Classic Yamaha motorcycles
Yamaha has recently announced the sixth-generation version of its iconic YZF-R1 sports bike. The 1000cc superbike is the Japanese company’s flagship model and the latest in a long line of class-leading machines which have really captured the motorcycle riding population’s imagination.
But what about the legendary machines that have worn the famous tuning forks beforehand? Yamaha has a rich heritage in building some of the most popular bikes to have ever graced the road and track, but what are the most iconic?
Whittling the selection down to just five was a task in itself, but here are the handful we came up with. What do you think? Agree or disagree, let us know through the Insidebikes Facebook page…
Probably the most iconic Yamaha, in the UK at least. The RC350LC was arguably the bike of the 1980s, and a machine that every self-respecting boy racer aspired to own.
RD stood for ‘Race Developed’ and the LC (which stood for liquid cooled) was a replacement for the old air-cooled RD400. It was a massive hit on the road and track, where it dominated production racing. The 347cc two-stroke twin put out 47bhp and was eminently tunable. Yamaha UK promoted the new model with the now legendary Pro-Am race series, which pitted up and coming youngsters against seasoned veterans. The championship launched the career of a number of pro racers, including Alan Carter and Niall Mackenzie, and was even televised on ITV’s World of Sport – quite a novelty in the 1980s.
The RC350LC was replaced by the RC350LC YPVS, with Yamaha’s first power valve system and continued to be a big hit through the 1980s. But the pre-YPVS RD350 remains the most desirable modern classic Yamaha you can buy today.
Before the RD350 was the FS-1E.
The FS-1E, henceforth referred to as the Fizzy, gains iconic status for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s fondly remembered as the moped that started the motorcycling career of hundreds of thousands of teenagers. Secondly, it was a firebrand – a model designed to bend the laws as much as possible – and as such created an all-new category of motorcycle, known as the sports moped and nicknamed a ‘Sixteener’. Thirdly, it sold in massive numbers.
The Fizzy was the UK version of Yamaha’s FS-1 (the E in the name stood for ‘England’). It was developed in response to a 1971 change in the law that restricted 16 year olds to 50cc mopeds (small motorcycles fitted with bicycle pedals) when they had previously been able to ride 250s.
Those rules were designed to limit youngsters to step-thru shopping bikes, but Yamaha used a loophole to fit pedals and some sporty cycle parts to the FS-1 and create a moped that looked like a bigger bike and which had a top speed of 50mph as standard. Most got tuned and modified too…
Wising up to this, the government changed the law in 1977 – restricting mopeds to the 30mph we know today. Punters still bought, tuned and modified Fizzies throughout the 1980s though, with a total of 200,000 being sold here alone.
Probably the most famous Yamaha to the current generation of motorcyclists, the R1 transformed the face of motorcycling when it was launched in 1998.
With a full-sized, 1000cc, engine in a compact chassis the R1 changed the public perception of what a road going sports bike could be. Up to that point, race replicas were 750cc fours, while the 1000s were fast and comfy sports tourers. The R1 changed all. The first gen model weighed less than the YZF750R but made 30bhp more.
The R1 was a massive success and other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon: Kawasaki with the ZX-10R, Suzuki with the GSX-R1000 and Honda with their enlarged CBR1000RR Fireblade. With regular updates throughout the 2000s, the manufacturers traded places in their battle to be king of the superbikes.
Yamaha regularly kept updating the R1 and even won British and world superbike race titles with it. With MotoGP tech like crossplane crankshafts (for a ‘big bang’ firing order) and sophisticated electronics, the R1 has continued to reinvent itself. It’s hard to believe that those 1998 originals are now over 20 years old. They are now highly desirable and genuine classics, although the sheer numbers sold mean that there are still plenty out there on the second hand market.
Could the little Pee Wee be the most significant Yamaha of all-time?
In terms of starting them young, the PW50 has few peers.
First sold in 1981, the PW50 has remained virtually unchanged since. Powered by a basic air-cooled 50cc two-stroke from a 1970s step-thru, the PW50 is a children’s off-road bike that has launched the careers of pretty much every top level racer on the grid today. Marc Marquez had his first motorcycling experience on one, as did Cal Crutchlow.
And while a new generation of electric bikes are becoming increasingly popular, the petrol powered PW continues to be handed down through families and friends to give kids their first experience of motorcycling in fields and on junior motocross tracks.
Think Yamaha and you probably think of race replica styled machines, but of all the Japanese brands they arguably have the strongest reputation in the off-road sector.
Back in the 1970s, Yamaha was one of the leading lights in the motocross world championships and, in 1975, the XT500 was born.
Powered by a simple (even for the time) 499cc, air-cooled, two-valve single, the XT500 was a road bike with big off-road capabilities. Despite its road going roots, a heavily modified XT500 won a race in the 1977 500cc Motocross World Championship, but it was in rally racing that the legend was born.
These desert raids became popular in the late 1970s and, in 1979, Frenchman Cyril Neveu won the first ever Paris Dakar rally – a feat he repeated a year later.
Yamaha’s success in African rallies led to the introduction of the Tenere name for the XT600, an evolution of the XT500. Known at the time as ‘dual sport’ models, but now better known as adventure bikes, Yamaha went on to enjoy more Dakar success than any other brand in the 1990s. The XT was the genesis, and definitely one of the most iconic Yamahas (in our opinion, at least…).