Retro Racers: YAMAHA XJR1300 vs BMW R NINE T

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The latest hipster-pleasing retros are out to prove there’s more to life than posing. 

A click of compression damping on the fully-adjustable forks and a shed-load of preload added to each Öhlins shock, garnished with two clicks of rebound. That’s all it takes to transform the new Yamaha XJR1300 from trendy café racer to a chiselled track tool and faster than it has any right to be. Here we pit it against the BMW R nineT

We never thought of the old XJ1300 as a circuit blaster before, but this new incarnation, with its moody, blacked-out exhaust, swingarm, fork legs and bars has been revived by Yamaha at a time when classic racing is going through something of a renaissance.

Big events like the Island Classic at Phillip Island attract top racers from around the globe, and closer to home the Classic Motorcycle Racing Club has packed UK grids full of loud, fast, scary-looking old machines.

So it’s no surprise that race replica versions of these old bikes are capturing our imagination. 

They might not have 200bhp engines, electronic riding aids, and they’re not very light, either, but the Yamaha and BMW are good, honest fun and surprisingly rapid. 

The XJR1300 and R nineT are a riot of wide, manly handlebars bars, sticky-out engines and spindly tubular steel frames. From the outside it looks like you’re wrestling a dinosaur, but they’re really pussycats to ride fast. Just don’t tell anyone.

But the racetrack is the last place these two were supposed to end up. They’ve been produced to cash-in on the current wave of café racer culture. Everywhere you saw the R nineT last year the name Roland Sands was never far away, meanwhile Yamaha chose to launch the XJR1300 at the uber-hip Deus café in Sydney earlier this year. 

Today we’re not interested in looking cool outside a café, or posing in an open-faced lid and turn-ups. We want to be 1976 AMA champ Reg Pridmore on his BMW R90S. And we want to be Freddie, Eddie or Wayne on their lairy 80s AMA superbikes even more. 

Ironically these two machines aren’t really true race-replicas. There was never an R nineT-shaped race bike, and it was more Kawasaki and Honda, not Yamaha, who raced machines that looked like the XJR1300 in the 80s. Think, instead, of the XJR1300 and
R nineT as rose-tinted epithets of race bikes from a sadly long-gone era.

We’re here at their spiritual home: on track. We want to get the most from each bike at the National circuit at Rockingham and have some fun. So we’ve junked each bike’s sensible sports touring tyres and fitted sticky Bridgestone R10 trackday rubber…which brings me back to the XJR1300. 

It’s easy to underestimate the Yamaha. It’s not and never has been what we’d now call a ‘supernaked’. Weighing a hernia-inducing 240kg it’s not exactly light, and with just 98bhp dribbling out of its inline four-cylinder motor, a KTM 1290 Super Duke R is almost twice as powerful. But none of that matters because once you’ve twiddled with the XJR’s fully adjustable suspension to make it steer faster and settle it under hard braking, acceleration and cornering, it’s a truly wonderful trackbike.

Its lack of power means you’d get crucified down straights by a modern sportsbike, but you get a delicious sense of speed that’s absent on a fully faired machine. And as you’d expect your muscles get a thorough workout, hanging on to the barbell-like handlebars at full speed.

But with a spacious riding position, it’s easy to fling the Yamaha from corner to corner and the suspension keeps everything under control, even with the grip of the Bridgestones trying their best to twist the XJR into submission. It might not be stiff, like a modern sportsbike, but the frame flex gives you the feel to push to the limit quickly.

Lap-by-lap the Yamaha gives you the confidence to let go of the brakes sooner and run more corner speed. It loves the faster corners, and the new four-piston monobloc calipers haul it up smartly for the tight stuff and have loads of feel, bite and power when you use them hard.

The only thing stopping you going faster is ground clearance. Footpegs touch down easily, but if you fitted rearsets as well as sticky tyres the Yamaha would be capable of carrying big corner speed in safety. But we eventually had to stop play when the Yamaha sprung a small oil leak – just like an authentic 80s race bike.

Over on our German retro racer things are a little different. One of the things we love so much about the
R nineT is it manages to mix old style, character and quirkiness with modern performance. There’s a faint, nostalgic whiff of oil when the air-cooled motor is running, the boxer engine rocks from side-to-side when blipping the throttle at a standstill, and the shaft drive pitches and rises on and off the gas. It’s the smaller of the two machines, 18kg lighter and has 12bhp more power and a smidge more torque.

Ultimately it’s not as stable as the Yamaha under really hard acceleration. The back wiggles and weaves, which isn’t a huge problem, it’s just different. But the Beemer has a fantastic front end; 46mm upside down forks are non-adjustable, but are lifted from the S1000RR. They’re well-damped and give you great feel for front grip. Brembo monoblocs come from the latest R series machines like the R1200GS adventure bike and RT tourer. 

Like the Yamaha, your corner speed is limited by how soon the pegs go down, which is an early-warning signal as those protruding cylinder heads will soon to follow. 

But that aside, there’s not much to separate the XJR1300 and R nineT around Rockingham. Where the BMW has better punch on to the straights and has more poise diving into the corners on the brakes, the Yamaha has better stability through the high-speed corners, more ground clearance and a higher revving engine.

With sticky tyres fitted, both our retros have the pace to run decent lap times, so you’d never get swallowed up on a trackday. The Yamaha noses ahead as the fastest, but both will make you smile in a way an R6 simply never could. 


On the road

Away from the track and living life back in the slow lane, our retro racers are now all about style, character and how they make you feel. And it’s here the BMW claws its way back into contention, albeit at a price. It costs £3151 more than the XJR1300.

But you can see where your extra wedge goes. The R nineT is the more modern machine, with its superbike forks and Brembos, plus you get ABS, the maintenance-free Paralever shaft drive system and snazzy anodised rims and hubs, laced with steel spokes.

The BMW is beautifully finished, more involving to ride and goes like stink. And with its husky, off-beat exhaust note it has the more interesting soundtrack, too. 

But although simpler and cheaper, the Yamaha is well-built, smooth, and easy to ride, plus it’s great value for money. But it could do with a shoutier exhaust. Like the BMW, you can get lots of official parts and accessories, including an exhaust, from Yamaha.