That was the year when…

For­mer Mo­tor­cy­cle staffman Chris My­ers had never even sat on a mo­tocross bike be­fore he was sent off to a muddy cir­cuit in Bel­gium along with other Euro­pean bike scribes to try out a po­tent new range of Yamaha mo­tocross ma­chines in the au­tumn of 1978. His

Classic Dirtbike - - Contents - Words: Pete Kelly Pics: Mor­tons Archive

… Yamaha in­vited the press along to its MX launch in 1978. Pete Kelly turns back the clock to re­view the day for us.

The 1970s brought a resur­gence of in­ter­est in off-road mo­tor­cy­cle sport of all kinds as the Ja­panese man­u­fac­tur­ers painstak­ingly learned how to build such spe­cialised ma­chines be­fore rapidly catch­ing up with, and then some­times even sur­pass­ing, those man­u­fac­tured in Europe, east and west.

This trend was well un­der way when, in 1977, I joined Bill Law­less to help him launch a new weekly news­pa­per pub­lished by the tiny More­cambe Press in Lan­cashire called Tri­als & Mo­tocross News. By then, the likes of Suzuki and Kawasaki were com­ing along strong in both na­tional and in­ter­na­tional scram­bling events, and I even bought my­self a 250cc Kawasaki tri­als ma­chine from Doug Hack­ing of Bolton to get into the spirit of it all.

Apart from pootling along the edges of More­cambe Bay with dear old Bill on sum­mer’s evenings, and con­tem­plat­ing the mean­ing of life (of which we’d each had our share of un­happy ex­pe­ri­ences by then!) I tried a few Cheshire Cen­tre tri­als to lit­tle avail -- the Kwacker still needed more de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly in the en­gine depart­ment, but noth­ing like the amount of ‘de­vel­op­ment’ that I needed!

At the time, mo­tor­cy­cling was en­joy­ing an un­prece­dented boom, with one fab­u­lous ma­chine fol­low­ing an­other. Honda’s six­cylin­der CBX was launched while I was at More­cambe -- and I re­mem­ber jok­ing with Bill at a lo­cal caff that we fre­quented at lunchtimes just how use­less it would be in a tight sec­tion be­tween the trees!

The 1970s were also a time of lav­ish press launches, some of which took place in truly ex­otic lo­ca­tions.

While edit­ing ti­tles such as Mo­tor­cy­cle and Mo­tor­cy­cle Me­chan­ics, I found my­self tear­ing along the au­to­bahns of Ger­many on newly launched Hon­das, in­clud­ing the CXB900F, be­fore en­joy­ing lav­ish evening meals at which small groups of us were joined at ta­ble by high-ups from the Honda or­gan­i­sa­tion ask­ing us what we thought they should build next. A re­fresh­ing change from the, “we know best and you’ll get what we give you” at­ti­tude of some man­u­fac­tur­ers closer to home that I could men­tion!

On an­other oc­ca­sion, I flew to Malta at Kawasaki’s ex­pense to try out four great new bikes (in­clud­ing the Z500 four and Z250 twin if my mem­ory serves me cor­rectly) fol­lowed by an evening on-screen pre­sen­ta­tion to the Euro­pean mo­tor­cy­cling press of the as­ton­ish­ing wa­ter-cooled, six-cylin­der Z1300 that was about to be launched.

