Photos: Mecum

These days, most riders don’t know just how good they have it.

As long as you go down to your local dealership with realistic expectations, you’re probably going to find a motorcycle that works very well at its intended purpose. If you buy a Kawasaki KLX230 expecting it to be a motocrosser, you’ll be disappointed, but if you buy a Honda Rebel expecting a cheap, mildly crappy but reliable around-town ride—that’s what you’re going to get. It’s like that for most of the moto world. Whether you want a dual sport, a cruiser, a touring bike, whatever, usually the bikes designed for those respective purposes do just fine in their roles. Journalists, when they go on launches, are reduced to complaining about the seat comfort, or about fiddly switchgear, stuff like that, because almost every bike on the market these days works well, if ridden as intended.

That wasn’t always the case. Fifty years ago, the manufacturers were still very much learning as they went along, occasionally resulting in bikes with a bad reputation. That’s certainly true of Yamaha’s SC500 Scrambler, a machine that was branded as a dud from the start.

Unfortunately for Yamaha, the SC500 was widely seen as a real stinker.

Bad reputation

Up until the early 1970s, the Brits and Euros basically owned the dirt bike scene. Harley-Davidson didn’t really make any offroad machines, so if you wanted a desert sled, a scrambler, an enduro, a motocrosser, whatever, you had to look overseas.

Then the Japanese showed up. Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha all went for the lucrative street motorcycle market in the late 1960s, but by the early 1970s, they were working hard to grab offroad sales as well. Soon, you had a wide mix of two-strokes and four-strokes directly aimed at the Euro competition. Some of those bikes, like Honda’s CR250 and TL125, were respectable performers for their time, and established the Japanese manufacturers in the offroad segment.

Others, like this 1974 Yamaha SC500, were labeled as stinkers from the very start, and never overcame that. Rick Sieman, aka “Super Hunky,” included it on  his list of the 10 worst dirt bikes of all time, and that’s a pretty harsh blow. Sieman rode all these older bikes back in his days as a motojournalist with Dirt Bike, and he’d certainly have a broad perspective.

This rebuilt machine has a brand-new Mikuni carb.

The SC500 had a two-stroke, air-cooled single cylinder motor, with four-speed gearbox. In his look back at the machine here, Sieman says the engine “ran hot, detonated fiercely, stalled constantly and seized regularly.” He had similarly harsh words for the bike’s suspension andhandling, and summed it all up by saying “the only thing this bike did right was not leak around the gas cap.” Yikes.

Back in the 1970s, Super Hunky’s opinion was as good as gold, so a lot of buyers steered clear of the SC500; it only lasted in Yamaha’s lineup for two years. But, if you dig around the Interwebz, you’ll see there were some satisfied owners, guys who thought the SC500 worked just fine as a desert bike, as long as you knew what to expect going in. Let’s face it: No rattly two-stroke of the ’70s with a dual-shock suspension is going to come remotely close to modern moto performance.

But, if you’re looking to buy an old bike to ride, wouldn’t it make more sense to buy something that’s proven to be a classic? Buy an old TT500 or something like that, and you’ve got a machine that will always have value. Or, jump ahead and buy a machine from the 1990s. Those bikes are soon going to be collectible themselves, and by then, the manufacturers had figured out handling, suspension and engine usability.

Despite its bad reputation, there are probably still many people who would like to own a clean example of a classic dirt bike from the 1970s.

A clean example

But, maybe you want an SC500 because you had one years ago, and you want to re-live your misspent youth. Or maybe you just want to park it, as a collectible. Whatever the case, if you’re looking for one, this is a very clean example for sale at this winter’s Mecum auction in Las Vegas. It has a rebuilt engine with no hours on it (LA Sleeve re-sleeved standard bore cylinder and NOS piston, rebuilt crank bearings and seals, and all-new bearings throughout engine, says the advert). The oil injecttion pump, engine balancer and auto decompression systems are all complete and functional, which is rare; many auto-lube systems were ripped off and discarded over the decades. The bike also has the original expansion chamber, original chain guide and the original skid plate. The clutch friction plates, springs and other bits were all rebuilt.

In its last restoration, the bike saw more than 100 hours of labor. Along with the mechanical overhaul, the restorers powdercoated the frame, gas tank, swing-arm, triple clamps and more. The Yamaha Thermal Flow shocks got a rebuild, there’s new steering head bearings, a new seat cover, NOS Yamaha controls, a repro air horn, a new Mikuni 38mm carb, new Buchanan stainless steel spokes on the original DID rims … The ad says the bike starts, runs, shifts and stops as it should, and you’d certainly expect that, with a comprehensive overhaul like this. Sadly, the engine and frame numbers don’t match.

The Las Vegas Mecum auction runs January 26-31, and this bike will be sold on a bill of sale then. For more details, check out Mecum’s site. This could be the perfect chance to buy a perfectly restored example of one of the worst bikes of all time!

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