Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 23rd June 2008

yamaha xjr1200Remember when bikes were bikes, with proper saddles, humungous sized air cooled engines and nice cowhorn handlebars to grab onto whilst doing ’the ton’ down that new fangled invention, the by-pass?

If you do hanker after that authentic 1970s experience, then consider the Yamaha XJR1200 retro motorbike. With a meaty four cylinder air cooled engine, derived from the old lardbucket XS1100, the Yam has the right look, feel and comfort levels for a trip down memory lane. The bike gained an extra 100cc in 1998, becoming an XJR1300.

Performance in the 130mph area might sound pretty tame to some, but if your biking lifestyle is more about trundling along, catching some sunshine on Sundays, without risking major spinal damage aboard the latest 180mph sports machine, this could be just the ticket…without getting a speeding ticket.

Handsome, fast and good enough to give machines like the CB1000, Ducati’s Monster and Triumph’s Speed Triple some serious opposition’ claimed Roland Brown after riding a Japanese import XJR1200 back in 1994.

The burst of speed was instant and strong. Following a car out of a small roundabout at 30mph with the road free of oncoming traffic, I instinctively checked my mirror, brushed the indicator button and wound back the throttle. The XJR1200’s acceleration gave my arms a satisfying stretch as the black bike shot past the car, and with my left boot I flicked up to grab the next gear.

Nothing. The gearlever wouldn’t budge. And it was only after I’d repeated my attempt to select a non-existent sixth ratio that I realised the XJR1200 had been pulling from no more than 2000rpm in top gear. Even the FJ1200 I had along for comparison couldn’t quite match that level of low-rev grunt which gives an indication of just how punchy Yamaha’s unfaired machine is.

Effortless roll-on performance was perhaps to be expected, given that this latest entrant to the naked monsterbike class is powered by the aircooled, 16-valve motor from the FJ detuned from the sports-tourer’s 123bhp to a maximum of 97bhp at 8000rpm. Like Honda’s rival CB1000, which is built around a similarly detuned version of the watercooled CBR motor, the XJR gains at low revs some of the performance it has lost at the top-end.

Unlike Kawasaki’s 1100 Zephyr, the CB1000 can’t truly be described as a retro-bike, and the same is true of the XJR. Perhaps there’s a hint of 1978-model XS1100 in the XJR’s profile, and this bike’s all-black colour scheme echoes that of the XS1100S Midnight Special that turned heads (with its looks) and stomachs (with its high-speed wobble) three years later. But Yamaha’s lack of four-cylinder heritage has not been a styling handicap, because the XJR looks the meanest of the modern Japanese trio.

The Yam’s shiny black paintwork and engine cases contrast with the chrome of its headlight rim, carb-tops and exhaust system, and with the alloy finish of parts such as the box-section swing-arm, rear footrest brackets and the engine’s cam-caps. The tips of the 1188cc motor’s fins are polished, too, emphasising the aircooled nature and sheer size of the 16-valve powerplant, whose claimed torque peak of is lower than the FJ’s figure by, but arrives 1500rpm earlier at just 6000rpm.

The motor sits in a round-tube steel frame which, like the square-section FJ frame, has a bolt-on lower rail to allow engine removal. Forks are conventional 43mm units, while at the back the XJR has a pair of flashy gold piggy-back Ohlins shocks, made in Japan to the Swedish firm’s specification. Wheels are 17-inch three-spokers at each end, wearing Dunlop radial rubber in 130/70 front, 170/60 rear sizes. Big 320mm front discs with four-pot calipers, lifted straight from the FJ12, complete a purposeful profile.

From the pilot’s seat the Yam feels pretty businesslike, too, its slightly raised handlebars sitting you virtually upright in front of chrome-rimmed clocks, a central fuel gauge and a small alloy panel of warning lights. The stepped seat is fairly low at 765mm, though not as low as the FJ12’s. The engine fires up with a muted mechanical rustle, and an uninspiring chuff from stubby twin silencers.