Edi­tors in­vari­ably put their staff first when it came to perks like these, of course, and I’ll never for­get the look on Brian Crich­ton’s face at Mo­tor­cy­cle Me­chan­ics when I asked him if he might pos­si­bly be in­ter­ested in go­ing over to Ari­zona for a few days to try out a new range of BMW mo­tor­cy­cles, in­clud­ing a visit to a rodeo! ‘Bad­ger’ said yes, by the way! Two years af­ter I left Mo­tor­cy­cle to­wards the end of 1976, Chris My­ers, an ex­tremely like­able staffman, at­tended a ‘try ’em out’ launch of Yamaha’s 1979 line-up of mo­tocross ma­chines at a cir­cuit near Jodoigne in Bel­gium, and re-read­ing his re­port, which ap­peared in the Oc­to­ber 28, 1978 is­sue of Mo­tor­cy­cle, I can al­most hear him talk­ing. “Just mo­ments ear­lier I had been mild­man­nered jour­nal­ist Chris My­ers,” he wrote, “but astride the mighty YZ400FR Yamaha mo­tocrosser I had be­come Chris My­ers, mo­tocross star! The YZ and I sped around the muddy cir­cuit like no­body’s busi­ness. We screamed into bends flat-out and drifted round on the limit. We hit bumps at an in­cred­i­ble rate of knots and landed in com­plete con­trol. “Bring on the op­po­si­tion,” I thought. “We’ll eat ’ em alive.” Of course, poor old Chris was soon brought back to earth with a bump. There he was, imag­in­ing fondly that he was Yamaha’s world cham­pion Heikki Mikkola, right up on the tail of a Swedish rider on a YZ125 when -- zonk! -- his rear knob­bly spat up a stone that hit him hard right in the eye. “Next mo­ment I was sit­ting, dazed, be­side the track won­der­ing where all my amaz­ing pow­ers had gone,” wrote Chris. “I was back in the real world all right, and my eye hurt like hell.” Be­fore the live launch of the new Yams had got un­der way, Chris had told some of the fel­low Euro­pean journos that he’d never even sat on a real racer be­fore, but they’d just laughed. “It doesn’t mat­ter,” they’d said. “You’ll en­joy your­self” -- and he did! Con­sid­er­ing Chris’s non-ex­is­tent pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of such fiery ma­chines, the 45bhp two-stroke YZ400F must have felt like sit­ting astride a stick of dy­na­mite. Based on the 1977 world cham­pi­onship-win­ning works bike, the 396cc YZ boasted a bore and stroke of 82 x 75mm, a larger 38mm-choke Mikuni car­bu­ret­tor and a re­designed ex­pan­sion cham­ber. Max­i­mum power came in at 7500rpm, and max­i­mum torque at 6500rpm. To achieve that fully float­ing feel­ing, the front sus­pen­sion move­ment was in­creased by an inch to 10.6in, and that of the re­designed rear monoshock went up to 10.4in. The swing­ing-arm length was also length­ened by 1.6in to 19.7in. The rear brake

was, of course, fully float­ing, and the dry weight of the whole ma­chine was just 225lb.

“The track at Jodoigne, 30 miles out­side Brus­sels, is typ­i­cally Bel­gian,” wrote Chris. “Twisty, with a cou­ple of nice jumps and some re­ally bumpy sec­tions, in­clud­ing the start straight.”

At the time of Chris’s visit, the cir­cuit was in use for most of the year, its big­gest event be­ing an in­ter­na­tional Easter Trophy meet­ing.

Lap­ping up the whole ex­pe­ri­ence, he wrote: “Yamaha must be con­grat­u­lated for lay­ing on all man­ner of luxuries at the track­side. There was ex­cel­lent food and drink, show­ers, proper toi­lets and sev­eral con­tin­u­ously run­ning videos of Yamaha’s road race and mo­tocross suc­cesses in 1977-78. Twe­sel­down was never like this!”

Yamaha had laid on two ex­am­ples of each model in its 1979 mo­tocross range for ev­ery­one to ride, along with a sin­gle ex­am­ple of the Bri­tish-as­sem­bled HL500 four-stroke, and a team of me­chan­ics was on hand to keep the ma­chines run­ning smoothly, straighten out the in­evitable bent bits and, said Chris, “to look af­ter us when we got into trou­ble on our un­fa­mil­iar ma­chines.

“All we had to do was put our names down on the rota and wait our turn,” he con­tin­ued. “I de­cided to play safe, and scratched ‘My­ers’ by the YZ100, then asked sheep­ishly if I could tool around on a DT175 trail bike, just to learn where I was go­ing.

