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

Cycle World - - Origins - By JACK BARUTH / Pho­tog­ra­phy by BRIAN BLADES

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.

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