have certainly been other 400 cc bikes. Some of these
machines, like the Honda CB400F and CB-1 and Suzuki Bandit
400, have been inline fours; others have been twins and singles,
in both 2- and 4-stroke variants. There have also been
other lightweight sporting machines, such as the Hawk GT with
its twin-beam aluminum frame and single-sided swingarm.
But the FZR400 was the bike that handling junkies, racers,
and road test editors had been clamoring for, and the only
one designed to go directly from the showroom floor to the
racetrack (which most did, cleaning house on everything in
sight). However, when Yamaha served it up at a price
higher than any competing 600 cc machine -- including its
own FZR600 -- it underwhelmed the buying public. And
so it came to pass that what many have called the finest-handling
streetbike ever to come to these shores died a sure, albeit
slow, death. It was three years before the machine faded
from Yamaha's lineup, but before the tiny Fizzer gave its
last gasp, it set the sportbike and clubracing world on its
what did this bike have that caused magazine editors to scramble
for the keys when it was time to head for the canyons, and
serious club racers -- including Kenny Roberts Jr., who cut
his racing teeth on one in 1990 -- to hock everything up to
and including their firstborn to get their hands on one?
In a word, handling. This bike was as close to
a half-liter GP bike in its overall proportions and chassis
dimensions as anything available. Its chassis numbers
set a benchmark which is currently duplicated by every hardcore
sporting machine available, including the Ducati 916, the
GSX-R 600 and 750, the YZF-R1, and the CBR600F4, to name just
a few. But it wasn't just the dimensions and numbers
that set the machine apart, or made it work as well as it
did, and still does. The numbers -- 24 degrees of rake,
3.5 inches of trail, and a wheelbase of 55 inches -- set the
standard for every successful sportbike which has followed
the FZR400 onto the racetrack or street. But the features
that allowed the machine to get the most out that combination
of numbers were just as radical and just as important to the
start things off, Yamaha engineers gave the FZR400 a massive
Deltabox frame. Two enormous, welded box-beam frame
spars were mated to an incredibly stout steering head, which
was gusseted with a thick aluminum plate for extreme rigidity.
The beams terminated at massive aluminum castings which bolted
to the engine, swingarm, and subframe. The general layout
and geometry of this frame reflected a close adherence to
the chassis technology in use on Yamaha's 500cc GP machines,
which were devouring the competition.
use of the short-stroke, high-revving 400 cc Genesis engine
allowed the designers to push the power plant well forward
in the frame. This let them use the space behind the
engine to excellent advantage, as well as place more weight
on the front wheel. The large 4.8 gallon fuel tank is
concealed under the plastic tank cover, and extends deeply
into the space behind the carburetors. This keeps the
weight low and well-centered. The airbox is an enormous
7.7 liters, much larger than the even the 6.5 liter piece
on Honda's new CBR600F4. (As an aside, a large
airbox improves throttle response when the butterflies are
yanked open -- the size of the opening and type of air filter
determines the flow at a steady throttle position.)
frame, which was far stronger and stiffer than needed to cope
with the modest horsepower of the 400 cc engine, was equipped
with the widest wheels ever seen on a sub-1000cc streetbike
up to that time. In fact, the 3.00 x 17 and 4.00 x 18
front and rear hoops on the FZR were a half-inch wider than
those that came on the Honda Hurricane 1000, one of the fastest
machines of its time. The reason for using those massive
wheels was simple, in Yamaha's view: this bike was designed
to corner fast, and corner hard. That's what the huge
wheels and ultra-stiff chassis were all about.
that's still what it's about. And the Yamaha still delivers
because it came with the goods to begin with. The 400
cc engine serves up about 55 rear wheel horsepower in California
trim, with a smooth, manageable dose of respectable midrange
thanks to the EXUP system. Most of the power is concentrated
above 10,000 rpm; to really make time, a good rider will learn
to keep the engine above that mark on the tach, which redlines
at 14,000 rpm. Even today, at 370 pounds dry and about
410 wet, the bike is anathema to larger sportbikes if wielded
by an experienced rider. Keep the cornering speeds high
and the engine on the boil, and as often as not you'll be
running out front on the Fizzer, or at least keeping the big
boys in sight. It's not until brute horsepower comes
into play that the bigger bikes disappear over the horizon.
where the 600 cc solution comes into play. It wasn't
long before powermad racers and street riders learned that
the FZR600 engine was nearly a direct bolt-in to the FZR400
chassis, which was far superior to the heavy, flexy, steel
item with which the FZR600 was burdened. Experienced
racers knew that the FZR400 would let them get away with things
that the 600 would not tolerate, particularly high-speed shenanigans.
The FZR400, if set up properly (which includes tossing the
rear shock in favor of any decent aftermarket item, and sorting
the forks a bit), is very quick handling without the slightest
hint of being twitchy, and it is also rock solid at triple
digit speeds, even at crazy lean angles. The FZR600
just never came close at the racetrack.
number of experienced racers built FZR400 superbikes, for
which Yamaha provided a wide variety of special racing components.
One of the most notable was a machine owned by Jeff Short,
of California's American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM).
The bike was designed to race in the unlimited displacement,
anything-goes Formula 1 category. It had an engine built
from a variety of parts which came from the YZF600, FZR600,
and FZR400 engines. The total displacement was 661 cc,
which produced 112 horsepower at the rear wheel. The
machine weighed in at under 300 pounds in race trim.
