The 90’s for Yamaha were a big decade, one in which some of the most remarkable motorcycles in the world came out of the factory, setting trends and raising the stakes across the board.
From the legendary Dragstar cruiser which turned a lot of heads from the domineering American cruisers, to the outrageous R1 and its derivatives.
I’ve gathered some of the best 90s Yamaha motorcycles to have a look at starting with the XJR400.
Race replica motorcycles had taken over the Japanese manufacturers for quite a while and suddenly the market began to sway and naked sports bikes were the new style in demand.
Nostalgia for 70’s style bikes influenced the birth of the XJR series, but Yamaha were meticulous in building a bike in the XJR400 that handled exceptionally. Moreover, riders could chase the red line, exploit the engine in an aggressive manner and enjoy the ‘conventionally’ styled bike with sportbike performance.
While the last of the Japanese marque’s to enter the 400 class with a naked bike, Yamaha wasn’t fazed and took their time. Upon its release following the Suzuki Bandit, Honda CB400 among others the XJR400 stole the thunder from the other bikes and was the birth of a series that captivates an audience to date.
To own one today you are best to look to Japan and have one imported.
Yamaha Dragstar 650
The XVS650 or better known Dragstar 650 (V Star in the US) was powered by a SOHC, air-cooled 649cc V-twin, which pushed out 40 horsepower. The bike wasn’t built to rip your arms off with masses of torque but rather to get you to your destination in comfort and style.
The Dragstar was produced in 1997 to replace the Virago in the Yamaha line-up and its performance was certainly an upgrade as well as packing a lot more style. Big cruiser looks, nimble handling, good mpg, low service costs and great reliability gave some of the Harley’s of the era a run for their money.
While the V Star was somewhat of an entry level cruiser particularly in the US due its 650 capacity, it was wildly popular and today remains so. Good low mileage examples will set riders back on average £3,000 in the UK and $4,500 in the US.
Yamaha Dragstar 1100
While the Dragstar 650 might have been for entry-level cruiser riders the 1998 release of the 1100 was the opposite. It was made available in two different trims, custom and classic, but both powered by a 1,063cc, 4-stroke, SOHC, V-twin.
The engine pumped out 62 horsepower with 85 Nm of torque, so it wasn’t a rocket, but it was certainly a more competent longer range cruiser that had enough power for all situations. The big benefit of the Dragstar was it was lighter than the competition from Harley, which made it more suitable for some riders who struggled with the American iron.
Interestingly the big Dragstar had a reputation for its vibrations at higher speeds which was fairly typical of traditional V-twins. Swept back bars and low rider seat gave the bike a chopper look, amplified by the use of chrome parts on the custom model and bobber rear fender, the classic was more dressed with full fenders etc.
You don’t need to pay much more for the bigger Dragstar with prices around £4,500 and $6,000 in the US. However you look at it that’s still cheaper than the cheapest Harley Davidson’s and the Dragstar is a very good looking cruiser.
To Yamaha directly now, please revive the Dragstar and take on Honda’s new rebel.
Yamaha Royal Star
Before the V Stars (Dragstars) however, in 1996 the Royal Star was introduced which was the first of the Star motorcycles released. While the Dragstars seemed to challenge Harley style wise and the Royal Star took design inspiration from the Indian Motorcycle’s like the Indian Chief.
Lots of chrome, long straight exhaust pipes, big head lamp, bright paint work, and optional windscreens and saddlebags truly leant the bike to being worthy of the ‘Royal’ in its name.
A liquid-cooled, 1294cc, V4 engine powered the Royal Star. Later Tour and Tour Deluxe versions were released.
Like it’s brothers the Royal Star remains popular today and is a solid choice for those looking for a cruiser to do some touring miles on. £6,000 in the UK is where the average price sits and in the US prices seem to range from $4,000-$12,000 depending on model year and trim.
Can we all just take a second to breathe, yes it’s time to discuss the Yamaha R1 and I am excited.
Yamaha 998cc, liquid-cooled, 20-valve, DOHC 4-cylinder engine, super light chassis, which was inspired by the GP bikes bearing a long swingarm, the R1 weighed in at 177kg. A huge 148 horsepower was thrown out by the engine and 108 Nm of torque.
Yamaha’s Exhaust Ultimate Power Valve was used (EXUP) which controlled gas flow to maximise engine production across the entire rev range.
At the time it was the fastest, lightest, most compact, large capacity sportbike ever built and the R1 had set the bar for everything that was to follow in the field. Thanks to it’s compact and lightweight design it was accessible to a host of riders and handled exceptionally well.
The R1 remains in Yamaha’s line-up today and for good reason, it has been a staple feature of World Superbike racing and is as popular with the public today as it was in 1998.
