'90 Yamaha FJ1200
Pashnit Bike Stories
I have a special love for this bike.
At the time, I wanted a sport-bike, a crotch rocket, but I still wanted to travel. A Concours? A ST1100? I didn't have a lot of money. It was my brother who found it. I wasn't really even looking. Hey, an FJ is in the paper.
What's an FJ, I said. He told stories of an old college buddy who had one and how he rode it once, the horsepower was amazing, my brother exclaimed! I had to rummage through our magazine stacks to get a look at one in an old article. Hmm, 1200cc's, big, sportbike, okay, let's go look at it.
My little sister was visiting over Christmas break and the two of us drove over to the next town to take a look at it. The guy pulled the tarp off, (it was sitting outside) and fresh rain drops fell to the ground off the tarp.
It was a '90 Yamaha FJ1200- a sharp looking bike- moon blue w/ blue windscreen. No decals. He tried to start it, and it finally coughed to life. He explained the bike had been sitting for the last two years, and he had acquired it from some guy who owed him money. He had never even ridden it. The paint was new. That usually means somebody crashed it, but I couldn't tell for sure. It ran rough once it sputtered to life. I wanted to ride it. The road was a little wet from the constant rains, but I rode it a few miles an hour up and down the road running it through the gears and revving the motor. Everything sounded okay except it need a carb snyc real bad.
The guy explained they had removed the stock air box & modified it to stage 3 w/ Uni's- four individual foam air cleaners. They had never re-tuned it (something you must do when you go to stage 3). The tires looked as old as the bike, merely cracked rubber with not much tread left. Other than that, it was all stock.
I told him I'd take it. I had ten bucks in my pocket and gave him that as a down payment.
A week later I picked it up, and my brother followed me home. Closely because of the sans taillights. It was about 37 degrees. Yeah, that's cold. Aftermarket mirrors (the originals were $100 apiece used from the dismantler), turn signals, insurance, registration, a tune-up with the race bike guy- Chandelle Motorsports, who also dyno'd the bike for me. I was finally on the road. What a difference horsepower makes!
I had promised myself if I ever bought a sportbike, I would finally give in and buy a full leather riding suit & boots (I wore leather chaps religiously with the Venture). Donnelson Cycles in Missouri shown from the heavens, and with only $300 for the leather jacket and leather riding pants (the least expensive combo in the US), and $210 for the Sidi Sympatex boots, I was in business. The guy that lived above me had an 'ole Bieffe FG9 helmet he didn't need, and I was set
I headed for the Pacific Coast in my new leathers, about a 120 miles away, the first chance I got. The bike took some getting used to, but this was my fourth bike in 4 years and each time, it took me 10K to truly feel comfortable, like peg-scrapping' comfortable. The Venture was a great peg scrapper, so was the GS850, and the only time I scrapped the pegs on the GS450, I crashed. Anyway, owning a 500+ pound bike was nothing new, the difference was the torque.
And the sportbike feel, although the FJ1200 is known for having a seating position that doesn't lean you too far over. A few weeks later, I headed for San Louis Obispo down Highway 1 from Monterey.
As my first sportbike, I was hooked, and couldn't understand why I hadn't bought something like this sooner. I pulled my first willie- by accident- on that trip. I had just put a fresh Avon AM23 on the back- race compound. I really got on the gas, and the front wheel came right off the ground- scared the bejeezers oughta me! Now that's sticky!
All that spring and summer, I went in all directions. To the northern redwood coast to Ferndale and back down Mattole Rd for a little 500 mile jaunt. Salmon Falls Rd, & Scott Rd- it was about this time I discovered the Holy Grail Triad- Sutter Ione Rd, Stony Creek Rd & Pool Station Rd in the central Californian Sierra foothills.
If I had a stressful day at work- I would grab the leathers and head up into the mountains for a quick little one-tank-ride. I discovered Mosquito Ridge Rd practically by accident. I wonder where this goes? More of paradise. Lava Beds, Glass Mountain & the discovery of Old Camp Rd on another weekend jaunt. I never planned any of these trips or did any homework about where I was headed.
I just picked something on the map and left. I would even plan the next leg of my route while standing at intersections as cars whizzed by. I put 5000 miles on the FJ1200 in the first three months of ownership. I actually reached a point where I had ridden every single major road in Northern California. I then started crossing off back roads.
Everywhere I went, I got comments on what a great looking bike. Many wanted to know what type of bike it was. Guys would come up to me in parking lots and launch into monologues of how they used to own an FJ1200, and it was the greatest bike, blah, blah, blah... A strange phenomenon among former bike owners.
I rode non-stop almost every weekend and tried in vain to scrape my knee while riding Hwy 49. Never did get far enough over. I read an article about something called a Back-Off Module and added that to the bike. Plus a Vista Cruise throttle-lock, a must-have. Later, the Corbin solo saddle would prove to be the holy grail of modifications. It changed the entire riding experience.
