posted: November 13, 2021
tl;dr: A perfect first motorcycle that also got me across the country nearly twice...
My recent purchase of the second motorcycle I’ve ever owned has gotten me thinking about my first: a 1984 Yamaha SR250 that I purchased new in 1986. I was thrilled to see that there is a Wikipedia page for the SR250, which predated the World Wide Web by a decade and Wikipedia by even more. There must be a few SR250 fanatics out there willing to devote the time to documenting for posterity a motorcycle that has long been discontinued.
In the spring of 1986 I was a senior at Cornell, and a college buddy of mine and I had decided to spend the summer after we graduated touring the United States and Canada by motorcycle. There was a small problem: my friend knew how to ride and had a motorcycle (a 1980 Honda CB650 Custom), and I didn’t. We went to a motorcycle dealer in Ithaca where I found a still brand new, red 1984 Yamaha SR250. It had apparently sat in the dealer’s inventory for quite a while, and was marked down (I seem to recall) from $1200 to around $800. That low price matched up with my college student’s savings account balance quite nicely, so I bought it. Since I didn’t have a motorcycle license at the time, my friend got the pleasure of riding it off the dealer’s lot while I hoofed it home.
I got my permit, and my friend taught me to ride by, at first, taking me out to empty parking lots. It didn’t take too long to get the hang of the bike, as I was already used to operating the clutch on a manual transmission car, and I had plenty of experience riding bicycles in all sorts of conditions. The SR250 was a great bike to learn on: its light weight made it easy to maneuver and keep upright when stopping, and its lack of power prevented the rider from getting into too much trouble. I had no trouble passing the riding test for my motorcycle endorsement. At the time, New York State had two classifications of motorcycle endorsement which depended on engine size, with 750cc being the dividing line. Motorcycle engines were, in general, smaller back then. Later, as I moved to other states with different rules for motorcycle endorsements, I ended up with a full motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license, which I have had ever since.
The SR250 was a great bike for bopping around town, and escaping Ithaca for rides in the surrounding countryside. I have no idea what Cornell does now, but back then they encouraged motorcycles over automobiles. I never had a car while attending college, but those undergraduate students who did and who drove them to campus had to pay quite a large sum of money for a permit that allowed them to park in a remote parking lot that then required them to take a bus to get to central campus. A motorcyclist like me, however, could ride right onto central campus and park in one of a few dedicated motorcycle parking spaces right next to where the University President Frank H.T. Rhodes parked his car at Day Hall, the administration building. It was pretty sweet.
The SR250 was an incredibly practical bike. It came fitted for a single rider, with a lockable trunk behind the rider. The trunk, however, could be easily removed, and a passenger seat could be installed in its place, to carry a second rider. I was also able to add a luggage rack to the back, and dual saddlebags, which is how I outfitted it for the cross country trip that summer.
To this day, when I tell other motorcyclists about my cross country trip, I warn them that they will laugh when I tell them what bike I rode. Never once has someone not laughed when I tell them I rode 14,000 miles through 34 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces on a Yamaha SR250. I’m a tall guy, and the SR250 is smaller than most motorcycles, so someone observed that when I rode the bike it looked like an eagle (me) grasping a mouse (the bike) in its talons. I never had to watch myself ride the bike, so this didn’t bother me. Fully loaded with the gear we took on the trip I could do 70mph full throttle in fifth gear on level ground if there wasn’t too much of a headwind. That wasn’t too limiting, as we stuck to back roads and highways, not interstates, for almost the entire trip. At the time we weren’t too far removed from the 1960s, when there were plenty of motorcycles, especially the Japanese imports, with small engines.
I had a great time on the trip, and thoroughly enjoyed riding the SR250. Every day I’d wake in the morning and smile when I said to myself “I get to ride my motorcycle as much as I want today” (we averaged around 250 miles a day). I’d smile while I was riding it. The only time we took our bikes into a shop was in San Mateo, California at roughly the halfway point of our journey, to get some fresh tires and an oil change.
The bike didn’t let me down until the last leg of the journey, as we were approaching Milwaukee, where one set of my grandparents lived. I was riding along and suddenly lost power as the engine continued to whir. I pulled over and discovered that the chain’s drive sprocket was no longer attached to the drive shaft and had gotten thrown off. I found it, but my friend and I didn’t know if there was anything more than chain tension which held it in place. We put it back on, I tightened the chain, and was able to ride it a bit further before the sprocket was thrown off again. This time it put a small crack in the engine housing below the drive shaft, causing it to leak some oil. It was unrideable at this point, so I called my grandfather, who drove out to meet us. We put the SR250 in the trunk of his car, and after spending some time in Milwaukee, drove me home to upstate New York while my friend rode alongside us on his CB650.
The bike needed some serious work to correct the crack in the engine housing, and I wasn’t skilled enough to do this repair. So I gave the bike away to another friend who had ridden it a little (and who was also the only person who ever laid the bike down: I forgave him). I lost track of the bike at that point. I seem to recall that he gave it away to someone else, who was able to fix it and get it running again. Or maybe that is just my mind playing tricks on me, and hoping for a happy ending to the story.
My Yamaha SR250 introduced me to motorcycling, and took me on my first major cross country journey during one of the best summers of my life. It was worth every penny I paid.
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