“Of course, I fell off at the first bend. The track re­ally was slip­pery, and the trail bike tyres be­came so clogged up with mud that they looked more like slicks -- that’s my ex­cuse, any­way -- but I man­aged a wob­bly lap and ar­rived back de­ter­mined to try my hand at some­thing a lit­tle more po­tent and with knob­blies on.

“The YZ100 was a po­tent lit­tle screamer, and I liked it right away. For a start, I could get my feet on the deck, and that gave me a real sense of se­cu­rity. The power was amaz­ing for a 100cc motor, and for the first cou­ple of laps at least, I de­cided to keep it out­side its nar­row power band of 20bhp at 11,000rpm.

“Pretty soon I was do­ing what I thought was a fair im­pres­sion of Heikki Mikkola again -- un­til I spot­ted a pho­tog­ra­pher and grabbed a hand­ful of throt­tle to give him some­thing to take a pic­ture of. The back end whipped round in a big way, and for a cou­ple of sec­onds I was all arms and legs flail­ing in a des­per­ate at­tempt to get my act to­gether, and vowed not to try it again.

“As I found with all the bikes, the 100’s sus­pen­sion was amaz­ing. To have more than nine inches of beau­ti­fully damped sus­pen­sion move­ment front and rear is an uplift­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for some­one like my­self who rides bikes only on the road, but all too soon my time was up and I had to pull in.”

Full of ex­cite­ment, Chris pre­sented him­self at race con­trol ready to get go­ing on some­thing a lit­tle more pow­er­ful, but a quick scan down the list showed ev­ery­thing fully booked, so he put him­self down for rides on ev­ery­thing the next day.

The lav­ish hos­pi­tal­ity at such events that we al­luded to ear­lier be­came ev­i­dent that evening when, af­ter re­turn­ing to the ho­tel for a shower, the lucky par­tic­i­pants were treated to some great en­ter­tain­ment.

“We were taken on a tram tour of Brus­sels,” wrote Chris. “At least that’s where I think it was, but with all the free drink that was go­ing (and we all know the strengths of some Bel­gian beers) I can’t be sure.” This was fol­lowed by a meal at a sump­tu­ous

Astride the mighty YZ00FR mo­tocrosser I had be­come Chris My­ers, mo­tocross star!

restau­rant, and af­ter that Yamaha’s Bri­tish mar­ket­ing boss, Bob Jack­son, and pub­lic­ity man, Steve Hack­ett, took them on a guided tour of the Brus­sels night spots.

“That night,” wrote Chris, “I dreamt that I was on the 400, show­ing the way round to those for­eign jour­nal­ists with their fancy rid­ing gear.”

Af­ter break­fast, with Chris’s mus­cles still aching from his mere 15-minute ride on the 100 the pre­vi­ous day, the bike scribes re­turned to Jodoigne, Chris ea­ger to get out on the big­ger ma­chines.

“The 400 was some­thing else,” he wrote. “With my soft wellies, start­ing the beast was a bit of a prob­lem be­cause the kick-start was mounted very high and needed a full stroke to bring the en­gine to life. Even­tu­ally I got it hum­ming and jumped aboard -- I could just get my toes on the deck .

“I could cope with it -- just -- in a straight line, but I tended to ‘fall’ into the corners. I won’t bull­shit. I didn’t man­age more than four or five laps and got it up to third gear only twice, but it was an ex­pe­ri­ence I’ll never for­get. “The power is awe­some when it comes on song, and the sen­sa­tion is some­thing like catch­ing hold of a mov­ing freight train. More than 10 inches of sus­pen­sion travel is avail­able front and rear, and I found I could speed over bumps that I’d have had trou­ble walking over. Amaz­ing!” Eight months ear­lier, in the February, Mo­tor­cy­cle had per­suaded Vic East­wood to carry out an ex­clu­sive test of the 1977 world cham­pi­onship-win­ning ma­chine upon which the new 400 was based, and the YZ250F that Chris also tried, and found a lit­tle more man­age­able as he went ev­ery­where in sec­ond, shared the same frame as its larger sta­ble­mate.