In the end of August of that first year, I planned to ride across Nevada on Highway 50 - The Loneliest Road in America into Utah to Zion National Park- about 700 miles away- and back in one weekend. A 1400-mile weekend seemed doable. When I told people I knew I was going to take a motorcycle across Nevada and back, most seemed dumb founded. Why would you want to go to Nevada was the common question, there's nothing out there to see.
I actually didn't know what was in Nevada and had only been to the Hoover Dam and Vegas on my first ride across the United States on the GS850L. More than anything, I chose Nevada because I wanted to get away, to escape, to ride to the tallest rock in the land and just stand on it and stare off in to the horizon. That was what motorcycling was about to me. It was also with great zeal I attempted to capture that emotion on film. On Friday, I luckily got out of work early, bungeed my sleeping bag and tripod to the back and took off, making it to Eureka, Nevada in that first afternoon.
Low and behold, The Loneliest Road in America was just that. I had never seen anything like this type of terrain. These wide valleys running north-south and the road running due east. Up down up down in a rather straight line of a period of several hours. I couldn't help but go maybe a few miles an hour over the speed limit. 56 mph I think it was, something like that. Uh-huh. Straights as far as the eye could see and not a soul, just I and the bike. This was the road of my dreams.
It was on this trip that I finally concluded I was sold on the feel of riding a sportbike. I was used to full-fairings. Having the wind in your face all day long was something new. On my Venture, the fairing coverage was so complete, you didn't have any wind in your face at all. After 7 months of sportbike riding, I was completely sold. If you want to get away- this is the place. Bar none.
I made it to Zion National Park that next morning. And spent the afternoon in Koleb Canyon and Zion taking in the sights from the back of the motorcycle. Then circling around the north side of the park on Utah's Hwy 14. This area is rife with national parks. But I was limited on time and headed back west that same day. This endless road thing was beginning to grow on me. How can you not fall in love with the scene in the picture below. Especially you Hayabusa owners. After gassing up in Rachel & the Ale'inn, I stopped near an entrance to Nellis AFB, aka Area 51, on Hwy 6 to grab a picture of a missile.
Moments later, I set off and heard a loud clunk. And instantly the motor sounded different. I rolled to the side to find the cause. Oil was shooting out the front of the motor and I could see the piston moving up and down (the bike was still idling) through a 3-inch hole in the number 2 cylinder. Could you believe it? I couldn't. Maybe it was because I was on the Extraterrestrial Highway that did it. Bits of the engine case were laying in road. I was carrying extra oil merely as a precaution. I never intended to use it. I kept the motor running afraid to shut it off. I pored in the entire quart. Oil was still spewing out of the motor.
I had no idea where I was exactly- but knew the next town was near. What was I going to do, just sit there? I pulled out on to the road- slowly. It was a Sunday morning when I pulled into Tonopah, Nevada 10 miles later. Imagine that you gear heads- I drove the motor at right to the next town. Stupid or Wow!? And at the very first intersection- what do I see across the street- but a Harley dealer. He is open. On a Sunday. At 9AM. Amazing. Long story a little less long- rented U-Haul- loaded bike in back and drove the 400 miles home. Bummer.
To this day I am not exactly sure why this happened. Later, my mechanic while rebuilding the carburetors would surmise that one of the o-rings in the #2 carb had gone bad. This overheated one cylinder or changed the mixture (of gas/air) which contributed to the cylinder wall blowing out. Still another mechanic later would state I had simply over spun the motor. Who knows. I had never heard of anything like this happening to anybody. Growing up, we had blown a lot of motors- go-karts, several snowmobile engines, our Honda Odyssey motor, even several car motors. Am I merely carrying on this legacy with my motorcycles?
What do you do with a FJ1200 motorcycle with a rather large hole in the motor. The local dismantler wanted $2000 for a used motor. He said the Kart racers want them- GSXR motors, FJ1200 motors, and the list goes on. Hard to find stuff. It looked like a dead end. I put an ad on the internet to sell the bike for a couple bucks. That didn't work. Not a single person was interested.
Two months later, as I sank further into a depressive state from not being able to ride- my link with the collectiv... I mean FJ1200, severed. A few days before the International Motorcycle Show- the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca as it were- someone anonymously emailed me saying there was an ad in the San Jose Mercury News for an entire '86 FJ in pieces. What are the odds of that?
I drove the 150 miles to meet Rocko and his garage of motorcycle parts. Mostly dirt bikes for his son. I picked up the entire motorcycle- completely disassembled in boxes- (thankfully they hadn't touched the motor) then headed up into the Bay Area for the Motorcycle Show in San Mateo. It was a triumphant day. To this day, I don't know who sent that email. Where ever you are, I thank you.
