The bikes that made the end of the last century the zenith for sportsbike riders
Practical Sportsbikes scientists have measured it and it’s a fact: 1998 was the single best year to be a motorcyclist since motorcycling was invented. Ladies and gentlemen, we present the evidence...
We didn’t need to read the tea leaves to see it coming. Even before the pilgrimage to Birmingham’s bike show at the NEC in November 1997 we were anticipating more stunning new bikes in one calendar year than ever before, thanks to an unusually large number of teasing ‘spy’ shots in magazines. It’s not hard to remember just how thrilling 20 years ago was.
By the time THEYZF-R1 was revealed at the Milan Show in October 1997 complete with dry ice, a laser display and Scott Russell dressed uncomfortably like a spaceman, the full spec was revealed and included details of a radically compact engine design making a claimed 150bhp in a package weighing 177kg. Finally, here was AYZF that could end six years of ’Blade dominance.
We could guess what 150bhp would feel like becauseyamaha claimed 145bhp for the Thunderace.and we knew what 177kg felt like because that was what a Kawasaki ZXR400 weighed. But the match was truly magical.
“It was the bike to have,” says Ps-reader Ian Mcclelland. “I went to the local dealer for a test ride and they had a used one already in, two months old, with 650 miles on the clock.turns out the guy took it back because it was too much for him. So I took the dealer’s demo bike out and got 300 yards before I went back and said, ‘Where do I sign?’ It was that good.”
It later turned out the R1 had been on the drawing board ofyamaha’s engineering genius Kunihiko Miwa since late 1994 – which, as it happens, is also the same year anaprilia engineer called Mariano Fioravanzo was wrapping his brain around a 60-degreev-twin rival to Ducati’s 916. Unlike the R1, Fioravanzo’s design was announced in 1996 but production delays meant it finally popped up in testing photos in August 1997, and was fully revealed at Milan alongside the show-stealingyamaha. The polished ally frame looked like it came from an RS250, and the bright red Brembo calipers nicked off Postman Pat.
Butyamaha weren’t only about the R1 in 1998 – almost as important to them was the FZS600 Fazer. It presaged a new generation of middleweight roadsters that weren’t, for want of a better word, crap. Over at Flitwick Motorcycles in Bedfordshire, a young salesman called Jason Fuller appreciated its charm: “I was there when the R1 came out, but while I was running-in the shop demo Fazer 600 I thought, ‘I gotta have one of these.’ I sold that bike to a big chap, but he got it home and dropped it on his driveway; his mum rang and said, ‘Come and take it back.’ So suddenly I had a delivery mileage, damaged Fazer 600 at a price I could afford!
“I remember doing everything on that bike. Nowadays you have so many commitments you can’t get away, but back then the Fazer did it all. what it offered in terms of riding experience, for the money, was incredible. My mates were on Thundercats and CBR600S and I turned up on something that looked like it might have had a shopping basket on the front – but it popped wheelies better than they did, and it handled too.”
Meanwhile on the green side a C1 model of the ZX-9R promised to undo the heavyweight muddle of the ZX-9R B and rival the R1 with a stripped-down, toned-up, 183kg, 140bhp spec of its own.alongside it sat a second-generation ZX-6RG, bringing the chassis tweaks, weight loss and power delivery refinements a couple of years’ development over the original always does.
Honda’s fourth-gen Fireblade looked unimpressive compared to the R1 and ZX-9R on paper, but it was the lightest and most powerful 900RR yet – and added to the Cbr60-0f-based CB600 Hornet and the fuel-injected, Rc45-influencedvfr800fi, it suggested Honda could be playing the smart 1998 new bike card.
Certainly PS reader Ian Bigg thought so. Now 55, in 1998 he was a fireman in his
“I TOOK THE DEALER’S DEMO BIKE OUT AND GOT 300 YARDS BEFORE I WENT BACK AND SAID, ‘WHERE DO I SIGN?’ IT WAS THAT GOOD”
mid-30s with a brand newvfr800fi. But he didn’t exactly buy it: “I’d had AVFR750 for about three weeks; I parked it up in Paddington where I was seeing a young lady, we went to a restaurant, I saw the bike every time I looked up, and then it wasn’t there.” Ian thus proved bike theft was as alive and kicking 20 years ago as it is now. “The insurance company said they’d replace it with a new one but, by then, that meant the VFR800. Initially I wanted another 750; but it turned out the 800 was amazing.”
So why was 1998 so good? “There was a revolution instead of an evolution,” says Ian. “It seemed that in 1998 bikes just worked exactly as they should – there was no more compromising. Bikes seemed to take a quantum leap forward; everything gelled.”
Unless, perhaps, you were Suzuki. For 1998 the already seismic SRAD 750 went to fuel injection and was still turning heads: Ed Elliott was in his mid-20s in 1998 and bought an injected 750 SRAD over his 1996
’Blade. “A mate had the 1996W-T on carbs, and when it went to fuel injection I just fancied one.the ’90s were just fantastic and by 1998 there was so much going on.the bikes were individual; a lot of modern stuff is quite samey.”
