A modernized classic, elegant and streamlined…
The Yamaha XT550 debuted in 1982, a successor of the beloved XT500 — itself one of the most successful “thumpers” of all time, highly regarded by pro racers and amateur riders alike. The 550 incorporated several key design features, most notably the triangulated “Monocross” mono-shock suspension and the company’s dual-carb “Yamaha Duo Intake System” (YDIS). The four-valve, 558cc, 38-hp single was good for a quarter mile time of 14.1 seconds and a top speed of 100 mph. Said Yamaha:
“The new Yamaha XT550 is really two bikes in one. On the one hand a beefy trail bike with go-anywhere performance, and on the other a well-manner street machine with commuter-style fuel economy.”
Enter our friend Francesco Tutino, an Italian-born motorcycle professional who lives in Australia, where he owns and operates Francis Von Tuto Moto Works. We’ve featured several of his builds, including his Honda CB400F scrambler and Yamaha XT250 street tracker, which he built from a $150 box of parts left in the previous owner’s garage for some 30 years!
Now he’s back with what might be his best build yet, a 1982 Yamaha XT550 nicknamed “La Lupa,” which means “She-Wolf” in Italian. The build was commissioned by Francesco’s good friend Rino, who bought the donor in terrible shape (“a rusty pile of white shit”) despite Francesco’s best efforts to dissuade him. Fortunately, Rino didn’t listen, or we wouldn’t have the incredible specimen we see here today — the product of five long years of work! The nickname is a tip of the hat to the Capitole Wolf of Rino’s hometown, Rome, but the bike truly embodies the she-wolf character:
“Seeing the the bike on the road, with its black and grey colours, its lightness, the streamlined elegant shapes and its precision and agility cutting through the bends, it made even more sense for its new name.”
Below, we get the full story on the build from Francesco himself, including much of his thought process and experimentation in resurrecting this forgotten dual-sport into a true two-wheeled wolf. Studio photos by Tyler Alberti!
Yamaha XT550 Street Tracker / Motard: In the Builder’s Words
XT550: a perfect recipe for a modernized classic!
This last build has started its life as a 1982 Yamaha XT550, and it belongs to my good friend Rino, a passionate motorcyclist and renowned chef who has a thing for old thumpsters, owns a Ducati Multistrada 1200 but his dream would have been to have an XT500 right next to it in his garage… In 2015 when he purchased this 550, we knew each other for a couple of years and he commissioned me this build even before I had my first ever custom completed, he trusted me…like good friends do!
He surely didn’t trust my initial judgement! It was early afternoon and I was walking along st kilda’s beach with my wife when the phone started ringing…
Rino: Fra! I’ve found a bike, I’ve sent you the link! Have a look!
Me: Give me a second Ri…the link for what?
Rino: The link for the ad, bro! So you can see the bike I’m talking about.
Me: That’s my point…you said a bike, the only thing I can see is actually a rusty pile of white shit.
Rino: But it’s a 550, my same year of birth and it’s cheap!
Me: Nah mate, wait until I’m back in Brisbane.
Rino: No no I want it, you’ll see it when you’re back, I’m picking it up today…
Now, let’s specify… Rino didn’t get to buy the bike that day as the seller didn’t wait for him and sold it to someone else while he was on his way to pick it up. After that, I tried to point him towards a Ducati M600, which was cheap and running, but the 550 eventually popped back for sale a few weeks later and he sent me to check it out.
Heavily rusted, sunburned, bent and not running…what else could I say to dissuade him from buying this wreckage? Nothing…he bought it even though it was dearer than the first time he saw it.
Once I took it in the garage I fitted a working stator, played with the dodgy wiring, and did some basic carby cleaning. With some fresh fuel, the bike started (not before it kicked back while kickstarting and nearly broke my ankle! Which is another reason why I’ve tried to talk him out of this deal anyway) and the adventure began!
“Let’s not spend more than 7/8 grand,” he said. “I want it to look classic, it’s going to be my weekender, take your time!”