Short took an amazing third place, fighting his battle with
1100 cc machines that had been built to the hilt. The
reason for his astonishing performance (aside from his talent
as a racer) was because the essential qualities of the FZR
chassis allowed him to out-maneuver much of his competition.
street riders built 600 cc versions of the FZR400, with varying
degrees of success. Some were butcher jobs, some were
fair, and a few were exceptional. The machine featured
in this article is owned and was built by Jay McDaniel.
It represents one of the best examples of the conversion we
have come across.
biggest problem with this project is providing adequate cooling
for the 600 engine. This problem was solved by using
a Yamaha racing radiator and intercooled oil cooler, features
which are standard equipment on the YZF600 and R1. This
radiator is nearly twice the size of the stock item, and substantially
larger than the 600 piece, which can also be used. The
cooling fan does not fit with the much taller 600 engine,
but with the racing radiator, it's not needed.
ignitor box for the 600 engine must also be used to retain
the proper ignition curve, EXUP control circuit, and limit
on engine speed. On this machine, the ignitor box was
relocated from beneath the seat to a spot under the tail section.
The OEM airbox will not fit, so individual filters were used
on the stock Mikuni carburetors. The EXUP exhaust must
be used if driveability and torque are an issue, which they
were with this street machine. The carb settings were
left alone, other than to bump the main jets up four sizes
to compensate for the drastically increased airflow through
the individual filters and straight-through, 2" diameter
exhaust canister. This creates a slightly rich condition
through the upper midrange with a monster kick on top.
A five-degree static advance key was used, which also increases
peak horsepower and helps deliver crisp throttle response
from idle to redline.
cope with the drastically increased power, a 520 chain conversion
was fitted. The machine is most often shod with Pirelli
MTR01 and MTR02 Dragons, a modern tire with excellent street
and track performance. The fork springs and shock were
replaced with aftermarket items. The forks were carefully
set up to compensate for the additional weight and power of
the 600 engine. Initially, there were problems with
the forks topping out under acceleration and bottoming under
hard braking as compared with the 400 engine. Precise
adjustment of the oil level, along with a heavier oil and
proper preload and ride height settings resolved those problems.
machine has been to several track sessions at both the Streets
of Willow and Willow Springs International Raceway, where
it performed extremely well. Under real-world conditions,
because of the combination of light weight and horsepower,
the machine is able to handily pull away from many middleweight
and even 750-class machines, as well as some 900 and liter-sized
twins. The long-stroke FZR600 mill lets the rider lug
the engine and still get a good drive out of tight turns,
while the nasty kick on top lets the bike out-distance much
newer hardware on the straight stuff.
the road, in the real world, this bike has proven to be an
extremely potent backroad toy. It consistently displays
the amazingly good handling manners for which it was lauded
when it first arrived in the USA; that legendary handling,
coupled with 600 cc power, frequently leaves many riders of
much larger or more hightly-touted sportbikes wondering where
the nitrous bottle is hidden. On a recent weekend ride,
the 600 conversion went head-to-head with the brand new VFR800FI
and BMW R1100S, the flagships of their respective marques.
The venue was Central California's infamous Santa Rosa Creek
Road, a mostly one-lane, tortuous piece of pavement that is
a tight as it is unpredictable. The decision went to
the FZR. Its light weight, terrific brakes, and precise,
confidence-inspiring handling, combined with a gut-wrenching
second gear lunge from Santa Rosa Creek Road's mostly tight
turns gave it the nod. The machine is particularly competent
under hard braking. It has very little tendency to stand
up while trail braking; it is very easy to modulate speed
even while very hard on the brakes because of the stiffness
of the chassis, light weight, and precision of the handling.
Stainless steel lines and aftermarket, high-carbon brake rotors
and Kevlar-carbon pads up front help tremendously in this
area, and are a must for the aggressive rider if the 600 engine
variant of the FZR400/600 conversion has by no means reached
its zenith. The cast iron cylinders of the 600 top end
can be punched out to 630 cc and fitted with high compression
pistons, netting about another ten horsepower on top with
4-5 more foot-pounds of torque. More radical cams can
be fitted, further boosting the engine's power output.
With the cams, 630 cc high compression kit, and Stage 3 jet
kit and pipe, this engine can easily attain 100 rear wheel
horsepower while being extremely streetable (if the EXUP is
retained). The cost of such a project would be far less
than the purchase of new 600; a used FZR400 can be had for
around $2500. A low-mileage 600 engine (and there are
tons of them available) can be purchased for another $1000.
Even figuring another grand for items like brake rotors, pads,
a chain conversion, and odds and ends, the project is still
a lot less cash than any currently available 600. When
it's considered that such a machine will not only be unique,
but will outperform its heavier competition in most real-world
situations, it becomes an attractive option to the motorcycle
enthusiast who likes to have his hands come between him and
every part of his motorcycle. The older machine is also
far cheaper to insure and register.
is the machine many said Yamaha should have built ten years
ago. For various reasons, no marque has done so until
now. For 1999, both Honda and Yamaha will have 600 cc
machines in exactly the same weight category as the FZR400/600.
These bikes, the CBR600F4 and YZF-R6, produce 15-20 more horsepower
than the FZR400/600 conversion, have stouter suspension components,
and better brakes. On the racetrack, they would no doubt
leave the homebuilt hybrid in their collective wake; in the
serpentine canyons of Southern California, where the FZR400's
more slender profile and substantial torque create a modicum
of parity, and where law enforcement and due consideration
of one's mortality are part of the equation, the little Fizzer
may yet hold its own. We're looking forward to the test.
note: All comments, comparisons, and opinions regarding
the handling or performance of evaluated motorcycles are made
with the assumption there is a skilled rider at the controls.
Machinery is no substitute for experience or training.
Copyright 1998 by Dan Axton. All rights reserved.