But when it came to Hamamatsuv-twins, 1998 wasn’t quite as settled: the rampant TL1000S got a beam frame, sportsbike window dressing and an upgraded motor turning it into the distinctive 197kg, 130bhp TL1000R. PS reader Mervwarrilow, a sprightly young man in his 30s in 1998, bought Suzuki’s ill-fated race rep: “I had a 916 when it first came out, then I got a Fireblade, had it Dynojetted, a can, etc... then I part-exed it for ATL1000R – and it was the worst bike I ever had. It was pants. Soulless, slow, sluggish handling, it just was not the barmy TL1000S with a fairing. I swapped it for another 916.”
And Ducati weren’t snoozing either; a new 900SS with fuel injection turned up, but the big news was the 916 SPS – a horny race-homologation 916, bored out to 996cc wearing Öhlins at the back and fancy Showas at the front, and making a claimed (and unlikely) 135bhp.at £18,400, hardly anyone bought one – but, as ever at Ducati, there was a sub-plot: the 996cc motor meant Carl Fogarty could use it to fight for the 1998World Superbike title.
It’s easy to assume 1998 was such a great year because it was all about the hardware. But there were plenty of other factors that coalesced to form a perfect storm of motorcycling perfection.
Culturally 1997’s general election swept away the post-war establishment and ushered in a fresh, youthful vitality. Creatively, our music and art scene revelled in the brash, proud confidence of Britpop and pickled sharks. Many of us felt rich enough to buy the bikes that mattered.
Life on the road was OK too. Most Gatsos faced forwards and we had a pretty good mind map of where they all were.and if we got pulled the chances were that staring at our boots and muttering apologies would get us a ticking-off instead of three points. Vfr800-owning Ian Bigg remembers it well: “You could go M25,A3, down to Boxhill at warpspeed knowing damn well you weren’t going to get nicked by a speed camera.and you could get away with stuff.
“GO AT WARPSPEED KNOWING YOU WEREN’T GOING TO GET NICKED BY A SPEED CAMERA. YOU COULD GET AWAY WITH STUFF”
Today you don’t even know till you get home and there’s a brown envelope you can’t argue with.”
There was less traffic back then too. “If you went out on a Sunday, you didn’t see that many cars and certainly on country roads you could crack on,” says 750 Srad-riding Ed Elliott. “Nowadays you’re just overtaking all the time.”
Stats show traffic density has increased nearly 20 per cent in the last 20 years – with a staggering 71 per cent increase in vans. Rurala road and B roads have both seen a 25 per cent increase in traffic (interestingly, so has the number of miles travelled by bike, up 21 per cent. On a gruesome note, for reference, 468 bikers lost their lives in 1998 compared to 365 in 2015).
In 1998 new bikes were relatively affordable; the 1997 boom in parallel imports – when a few enterprising dealers realised there was nothing to stop them importing new bikes directly from Europe and under-cutting official UK dealer prices thanks to a favourable exchange rate – eventually, and painfully, forced the UK bike industry to re-align itself and keep the price of new bikes relatively depressed.and a lot were being sold: Suzuki punted over 1000 SRAD 750s, while Honda’s CBR600 was doing almost 3000 bikes a year.the Fireblade and ZX-6R sold over 2000 units each – eventriumph were selling over 1000 T595 Daytonas. By today’s standards it was a heady time; the only bike shifting in the thousands every year in the UK currently is BMW’S R1200GS.
The good news back then continued: not only were bikes more affordable; our time was more affordable too – in 1998 the average new bike buyer was in their mid-20s to mid-30s.we were in the prime of biking life financially, with no family to support beyond the partner we’d shacked-up with in a rented flat, and no requirement on our time or responsibility other than turning up to work on time at least partially dressed. Lawns didn’t need to be mowed, kids shipped around, shopping done – all we had to do after finishing work every evening was go ride our bikes.tim Stewart: “I was 24, my bike was my only transport; I’d ride it to work, ride it home, then go straight out and ride another couple of hundred miles with my mates. Nowadays I don’t get a free evening, let alone a free weekend.”
And when you consider that more than 200,000 people turned up at the doors of the NEC for the 1998 bike show, to welcome the 1999Yamahayzf-r6, Suzuki’s Hayabusa and SV650, and Honda’s SP-1, it was (and still is) the highest UK bike show attendance.the burgers, it has to be said, were still ’98-spec mechanicallyrecovered eyebrow and sphincter. Maybe that’s the final proof we need: 1998 was by that yardstick, measurably, the best biking year ever (but don’t tell anyone it was the sixth wettest year since 1910).
An oven-ready Scott Russell clearly loving every minute of the R1 launch panto
Don’t forget just how decent a bike the top value Fazer was too
Yamaha have a regular habit of dropping bombshells on bike buyers
It’s Tom riding a Fowlers. He’s well into it. Just look
The least succesful Ducati rival of all time
Many tried to ace the Duke – all met with failure
The late John Robinson uses science to prove what a hound the TL1000R is
Iall well and good in a wind tunnel, not so hot on the road Inailed to the floor (as if anyone’s going to nick it)