NAKED AND UNAFRAID
The original Yamaha FZ1 used R1 power and an upright-seating position to create a standard-style literbike that blew us away
TThe mark of a truly brilliant idea is that it appears both inevitable and slightly unremarkable in retrospect, which is the reason any bench-racer or armchair expert can easily tell you why the first-generation Yamaha FZ1 introduced in 2001 wasn’t such a big deal after all. They will say it was just a parts-bin special, a scaledup take on the Fazer 600 that had debuted three years prior. Hadn’t Suzuki already done the same thing twice, first with the big Katana and then again with the Bandit 1200? How was this really any different from the traditional moderns-tandard formula of strangled engine in cost-cutting chassis?
Yet to focus on the FZ1’S relatively humble origins is to miss the point. Its brilliance wasn’t to be found on the spec sheet, dyno chart, or unadorned sweep of its mild-steel double-cradle frame. You could walk right by it in a showroom, dismiss it with a canyon carver’s contemptuous glance at its tubular handlebar or ungainly right-side-up forks. Your loss, because this big, cat-eyed Yamaha was something much more radical than just another minor advancement in the state of the sportbike art.
At the turn of the century, the world of genuinely rapid motorcycles was divided into two separate but unequal categories, both tracing their heritage back to the Honda CB750 but largely devoid of the qualities that made the original superbike such a compelling proposition. On one side, there were the power cruisers—the V65 Sabre, V-max, et al.—straight-line specialists that quickly ran out of talent on a twisty road or a long freeway jaunt. The other side was full of ever more sharply focused race-replicas with punishing ergonomics and eye-watering insurance rates.
In a way, the FZ1 was simply a return to the 42-year-old CB750 formula: a fast, comfortable, and versatile street motorcycle without pretensions to Laguna Seca or the Hells Angels, equipped with the latest engine technology and priced fairly. The fact that it arrived in the marketplace with no effective competition whatsoever is the strongest possible indictment of the industry’s millennial myopia. In the words of
a song that was still popular at the time, the bike manufacturers were offering 10,000 spoons when all anybody wanted was a knife.
And this knife was razor-sharp, to put it mildly. The R1-derived powerplant might have packed only 125 horses, but it pushed the FZ1 through the quarter-mile in just 10.62 seconds at 130 mph. Tested against the Ducati Monster S4, Kawasaki ZRX1200R, and Suzuki Bandit 1200S in our June 2001 issue, the Yamaha was a runaway winner. We said that it “redefined the naked sportbike” and selected it as a Bike of the Year for 2001. An 11,000-mile long-term test revealed that the FZ1 needed only a slightly taller windscreen to “satisfy on all fronts.”
Nor could age wither the Yamaha’s enduring appeal. In October 2004, it beat a diverse field that included everything from a Honda VFR to a BMW 1200GS to be crowned World’s Best Streetbike. Not bad for a product that was 10 months away from being replaced and which received no significant updates during its lifetime. It did, however, spawn a lively aftermarket that would cheerfully farkle an FZ1 into anything from a fully faired ersatz YFR1000R Thunderace to a panniers-and-cruise-control-equipped miniature FJR1300.
None of that stuff was necessary. The FZ1 was better than fine in factory trim. To ride one today, 17 years after its introduction, is to be astonished by just how right Yamaha got it on the first try. By modern standards, it feels a bit tippy-toe and the weight is carried high in the frame, but it’s easy for even shorter riders to shove around a parking lot. The gauges are large, plain, simple, and visible.
After years of bikes like the Kawasaki Z900 and Yamaha’s own groundbreaking FZ-09, the wheelieprone combination of broad tubular handlebars and flywheel-free power no longer seems outrageous—but the FZ1 did it first. Naturally there’s
no hint of an electronic safety net in this fast-warming carbureted drivetrain, but the throttle has a long roll to keep you from inadvertently biting off more wheelie than you can chew. The fairing is unobtrusively effective enough to make one wonder why it dwindled to a vestigial nosepiece in the generations that followed.
As an urban commuter, the FZ1 is without peer, capable of accepting big inputs without upset and always in possession of whatever torque might be required to find that next open spot in traffic. You can short shift it and get 40-ish miles to the gallon, or you can wind it out with two cautious toes on the rear brake lever. It is content to follow your lead. The brakes are sure and strong in the way we expect now but which was rarely delivered in “standard” bikes back then.
For the aging rider taking a tentative first step out of sportbikes, or for the lapsed one making a belated return after years of cars and children, the big Yamaha must have seemed like the answer to every prayer. Ten minutes on it made the full-fairing literbikes seem a bit ridiculous; 10 days on it was usually sufficient to ban all thoughts of anything with clip-ons in anybody over the age of 29.
It is a mark of the truly brilliant idea that it is eventually taken for granted. Today’s new-bike customers enjoy a wide variety of naked sporting bikes ranging from single-cylinder sensible to Super Duke ridiculous, each of them visibly indebted to the FZ1 the way we see an echo of the saber-toothed tiger’s features in both zoo and bedroom. The fast-forward streetbike has become the rule, not the exception.
In such a heterogeneous environment, it’s no surprise the FZ1 was forced to evolve, acquiring an aluminum frame in 2006, then recently undergoing a radical redefinition into the FZ-10. Regarding that Transformer-faced successor, we said that “the FZ-10 isn’t a superbike built for the street; it’s a streetbike built for the street.” That’s a radical idea—or at least it once seemed so, back before the original FZ1 made it inevitable, slightly unremarkable, and utterly indispensable.
If you’re going to get a heart transplant, make sure the donor has plenty of heart. The world-conquering R1 donated a 20-valve free-revving masterpiece.
The FZ1 brought the Sturm und Drang of modern liquid-cooled superbikes to a class chock-full of air-cooled throwbacks. The result: a TKO in the first round.
Using the distinctively anodized brake package from the R1 was expensive, but it was absurdly effective. The FZ1 had whoa to match the go.