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Yamaha OW-01 turns 30

Published: 21 February 2019

Updated: 20 February 2019

This week thirty years ago, MCN’s then Road Test Editor, Chris Dabbs took a brand-new Yamaha OW-01 for a blast around Donington Park and was blown away by its speed and stability.

At that time, a nineteen-year-old 250 club racer by the name of Michael Neeves couldn’t believe how fast Yamaha OW-01s were on track and idolised riders like Ted Bunton, Graham Marchant and Jason Sear.

Twenty-two years later Michael Neeves had become MCN’s Chief Road Tester and had the opportunity to ride an OW-01 for the first time. So, the question is, with so much new bike technology to compare it to, has the Yamaha stood the test of time?

What Chris Dabbs said in 1989

Chris Dabbs rode the Yamaha OW-01 in 1989

"Roll it in, wind it on and go! If you're lucky enough to get hold of one of the 1000 Yamaha OW-01s on this planet that's all you'll want to do - it's a sportsbike par excellence. But you'll have to move fast if you want one for the road - most of Mitsui's quota of 100-125 £12,700 OW-01s are already spoken for by racers.

"After all, the track is where the OW-01 sprang from - a direct descendant of the 1988 YZF750 of Suzuka Eight Hours fame. Now you can have a fully street legal version (at a price) as Yamaha homologate their race bike to take the Superbike and Formula One crowns from Honda, both won on RC30s in 1988.

"Minimalist Honda latched on to the concept of the pure race replica with the RC30 last year and stole a year's march on the opposition but Yamaha aim to take it a step further with the OW-01.

In action on the Yamaha FZR750R OW-01

"We got some laps on the first runner in the UK at Donington racetrack last week — and it looks like Honda have got a fight on their hands. Yamaha spared nothing when they produced the OW-01, it’s got that strong, clean, minimalist look that normally only comes with handbuilding, and it's totally new. The engine is still five-valve, but it's been completely redesigned.

"Larger valves (up 2mm on the inlet and 1.5mm on the exhaust), shorter stroke titanium conrods and lighter two-ring pistons have pushed the rev limit up to 14,000rpm. While 38mm flatslide carbs (the same size as the FZR1000) pump enough juice to get a whopping 120bhp at 12,000rpm and the EXUP exhaust powervalve system makes sure the grunt is spread across the rev range.

"Unlike the FZR1000, the OW-01's stainless steel EXUP system uses butterfly valves for less weight and stacks the pipes two on two instead of side by side to increase ground clearance. The cylinder angle has been reduced to 40 degrees and the whole engine is more compact and stronger now that it's a stressed member of the frame.

Static on the Yamaha OW-01

"The chassis is lifted straight from the YZF750 racer. A wider Deltabox with a shorter wheelbase and without downtubes fitted combine with grand prix spec suspension for a compact, powerful package.

"The Superbike spec race kit only costs £2100 so Yamaha must think they're almost there already. Swing a leg over the OW-01 and its obvious how small it is, everything's there to meet you meld in to the bike straight away.

"The riding position is more laid back than the RC30 with the tank to support you and less pressure on the bars. It's like last year's GSX-R1100 with the footrests tucked up, and felt fine right away in the pit lane or snatching fourth at 12,000 revs through Coppice a few laps later.

Admiring the Yamaha OW01

"Just like the whole bike in fact. It feels completely neutral at any angle or speed, letting you take liberties with complete confidence. It's almost as if the bike is reassuring you every time you go for a bend: 'Want to avoid that wet patch by running wide here, no problem. Got to cut in tight now to nip past him, certainly.'

"Although the steering is quick with a 24.5 degree rake angle and the weight down to 176kg dry, letting you flick from left to right like a 250, there wasn't a trace of instability on Donington's smooth surface.

"Wherever you wanted to go, it went. Lacking technical data and with at least 23 rebound settings on the rear alone, Mitsui's mechanics set the OW-01's multi-adjustable suspension mid-way front and rear for the test. Even so, it was impossible to find fault with the YZ250 type Öhlins shock and all I might have wanted up front was a bit more preload to cope with the tremendous brakes.

"The twin 320mm discs and Nissin calipers are right up there with the best, in bite and feel. Matched to such a stunning chassis they're hard to beat. A softer pad compound would have made them easier on the hand, but you could brake deep into any bend without upsetting the bike.

A behind the scenes look at the OW-01

"I even outbraked Geoff Johnson into the chicane. OK, so he’s got a broken hip but when he thought about nipping back under me I let the brakes off, something I would never do normally. But the bike felt so right I knew I could get away with it. Sorry Geoff.

"The bikes will be fitted with Michelin Radials as standard but our test bike used Dunlop Sport max radials which were perfect in the conditions, running from dry to damp patches without wavering an inch.

"The engine is so smooth it’s deceptive and forces the rider to recalibrate his brain as it revs to 14,000rpm, instead of 11,000. For road riders there's a spread of usable power from 5000rpm onwards but the large carbs don't work so well down there. But get to 8000rpm and it takes off, outstripping the electronic tacho and your foot on the close-ratio gear box up to 12,000rpm.

On track on the Yamaha OW-01

"But always with a smooth and progressive edge that will take it with the opposition every time. From 12 though it flattens out a lot, but with the air box removed and a race exhaust fitted the OW-01 should pull hard all the way.

"The chequered flag on my second session came out all too soon. This is a bike to enjoy whether on the road or on the track as you sample the rare experience of riding what amounts to a factory racer. If you've got the cash, get one.”

