An Italian fightback and some guts from Norton. Was 88 a vintage year?
The big technical advances of the 1980s, such as liquid-cooling and aluminium frames, were common by ’88 but this was another great year. Japan’s Big Four launched hot new models, Ducati led an Italian fightback, Norton proved the British bike industry still had a pulse and World Superbikes was born.
The original liquid-cooled, eight-valve 851 gave Ducati new life and was one of Bologna’s most important bikes ever. But although Massimo Bordi’s 100bhp V-twin motor was ace, the original 851’s 16-inch wheels gave it curious handling. Bimota’s alloy beam-framed YB4ie was a roadgoing version of the Yamaha FZ750-engined four on which Virginio Ferrari had won the previous year’s Formula One world title. The YB4 and FZR1000-powered YB6 were quick, light and hideously expensive.
New Jap fours were led by Kawasaki’s ZX-10, which improved on the previous GPZ1000RX with an aluminium frame, plus an extra 16 horses that brought the claimed max to 137bhp. Suzuki’s uprated GSX-R750J couldn’t live with the RC30 but was a step forward for the Gixxer, which was joined in Suzuki’s range by a quick and useful GSX600. Honda’s VFR750F sports-tourer was uprated with 17-inch wheels plus an adjustable screen. It worked so well that I ended up buying one.
The year’s most disappointing bike was Suzuki’s GSX1100FJ, which was advertised as “the best two bikes we’ve ever built” but didn’t match up as either a sportster or a tourer. Certainly it was no FJ1200.
Most people assumed the British bike industry had died, so it was a big thrill to leave Norton’s factory in Staffordshire aboard the 588cc, rotary-engined roadster, which proved impressively good to ride. The 79bhp Classic was only built in small numbers but proved the rotary was a fine motor.
A pair of West Coast Americans with contrasting personalities dominated racing in 1988. Eddie Lawson kept things steady to win his third 500cc title for Yamaha. And colourful Flyin’ Fred Merkel won the first ever World Superbike championship aboard the Italian-based Rumi team’s RC30, clinching the title after Bimota’s Davide Tardozzi had crashed on the warm-up lap before the final round in New Zealand. Ducati were a force to be reckoned with from day one but took another couple of years to achieve the kind of all-conquering dominance they’ve enjoyed almost ever since.
Top bike of 1988 was the RC30. The exquisite V4 was in a different league to mass-produced superbikes, and justified its sky-high price. Sadly my own RC experiences were fated. Limping homewards up the A3 with a cooked clutch I was overtaken by an old man on a scooter. And while riding a rapid RC30 in the Bol d’Or 24 hour race, I highsided out of the race in the middle of the night.
A pair of 250cc two-strokes brought revvy power to the people. Kawasaki’s KR-1 was a lean, light race-rep; Yamaha’s TDR250 a sit-up-and-beg hooligan tool that combined ton-plus performance with supermoto styling. Yamaha also introduced the XV535, a cutprice V-twin cruiser that was far less fun but infinitely more successful. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
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