That big lazy motor sets the tone immediately you pull away, its smooth-shifting five-speed gearbox being almost redundant if you’re not in a hurry. There’s slightly juddery power available even as low as 1500rpm in top, and from two grand onwards the XJR’s 37mm CV Mikunis give a crisp response even when the throttle is wound right open. Better still, the engine is smooth enough to keep the well-spaced rectangular mirrors clear virtually all the time.

’Course for really strong acceleration you need to use a few more revs. The motor steps up the pace at about 3000rpm, and by four grand it’s into the meatiest part of its power band. From there the delivery is fairly linear (who said dull?) all the way to the redline at 9500rpm, though a very slight and typical FJ-style tingle intrudes at higher engine speeds, and there’s little to be gained by using the top third of the rev band. Besides, the riding position means that 80mph-plus cruising ain’t practical unless you’ve got a neck like an American footballer.

A more immediate handicap to rapid riding of this Japanese-market XJR was its strange speed limiter, which was set to kill acceleration at about 115mph. This ’safety feature’ meant that you could be hammering round a gentle curve at that speed, when the Yamaha would suddenly slow as though running out of petrol, then speed up, then slow again… Without this device, the bike should be good for the 140mph top whack that the similarly pokey CB1000 can manage.

Fortunately the XJR’s chassis was unfazed by having its engine die in mid-curve (the old shaft-drive XS1100 would have wobbled straight for the hedge), and remained totally stable at speed, despite the forces being fed into it by the human parachute at the handlebars. Handling at lower speeds was very reasonable, too. The XJR always felt like a fairly big, heavy bike (at 221kg it’s 15kg lighter than the CB Thou), but it carried its weight low and changed direction without a great deal of effort.

Hard use of the front brake over a series of bumps made the non-adjustable and slightly soft forks dip a bit too much partly because the Yam’s front anchor was so brilliantly powerful and progressive. That in turn encouraged the footrests’ built-in hero-bumps to scrape, long before the fat Dunlops ran out of grip. But in normal use the forks kept the front end well under control. And the rear units, although relatively basic and adjustable only for preload, gave a firm and well-damped ride.

The XJR was certainly notably free of the mushy feel that characterises some unfaired bikes (who mentioned the Zephyr?), and was good fun when pushed towards its inevitably fairly modest limits of speed and handling. It looks well put together, too, and incorporates features such as span-adjustable levers, luggage hooks, a reasonably generous 20-litre fuel tank, a pillion grabrail and an easily used centrestand. Pretty practical stuff, at least for the type of riding that bikes like this are built for.

Until now the XJR has been available only to riders living in Japan or prepared to buy a grey import at the inevitably premium price. (This bike was on sale for £8495 at West Coast in Southport, and ta very much Nick.) But the XJR will be launched by Yamaha at the Cologne Show in October (1994), and is due to be on sale in showrooms all over Europe early next year.

Word is that the export spec still hasn’t been finalised, but that the bike is likely to arrive as tested here, apart from the welcome removal of its speed limiter, and fitment of non-Ohlins shocks of a similar remote-reservoir design. It’s also possible that the engine will be retuned slightly (mainly to help get through noise regulations), and if so let’s hope that stunning low-rev grunt is retained.

Provided that happens, Yamaha’s big black newcomer should make quite an impact. The XJR won’t be cheap, and it shares the limitations of every big naked bike. But it’s handsome, fast and good enough to give machines like the CB1000, Ducati’s Monster and Triumph’s Speed Triple some serious opposition.

Get Yamaha motorcycle insurance for the yamaha xjr1200.

Vital Statistics 
Engine Air-cooled transverse four
cc 1188
Claimed power (bhp) 97bhp at 8000rpm
Compression ratio 9.7:1
Transmission Five speed
Cycle parts 
Front tyre 130/70 x 17in Dunlop Sport radial
Rear tyre 170/60 x 17in Dunlop Sport radial
Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel 5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front suspension 43mm telescopic
Rear suspension Twin Ohlins shocks, adjustments for preload
Front brake 2, four-piston calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake Double-action caliper, 267mm disc
Top speed 140 mph
Fuel capacity 20 litres
Buying Info 
Current price £8,495