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Bike Profile - Posted Monday 16th January 2012

Yamaha TR1
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Keith Bennett was looking for classic bike which combined Japanese reliability with the personality of an old Brit. He thinks he's found it...

Way back in the dim and distant past - well, 1980, anyway, the world of motorcycling had never had it so good. Or so it seemed on the surface. We saw power levels soaring, flat-out performance becoming increasingly ballistic and, finally, signs that handling and braking were starting to enter the design briefs of those inscrutable Japanese. The race to produce the fastest, biggest and maddest superbike had just been pretty much won by Suzuki with their GSX1100, which made use of a half-decent chassis and a 16-valve powerhouse motor to become the fastest, and probably most useable UJM ever seen. The game didn't really move on again until the new wave of sportsbikes with watercooling, beam frames and rising-rate suspension arrived.

Until then, though, we had the UJM. Universal Japanese Motorcycle. Across the frame four cylinder engine, twin shocks, increasing complexity and mass, less home serviceability and fuel consumption that was getting more and more like that of a car.

During this time of marching technology, though, there were a good few who felt that the major manufacturers were losing the plot somewhat in their multi-cylindered arms race. They wanted something simpler and lighter, something they could service themselves, something that would return a few more miles to the ever-more-expensive gallon, a bike with some of the 'old values' - a long production life and plenty of useable low-down torque with less emphasis on top-end power.

'We don't need all this top speed, outright performance malarkey with all the extra weight and complexity, that's the American market you're pandering to', we said. 'Give us a nice simple bike!'

'Be careful what you wish for', the old saying goes.

Tailpiece at rear shows this is a later model... Yamaha TR1 - Yamaha publicity material

Mitsui, the European Yamaha importers, were listening to the feedback they were getting. In 1981, they gave us what we'd asked for. Enter the one litre TR1 and its smaller cousin, the XV750. They both sported a 75-degree V-twin, mounted longitudinally (well, transversely really - Guzzis are longitudinal - it's all about the crank... Let's say fore-and-aft) and a stressed member almost non-existent frame, a la Vincent. One completely uninteresting feature of the Yamaha V-twins was that the engines ran 'backwards', allegedly in order to feed the vibration into the back of the frame. Probably codswallop. I believe it had rather more to do with eliminating a shaft from the gearbox, keeping the wheelbase to a manageable length.

The John-Mockett styled TR1 was the European style 'sports tourer', with a slightly lean-forward riding position and tank and side panel styling somewhat reminiscent of the RD250 and 350LCs, whereas its smaller sibling was in the 'US Custom' mould, with high 'pull-back' handlebars and a stepped seat. The 750 was expected to do well in the states, whilst the litre bike was the one intended for European consumption.

Keith's bike, hiding behind something grey, yesterday... Yamaha TR1

Logically, the TR1 should have sold like hot cakes: it was just what we'd been asking for - loads of low-down torque, a comfy riding position and masses of day-to-day practicality, with reasonable weight and a low centre of gravity to make it easy and undemanding to handle. There was also a fully enclosed chain drive as opposed to the XV750's shaft.

It was quite cheap, too. Unfortunately the TR1 was also initially burdened with rather dodgy styling. It looked like the designers got as far back as the middle of the dualseat and said 'Oh, that'll do, let's leave the rest to the production line....' There was no tailpiece - just an alloy grabrail with a strange little built-in rack - far too small to actually carry anything.

Yamaha made much of their brand-new cantilever rear suspension - the first time on a four-stroke - never mind that Vincent HRD had used a very similar design starting way back in the 1930s. In fact, the TR1 could be said to be quite close in layout to the classic Stevenage twins. It shared a few characteristics, in that the barrels appeared loosely based on that of the SR500 single (They weren't; they were a new design which just looked similar), 'doubled up', just like the popular legend which has Phil Irving, Philip Vincent's friend and chief designer, accidentally overlaying two drawings of the 500cc single cylinder Comet engine to come up with the V-twin. It's debatable whether it actually happened that way, but it's a good story!

The TR1 also, unusually for a Japanese machine, had a vertically split crankcase, just like the old British bikes. There was virtually no frame in the conventional sense, the bike instead relying on a pressed steel spine, which bolted onto the top of the engine to support the headstock, shock and swinging arm.

They also unfortunately saddled it with another 'first' - the first modern era 'hugger' rear mudguard. It looked like it had been added on at the last minute with no attempt to integrate it with the look of the rest of the bike. The overall result was a bike that looked ungainly at the rear, which was never going to help sales. Kawasaki made a similar blunder with their GT range of shaft driven Zeds, but in their case it was far less hideous, just a bit boring, and they sold fairly well, albeit mostly to despatch riders.

Early TR1 road tests were favourable: for once, a Japanese manufacturer had listened to what we non-Yanks wanted... So it was natural that nobody bought one. Yamaha did improve the rear end styling immeasurably with a tailpiece and conventional mudguard from, I think, 1982, which tidied up the visual balance nicely, but the damage was done. We talked a lot about not needing bikes that could top 150mph, but the lure of the numbers proved too much, and the poor old TR1 was left behind in the renewed rush for starship levels of performance.