Swapping motors entailed a bit of labor. But it was simple as pulling out the '90 motor and bolting in the '86 motor. The motors were exactly the same except for several external pieces which we switched. We discovered the cylinder had also blown out the back of the wall also. Amazing. After quite a few days of work- I hit the starter and the new motor roared to life as blue smoke (from all the oil) poured out of the headers filling the entire garage and adjacent driveway. My brother and I couldn't stop laughing. That childhood glee awakened again within me once more. Just like the day I brought the FJ1200 home. I was live.
We bolted on the mufflers & finished putting the bike back together at 10 in the evening. I grabbed my leathers- suited up and went out on a one tank ride well past midnight in the brisk winter air. Riding is like that sometimes. It was just little me on the road that night. Taking it easy and riding along with the stars.
The bike was back. I rode up into the mountains as far as I could go after fixing an oil leak in the pan. Our only hiccup in switching motors. For a test- I pointed the bike for Mount Hamilton - Lick Observatory above San Jose merely picking the road off the Bay Area map because it looked really curvy. Woe Nelly! What a ride, I didn't even know a road could be that curvy! The new FJ passed the test.
The following spring I headed off to Sears Point Raceway on a Friday to meet other riders at 9AM at the racetrack for a group ride. There were about 12 of us, and we headed north past Napa on Silverado Trail to Petrified Forest Rd to Skaggs Spring Rd. When we hit Skaggs Spring Rd- the road opened up and 4 of us took off. And yeah, we were flying. I felt at the top of my game. We were all cruising along about 60mph through corners and the FJ had never performed better. Riding past Annapolis Rd (a great ride), a CBR600F4 and I pulled away from the pack. He was in the lead. The road through here- if you are not familiar with the Redwoods- can be narrow, questionable pavement quality, many blind corners and numerous elevation changes.
Nearing Highway 1, I came around a tight right-hander, a redwood in the apex, and a little rise in the middle of the corner. I braked hard on the front brake at the same time hitting a bit of gravel, the front tire slid, and the bike low sided onto the right side sliding down the road.
I was thrown into the roadway and went sliding on my belly down the road scrapping up my only months old armored Teknic leather jacket putting an 8-inch scrape on the front- which is there to this day as a constant reminder. It always happens too fast.
Of course lots could have been different. Of course, I could have been going slower. The guy on the F4 had made it smoothly around the corner- why hadn't I- and he was moving even faster than I. An element of chance always surrounds roads like this- or maybe every ride.
We had pulled ahead from the main group so far that I had time to collect myself and pick up the bike lying in the middle of the road. It promptly started right up. I had done little damage except ground off the removable pucks built into the air intakes on the side of the fairing. And of course, some scratches on the muffler.
I had been wearing very lightweight gloves on this warm day. The palm was leather and the tops were fabric- the leather wore right through as I tumbled sliding into first base Ironically, earlier in the ride- one of the riders had a new pair of Teknic armored gloves- the first time I had ever seen something like this- and I was extremely fascinated by them pledging to myself to get a pair. Except of wearing right through the leather on my gloves- not a scratch except an extremely bruised ego. It was my first crash in several years and 50,000 miles of riding. I was so wildly embarrassed from the incident in a group of my peers- I picked the bike up and just kept right on riding catching up to my partner a short while later who was smart enough to notice my sudden absence behind him.
Exploring on a motorcycle is one of the things I enjoy. Finding a road- and seeing where it leads. One evening I was riding the levees of the Sacramento River Delta and decided to see where a road led. If you are not familiar with this part of the Central Valley here in California- it is a maze of levee roads, rivers, and islands. It's not really an island in the conventional sense but rather a field surrounded by levees holding back the river which most of the time is higher than the farmer's field! The road quality can be very questionable though- and today just wasn't my day.
The road I decided to head down led in a big circle essentially going nowhere. Just a field on one side, the river on the other. The road became very potholed and deteriorated. Like it was paved in 1962 and everybody went home. I had plenty of time to steer around the potholes and avoid any large bumps in the road. Unexpectably, a pothole threw itself at me and the front tire hit it so hard, the fork bottomed out as if a gun had gone off.
The clunk could have made a grown man cry. Then the front fork started to get mushy. Mushy? Yeah, mushy. I was losing air in the tire. I made it to the closest town a few miles away of only a few hundred people. There was only one gas station in town, and it was closed. And the air pump was inoperable. The lip of the front rim in one spot looked as though it had been peeled back. I had bent the rim and all the air had leaked right out of the broken bead. Bummer. I was 40 miles from home.
