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1982 Yamaha SRX 500

Disappearing muscle machine
High interest rates and brown winters made the early 1980’s challenging to the eight remaining snowmobile brands marketed by five manufacturers. Arctic Cat and Scorpion, John Deere, Kawasaki, Moto Ski and Ski-Doo, Polaris, and Yamaha fought for sales in a rapidly decreasing market. Sales oscillated badly, hitting a low point of 85,000 total units sold in 1983 from a high of over 200,000 in 1979. The sales contractions were strong enough to bankrupt Cat and Scorpion in 1981, forced Deere to sell its snowmobile operations to Polaris in 1984 and for Bombardier to drop Moto Ski by 1985.

Blue Steamroller
But Yamaha was on a roll in the early ’80s, climbing to the No. 1 sales position on the strength of their lineup from well-respected Enticers to Phazers to muscle sleds.
Yamaha followed some of the emerging trends of the era including a new telescoping strut (TSS) front suspension followed by longer travel rear suspension and another trend that caused Yamaha some stress, larger engines. While Yamaha had good success marketing their new 540cc fan cooled SRV with a strut TSS front end for 1980, they struggled with their top of the line muscle sled for 1981.

The new 1981 SRX 440 had all the ingredients and potential to be a top notch lake rocket: a high horsepower, high rpm engine, state of the art strut front suspension, a very modern look that can only be described as sinister and Yamaha’s reputation for quality. They called it “lean, mean, black and evil” but the one thing it didn’t do was perform. The high rpm, aggressively ported 440 was low on torque, came with hard-to-tune butterfly carburetors and was difficult to properly clutch. While it could be very fast for a 440, the narrow, peaky power band made it challenging to trail ride. The experience was unique, sometimes it would not wind up when given throttle, so the go lever had to be “blipped” or “walked up” to an RPM range where it could make power. Instead of reworking the sleds, Yamaha eventually recalled the ’81 SRX and punched holes in the motors to destroy them. They also offered the owners very favorable terms on a new SRV or eventually the ’83 Vmax. Despite the recall, many ’81s survived and are treasured by collectors.

Yamaha had planned to correct the short-comings of the 1981 SRX with a new SRX 500 for 1982. The engine size was increased by 60cc’s for increased low-end torque and wider mid-range. This required a higher capacity cooling system, new pipes, etc. A flashy new graphics package helped separate this new “lake rocket” from the problematic 1981 machines. While based on the 1981 machine, there were many differences between the two machines.

Yamaha released pictures, had promotions, brochures, full 2-page ads promoting the new and improved SRX. But what was not released was any 1982 SRX’s. Despite Yamaha’s best attempts to correct the issues from 1981, the ’82 SRX 500 did not deliver. Some of the blame can be attributed to the finicky and overly complex butterfly carbs and aggressive porting. Maybe the compression was a touch high. But there were also durability and trailability concerns that forced Yamaha to keep its new rocket under wraps.

Eventually Yamaha did get the formula right for 1983, launching the very successful Vmax 540. The Vmax finally made good on the performance promised in the earlier SRX models, ditched the butterfly carbs for round slides, and provided a motor with a wide power band. For the most part the market forgave Yamaha and rewarded them with strong sales of the new machine for ’83.
Where did they go?
But, what happened to the 1982 machines? It was estimated a minimum production run would have been 2,000 units, but none were shipped to North America. To help unravel this mystery, I talked Jon Bertolino, a well-

known Yamaha enthusiast and ’82 SRX 500 expert. Jon tells me discussions with Gordy Meutz and other Yamaha R&D and Race Department folks shed some light on the questions surrounding the fate of those sleds.

Jon was informed approximately 50 of the ’82s were shipped to Alaska for R&D and racing, and another 50 or so went to selected racers like Tim Bender and key dealers for their own race and research. But, if Yamaha did build 2,000 of them, it appears most never left Japan.

It also seems that the ’82s were not updated to 1983s either. Jon is quite adamant that the chassis are different from ’82 to ’83. In fact, few parts would have carried directly over aside from the hood, and possibly the rear suspension. Even the seat, side panels and many details are unique to the ’82s.

Bertolino has been able to track down 13 1982 SRX 500s between North America and Europe. He has also owned several of them through the years. Apparently most of the 100 or so sleds Yamaha let out were also returned to be destroyed. But as can be the case, a few snuck out or lingered in scrap yards. Of the 13 Jon has tracked down, about 2/3 have the correct “RT499 8R” motor, “8R9” coded carburetors and pipes, while less than half have their original serial number matching engine and frame. Several were updated to the ’83 540cc twin, and some had VIN numbers cut out.

So what about the remainder of the production run? Are they stashed in a remote warehouse in Japan? Are the crates of SRX 500s at the bottom of the Pacific? Were they shredded for scrap? Only Yamaha knows for sure, and they’ve kept a very tight lip for the past 33 years.
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