XV Yamahas on Right Now......

The perfect bike for me, then. I've never been keen on the tingling vibes and frantic, revvy feel of a four and the maintenance demands of an old Brit might well overtax my limited abilities in the workshop. The same applies to most of the Italian stuff I like. So the TR1 was the one. I'm currently on my third TR1. My impressions have always been of a friendly all-rounder. Smooth, effortless, roomy; I've found that a good TR1 will cruise on the motorway at around the ton, blast the A-roads like a thoroughbred (of its day - you wouldn't expect it to compete with a modern sportsbike), then potter down little single-track lanes like an M21 or a Panther sloper.

Keith's bike in all it's glory, yesterday... Yamaha TR1

High-ish speeds on the motorway aren't the problem you'd expect with no fairing, as the seat places the rider quite low and you sit 'in' the bike, with the clocks fairly high in front of you, so there's less windblast than you might think. Being a V-twin, it feels relaxed. A four always feels busy to me; as though there should be another gear, but a V-twin feels like it's turning over at lower revs than it's actually spinning at, which I like. It's not turbine smooth - there's always a feeling like someone's juggling with big heavy lumps of metal down there - but it's never uncomfortable.

My current example has a German BSM exhaust, which looks stock but sounds a bit rortier and seems to liberate a few more donkeys - it certainly pulls harder than either of my previous ones. It always starts on the button, although if it's been standing outside for a few weeks it tends to fire on one pot at first. The second gets jealous after a few seconds and fires with a deafening bang, but as I said, this only happens after it's stood for a while. On the subject of bangs, there is often a good flurry of pops and bangs on the overrun and at tickover, but to me that's the old (ish) girl chatting to me. How many post-80 Jap bikes would you say that about? The chap I bought her from is, unlike me, a competent mechanic, and he says the original exhaust was probably designed the way it was to prevent such character from manifesting itself.

The handling is helped by the low centre of gravity (Ok, students of physics, 'mass', then, if it makes you feel better...) and it turns in well for such a long bike and feels surprisingly 'chuckable' and confidence-inspiring. It does like to hold a line, but will change direction without a fuss. The whole plot certainly stays in shape much better than pretty much any of the large UJMs it would have shared showroom space with in the early eighties. The gearbox is miles better than any Harley or contemporary BMW - the TR1's real target market - and covering distance is never a chore. I'm a pretty big bloke - 6'1, and broad with it, and I've found the TR1 to be the comfiest bike I've owned. I just wish the mirror stems were longer so I could see more of the road behind and less of my arms and shoulders.

OK, it's not going to break any lap records at Donington or Cadwell Park, but that's not what this big softy's about. Part of the fun is to be found in utterly destroying the ego of the occasional spotty chav in his small French hatchback with its improbably huge spoilers and the trans-Siberian pipeline exhaust, without appearing to have made any effort at all. Which I won't have. I have embarrassed riders of much sportier, more modern bikes just by riding on the torque, wafting away in a high gear while they're tap-dancing on their gear levers, but mostly this is a bike for folks who don't need to scream from the rooftops about how fast they are - it's quick enough to be fun, sharp enough not to be scary when you are having fun, and cheap and easy to maintain.

It's all the bike I need. I also like that so many bikers and ex-bikers keep coming up to me and saying 'Nice bike - what is it?' Or 'I don't remember that model!' Or my favourite; 'Now that sounds like a real bike!' You can do a lot of shows, toy runs and egg runs without ever seeing another one, so if you're an individual who'd rather not have to look at number plates in a bike park in order to identify your machine, the TR1's made for you!

Click to embiggen... Yamaha TR1 - Period technical brochure sheet

If you want one, there were a few problems with rusting exhausts (the rear pipe exits the cylinder, then splits into two, and as it's out of sight, Yamaha saw no reason to chrome it), starter clutches - for which there is a fix; and head gaskets on the earlier models - fixed on later ones. The only trouble is finding one... If you're looking, be careful - you don't want to step in the rocking horse manure you'll probably find first! They're not what you'd call numerous. As I said at the beginning, no-one bought them, so that long production life didn't materialise - or did it?

Well, the 981cc V-twin did go on. It lost a handful of horses, gained a shaft drive (shame, that enclosed chain really is good) and a whole lot of glitzy gold bits and became the basis for the XV1000 and 1100 Virago cruisers and the basic engine design reappeared more recently in the BT1100 Bulldog, so Yamaha did eventually get their money's worth! (By the way, the BT1100 weighs more and has less power than the original TR1 - and that power has to find its way to the road through a less efficient shaft drive - better not tell anyone who's shelled out a few thousand quid for one, eh?)

Yamaha have even recycled the name on another, slightly more sporty, litre bike in recent years too - they've simply dropped the 'T'... Their little joke, perhaps?

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