And I did! Five years later, plus a spare project bike and three times the original budget, this is the outcome… A ground up build, very classic looking XT, with retro tinwork and seat, modern LED lights and components, twin exhaust, upgraded to modern brakes and suspension.
Let’s start with the only part which could still be called “standard.”
Yes, it has been obviously fully restored. When I bought the bike it had broken fins, the clutch cover was off, and all the primary components were rusted, so after I made sure the the engine fired, I pulled it completely apart and found scored bore, loose timing, and worn out sliders, rusted main bearing etc.
Stripped the crankcases and sent the whole lot to get vapour blasted then replaced conrod, oversized piston, timing chain, all the bearings and seals with genuine Yamaha components. Despite I don’t really like to use powder coating on the engine, the magnesium clutch cover didn’t like the vapour blasting which brought up a lot of porosity, so I ended up using the clutch cover out of the spare bike we purchased and got it powder-coated in silver. On the intake, the rubber manifolds have been replaced and the carburetors vapour blasted, rebuilt, and tuned to suit the K&N pods and new exhaust system.
The exhaust had to be full stainless! Could have been easier and way cheaper if we would have just gone 2-into-1, we were undecided: I was suggesting a low profile exhaust for different reasons, and would have loved to match it with a modern carbon tipped Yoshi mx muffler, but Rino liked the high profile more which looked boring to my eyes. Better with the reverse cone muffler but still not enough for the bike I was picturing, and we ended up finding a meeting point, making a high-profile exhaust but going with double the mufflers!
As I’ve mentioned above, this choice made my life way more complicated since this bike is fitted with a monocross type rear suspension and we had to consider clearances between chassis and swingarm, and also heat was a big concern for both the battery and the air cleaners. The only way for the twin exhaust to work was to fit a crossover pipe underneath the seat which was dramatically increasing heat in the battery area and the lead pipe was in the way of the right pod filter — also a tricky one to being in very close proximity of the rear shock.
A solution was found, fabricating an aluminum shield for the lead pipe rotating the right pod filter and offsetting the left pod using some intercooler rubber hoses. Under the seat I’ve made a heat shield for the crossover pipe and battery tray cover out of carbon fiber. The exhaust will still easily get over 100 degrees in those areas, but the shields reduce the temperature to around 30° to 40° on the filter and around 60 on the battery cover, which is definitely safe.
SUSPENSIONS AND WHEELS
Upgrades to the suspensions and brakes were made, replacing the old and worn out monoshock with a modern YZF250 unit, which required mods to the frame and swingarm due to different sized eyes, rebuilt and gassed in house. The completely rusted out 38 mm forks and way undersized single-sided drum were removed to allow the USD front end from the very same donor YZF and was a fairly easy swap, still had to modify stem and match the height. The forklegs have been thoroughly cleaned and serviced, yokes, caliper and all the alluminium components vapour blasted, with new disc and pads, combined with a nissin master cylinder.
What I couldn’t stand after fitting this front end was the heavy pitting on the outer forkleg (that donor YZF died in the Simpsons desert and it saw many, many battles and wrecks before suspension got to us), so I’ve wrapped them in carbon fiber, and on the bottom legs the standard YZF fork protectors weren’t matching the style of the build, too square-ish and only available in blue — so have been currently removed, and I’m trying to make my own neoprene boots cause I didn’t like what’s available on the market.
The wheels are standard XT550 hub at the back replaced with a new 18-inch alloy rim, while at the front the YZF hub has been replaced with a 19-inch. Rubbers are Dunlop k180.
CHASSIS AND BODYWORK
Talking chassis and bodywork, I was extremely happy to ditch that badly repaired and messed up tank alongside all the plastic and seat, I have to give credit to Yamaha being the first to introduce that particular shape in the tank that has been used for easily 2 decades by all the manufacturers around the globe, but that doesn’t change the fact that was probably the ugliest of all the XT ever produced. The chassis has had the rear subframe shortened by 20 cm so that the rear guard could end only just shorter than the rear wheel, other small mods were made to suit the different tank and rear guard, allow the muffler and indicators on the loop, and relocated all the electricals.
