You’ve seen plenty of wonderful motorcycles for sale here on Bike-urious from the fantastic collection of Glenn S over the years – remember his Suzuki SW-1, Honda Spada, Yamaha SRV250, or Yamaha SDR200?
Well, he’s selling a Yamaha RZV500R on Iconic Motorbike Auctions, and he graciously let me take it out for a day before it went up on the block. Let’s continue the “Back in Time” theme that commenced with this BMW K1 review and focus on the five things I learned from my time with this rare only-sold-in-Japan firecracker.
Back In Time Review – 1985 Yamaha RZV500R
Photos by Nathan May
1. Forget the RZ350 – this is the true Kenny Roberts Special.
In 1985, Yamaha Motor USA sold us the RZ350 and affectionately called it the “Kenny Roberts Special“, going as far as having decals of his signature flanking both sides of the headlight on the chin fairing. They lied to us!
King Kenny wasn’t riding a 350, he was on a 500 – specifically the YZR500. So the real Roberts replica was the RD500LC, but we never got that in America due to emissions regulations. However, our friendly neighbors to the north did, and I know of a few Bike-urious readers who ended up sourcing one as gray-market imports from Canada (where it was sold as the RZ500).
Today we’re going to focus on what Yamaha bestowed upon their home market – the RZV500R. Unfortunately, Japan had a rule or two that got in the way…
2. Much like the K1, the RZV was limited by power due to regulations in its home country.
As you may remember from my K1 review, BMW was limited to 100 horsepower in their home market of Germany. Annoyingly, they decided to keep things consistent and only offer the restricted-output engine all around the world. Thankfully, Yamaha had the sense to only restrict the bike where legally required (64 horsepower in Japan) while offering up the full 87 horsepower to Kenny Roberts-wannabees everywhere else in the world.
To make up for the horsepower deficit, the RZV has several upgrades over its rest-of-world (ROW) brethren. The most significant is the hand-welded aluminum frame, which was lighter and stiffer. When combined with the use of aluminum for the clipons, brake lever, and gear shifter, it led to a 20 pound reduction in weight (down to 432).
Was that enough to counteract the weaker motor? Well, no: the loss of 23 ponies was approximately 26% of peak power, while the 20 pound diet saved just 4% of the weight. However, Yamaha only made two changes to reduce the output – a restriction of the inner diameter on the exhaust and some carb jetting. These aren’t too difficult to amend, which means owners could easily
have their cake and eat it, too enjoy the full 87 horsepower along with the weight savings.
We’re not done yet – the RZV had more to show off than some aluminum…
The rightmost gauge on all of the ROW bikes was for coolant temperature, but the “FUN” button allowed Yamaha to double up on functionality when it came to the RZV by switching to fuel level in the same gauge. This is a good thing, because the 499cc has no regards for fuel economy when it’s on the pipe. Nathan and I spent our day with Glenn’s bike filming a video (UPDATE: here it is!), and as such I was spending a lot of time making the engine scream so share what the exhaust sound was like. I almost drained the 5.8 gallon tank in roughly 100 miles (about 17 miles per gallon) and we had to cut our shoot short just to make sure we were able to get to a fuel station. If I had to guess, the RZV would probably return about 30 mpg when ridden normally.
Those sound great in theory, but my experience was that the anti-dive didn’t do much of anything (I’m presumably spoiled by modern bikes) besides kill the front brake feel. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that I had to use the brakes more often than usual, as two-strokes offer very little in the engine braking department.
4. Two strokes = two personalities.
Riding the RZV, as with most two-strokes, is a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde experience. Below 6,000 rpm it’s a dog of a motorcycle that requires clutch slipping, generous twisting of the throttle, and a lot of patience. But above 8,000 rpm, it gets your attention – not because the power hit is brutally overwhelming, but because it seemingly comes out of nowhere. Dancing with the gear shifter properly to keep the revs in the powerband is rewarding, and you’ll feel like King Kenny wondering if Barry Sheene is trying to make a pass in the next corner!
With that said, this bike was less aggressive than I thought it would be. Part of that is due to the 18″ rear wheel, and part of it is due to the weight. Sure, the RZV is 20 pounds lighter than its RD siblings, but it’s still over 430 lbs. Meanwhile, a Suzuki RG500 Gamma (which I have not had the chance to try and would be very curious to compare) has a claimed dry weight of just 340 pounds. Even if you add 30 pounds for fluids, that’s a significant difference.
…but the RZV allows you to relax with a rider triangle that is sport-tourer-esque. It’s way more agreeable than I ever would have guessed, giving off the feel of a street bike that looks sporty, rather than a racebike with lights. Two things prevent me from making a claim of “all-day comfort”: it’s a little cramped as it’s not a large bike, and the vibrations when you’re on the pipe are utterly colossal.
I know that enthusiasts of the day preferred the Gamma, but I wonder which bike has aged better now that time has made both these (relatively) slow – maybe riders would prefer the stability and comfort of the Yamaha? Or maybe that’s a stupid question because the Gamma is still enough of a thriller? Hopefully I’ll be able to report back on that someday, but for now I can state that I was only having fun with the RZV when I was riding it aggressively, and that isn’t sustainable unless it’s just a Sunday morning toy (and if you have a friend following you in a fuel tanker).
5. Speedblocks aren’t everything.
Perhaps Yamaha Motor USA didn’t lie to us – is it possible that the RZ350 (I haven’t ridden one of those either) was a better Kenny Roberts replica because it was more of a sportbike? I’m not trying to say the RZV is a BarcaLounger – obviously you can still hustle it, it just takes some effort. But the RZV500R will always be cooler than the RZ350 and even the RD500LC, because of the country-specific parts as well as the rarity: just 1,600 RZV’s were ever built.
If you’ve been following Bike-urious for a while, you know that I’m emotionally invested in old survivors (and I sometimes let nostalgia color my judgment), and this RZV really tickles my fancy from that standpoint. It’s such a great time machine back to the 80s, and riding it gives you a vibe of the times “when men were men” and traction control was just your right wrist.
I’m honored that I got a chance to ride a RZV (thanks again, Glenn!), and it passes my does-it-feel-special test, but I don’t know if I’d ever open up my wallet up for one in the future. These bikes aren’t cheap, and if I was going to invest in a 80s 500cc 2-stroke then I think the Suzuki RG500 Gamma would be the way to go because from what I’ve heard it’s just more visceral and that’s what I want from this category of bike (ask me again when I finally get to ride one). That might be why we’ve seen RZVs go for about $15k while the RGs are closer to $25k over on the auction site. I’d only be riding a machine like this on special occasions, and for that I’d want the extra insanity of the Suzuki.
But hey, motorcycling is different for everyone, and I could see why someone else would prefer the Yamaha – it’s gorgeous, it’s rare, and it’s surprisingly comfortable while still providing that legendary 2-stroke kick. If this RZV500R appeals to you, I should note that it’s currently for sale on Iconic Motorbike Auctions (disclosure: Bike-urious is a partner in IMA) so you can snag it and experience all the joy for yourself!
UPDATE: Our video with the RZV500R and R1M is now live!