In Stupidus Yamaha Licentia

John Humphreys once told me his definition of freedom was ‘the ability to do what you want with what you have’.

That includes being able to do something for no good reason, other than the fact that you want to.

Like buying one of these:

r1

This is the 1998 Yamaha R1: a 998cc four-cylinder sportsbike.

It cost about $17k when it was first released. It was extremely popular. You don’t see many of them on the roads any more. There’s a good reason for this: almost every one of these bikes wound up at the wreckers not long after they were purchased.

The original R1 was a truly lunatic piece of machinery. It had more power than any bike in its class. It also had quite a bit less weight. The result was a power-to-weight ratio that was simply in another universe from any other road-legal vehicle on two wheels or four. That wouldn’t have been as menacing if the R1 had been given a chassis which could handle the power. It hadn’t. The R1 was as stable as a teenage girl on crack. Giving this bike to your average road rider was like handing a grenade to a toddler: sooner or later, it was going to end badly.

If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, but want some idea of what this bike felt like, then imagine this: you are riding a bicycle down a very steep slope, going very fast. You aren’t wearing any protective gear. You start going around a corner without slowing down. It’s kinda scary, but you’re in control and it’s lots of fun. Then, all of a sudden, somebody jumps out of the bushes and kicks the rear wheel out from underneath you.

Magnify that example to motorcycle speeds, and you’ve now got a good idea of what the R1 was like to ride.

So, we had lots of people buying a bike which cost as much as a decent car, which couldn’t carry stuff, which was hideously uncomfortable, expensive to run and very expensive to insure, and – most notably of all – everyone who bought it knew damn well they were very likely to end up wrapped around a tree.

But dammit, it was gorgeous, it sounded amazing, and best of all, it was so blindingly, terrifyingly fast.

It was a glorious, triumphant finger-in-the-eye to blubbering nanny-statist safety nazis everywhere. Here was a major automotive manufacturer unapologetically selling a product which was wholly unpractical, dangerous to use, and existed for no other reason than to help people to break our road laws, and have lots of fun doing so.

The R1 has left a beautiful legacy: in the nine years since, the ‘hypersports’ class pioneered by the R1 has given us a range of even more powerful and politically incorrect machinery from both Yamaha and the other ‘big three’ Japanese manufacturers, with the Italian manufacturers now also getting in on the act.

So drink a toast dear friends to the Yamaha R1. In our increasingly sanitised and over-regulated world, the R1 remains a stunning monument to human passion, adventure and risk-taking.

The R1: Freedom’s Motorcycle.

16 thoughts on “In Stupidus Yamaha Licentia

  1. I grew up riding motor bikes (ours and neighbours) and I lost count of how many trees and cows I crashed into. Ours was only an 80cc 4 stroke Honda but it was powerful enough for a kid to have plenty of thrills and spills. And unlike a horse you could only blame yourself when you landed on your ass in the scrub. But perhaps the most fun was riding the wooden bill kart (built with old lawn mower wheels) whilst being towed around a grass track by a motor bike rider (usually one of my brothers) who was determined to see you roll.

  2. I’m currently shopping for a more powerful bike and test rode the Yamaha FZ1 a few weeks ago. It’s the now supposedly civilised version of the R1, although the engine remains the same.

    I liked it. It is unbelievably quick and I suspect you could do monos in the first four gears at least. The funny thing is, the dealer talked me out of it. He said the minute you wound the throttle a bit hard at the wrong time, you’d be in trouble. I’m now old enough to think about the consequences of crashing so I accepted his advice.

    I’m planning on testing the FZ6 soon. It’s essentially the same bike but with a 600cc motor. They say it’s just as much fun but slightly further from the razor’s edge. But I still like the idea that I could buy the FZ1 if I wanted and will certainly join in the toast to the R1.

  3. The FZ1 has a detuned version of the R1 motor so the top-end isn’t as psychotic. It’s also a lot heavier and more stable than the R1. My beloved ZX9 had an even peakier motor than the R1: the difference was that it had a rock-solid chassis.

    I think you’ll find the FZ1 is a perfectly safe bike to ride for the long-term.

    Or you could buy a z1000 like mine 🙂

  4. But perhaps the most fun was riding the wooden bill kart (built with old lawn mower wheels) whilst being towed around a grass track by a motor bike rider (usually one of my brothers) who was determined to see you roll.

    Nowdays, I’m sure your parents would be arrested for allowing such eeeevil behaviour.

  5. I’m reading “Infidel” at the moment and it occurs to me that in the west we are starting to do to children what the Saudis have for years done to their women. We lock them up at home so that nobody can rape (harm) them. We loved testing the physical limits when we were kids and it is a pity that people make such a fuss these days about the downside of kids having fun.

  6. I like cars too but mainly for long trips, when it’s wet or if I need to carry something big. Around the city it’s a real pain using the car after riding the bike.

    As for your choice of car porn, the Ford and Lambo were both covered on Top Gear. Jeremy Clarkson’s Ford GT40 had repeated mechanical problems and the Lambo couldn’t get out of a carpark in Paris. But they’re nice on a motorway and look good.

    The DB9 is my idea of car porn too. I’d also add a couple of Ferraris – they look brilliant, go like hell and don’t break any more.

  7. ‘But perhaps the most fun was riding the wooden bill kart (built with old lawn mower wheels) whilst being towed around a grass track by a motor bike rider (usually one of my brothers) who was determined to see you roll.’

    I made one with large cast iron wheels off an old plough, then tried it out on a long steep hill. It scared the s out of me, but the trouble was that it was too heavy to pull back up to do it again.

  8. Later on my brother made a bill kart out of welded water piping with inflatable tires (like those on a wheel barrow). He then put a lawn mower engine on it and we used to race it up and down the lane. In the early days he had not got around to engineering a brake or clutch of any sorts so stopping involved getting the beast into a sideways skid and stalling the engine. It was impressive but not as much fun as being towed at high speed on the little wooden version. There is something strangely appealing about being a human projectile.

  9. Terge; I thought I was a bad little bastard when I was young, I’m starting to think you were worse, and havent improved with age.

    My english teacher used to call me ‘Fryar the flaming freak’, (that was before the days of PC). Back then a sence of humour was still allowed and I derived a sence of kudos from it.

  10. “So drink a toast dear friends to the Yamaha R1. In our increasingly sanitised and over-regulated world, the R1 remains a stunning monument to human passion, adventure and risk-taking.”

    For how long? Clearly this bike is unnecessary!

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