COAL: 1987 Yamaha FZ700 – The One-Year Tariff-Beater


As the weather in Northern California turned from the normal “good” to the almost as normal “great”, my thoughts once again turned to two-wheeled transportation.  After a few weeks of perusing Cycle Trader and other similar rags, I looked at a few offerings before finding this 1987 Yamaha FZ700 for sale in the suburb next to mine…

Having previously enjoyed my Suzuki GS450 and Kawasaki GPz550, this was sort of a logical step up the size and performance ladder.  I never planned it that way, but that’s how it worked out.  Anyway, I looked the bike over (nice) and discussed the maintenance program it had enjoyed until now (very satisfactory) with the owner, who then let me take it for a ride. (As an aside, many people will not let a potential buyer ride their motorcycle, especially if it has fragile plastics on it or has any kind of performance potential. That Allstate “Mayhem” motorcycle ad is absolutely accurate… There is just too much that can go wrong.) Nonetheless, I had come prepared, with my jacket and helmet; seeing the motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license and confident I was not some reckless kid, he actually let me ride it.


So, how’d it go?  In a word, Wow!  I knew that going from a 450 to a 550 was a nice jump in power, but hadn’t really comprehended the difference between a 550 and a 700, which is significant.  While most motorcycles are faster than the average car, this was just on a different planet compared with what I was used to.  Massive, instant power, all the time, anytime.  And much nicer than anything else I had been looking at.  So I bought it (of course).


The FZ700 is a bit of an odd duck, being offered only for the 1987 model year.  It was a result of new tariffs on larger-displacement motorcycles that were intended to protect the home team (Harley-Davidson) from foreign invaders.  While the tariff was based on engine displacement alone, perhaps a little forethought should/could have gone into the style of motorcycle affected. It’s not like anyone cross-shops a traditional H-D with a Japanese sportbike, nor was H-D realistically going to compete in that market. Still, the Japanese were now trying to compete on H-D’s turf, which I guess started the problem. 

Prior to 1987, the FZ was a 750.  The engine was reduced to 700cc (actually 697cc) by destroking  the crankshaft; the pistons ended up moving 48mm in the 700 and 51.6mm in the 750 (the 3.6mm difference is just over one-eighth of an inch–funny how such a tiny distance can make such a difference).  In 1987, Yamaha also introduced their vastly more expensive and completely redesigned FZR750, but the tariff-beater was the better value for the casual enthusiast. 


What really made the engine in this bike different than the competition was its five-valve “Genesis” design.  Yamaha used five valves per cylinder (three intake, two exhaust) to try to maximize the amount of air they could pack into the engine by going a step beyond the now commonplace four-valve designs.  This really put Yamaha on the cutting edge of engine design; to date, the only other mass-produced five-valve engines I can think of are the VW-Audi offerings from about 1998 forward.  (I may be wrong on this, I am sure the commentariat will correct me if I missed another obvious example.)

Power was very good, rated at 102 hp (for a 700cc engine in 1987!) at 10,500 rpm, with about 60 ft-lbs of torque at 8,000 rpm.  Redline was at 11,000.  As with most sport bikes, one would frequently take it all the way up to redline and use all of the available power, especially on on-ramps or during passing maneuvers.  The main problem is finding a safe place to use it, as it was extremely easy to get on the wrong side of any legal speed limit without even realizing it.  Reportedly, a quarter-mile could be done in the low-11s (not with me riding, I’m sure).


Styling-wise, these obviously have the full fairing, there’s a good-size windshield and the mirrors are well-placed.  As far as color goes, my color scheme was the somewhat rare blue-and-Pearl White with Yellow striping–these bikes are more often seen in the Yamaha’s traditional red-and-white colors.  I’m not sure if mine was any more subtle in its colors, but it was nice looking.  Funny about motorcycles–like bicycles, there are maybe two color choices in any given year and, every once in a while, maybe three, but usually no more.  We might think that cars don’t offer enough color choices anymore, but motorcycles are much worse in that regard.


With the same steel frame that proved good enough for Eddie Lawson to ride to his win at Daytona the prior year, it obviously wasn’t a bad design, even if it wasn’t as light as an aluminum frame like the FZR’s.  Then again, Eddie also did compare his race bike to a Winnebago! 


By today’s standards, the tires are almost laughably skinny, at 130/80-18 (rear) and 120/80-16 (front).  Brakes were discs, front and rear; interestingly, the same size was used at both ends–two at the front wheel and one at the rear–but it was still very easy to lock up the rear unless your right foot was very attentive.

My brother, who also lived in the Bay Area, had bought his first Honda VFR at around the same time, so we would ride to visit each other and then chat bikes for a while. Sometimes we’d go for a ride together. I lived near Skyline Drive (Hwy 35), a very well-known and fun ride, as well as the scene of more than a fair share of accidents (which is probably why it’s police-riddled). Neither he nor I were irresponsible riders, and we just enjoyed the smooth, flowing style of that road. 


We also rode down to Laguna Seca for the Superbike races.  As with most races, the parking lots are often filled with just as much eye candy as the paddock.  I saw several other examples of my motorcycle in both color schemes, and it was nice to see others enjoying the same thing.  The actual ride down there was not too bad, but neither of us could do it without stopping for gas, and more importantly, stretching our legs.  This bike is not particularly bad for taller people, and the front fairing has some nice molded-in wind deflectors for your hands, but almost any motorcycle (perhaps excepting a Gold Wing, etc.) is not exactly all-day comfortable–which, to be fair, obviously is nowhere near a sport bike’s main design objective–since rider comfort is pretty far down the priority list.  And on hot days, engine heat would pour out from behind the fairing while you were stopped at a light. 


Reliability was first-rate. I never had any issues, but once I did take off some of the fairings, more than anything else just to see what was under there, and things were easy to take apart and put back together.  I ended up keeping it for two summer seasons, and then sold it when were getting ready to buy our first house further out in the suburbs.  I did enjoy it, and found the performance exhilarating. And while I still enjoy looking at sport bikes, I have no burning desire to own one again as transportation.  However, considering the amount of performance and the engineering that goes into them, they’re a phenomenal value–and many of them are rolling pieces of rare art, especially the older ones that are so easy to destroy.  If I had a barn or a large garage, I would probably own several of them just to ogle, tinker with…and very occasionally, ride.