Smokin’ into history
Between 1994 and 2004, Aprilia dominated the World 250cc Championship. Seven times they would be crowned world champions with five different riders in this time, but it all started back in 1994. The factory in Noale, north west of Venice, Italy, had recruited Max Biaggi for the 1994 championship after he spent a fruitless year riding for Erv Kanemoto on the Rothmans Honda NSR250, and the young Roman made good use of his black Chesterfield sponsored weapon, laying waste to the world’s best for the next three seasons. Commercially, Biaggi’s success was a godsend for Aprilia in 1994. The factory was young and streetbike production was still taking a back seat to the business of racing, but with their sweet little 250 racer they already had the basis for a production bike to beat all others in the 250cc two-stroke class. Enter the Aprilia RS250. The fact that this was at a time when two-stroke engine production was really starting to wind down didn’t worry Aprilia. Honda was fazing out the NSR250, Kawasaki had dropped the KR-1S, the Yamaha TZR250 was gone – the only company still pushing the two-stroke barrel to any great degree was Suzuki. Aprilia’s disc-valve grand prix engines were designed by Rotax but the Austrian company wasn’t in line for the production contract. That went to Suzuki, who supplied the VJ22 RGV250 engine for the RS250 right up until 2004, when the two-stroke dream finally died out thanks to ever-tightening emissions laws in Europe and the USA. Suzuki had actually stopped importing their RGV250 to Australia back in 1998 despite releasing a Japanese and
European VJ23 model in 1997 (Suzuki Australia chose not to import the machine as many states did not give L and P plate riders access to the machine). It goes a long way to explaining how globally popular the RS250 was in that a company the size of Suzuki would continue to make the engine six years after it stopped production of the VJ22 engine for use in its own RGV250.
The Aprilia RS250 wasn’t officially imported to Australia until the 1999 model year (which meant you could get one late in 1998, as Anthony West did), but its impact on the Australian racing scene was immediate. The RGV had been the weapon of choice in the cut-throat world of the Australian 250cc Production Championship by the time the Yamahas, Hondas and Kawasakis all dropped off around 1992, and Aussie title rules dictated you couldn’t race a grey import machine – so no 199597 RS250s were eligible. By the end of 1998 that all changed. The Aprilia quickly became the bike to be on, and by 1999, when the only RGV you could buy was (probably) a very well used second hander, the RS250 filled the grid from top to bottom. Formula Xtreme promoter Terry O’Neill jumped on the RS250 bandwagon a step further, creating the Aprilia Challenge in what is widely recognised as the most successful one-make series Australia has ever seen. Stacked grids of 30-40 RS250s provided some of the closest racing anywhere in the world, with names like Brendan Clarke, Brent George, Dustin Goldsmith and Reece Bancell all leading protagonists. It was our version of the notorious RD Cup in the UK of the early 80s. 1999 was the first official year the RS250 was imported and the only time the RS250 received any form of a makeover. The engine was still the VJ22 RGV unit and the chassis remained largely the same, but the bodywork was changed to stay in line with the factory Aprilia RSA250s of 1998 250cc World Champion Loris Capirossi, Tetsuya Harada and Valentino Rossi (you could buy a Rossi replica in 1999, but truth be told it didn’t much look like his racer in the colour scheme. In 2002, you could buy a Tetsuya Harada replica which looked very similar to the RSA500 he raced in the 500cc class). The sharp tail and nose from the 1995-97 bike was gone, in place came the drooping nose and tail that still looks immaculate and the closest you could get to a race replica at the time. Aesthetically the bike would stay this way until it died its production death in 2004 and Aprilia also kept the grand prix racers looking very similar until they dropped off at the end of 2009.
It’s funny to think the twin-cylinder, two-stroke RS250 is now about the size of the RSV4 superbike, which houses a 1000cc V4 four-stoke and pumps out roughly three times the horsepower, but back in 1998 the RS250 was quite revolutionary. Chassis design clearly mimicked the grand prix racers, with the main frame a twin-spar cast aluminium design that at the time was claimed to have the highest degree of torsional stiffness of any production chassis. The same claim was made for the swingarm. The 1995-97 RS250 had 41mm forks made by Showa, so for the latest and last incarnation Aprilia fitted the same Showa fully-adjustable 41mm forks and a fully-adjustable shock. This gave the Aprilia an instant advantage over the now ageing Suzuki RGV with its preload-only adjustable front end. Brembo
four-piston calipers gripping 298mm discs graced the Aprilia’s front end and provided phenomenal braking power, especially when you consider they only had to pull up 140kg of claimed dry weight. A twin-piston caliper stopping a 220mm disc took care of the back-end duties. The Aprilia RS250 was not as nimble as the RGV on corner entry, having a 15mm longer wheelbase at 1365mm, but what it did have was greater midcorner stability and more compliance over dodgy road surfaces compared to the often flighty Suzuki. It was also physically much larger than its Japanese competitor. The bodywork design came straight off the grand prix racers and allowed larger riders to get the most out of the machine. The curved front fairing allowed for easier tuck in for riders taller than 160cm, and the seat design and material meant you didn’t feel as though you were riding on a wooden plank after 10 minutes. The RGV-derived reed-valve powerplant may have come from Suzuki but the Italians still had a minor play with it. The expansion chambers were different (although the mufflers looked the same), the reworked cylinders and cylinder heads bumped compression up to 12.0:1 over the Suzuki’s 7.3:1, and there were different exhaust power valves and the RS-spec igniter, and richer jetting with the twin 34mm Mikuni flat-slide carburetors. The increased compression ratio gave the Aprilia no more power in the top-end than the Suzuki but gave it much more mid-range torque. Being a 250cc two-stroke you still had to keep the thing on the boil and once you let the revs drop below 8,000rpm you could kiss any meaningful drive goodbye, but more torque from 8,000-10,000rpm meant the Aprilia was easier to live with in traffic and for everyday riding than the Suzuki. Another thing that made the Aprilia a winner was the dash. This was the age where digital read outs were slowly becoming the norm and the Aprilia was one of the first to come out with a dash that could record your lap times. The ECU could store up to 40 circulations, so as long as you remembered to hit the high beam switch each time you crossed the line it made it easier for boy racers to chart their progress. The analogue rev counter stayed but the speedo was now digital, and you also got current and average speed, clock, water temperature, battery voltage and an odometer. What the Aprilia did with the RS250 was bring to market the closest machine ever to a grand prix bike that you could ride on the road up to that point. The engine may have been pumping out half of what the grand prix versions were doing, but the chassis remains to this day one of the sharpest track tools you can buy. And despite its grand prix heritage, the physical size of the machine meant it actually wasn’t that bad a roadbike. Granted it wasn’t what you’d call comfortable, but it was never meant to be. The increased torque of the two-stroke engine and the machine’s overall build quality was superb – plus the adjustable suspension meant the RS250 could be softened for a road ride but stiffened to razor sharp potential for the track, and good for about 210km/h.
