "emotional rush" that is filled with equal parts terror and delight. Although it was only produced from 1978 to 1981, the XS1100 cemented Yamaha as a brand that spoke directly to enthusiasts who wanted maniac machines that could still travel across the country in relative comfort.
Sure it had a soft handling demeanor and the ergonomics were kind of garbage, but no one cared once they fired up the bike and took off. This sort of attitude is rare in the motorcycle industry these days, and the Eleven will always stand out as one of those machines that was cutting its own path through a sometimes boring industry.