A Regular Ben Hur!

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Having mentioned, in last month’s MOTOR SPORT, a few of the competitive machines at the TT races, it seemed appropriate to road test one or two of the road-going versions of those motorcycles. Some test dates were soon arranged and since it was a Yamaha that was available first, it was to Chessington that I made my way in early September, to collect their FZR 600.

It was a rather tuned up version of this machine that propelled one Mr Reid to victory in this year’s Supersport 600 TT race at an average speed of about 113 mph, and so it was with mixed emotions that I disembarked from the train, helmet in hand at Chessington North; would I survive the journey home? Would I be able to keep its 90 bhp in some semblance of order? I was also slightly worried about the gear-change: my own motorcycle is a 750 Laverda with the good old left-hand foot brake, right-hand gear-change. The Yamaha is the other way around. There were other differences too: my Laverda has its red line two-thirds of the way around its Japanese tachometer at 6500 rpm. The red line on the Yamaha was up in Formula One territory at 11,500 rpm. Being quite a merciful person, the idea of deliberately turning an engine over at those speeds struck me as verging on the sadistic. However, lurking behind all these feelings of nervous anticipation was an overwhelming desire to get on the bike and simply see how fast it would go.

I had a look around the bike as the engine warmed up, but the fairing was such that one couldn’t really see the heart of the machine. Throbbing silently away behind that wall of fibreglass was a 599cc four-stroke engine; a liquid cooled unit with double overhead camshafts, and four valves per cylinder. This parallel four-cylinder engine sits transversely across the frame, which is of box section high tensile steel, and is based on the Yamaha YZR Grand Prix frames. The engine is angled forward to lower the centre of gravity, and optimise the front/rear weight distribution. This also allows space for the Mikuni carburettors nestled between the widest part of the oval shaped chassis. The exhaust is a four into one free-flow affair and is pulse tuned. The front suspension consists of rigid 38mm forks, the rear is a double-sided swing-arm of steel box section, with a single adjustable shock absorber and damper. The brakes are twin 298mm discs and four pot calipers at the front and a single 245mm disc at the rear. Add all that to the rear-set foot rests and low handle bars, and this is clearly a purposeful machine.

Climbing aboard I hastily acquainted myself with the controls, before knocking it into first gear, and reving up the engine to move off. A slight blip on the accelerator saw 5000 rpm on the tachometer, such was the free-reving nature of the engine, and it took one or two attempts before I got the whole operation sorted out. Even then it was noticeable how unwilling the bike was to be trundled along at apathetic town driving speeds. From the very start it felt as though I was on a highly strung thoroughbred that really needed to be shown some wide open sweeping bends in the Scottish Highlands or better still a race track, but certainly not the rush hour crowded roads of South London.

Keeping the engine below 5000 rpm in those congested conditions still provided ample overtaking urge, but was perhaps a mistake: my superficial impression after the first quarter of an hour was that the engine was not that smooth, nor was the machine quite as fast as I had expected.

That, however, was before I saw my first open straight, and over 7000 rpm on the tachometer; now nothing will ever be quite the same again. My innocence has vanished. I thought that Formula Ford’s were quick, I though that a Ferrari GTO was quick, I even enjoyed the warp drive special effects in Star Trek, but nothing had quite prepared me for the absolutely staggering surge of acceleration from 7000 rpm all the way through to peak power at 10,500 rpm. The hair dryer whine of the four-cylinder engine turned to a glorious roar of power and speed as the bike hurled itself toward the horizon in a crescendo of frenzied enthusiasm. At these sorts of speeds the gear-change started to make sense as well, the long clonky throw of low speed changes turning to delicate and lightning fast knocks through the gearbox. The ratios are very closely spaced, some of the changes making a difference of only three or four hundred rpm, and there are six gears. For the car driver used to yawning gaps in the gearbox it is quite easy to lose track of what gear one is in. Top gear is some 13 mph per 1000 rpm, but it is the fact that the machine revs so highly, and that the engine doesn’t really come on song until 6000 rpm that makes this bike fairly inappropriate as a town machine; the engine isn’t really happy until you are exceeding the urban speed limit in first or second gear or the national speed limit in third. Conversely the top speed is not incredibly high although 130-140 mph is fast enough for anyone with a brain between their ears. The excitement in this bike is that it is an utterly uncompromising sportster with ratios and power calculated to give real high-speed capability at speeds that are at least theoretically possible on an uncrowded good quality country road.

The handling is an easy match for the power and was just as much a revelation, the ease with which the machine could be leant into corners and flicked from side to side being particularly impressive. But not quite as impressive as the actual angle of lean that was possible. The tucked away exhaust and neatly sculpted fairing offered some indication of the capabilities of this box section chassis. Even then, despite what I hoped was some pretty racy cornering the very edges of the tyres remained relatively unscathed. In four-wheeled terms this bike most closely equates with a taut and precise single-seater, it having none of the slop found in even the best saloons and hatchbacks.

The whole of the machine has its raison d’etre in speed; be it the straight line performance, the superb brakes, the seating position, or the handling capability. To the car driver it offers a mixture of despair and hope. Despair because there is very little on four wheels that, at speeds of below 80 mph at least, cannot be overtaken with consummate ease. Hope because it costs less to buy an FZR600 than it does a Mini. CSRW.

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