Prices for these little Italian beauties started climbing in recent years as people got nostalgic about the good ol’ smoky days, and finding a mint one now for under $10,000 is near impossible. But there are still reasonable ones out there for under 7000. Bear in mind many people used these bikes to learn to ride (or race) so do a proper check of the machine and its history before buying it. These bikes were and still are absolute gems of pure,
unadulterated performance. They taught guys like Broc Parkes, Anthony West, Aaron and Alex Gobert, Glenn Allerton and Robbie Bugden how to race and win. These were real race bikes with lights.
Old number one
As already stated, the RS250 wasn’t eligible for Aussie Production racing until 1998, but that doesn’t mean there were none here. The very first RS250 to come into the country directly from the factory is still resident; the property of Dave Aquilina, who has just completed a major rebuild, carefully keeping the machine in exactly original specification. “This bike is number 188 of 500 of the 1994 Loris Reggiani Replicas to celebrate the 250 and 125 GP wins in 1993 and 1994, its VIN number is ZD4LD0000ROOOO154”, says Dave. “It’s totally original and goes like stink. The bike itself was imported by Steve Turner; just an everyday concreter who fell in love with the RS250 and paid $16,000.00 to import it. He registered it between 1998 and 2005. He was another terminal bike tragic with a love of Italian thoroughbreds. The bike lived in his lounge room and remained in as-new condition. It was produced in Aprilia’s Racing section along with a special edition RS125. I don’t think there would be many of these left as they were raced extensively. It was made in November 1994 and Aprilia did not start selling here until 1998. The Loris Reggiani Replicas all had numbered badges on the frame. I bought the bike from him a couple years ago, stripped and detailed it, got it going – filling the shed with lovely two stroke smoke! Then I drained the tank and carbies and now it lives in my Man Cave and I cannot wait for Old Mates to drop around for the bragging rights and to see the look of envy on their faces, its worth every cent.”
More local lovelies
Due to track carnage, there are few RS250s around in Australia today, and even fewer in top condition. One that definitely does fit the bill belongs to Sydneysider and Aussie motorcycle industry personality Ben Maike, who has owned his Aprilia RS250 since 1998. His machine has been through the wringer and come out the other side looking like a show bike, and just talking about it with him gets him all excited like a teenager.
“It started as a racebike for the Aprilia Challenge in 1998 and I picked it up soon after the season ended,” says Ben. “I used it as a trackbike for the last decade, racing it in BEARS in 2002 in the F3 class, then decided to turn it back into a road bike to bring it back to its original beauty. I’ve dressed it up as a 1998 model but it’s a 1999 underneath the bodywork. The pistons are good for 16,000km, but the engines do leak around the exhausts. It’s not really an issue if you race it as you’ve got it on max revs the whole time, but you’ll notice it on the road. I got some Arrow pipes for it. I had a good relationship with Arrow after working at Aprilia for so many years. They sound fantastic and give the engine that slightly tinnier sound; that GP-style of noise. Plus they look great and are extremely well crafted. “It just backs up how good those bikes were out of the factory because they were standard things when they were raced – no mods allowed – so it’s a credit to the engineers and how right they got it. I get people asking to buy this bike all the time. They are very sought after and the ones out there for sale, hardly any look stock. There’s either different colours on the tank or fairing, holes drilled for racing; you just can’t be sure about them. So to have one from such an early age and know all of its history, that means a lot to me. It’s been a fantastic bike. I’ll never sell it; it’ll stay with me for life. It’s super quick, excellent on the brakes, and just a phenomenal bike all round – it’s very special.”
LEFT Standard pipes on Dave’s bike. ABOVE In true race/road style, instrumentation is minimal. RIGHT Choke lever on left hand switch.
Broc Parkes, winner of the Australian 250 Production Championship in 1999 with his RS250.
Tool kit lives under the seat. Big stoppers: 298mm discs with four-piston Brembo calipers.
ABOVE Ben Attard hurls his RS250 down the Esses in the Easter Bathurst meeting in 2000.
Alyn Vincent owns this RS 250. “One of the last ones. Still in factory condition with no after-market accessories. 30,000km and two owners. Most definitely a future classic – not many left in original condition. Needless to say the pillion seat is...
Rennie indulges in a spot of street racing on Ben Maike’s RS250.
LEFT Steering damper is an essential piece of equipment. RIGHT Proud owner. Ben Maike with his RS250. INSET Arrow pipes set Ben back about $1500.