1998 was also the release of the smaller and yet just as fantastic R6. 599cc, 108 horsepower, 74 Nm of torque and a top speed of around 160mph weighing in at 169kg.
The Suzuki GSX-R and Kawasaki’s ZX-6 were the competition for the R6 and while they are fantastic bikes too, the R6 in my opinion had the edge, the intuitive steering and overall handling like the bigger R1 was just brilliant.
The Yamaha R6 was a dominant player in the 600 class on the race track with an abundance of 1st place wins under its belt over the years.
There is a 2009 Black and Gold R6 out there with my name on it, I’m just yet to find it.
Sometimes overlooked, the 1998 Yamaha R7 was the most focused and sophisticated ‘R’ series motorcycle that Yamaha ever built. Only 500 were produced and with the sole intention was to be a serious competitor in the World Superbike Championships.
Liquid-cooled, four-stroke, transverse four-cylinder DOHC, 749cc pushing out 106 horsepower and 72Nm of torque the R7 wasn’t built to play but to race.
Although a street bike with lights the street features pretty much stopped there, it was a production bike to be raced and the whole design spoke that message loud and clear.
Cylinder head parts were machined in the same way used in Formula 1 racing cars for exact precision; titanium valves and nickel plated pistons were used for durability; the main frame had an extra aluminium layer for increased stability and strength; carbon air-box was fitted and a carbon-fibre competition exhaust muffler.
180mph was top speed, the steering was incredibly stable, and cornering control was great so riders were really in tune with the road surface. Ohlins suspension and large twin discs for stopping power really finished the package nicely.
All of that work and in 1999 and 2000 the R7 failed to lift the trophy of the Championship title, the Yamaha World Superbike team was then disbanded and the R7 was nothing but a memory. A tragic end for a bike that was mechanically engineered purely to win races and it ticked all the right boxes.
However, with the launch of the new R7 for 2021 perhaps more people will look back and tell the story of the original R7, because I think it’s one that deserves to be told.
Yamaha YZE 850T
The R7 wasn’t the only time Yamaha had produced a motorcycle for the sole purpose of winning races. The YZE 850T was built following the 750T and the point was to win the toughest race on earth, the Dakar Rally.
Released in 1992 and running until 1998 the YZE 850T is a true success story as the model won the Dakar 6 out of 7 times of taking part in the Rally.
Considered a true enduro bike, the 850cc twin-cylinder means it isn’t the lightest of options out there, but it is certainly a bike that can take you anywhere and do anything.
They are extremely rare to find for sale and in good condition.
Bigger, more powerful, a real brute compared to the XJR400, the XJR1200 had an 1188cc engine, capable of 98 horsepower, 91 Nm of torque and a top speed of 141mph.
The handling was pretty agile which was a surprise given the size of the XJR. The grunt was there and the retro looks; the big complaint which was ironic was that the bike’s power didn’t work with it being a naked bike.
Complaints were made about the wind at high speed. I know it’s not just me, if you ride a naked powerful bike, wind is going to be a problem, until you throw a small fairing on it, so these comments seemed a bit redundant.
The Ohlins suspension was also quite soft so bottoming it out regularly would be quite annoying for some riders.
Regardless of the little niggles, the bigger XJR1200 was a beast, and it was received well. The XJR followers today stand by them and claim it to be among the first real revival of retro bikes. Some builders are using the XJR1200 as a base for cafe racers builds and safe to say they have a lot more muscle going for them than some other base bikes.
This yellow example from 1997 on Motorcycle Finder is going for £3,299 and if you take a look you can’t deny the fact its a cool bike.
Yamaha YZF1000R Thunderace
The 1996 Thunderace was a bit of a hit and miss from Yamaha, seen today as a stop gap or bridge between the FZR and YZF-R1 models. Intended to be cutting edge and top of the line sportbike, the Thunderace thanks to its comfort more than anything got rebranded as a sports tourer and a competent one at that.
The Honda Fireblade was Yamaha’s competition for high performing sportbikes and the Thunderace was meant to annihilate it. However the parts bin from previous FZR’s and YZF750 models was dived into and nothing really revolutionary was thrown at the new bike.
A focus was on comfort and handling with emphasis placed on building a bike that felt stable and handled in corners well enough to instil confidence. This is what led to the Thunderace really being picked up as a sports tourer and it has continued to be revered by riders using the model for that purpose ever since.
£2,000 in the UK or $3,500 in the US will get you a Thunderace today. With power on tap, a comfortable seating position, an ideal budget sports tourer you would enjoy the journey on, especially hunting out those sweeping corners and twisty roads.