Bikes You Should Know: 1987 Yamaha FZR1000

FZR_1000_Genesis__(2LA)_87-88_2 Bikes You Should Know appears weekly as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Hooniverse primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column focuses on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.

If you want to know where the modern sport bike era started, it was 1987, with the bike on which you are currently gazing. Period. The FZR1000 was the first machine to possess all the basic pieces of the modern sportbike architecture we still see on showroom floors today. Motor vehicle development is evolutionary, and most parts of the configuration had been tried here and there, but the big FZR was the first to assemble them all and hang them on a truly modern motorcycle frame. Oh, what a mighty, gorgeous, remarkable frame.


Throughout the 1960s, production motorcycles and factory Grand Prix roadracers had very little in common. Factory works racers were expected to be hand-built, clean-sheet designs, roadracing motorcycles from the ground up. Then, in the 1970s, the development of production street bikes and factory racers began to converge. Motorcycle roadracing classes based on production machines became increasingly professional, first with the American Motorcyclist Association’s 1000 cc (later 750 cc) Superbike class in the United States, then worldwide with the advent of the World Superbike Championship. Manufacturers’ R&D departments saw the migration to production-based racing classes as a means of reining in the spiraling cost of fielding a Grand Prix racing team, and marketing departments could more easily sell on Monday what had raced on Sunday when there was a direct, identifiable link between what they put on the track and what they put on dealers’ show floors. Two-strokes went away and the Superbike classes became the premier battleground where factory teams duked it out for supremacy. The first bike for sale to the public that approached a true street-legal, mass-produced replica of a works race bike was the 1985 Suzuki GSX-R750. It was radical for its time, but its spec sheet now seems noticeably antiquated. It had a square-tube aluminum frame, but the tubes were still fairly skinny and mimicked the layout of older double-cradle steel frames. The GSXR-750 engine was not water-cooled, relying instead on a hybrid design of extensive oil cooling and thin, narrow-pitch cooling fins to deal with engine temperatures. Think of the GSXR as the evolutionary link between the standard street bikes of the 1970s and the crotch rockets of the last quarter century. That same year, Yamaha introduced their own FZ750; its more advanced engine pointed the way forward, for the first time combining water cooling and a downdraft intake tract that moved the airbox from its traditional place under the seat to above then engine, under the fuel tank. Furthermore, the FZ’s frame was among the first to wrap the upper frame tubes around the side of the engine, rather than over the top of it. But the FZ frame was made of mild steel, and though square, the tubing was not much larger than tradition had long dictated. Furthermore, the FZ’s 16-inch front wheel was part of a passing fad, and was among the last of that diameter seen on a serious sport bike.


When the FZR1000 was introduced in 1987, it had a larger, more powerful derivative of the FZ750’s engine, with all the up-to-date technological specs of the original. But what set it (and the 200 FZR750R homologation specials that were also produced that year) apart was the first-ever production aluminum spar frame, which Yamaha christened “Delta-Box” in marketing speak. [Okay, it was not quite the first. The smaller FZR400 had shown up in limited numbers the year before, but while it was a competent 400 cc club racer, it was not the sort of large-bore flagship most people bought for street use.] Unlike previous aluminum frames, the spar frame was a total break from past paradigms rooted in steel-tube construction. The centerpiece of the the FZR’s frame were thin-wall aluminum spars that were positively gigantic in cross-section compared to anything that had come before. They ran nearly straight back from the steering head to just above the swingarm pivot, where they terminated as integral triangles which seemed equally huge. The whole arrangement tied the front and rear suspension and engine together more rigidly than would have seemed possible previously, and yet was significantly lighter. The front wheel also grew to the now-standard 17″ diameter. It’s unusual 5-valve cylinder head was a technological dead end, but for the most part, Yamaha had accurately predicted the future of racing motorcycles.


The FZR1000 was hellaciously fast, and it handled well. But it was how it went about achieving those levels of performance that makes it important. Here, for the first time, we had an aluminum spar frame, a downdraft intake, water cooling, and a 17-inch front wheel. Take a close look at nearly any late-model race replica you find out on the street, and tell me what you find.

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