Coolest Sportbikes of the ’90s: 1990 Yamaha FZR400

When the Yamaha FZR400 came to the market, there was nothing else like it in the US.

When the Yamaha FZR400 came to the market, there was nothing else like it in the US. (Cycle World Archives/)

Like the GTS1000 showcased earlier, the Yamaha FZR400 is a unicorn because its life as a US model was a scant couple of years. They were hard to come by when they were new as they were getting snatched up by club racers around the country. And for good reason; the thing absolutely slayed the racetrack. After all, it was a racebike that had been adapted to be a production streetbike later on in development.

The FZR400, and the 400cc repli-racer in general, owed its existence to the explosion in popularity of production sportbikes that looked every bit the part of their real-racing cousins. In Japan, the popularity of the All Japan TT-F3 (Formula 3) racing series meant that every Japanese manufacturer was building a 400cc production model alongside the TT-F3 racers.

The problem was that none of these ultracool motorcycles were destined for the States. Bikes like the Honda CBR400RSuzuki GSX-R400and later the Honda VFR400R, Kawasaki ZXR-400R, Honda CBR400RR, and Yamaha FZR400RR SP only existed in Japan, with a few trickling into the European and Canadian markets. The FZR400 was as close as US customers were ever going to get legally without looking to the gray market.

With the replica-racer boom in full effect, the FZR400 like many of its rivals, was born a racer and then adapted for road use.

With the replica-racer boom in full effect, the FZR400 like many of its rivals, was born a racer and then adapted for road use. (Cycle World Archives/)

The littlest FZR was powered by a liquid-cooled inline-four with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, as was its middle sibling the FZR600; bore and stroke measured 56.0 x 40.5mm for 399cc of displacement. When Cycle World first tested a FZR400 in the February 1997 issue, it noted that “[the] engine is the latest member of the ‘Genesis’ family, with cylinders inclined 45 degrees forward and the straightest intake ports in motorcycling.” At the time, the FZR1000, FZ750, and FZR750RR OW-01 used five valves per cylinder, and Yamaha made a big noise about it.

A rider who wanted all 59 of their FZR400’s claimed horsepower had to wring his neck. The motor was a jewel, but it didn’t really start making power until the tach needle swept past 10,000 rpm on its way to a 14,000-rpm readline; peak power was at 12,000.

“But also like a racebike is the performance,” we wrote. “Up to 7,500 rpm, the engine is gutless. Then the first powerband hits, and the FZR pulls well to 10,000. Then the second super-powerband emerges, and the FZR wails hard up to its 14,000-rpm redline—and 1,000 rpm beyond.”

The racing-derived Deltabox twin-spar aluminum frame was the direct product of Yamaha's involvement in the All Japan TT-F3 series.

The racing-derived Deltabox twin-spar aluminum frame was the direct product of Yamaha’s involvement in the All Japan TT-F3 series. (Cycle World Archives/)

So the powerplant was never the star. “The engine technology isn’t the heart of the FZR; the core of this machine is its chassis,” we ourselves said, and we were right. “The frame design is what Yamaha calls ‘Deltabox’: Twin side beams reach down from the steering head to securely lock the swingarm pivot in its place. These beams are fabricated from stamped and welded aluminum sheet, about 0.060-inch thick, and make up the closest thing to a monocoque chassis in production-line motorcycles. Even four years ago, this very frame would have been a welcome addition to a 500cc GP machine.”

When we first got our butts on an FZR400, it was a total revelation in what sportbike handling could be.

When we first got our butts on an FZR400, it was a total revelation in what sportbike handling could be. (Cycle World Archives/)

Wheelbase measured just 55.1 inches, while the rake measurement was a super-steep-for-the-time 24 degrees (one degree steeper than the FZR600), with a scant 3.5 inches of trail (0.2 inch less than the 600). Claimed dry weight was 346 pounds.

“On the road, the FZR is as mechanical and harsh as any racebike,” we said. “Its shifter is short-throw and high-effort; its clutch pull would be considered stiff on a 750, let alone on a 400. The suspension is sprung stiffly and, combined with the short-sidewall radial, transmits every detail of the road surface through the seat. High-frequency vibration courses through the bars and seat.”

But the bike delivered handling that had rarely been experienced at the time. “The FZR’s handling more than matches its racing will. The bike feels like a cross between the quick- and positive-steering FZ600 and the Ducati Paso. This is a machine with exceptional stability that will change direction at its rider’s thought. Leaned over in a corner, it will take a new line instantly, easily; it can be driven anywhere its rider desires. Braking performance is similarly exceptional. A two-finger effort will pick the back wheel off the ground at 60 mph, with no hint of wheel locking, the result of high-leverage brakes and the sticky, ground-gripping front tire.”

Low-profile radial tires were first seen on the Yamaha FZR400;  it created a trend that continues to this day.

Low-profile radial tires were first seen on the Yamaha FZR400; it created a trend that continues to this day. (Cycle World Archives/)

Other chassis features include a pair of twin-piston brake calipers and 298mm discs. Later versions had twin four-piston calipers. Three-spoke cast-aluminum wheels in 17-inch front and 18-inch rear were wrapped in a 110/70-17 and 140/60-18 respectively. One thing that is perhaps almost forgotten: The FZR400 was one of the very first motorcycles in the world to adopt low-profile radial tires, with a sidewall ratio of just 60 percent of the tire’s section width. This also required wider rims than a contemporary 400cc machine would have typically used, but the combination of wide rim and low-profile tire has been the standard on sportbikes ever since.

To wrap it up, we said: “Unfortunately, like a GP racer, the FZR isn’t for everyone. It won’t do anything its rider doesn’t ask, but it will do things he doesn’t realize he has requested. Ride the FZR with a death grip on the bars, or without ease and confidence, and the bike will react to your every hiccup. It is an easy machine to overcontrol, and perhaps should bear the label For Experts Only.”

1990 Yamaha FZR400 Specs

MSRP: $4,400 (1990)
Engine: DOHC, liquid-cooled inline-four; 4 valves/cyl.
Displacement: 399cc
Bore x Stroke: 56.0 x 40.5mm
Compression Ratio: 11.5:1
Transmission/Final Drive: 6-speed/chain
Claimed Horsepower: 59.0 hp @ 12,000 rpm
Claimed Torque: N/A
Fuel System: (4) 32mm Mikuni carburetors
Clutch: Wet, multiplate
Engine Management/Ignition: TCI
Frame: Twin-spar aluminum Deltabox
Front Suspension: 43mm telescopic fork
Rear Suspension: Monoshock
Front Brake: 2-piston calipers, 298mm discs
Rear Brake: 2-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Wheels, Front/Rear: 3-spoke aluminum alloy
Tires, Front/Rear: 110/70-17 / 140/60-18
Rake/Trail: 24.0°/3.5in.
Wheelbase: 55.1 in.
Ground Clearance: N/A
Seat Height: 30.9 in.
Fuel Capacity: 4.8 gal.
Claimed Wet Weight: 410 lbs.

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