Long story little less long, I rode the whole way home on back roads on the front tire. Didn't think it could be done, huh? The front tire mushroomed but equally on all sides, and with about 5 psi in the tire, I rode home- very, very gingerly. The local frame guy who did motorcycle rims said I was out of luck because I had actually cracked the aluminum bead. The tire would never seal properly. I ended up putting on the 16" front rim from the '86 FJ1200 I had in boxes and put another 10K on the bike that way. The brake disc is a slightly smaller diameter, but it worked. A new rim would cost $200 at least- used. You always break stuff like this when you're broke.
One of the best modifications I did with the bike was Progressive Fork Springs. Unfortunately, I had it installed at a rather inopportune time. After I bent the rim. It solved the bottoming out fork that ironically was rebuilt by a mechanic at Capital Yamaha. I am now convinced he put the wrong weight oil in. The fork would bottom out on really tough bumps or if you grabbed a fistful of front brake. This can't be normal.
It wasn't, and I bet your mothers plum cake the mechanic was smoking something. Finding a good mechanic is like trying to find a good doctor. The Progressive Fork Springs were a dream. The fork never again bottomed out. And hopefully that will be the last rim I ever bend.
I was blessed with having to go to Los Angeles in Southern California on business. For some of my trips I flew, but I rode the bike several times to the bewilderment of my coworkers. Why ride 6 hours when you could be there in 60 minutes. You just don't get it, do you? It was a terrific excuse to take a nice little motorcycle ride. I had always heard talk of Angles Crest, and it was finally my chance to ride this infamous road. I still look back on that ride with a degree of complacency. Like Grandpa on the front porch in his rocking chair remembering weeding those mile long bean rows. A degree of fondness.
I discovered Hwy 33 out of Ventura and road back up through Big Sur. You never tire of Hwy 1. On later trips, I would explore Joshua Tree National Monument, ride Rim of the World above San Bernardino, and the Palms to Pines Highway out of Palm Desert to Banning.
I have always enjoyed rallies, rides, and your archetypal motorcycle gathering. How can you not?
A place where there are other people just as nuts about bikes as you. Sarah and I went to our share during our courtship. We rode to the Pacific Coast two-up, through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and to numerous bike shows.
From the Squaw Valley Classic, to Old Highway 40 Motorcycle Days, to our numerous rides into the surrounding countryside. She loved that feeling of acceleration and speed and wanted her own sport bike.
It culminated with the purchase of a Kawasaki EX500 and her taking the MSF course. I was both elated and proud. Motorcycling had grown to become a part of my very identity. I was amazed at my good fortune to find a mate who too would want to experience motorcycling first hand. In December of that year we rode down to the Motorcycle Show in San Mateo on the FJ1200. I planned to ask my beloved Sarah to marry me.
I carried the engagement ring in the front pocket of my leather riding pants for the entire day waiting for the right moment. I had planned to set up my tripod to take a picture of a yellow Ducati 748 with her on it, then get down on one knee, and propose while the camera caught the expression on her face while I popped the question.
On the second day of the show, we went on a BMW demo ride and I decided this was the moment. She was on a F650 Funduro, I on the wonderful K1200RS. I knew at the turnaround point we would all be stopping, and I thought this would be a perfect time. The whole way out, I was incredibly nervous while riding the motorcycle in our staggered formation. I was going over and over inside my head how I would ask.
My mechanic quoted me at least $500 if I handed him both motors out of the bike ($2000 was quoted if I handed him the bike only!). He could literally put them upside down on the workbench and swap the gearing. Although I would have to buy 1st, 2nd & 3rd gears. Instead, I instead wanted a new bike. I had put 30,000 mile on the FJ in three years.
I bought the ZX-11D and parked the FJ1200. Talk about two entirely different types of bikes!
It took awhile to sell the FJ1200. It finally sold, although the guy wiped it out the very next day. Even after my very stern warning to get used to the horsepower and the heavy feel of the bike while I was signing over the title. Oh well.
You always develop a fondness for a bike over time- that sense that 10, 20 years from now you'll be searching one of these out to relive a chapter in your life. When you can measure the time spent on a bike in tens of thousands of miles, you know you've done some seat time. The hours, the roads, the variety of scenery this bike traveled through continued the precedent of an intense desire and curiosity to see the world around oneself.
It will always remind me of the courtship of my wife and I because of so many shared experiences on this bike. The fun times that take place on this motorcycle- the people that I've ridden with, or ridden two up with, all become part of that collective memory.
Yamaha FJ1200's are great bikes and one of the best buys out there right now. Motorcyclist Magazine (October 2000) named the FJ1200 one of their Steals on Wheels averaging between $2000-$4000. With loads of horsepower, plenty of torque and low price- they're a great entry for someone that wants a sport touring ride with ample horsepower.
Now with the FJR1300 so predominate- it brings on a bit of nostalgia to have the legacy of the FJ1100/FJ1200 carry on. And you may be amazed at the huge following this bike has. I've met many owners and past owners that treat their FJ1200's with a great degree of fondness.
Bikes like this never leave you.