IT was a few years ago now, when a Motorcycle Trader reader and I were standing back a little from the noise of the wonderful Broadford Bonanza, talking about collecting bikes. We agreed that some desirable models out there were just getting too expensive, even stuff from the ’70s that was almost free a couple of decades ago.
“I’ve started putting away stuff from the ’90s,” he announced, “Just bought a first-model R1 the other day.” It was then I confessed to having just bought a Ducati 916 – another hero bike from the era.
Hero or not, doesn’t it seem a little hasty rating collectables from the mid-’90s? Err, no. Here’s what UK Motorcycle News had to say about the R1: “The third and final great sportsbike of the nineties.
“The FireBlade set the agenda, the 916 added finesse and the Yamaha YZF-R1 topped them off with extra power and madness. Even today the original Yamaha YZF-R1 is a sports tool to be reckoned with.”
I must confess to keeping half an eye out for an R1 myself, since the other two are already in the shed.
This kind of begs the question of what makes a collectable. The basics are a premium model, preferably with some race success. Rarity on its own doesn’t make the grade, though it helps, as does popularity. If it can be seen as a design that influenced others, and happens to be a first edition of a long-lasting series, so much the better.
Of course this is anything but a science. Tastes change over time and it takes a very long while for a model to establish gold-standard collectability, which is when the prices may stop climbing but rarely if ever go down. The R1 is nowhere near that stage – we’re talking the likes of a Vincent Rapide for that status.
ACING THE THUNDERACE
Let’s take a gander at what makes an R1. About the time its predecessor, the Thunderace (essentially a final model FZR1000), was being launched, work had begun on sketching out Yamaha’s next-generation track weapon. While the Thunderace was – and remains – a great ride, it somehow didn’t quite cut it against the smaller and more sports-focussed competitors.
Enter Kunihiko Miwa, the young lead designer on the R1 project. Now a very senior exec with the company, he is said to have laid down the basic goal posts for the R1: 150hp, under 180 kilograms dry weight and 600-class handling.
The fact is, they pretty well hit the nail on the head. The bike produced within a whisker of 150 horses at the crank, claimed a 177kg dry weight (closer to 200kg wet) and ran an incredibly short wheelbase for the class at 1385mm, compared with 1405mm for a first-model FireBlade and 1410mm for Ducati 916.
To achieve that, the powerplant in particular featured a number of weight and size reduction features. Iron liners for the cylinders were ditched, instead gaining ceramic coating in a design where the cylinders and upper crankcase were cast as one piece. This and a host of other refinements claimed a 10kg weight reduction of the power unit.
Size was also a focus, and Yamaha developed what came to be referred to as a stacked gearbox, where the input and output shafts were located vertically instead of horizontally in relation to each other. It may not sound like much, but the company again managed to pull the numbers back, in this case reducing the length of the powerplant by 81mm. That in turn gave the designers the freedom to locate the mass a little further forward and design a longer swingarm. The advantage of the latter was said to be improved traction.
Surprisingly, Yamaha wasn’t quite ready to stick its neck out with fuel injection on this one – that had to wait until the third series in 2002.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
There’s no doubt the R1 was a significant step forward for sportsbikes at the time. I recall their launch and rode several examples in a short space of time. They felt little, steered quickly, with decent suspension and particularly good brakes. Those monoblocs up front were the pick of what was available at the time.
All up, R1s were fast, and very capable. Over time they copped criticism on two fronts: comfort and being light in the front end.
Some complained the R1 understeered, which was questionable. I think you could very easily get in over your proverbial head in a corner, and that’s when people freaked out and ran wide. Get over the front end and keep your nerve and they were fine. They could get light up front when you got into them with the throttle and Yamaha did tweak the geometry for a little more weight over the front wheel in the second series (2000). That model also had some bodywork changes for more comfortable seating and a touch more wind protection.
Don Stafford or Stafford Motorcycles in Melbourne used to retail Yamaha and remembers the first R1 very fondly. “I think they were fantastic,” he says, “When it came to a race or sportsbike you probably couldn’t do better. They were bulletproof – a bloody good motor.” He added the wheelie hounds would sometimes chew out second gear but that was it for dramas.
A wealth of aftermarket gear – including race kits – was available for these things. And that is where your problem will be when it comes to picking up a potential collectable. The market values originality and finding an unmolested R1 will be a real challenge.
When it comes to buying, some evidence of regular servicing (these five-valve engines are super strong) and a moderately quiet motor will suffice. Wheelie-induced gear issues will become apparent when the bike is under load – if it drops out of second for no reason, it needs work.
A general check, particularly of the steering head bearings, may also reveal signs of rough handling. These days, I reckon the owner’s Facebook page could be even more revealing!
If the seller comes across as halfway sane and the bike has its factory gear, you’re well on the way. As always, it’s worth paying a premium for a good original, as it’s nearly always much, much, cheaper than a restoration.
There’s no guarantee first model R1s will go up in value, but it’s a fair bet they eventually will. In any case you’re not gambling millions and will have a motorcycle that is still a damned entertaining ride.
SPEX Yamaha YZF-R1 1998-1999
TYPE: Liquid-cooled, four-valves-per-cylinder, inline four
BORE & STROKE: 74 x 58mm
COMPRESSION RATIO: 11.8:1
FUEL SYSTEM: 4 x 40mm Mikuni downdraft carburettors
TYPE: Six-speed, constant-mesh
FINAL DRIVE: Chain
CHASSIS & RUNNING GEAR:
FRAME TYPE: twin-spar alloy
FRONT SUSPENSION: 41mm inverted forks, 135mm travel
REAR SUSPENSION: Alloy swingarm, monoshock with 130mm travel
FRONT BRAKE: Twin 298mm discs with four-piston monobloc calipers
REAR BRAKE: 256mm disc with twin-piston caliper
DIMENSIONS & CAPACITIES:
DRY WEIGHT: 177kg (wet: 205kg)
SEAT HEIGHT: 813mm
FUEL CAPACITY: 18L
WHEELS & TYRES:
WHEELS: 3.50-17 (f),
6.00-17 (r), cast alloy
TYRES: 120/70-ZR17 (f), 190/50-ZR17 (r)
POWER: 110kW at 10,000rpm
TORQUE: 108Nm at 8500rpm
TOP SPEED: 275km/h
Yamaha YZF-R1 1998-1999
YEAR NEW TRADE RETAIL
1998 $16,990 $3900 $5500
1999 $17,090 $4000 $5700
Words by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen, Motorcycle Trader #301