The two-fifty’s ba­sic spec­i­fi­ca­tion was an en­gine un­changed from the pre­vi­ous year, with a bore and stroke of 70 x 64mm, which de­vel­oped 37bhp at 7500rpm and ran through a six-speed gear­box.

Chris en­joyed his ride on the YZ125F, “a real screamer, and with its low seat height I felt I could man­age it”, but the one he liked best of all was the tiny YZ80.

“Okay, my knees bumped on the bars a lit­tle, and my size nines were a bit big for o ope­op­er­atinga the gear and back brake ped­als, bbut it was much more man­agea able for some­one like my­self with no e ex­pe­ri­ence, and I felt at home on it stra aight away.

“I was g get­ting around much more quickly than on the 400, and when I spot­ted Motor Cyy­cle News’s mo­tocross reporter Nick Har­rris also out on an 80, it didn’t take long be­foore we were hav­ing a real ding-dong on the litt­tle ma­chines.

“I tailedd him for a cou­ple of bends, and coulld tell from the ner­vous glances over his shoul­der that I had him wor­ried. His rid­ingg was be­com­ing more ragged, and so wwas mine! I whizzed past him on a bummpy down­hill stretch and found my­self wwhoop­ing for joy. So this was what mo­tocrosss was like!

“Af­ter a quick breather be­tween mo­tos, we switcched bikes and set out on the sec­ond lleg.

“I got a bit of a start – by cheat­ing -- and pulled ouut quite a lead, but this sec­ond 80 just didnn’t seem to have the poke, and soon Ha rris was breath­ing down my neck. I messedd up a cou­ple of bends and he came past halff- way through the lap.

“Now I was hav­ing trou­ble chang­ing gears, and Har­rris pulled away to rack up his first vic­toory.

“The ovver­all re­sult looked like a tie, but then I di­is­cov­ered that I’d clipped a post and bentt my gear lever, which ex­plained the shift ing prob­lem, so I made it a clear My­ers vi ctory!”

Finn Heikki Mikkola, who won the 1977 500cc mo­tocross world cham­pi­onship for Yamaha, tries the tiny YZ80 for size at Jodoigne.

On this right- hand en­gine de­tail shot of Yamaha’s 1979 YZ400F, note the new ra­di­ally finned cylin­der head and new Mikuni car­bu­ret­tor. On the left- hand side, the air-fil­ter box ac­cepted a new- style, free­breath­ing oil- soaked fil­ter.

At the heart of the new Yama­has was this gas/oil monoshock unit fea­tur­ing lon­gi­tu­di­nal cool­ing fins and­makinga­much greater use of light al­loy. This one was fromthe four-hun­dred, and the de­sign al­lowed a wide range of damp­ing and pre-load ad­just­ments.

LEFT: Only one ex­am­ple of thenvt-as­sem­bled HL500 Yamaha fourstroke was present at the Bel­gian launch. Im­prove­ments for 1979 in­cluded a gas-flowed cylin­der head and re-pro­filed camshaft.

ABOVE: A fel­low Bri­tish bike jour­nal­ist on a 175cc Yamaha trail bike fol­lows Chris My­ers, on the YZ400F, around the Bel­gian Jodoigne cir­cuit.

The Yamaha YZ400F pro­duc­tion mo­tocrosser for 1979 boasted a longer welded light-al­loy swing­ing arm than pre­vi­ously, and the ny­lon block chain guide was also new.

With the look of hor­ror on his face hid­den by the Bell Moto- Star hel­met sup­plied by Yamaha, Chris My­ers lifts the front wheel of the po­tent lit­tle YZ125.

LEFT: On the then newly an­nounced 125cc Yamaha pro­duc­tion mo­tocross ma­chine, Chris My­ers puts out a foot to steady him­self as he wob­bles around the Jodoigne cir­cuit in Bel­gium.

RIGHT: The 1979 Yamaha YZ250F re­mained fun­da­men­tally un­changed from the pre­vi­ous year’s highly suc­cess­ful model. The frame and di­men­sions were iden­ti­cal to those of the 400 model, with the 250’s six- speed en­gine de­liv­er­ing a healthy 37bhp.

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