Liquid-cooled multi-valve engines. Some bikes even had aluminium frames. Yes, it was 1989
The last year of the Eighties highlighted just how quickly motorcycles had advanced. The top bikes of ‘89 had liquid-cooled, multi-valve engines and high-tech chassis, some with aluminium frames and multi-adjustable suspension. They weren’t far removed from the superbikes of today and were a million miles from the air-cooled, twin-shock brutes with which the decade had begun
It was spine-tingling to stand near the finish line of the new Phillip Island circuit and hear the roar of the crowd as local hero Wayne Gardner crossed the line to win the first Australian 500cc Grand Prix, after a four-way battle that must go down as one of the all-time great races. But not being Australian did rather take the edge off my fun.
The season’s best moment came closer to home a few months later, at Donington’s Redgate corner. Having just duffed up Gardner, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey in quick succession, some bloke called Mackenzie outbraked Kevin Schwantz into Redgate to lead the British GP, generating football-style jubilation on the terraces.
Schwantz got him back half a lap later, and Niall just missed the podium after his Marlboro Yam had run low on gas near the end, but if British motorcycle racing has had a better moment since I must have missed it. “I couldn’t say that getting in front was that exciting, I was concentrating so hard,” said Mackenzie.
Amid all the hot new bikes, arguably the two outstanding machines of ‘89 were revamps of existing models. Yamaha’s FZR1000 EXUP had a bigger, 1,002cc engine and slicker gearbox as well as the midrange-boosting EXUP exhaust valve, plus a sharper, beam-framed chassis. Great bike, although stangely my most vivid memory of its launch at Laguna Seca was of lapping in a hire-car in an attempt to dry the track.
Equally ace was Ducati’s 851, which had been launched a year before but was comprehensively updated with more power, revised chassis and red bodywork. Biggest change was from 16- to 17-inch wheels, which dramatically improved handling.
Prize for most dramatic styling went to BMWís K1 four, whose ultra-aerodynamic bodywork was designed to compensate for the fact that its 987cc, 16-valve engine was cramped by BMWís self-imposed 100bhp limit. The K1 was a huge, heavy bus. But having borrowed one from Munich and ridden over the Alps into Italy and back, I had to admit I liked it.
Much better value were a couple of Japanese fours, Kawasaki’s ZXR750 and Yamaha’s FZR600. The Kwack was heavy, harshly suspended and only made 105bhp, but was unbeatable for style. The FZR600 was Yam’s first liquid-cooled middleweight sportster, and handled sweetly despite its steel frame and basic suspension.
British racing got a massive boost with the success of Norton’s rotary. So what if rival teams claimed the 135bhp Norton’s capacity should be rated higher than the 588cc that allowed it to blast past the 750cc fours? The British bike spat flames from its exhaust and sounded sensational.
Yamaha’s FZR750R, better known as the OW-01 was built to rival Honda’s RC30. It was trick but cost more than twice as much as its big brother, the FZR1000 EXUP. At the launch at Donington the OW was super-fast and handled beautifully, but my most vivid memory is of Yamaha’s racer Nick Jefferies pushing one back to the pits with a hole in its crankcases.
At least it went round corners, which is more than can be said for Suzuki’s GSX-R1100K. Revamped with a bigger, 1,127cc engine and shorter, racier chassis the big GSX-R was crazily fast but handled like a pogo-stick.
Seems strange to recall it now, but the World Superbike championship almost folded in only its second year, due to financial trouble. It was rescued by Italian businessman Maurizio Flammini. Californian Flyin’ Fred Merkel won his second title, riding a purple Honda RC30. A young Brit called Carl Fogarty showed his potential by riding an RC30 to the Formula One world title. Steve Hislop was the star of the TT with a hat-trick of wins. Tragically Phil Mellor and Steve Henshaw were killed.
Become a fan of Visordown
Follow us on twitter
Other Immediate Media Sites
Our eCommerce Platform
© Immediate Media Company Ltd 2012. This website is owned and published by Immediate Media Company Limited. www.immediatemedia.co.uk