Introduction: Mullet Machine to Steve McQueen – My 80/20 Rule XS650 Transformation

I had once purchased a ’79 Yamaha XS650, an underappreciated little bike from the dawn of the modern mullet era.

I can picture its second or third owner, wind blowing through his mullet, as he shot down the road to pick up a pack of filterless smokes. Ahh, the mid 80’s.

Mullets are not for me. At my worst I had what my best friend once so eloquently described as MacGyver hair but still…that was in the 90’s.

In my opinion there is nothing special about the 1979 XS650, or any year of them for that matter. They’re mediocre, kind of ugly looking bikes but they run well and have a lot of parts available. And they can typically be picked up for a song.

Ever since seeing The Great Escape I have loved the idea of old WWII era and 50’s-60's bikes though. They on the other hand typically are stupid expensive, have hard to find parts, and can be troublesome.

So in the interest of having 80% of the look for 20% of the effort I set to work.


I had at my disposal:

Donor bike

an acquaintance with some skill at bodywork

½’’ rubber sheet

Fork boots



Minor welding and fab skillz

Scrap metal

Scrap pleather

Step 1: For the Love of God Get Rid of That Couch

Seriously who wants to be seen riding around on that 1980’s barcolounger of a seat.

You wouldn’t see Steve Mcqueen jumping a barbed wire fence riding around on that thing.

Solo seat and get away rack here we come.

I tore off all the foam and cut down the seat plastic. Make sure you don’t cut off any mounting hardware, you need two areas that lock the seat down, otherwise… well. Don’t cut them off.

Next carve down the foam. Put it together and stand back to admire. Ride it some. Change what sucks to something better and repeat.

Once you get what you like, cover it in leather or pleather. I had a local shop make a pleather cover for the seat and attach it for $25 believe it or not. Its not hard but… $25… come on!

I think they liked my idea, or were REALLY slow. I’ve done it for other bikes and its pretty simple.

Process goes like this: Make template, cut out materials, sew them, spray glue the foam, lay down materials, pull tight and staple on from underside.

But… $25 was a way better deal.

Now you need to come up with a cool rack to go on the back, cause its hard to jump a bike with a passenger anyway. I welded together a simple 3/8’’ steel square and mounted it to some available mounting points. Test fit with some paint stirrers for proper angle then final with 1/8’’ steel flat plate

Step 2: These Boots Are Made for Something

Fork boots. They look tough and serve a purpose on some bikes I’m sure. This time the purpose was looking tough.

They’re cheap and not hard to install, just follow the directions that come with them.

Step 3: STRIP

Sandblast and strip the paint. Sand out rust spots. Rough it all up. Wear a respirator cause they probably put lead in everything, it was the 70’s.

Step 4: Time to Dent the Gas Tank

What?? Yes, we are going to purposely dent the tank to create those indents for knee pads. I had a guy I know do this, he does body work for a living. He charged me $75 i think, which was about the price of another tank after i messed up the first one. If you try it take it slow and use the proper tools, there are a bunch of different body hammers and anvils for this kind of work. After I did this project i got a set from Harbor Freight and its not that difficult but it is an art. Like drywall work, it just takes practice. Practice on something cheap.

I cut some knee pads from ½’’ dense rubber I had laying around. Set them aside until after painting.

Step 5: Everything Issued Is OD

My interest was a cheap version of the Great Escape bike. This required it to be OD green. So etching primer followed by krylon OD paint went on in light coats. Sand lightly between coats. Top with a matte clear coat if you want more durability. FWIW this is not a professional paint job. It's nowhere near as durable as factory but it is cheap and easy to touch up. I never had a problem with it though.

Step 6: Details and Devils

Aside from the tank knee pads, solo seat and rack I was missing one of the most important things that stand out from 10’ away. Front license plate.

Two small 90 degree brackets from Lowes, a piece of sheet metal, and a stencil kit solved that. Make sure you through bolt the bracket on but in a way that the tire can never hit the bolts. Catastrophic front tire failure = bad end to a day of riding.

Step 7: Before You Go Jumping Fences...

My interest lay in making something that looked cooler than it was. None of these cosmetic mods make it into anything other than it is, a 40 yr old Japanese road bike. Is it perfect? No, of course not. But it was about $1500 all in and a lot of fun. She was a solid bike, turned some heads, and lots of people including myself enjoyed the look.

I no longer ride since there are more and more people watching youtube as they drive down the highway and I want to be around for my wife and kids. But it was a fun time and this was a project i truly enjoyed. I hope the guy who bought it is still riding it around and looking prepared to jump fences.

For the rest of you who ride, stay safe!!

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