What Michael Neeves said in 2011

Michael Neeves rides a Yamaha OW-01 in 2011

"Yamaha's OW-01 is one of the most evocative motorcycles ever built. It was first shown to a wide-eyed public at the Earls Court motorcycle show in October 1988 and went on to take racing by storm, winning hundreds of races at club level, BSB and WSB.

"It gave Terry Rymer his first World Superbikes win, Rob McElnea a British Superbikes title, Foggy a TT lap record and four-times 500cc champ Eddie Lawson victory in the 1993 Daytona 200. Admittedly it didn't enjoy quite as much success as the Honda RC30 on track or in road racing, but the OW-01 was - and still is - decidedly special.

"The price was a bit special, too. Back in 1989 when the 749cc inline four-cylinder superbike was first produced, along with the first ever FZR600 and FZR1000 EXUP, the OW-01 cost £12,700.

Yamaha OW-01 racebike conversion

"To give you an idea of just how much that was back then, the FZR1000 EXUP was £5899 and the incredible Honda RC30 was eight grand. With just 500 made and 198 sold in the UK between '89 and '91, it was more exclusive than the RC30. Just 88 OW-01s were registered for the road.

"Their presence in the paddock was very special"

"Back when it was winning everything at club level, I'd just started racing as a fresh-faced 19-year-old on a Suzuki RGV250, then a Yamaha FZR600. It was rare to see an OW-01, let alone examples stripped of their beautiful white, red and blue bodywork and replaced with race fairings.

"Their presence in the paddock was very special and the fact that it was known by its factory code name rather than its model name (FZR750R) only added to the allure. Being an anorak, I could quickly identify the similar-looking FZR600 from the FZR1000 EXUP. The 600 had a skinnier frame, swingarm, wheels and bodywork, and it had weedy brakes compared to the 1000.

"But the OW-01 was different again. It was like finding a four-leaf clover - even with race bodywork it was distinctive. It had a tall, boxy aluminium fuel tank, a big squared-off tail section and a wide, chubby-cheeked face. Being used to so little power on my race bikes, I could never get my head around how the OW- 01s could wheelie down the straight at Lydden and Brands Hatch.

"I'm surprised how nicely it handles" - Michael Neeves

"It made those club racers heroes to me and I was in awe of winners like Ted Bunton, Graham Marchant and Jason Sear. Loctite Yamaha OW-01 racers Rymer and McElnea were simply gods in my eyes. I've never even sat on an OW-01 in my life and never thought I'd actually get to ride one until an MCN reader acquired the bike you see in the pictures, which is an ex-race machine converted back into a road bike.

"He agreed to make my dream come true. I had waited 22 years for this day and it didn't disappoint. The OW-01 looks as special now as it did back then. There's loads of lovely touches, from the Öhlins rear shock to the magnesium Nissin front brake calipers, the endurance-style twin-fuel fillers (with one blanked off for the road) and a polished aluminium frame taken from the YZF750R racer of the day.

"A few things give its grand old age away, like the speedo cable, choke lever and reserve switch. The riding position is nothing like that of today's superbikes. You sit low in the seat, the non-folding footpegs are placed high (so much so, I couldn't bend my battered legs enough to get my toes on the pegs) and the bars are a long, flat stretch away. There's none of the 'bum up in the air' stance you get now.

The Yamaha OW-01 has a flat, stretched out riding position

"Blipping the throttle at a standstill gets the engine up to temperature and my heart racing. Click into the super-tall first-gear ratio and we're off. Riding through town the OW-01 is as docile and easy to ride as any Japanese superbike and I'm surprised by how nicely it handles.

"The ride quality is plush and controlled, partly because of its rear Öhlins unit and most probably because the forks must have been reworked when it was raced. Thanks to brand new Dunlop Qualifier rubber, there's lots of grip, it steers beautifully and rolls into corners sweetly.

"It doesn't feel like a 22-year-old bike, in fact it handles better than a lot of modern stuff. The brakes are still as good as anything you'll find on a modern Japanese set-up. Back in the day, road testers marvelled at the OW-01's 13,000rpm redline, although that's nothing by today's standards.

"Yamaha claimed 119bhp back then and this bike actually makes a healthy 110bhp at the rear wheel - that's about the same as a modern 600 supersports machine, but more than the OW-01's successor, the restricted R7 (OW-02).

Yamaha OW-01 on the road

"Like a 600, the OW-01 loves to be screamed through the revs up to the redline, which is where all the power lives, while judicious use of the slick close-ratio gearbox helps you keep the needle buried deep in the red.

"Performance is a lot like an R6, but thanks to the motor's extra cubes and its innovative EXUP exhaust valve, there's more grunt down low. You could comfortably ride the OW-01 at all day at low revs and its far more flexible and pleasant to ride than, say, an MV Agusta F4 750.

"The OW-01 runs a set of 38mm Mikuni carbs, which are a kind of a cross between conventional and flatslide items. There's nothing quite like the smooth throttle response of carbs - it's rich and creamy like vinyl music, rather than the thin and snatchy MP3 response of modern-day fuel injection.

"The late November conditions weren't the best to really ride the OW-01 hard, but I didn't care. It was one of the best rides I've ever had in my life. I love the looks, the power, the ride quality, the steering and the noise. Seeing yourself reflected in a shop window riding an OW-01 is the best sight ever. I'm going to cherish this day and these pictures forever."

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