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Yamaha XS650 – River Rat Cycles

Posted on November 11, 2015 by Andrew in Tracker. 23 comments


When the Yamaha engineers put pencil to paper and created the XS650 with its classic looking parallel twin they could never have imagined that so many decades later it would continue to be a cult classic. But when Heath Reed owner of River Rat Cycle Fab from Davenport Iowa was commissioned to build this 1977 example he didn’t want to simply run with the pack and do the standard modifications. Instead the brilliant fabricator spent hours in deep thought working out how he could create more than just another XS650 tracker. In the end he came up with a hybrid; a tracker with a touch of café racer, street fighter styling cues and a little inspiration from the greatest guitar ever made! With the design finalised Heath set about giving the ’77 XS a second birth that when finished would be known as “The Rattler”.


To truly breathe new life into something old you have to strip it of everything and start with the skeleton and that’s exactly what Heath did. With the bare frame on the bench he removed all the unnecessary brackets and tabs and smoothed every surface. The factory rear subframe was removed and a new upper piece fabricated that kicks up in the rear as you would expect from a tracker. Many rely simply on the tail section of the seat to give this effect, but using the frames lines to lift the rear is the extra measure Heath goes to that makes his builds so good. For some real flat track authenticity the seat pan is a Woods Rotax item with a mix of tracker looks but far smoother lines than those designed for the Harley market. Adding a little luxury to the build is the beautiful raw stitching on the black leather and just the right amount of padding to find the balance between comfort and style.


Looking for the right tank to use on the build Heath got talking to legend of the game Greg Hageman who had a Benelli tank that would be perfect for the Yamaha. The only problem was the top side was completely rusted out but that didn’t deter Heath who cut out the metal cancer, hammered and rolled a replacement panel and welded it in along with a custom filler neck. With the tins done it was over to Scott Takes of Underground Art Studios to lay down the paint and the result is one of the best colour schemes of the year. Black follows the lines of the frame for the perfect merger that is then broken up by one gold pinstripe allowing some of the black to seep through before exploding into a Gibson Les Paul-esque cherry starburst colour scheme that would keep the richest rocker satisfied. Scott added the River Rat Cycle Fabrication logos where the badges once had been and Heath finished the look with a fuel sight gauge.


With a very clear purpose for how he wanted the engine to perform Heath built up a motor that increased overall horsepower but kept that classic twin torque for maximum acceleration out of the bends. The engine was completely torn down before the stock 653cc parallel twin was built back up to a smooth 700cc thanks to new pistons. The popular flat track Shell #1 cam has been fitted and to take full advantage all the corresponding headwork was done before screwing it down. With maximum low down torque in mind Heath designed and fabricated a 2 into 1 stepped exhaust system from stainless steel that looks just as good as it functions. Fuelling is taken care of by the ever popular Mikuni carbs breathing through a pair of tracker type K&N air filters. Heath has switched the Yamaha over to a modern ignition and charging system with the battery and wiring all sitting neatly in their own tray.



With the engine done the suspension deserved an upgrade and the rear benefits from modern progressive rear shocks for maximum mechanical drive. The OEM forks remain in place but have been turned to remove the fender mounts and one sides caliper mounts before adding custom springs. The standard triple trees clamp the forks in place but have been neatly smoothed and rid of all the factory surplus. With the conversion to a single disc front Heath used a modern Tokico brake caliper with a drilled disc and replicated the same out back for far superior braking than anything offered in 1977. Polished hubs with spoke laced rims suit the tracker styling perfectly and Avon Distanzia rubber provides maximum grip on a variety of road surfaces and conditions.


With the joy of his customers always in mind Heath has rubber mounted many components including the tank, footpegs, battery box and risers to reduce vibration and improve the riding experience. Renthal fatbars slot into the risers and give the riding position a true upright tracker stance with custom grips for maximum adhesion when twisting the throttle. A single Koso speedo is centre mounted and provides all the vital information with the ignition joining the clean and uncluttered front end. Everything else is kept relatively simple for a race looking bike that works on the street, a small single headlight, slim taillight and single bar mounted mirror keep the authorities happy. While the new levers, single switchblock and quick action throttle give all the functionality without any of the clutter.



With the XS650 finished it’s easy to see why Heath and River Rat Cycle Fab are such a successful operation. Clean lines, incredible paint, clever fabrication and no area of steer, stop and go being left unattended to. The Rattler is now off to its new home where one very happy client is going to be shaking its tail in the Knoxville Tennessee countryside, listen up or you’re likely to get bitten.

[Photos by Joshua Ford]

  • guvnor67

    Damn, that’s nice!!! Has a real presence about it, and really like the choice of colours. Maybe a quick release front ‘guard for when the weather turns a bit foul, but this looks like it’d be a blast to ride! Brilliant!!!

  • Looks nice and fun to ride! But damn: what a filters! And that battery: was there no other option for a smaller one under the seat?

