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
… 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!”
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: 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.
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: 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.