The bodywork is essentially just the three pieces: fuel tank and the guards. After fitting the YZF suspension, to complete the “keep it in the family,” the tank comes off a 1980 XT250, and has been painted to recall the original 250 livery without being too fussy on factory colour specs — the decal is a replica of the XT500 big bored to 550 🙂
Front and rear guard have both Harley origins, modified to suit the new addresses and look as clean as possible, painted in gloss black. The whole colour scheme is very iconic, you won’t get it wrong. Which series may not be something you can tell straight away without looking at the decals, but you can tell it’s an XT from a distance!
I found the balance between silver and black pretty satisfying, I couldn’t see the bike having a black engine, I reckon we got it right. What’s more, the paintwork was a bloodbath cost-wise and I had some issues finding an honest painter, who is really worth a mention is Roberto’s Custom Powder, who worked his magic on the clutch cover, hubs, frame and the smaller components around it. Awesome quality as usual. The seat starts from a fiberglass base I made and then got uphostered per Rino’s specs.
LIGHTING AND ELECTRICALS
When it comes to a clean and neat look, the rear end works pretty good with those single unit tail light and indicator. I had to muck around modifying the stem to fit them at “legal distance” — I ended up turning stainless sleeves and welding them through the frame. In the end, it’s better to give cops as few reasons as possible to argue about your custom vehicle, that’s also part of the reason why we chose those big foldable mirrors — they’re legal and you actually see what’s behind you! Yes, safety first! That’s the reason why I’m insisting we convert all the lights to good quality LED. The Koso Headlight, for example, apart from being a gorgeous looking unit is also magnificently bright!
I’m also not a big fan of the Daymaker-style headlights, so this Koso with its horizontal driving light, it’s just another level! It was a bit of a challenge to fit it in between the yokes, making a nice and thin alluminium bracket, but I think that in the end I’ve got it fairly right — all those hours spent welding wasting gas and materials are slowly paying off! The LED saga ends with a custom housing for the warning lights and Daytona Velona speedo placed on the top yoke.
All the wiring have been modified and the hard parts relocated. Removing the airbox was the key move to simplify the look of the bike, but it also forced me to relocate all the electrical components. Same for the original headlight, which used to allow the front part of the loom to sit inside the plastic shell. Being replaced with a sealed unit, I had to remove those big plastic plugs and heatshrink/wrap and reroute all the wires.
I’ve maintained the original switchblocks cause they’re way more user friendly and rewired using smaller connectors, tucked all the loom under the tank, made a custom bracket to hide the CDI between the shock and the tank, rec/reg, horn and ignition coil are now fitted beside the oil reservoir, while the battery was replaced with an ultralight and small lithium Antigravity located in a custom carbon fiber tray under the seat where it lays flat and leaves room only to a single fuse box plus two spares fuses and the tail light wires.
THE NAME OF THE PROJECT AND ITS MEANING
I’ve called this XT550 “La Lupa,” which is the Italian for She-wolf. This name came to me after I took Rino out for his first real test ride: Rome is his hometown, and “La Lupa” (also known as “capitoline wolf,” the mythical wolf which according to the legend rescued the baby twins Romolo and Remo “the original founders of the capital” from drowning into the Tevere River) is its symbol.
Besides that, seeing the the bike on the road, with its black and grey colours, its lightness, the streamlined elegant shapes and its precision and agility cutting through the bends, it made even more sense for its new name.
The XT now resides in Rino’s garage, but I had the pleasure to put a couple hundred ks on it before finally handing him the key. With the new suspension and the 19-inch wheel, it gained stability and precision, it feels firm when cornering and gives confidence like a motard. The freshly rebuilt and tuned engine is surprisingly easy to kick, makes it very likely to “accidentally” wheelie, and delivers good torque. I feel pleasantly satisfied by looking and riding this long term build, we’ve turned a neglected 80s glory into a serious fun and elegant machine, probably my best build so far!