    • RiverRat

      Firstly thank you for digging the bike. About the filters and battery. We chose these filters and the battery for performance first, visual second. The engine in this build is not stock. It has been bored with larger pistons pushing more compression. Larger camshaft, headwork, free flowing exhaust with larger stepped runers to get the gasses out amongst a few other mods. With these mods you need to be able to get more filtered air into the engine for it to perform. I strive to build my bikes as a complete package where function and reliability comes first and yes sometines you have to give up some of the visual pleasures for function. The bike was built as well to have some tracker characteristics and these are the type of filters that we have run in dirt track for years and in my eye it adds that character to the bike. Once again with the engine upgrades and retaining the oem electric start I chose to go with a lithium battery that would perform as well. In reality it is a fairly small battery for the amount of cranking this little 2 lb juice box puts out. It sits in a rich looking in house built rubber mounted polished aluminum box. I labeled the battery with the RRCF logo just to add a little more flair to it. It actually sits nicely between the air filters and you hardly notice it when facing the machine in person. We could have went with a little gel battery tucked way in the bowels of the bike that would maybe crank the engine over half of the time and my client would be kickin it the other half. Does not sound fair to me for a guy who paid me to have an electric start. I respect your opinion and am thankful you took interest in the build and now you know my choices on air and amps.

      • Clear explanation! Let’s say that function goes over form in this one! Keep up the good work!

        • econobiker

          Actually those round filters are about 1/2 smaller than the old style rectangular K&Ns that used to be derigur on Mikunis.

  • John Wanninger

    What a bitchen tracker. Fantastic paint. I agree about the battery, but no big deal. This can be remedied… But what I’m most excited about, is that this is what- the 8th featured bike in a row with… NO PIPEWRAP!!!! It also should be mentioned that all of these bikes- especially this one, have really nice exhaust work. See, it can be done, and all my bitching and moaning has paid off…

  • mel mackinnon

    One of the nicest XS650’s I’ve seen.

  • revdub

    So clean and beautiful. I love the xs650 engine and it looks pretty all polished up here. And, yes, I used the word “pretty”. This girl looks ready for a night out.

  • Very,very nice. Well proportioned. That’s rare these days and so few builders have any idea what that means and how much it adds to a bike! The Woods seat always looks good. Inner fender please.

    • RiverRat

      Richard thanks for the props! Yes the inner fender was an oversight and failure on our part. In the insane final days of the build jumping hurdles and pushing to meet deadlines for photo shoot and make delivery for customer the inner fender was mixed up in the after blast on the bench and realized after the photo shoot. I did not feel at the time it would make or break the bike and be worthy of a reshoot days before delivery to Tennessee. I admire your work and respect your eye..Good call!

      • Done that many times. 🙁

        Good job though!

        • econobiker

          No better commendation could be had on an XS650 based custom than a “Good Job” from Mule.

      • econobiker

        Not finding fault on the explanation.Completely understood.
        Mule has read the recommendation from me before about a fabricated clear Lexan inner fender versus the stock black fender liner. Just a suggestion.

  • Very tasteful and sanitary. Love the sunburst color. The seat and tail adds real authenticity.

  • Jim Stuart

    Mule is right, an inner fender would be nice if this bike is indeed a rider. A stylish front fender wouldn’t be out of line either if form exceeds fashion. Otherwise a very nice build that looks more Dan Electro than Les Paul.

  • 1970’s

    when we had ideas and imagination, some of you pretty things really need to move on

  • cornishman2

    Great stuff. There is a wonderful balance going on here, everything flowing together. The choice of colour is inspired, a shade away from the early XS models. I do agree that a gel battery tucked up into the seat would have been neater and given the bike that look through appearance of space….which I do love. Non the less an inspired effort

  • Phooey

    How nice is that!
    Just think if Yamaha could bring this to the market, how many would they sell?
    But unfortunately it takes the eye of an individual artist to create such a clean and beautiful looking machine with no thought of cost or formality.
    This is how motorcycling should be, beautiful machines you just want to ride!
    Well done guys keep it up…..

  • GarbanzoBean

    That tank, tail & vert yammy twin combo is perfect. The paint job is splendid. Some subliminal number plates & make the headlight disappear and I’ll take it.

  • roscoe

    Very pretty bike, but also looks ready to actually ride. My only nit is the giant rear disc that seems to have been used only to look matchy with the front, and as such is just a source of added weight. I’d also add either a fork brace or a front fender, or both. Okay, that’s two nits, and I’m not counting the missing rear fender, because that’s already been discussed. Still, great job.

  • Dietmar

    A really nice bike!!
    Would it be possible to let us know, which rear swingarm you have used?
    Some of us also would like to know, what is the size of the rims.
    I guess 18 inch front and rear….



    • RiverRat

      The swingarm is from a Yamaha Radian. The rims are 18 rear and 19 front. Would have preferred a 19 19 but very limited selection for 19 rear tires. I hope this helps

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Nice looking bike–great job. Surprised you don’t have a fork brace on the front—650’s are rather weak up front in my experience no matter if you switch the springs or not.