Memorable Motorcycle: Yamaha OW01

November 17, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Yamaha OW01
The 749cc four-cylinder Yamaha OW01 was capable of more than 100 hp in stock condition, making it an ideal race bike.

This story arrives at a very timely moment in the debate about the future of World Superbike, and particularly the costs of participation. In 1989 anyone with $6899 could purchase the core of a competitive World Superbike contender. Add a factory race kit, coupled with a few skilled mechanics and a talented rider, and you stood a credible chance of finishing on the podium in a World Superbike race.

This is exactly what happened with Padgetts – the iconic motorcycle dealer now famed for their incredible success at the Isle of Man TT races. Clive Padgett, who was a Yamaha dealer, purchased a brand new OW01 from Yamaha, prepared the bike meticulously with a race kit which was freely available and, with Brit Rob McElnea in the saddle, finished third- and fourth-place in the Hungarian round of that year’s World Superbike Championship.

Can you imagine a dealer – even one as talented as Padgetts – buying an over-the-counter road bike and being competitive in today’s World Superbike paddock? Twenty-two years ago, however, things were much different and WSB was very much a race series for production motorcycles. 

Yamaha had a very fine Superbike in the FZR750R. The design featured a revolutionary five-valve cylinder head and cleverly placed the alternator behind the inclined cylinder block, which kept the motor extremely narrow for its day. A six-speed gearbox meant that the engine could be kept absolutely on the boil and placed the bike right in the ball park for conversion to a race machine. Making over 100 hp in road trim, the FZ was right up there with the fastest sport bikes of its day.

Yamaha OW01
Despite only weighing 412 pounds the OW01 requires muscle through corners and needs to be ridden hard.

As good as the FZ was the OW01 took the game to a different level. The alloy Delta box beam frame was developed from the FZR but was thinner, lighter and reportedly of much better material than other road bikes. The front suspension, with 43mm fork legs, was upgraded with a full range of adjustment. The rear was even more improved with a full spec Ohlin race unit that featured a remote hydraulic pre-load adjuster.

As a lovely piece of motorcycling memorabilia, our test bike still has Rob McElnea’s name engraved on the shock adjuster body when Ohlin customized it in its original world championship days. Up front 320mm discs, complete with four-pad magnesium callipers, provide genuine race quality stopping power.

If the chassis was good, the 749cc four-cylinder motor was outstanding. Yamaha retained the 20 valve (three inlet and two exhaust) layout of the FZR motor, but refined it with titanium connecting rods, two lightweight pistons, EXUP butterfly valves in the exhaust and a close ratio, six-speed gearbox. Feeding the engine were 38mm flat side Mikunis.

A road bike engine this most definitely was not!

Despite the EXUP valve to aid mid-range power, riders were expected to keep the OW01 above 9,000 rpm, and a whopping 119 hp was available at 14,000 rpm. The bike was littered with titanium and carbon fiber parts and weighed in, complete with road equipment, at a very competitive 412 pounds plus fuel and oil.

With a factory race kit thrown in all this was available to the aspiring OW01 racer for an eye-watering $12,000. Despite its high specification no one at Yamaha expected the bike to be raced in standard form.

Yamaha OW01
Ergonomics felt strained for our contributor at first, but once on the track the design proved roomy compared to other race bikes.
Yamaha OW01

“It was a lovely piece straight out of the box – really beautiful,” said Clive Padgett. “But we had to fit the factory race kit to it to be competitive. There were special race pistons, a different camshaft and electrics, a full race exhaust and a set of factory carbs. Not a lot really, because the standard bike was so good. We also went straight to the maximum oversized piston, which the regulations allowed. Finally, we restricted the airbox so that the bike pulled more cleanly at medium rpm.”

At the time of beginning this story the bike belonged to Jim Blomley – one of the world’s great classic motorcycle racing enthusiasts. Jim cracked up the OW01 outside his van in the Spa paddock whilst his brother Steve and I stood round like two love struck teenagers, listening to the harsh – almost crude – snarl of the barely silenced four-cylinder engine. For sure, this was not a road bike with a few cosmetic tweaks.

The opportunity to ride a World Superbike that finished on the podium doesn’t come along very often, and I was desperate to get in the saddle. Two things struck me immediately, and they both came from the same source. The riding position is a full on racing crouch. This must have been utter agony on the road, and just the thought of taking this much weight on the wrists whilst pottering through towns at legal speeds was painful.

By the same token, the moment the OW01 hits the track the ergonomics are perfect. Being derived from a road bike, there is a vast amount of room by racing standards and it must have been a dream to ride in long World Superbike races.

I never would have known the motor was 22-years-old. The rev counter needle flicked round the dial as if the engine was factory fresh, and the close ratio gears popped in effortlessly with left-hand side, ‘down for up’ race pattern shift.

Jim was encouraging me to ride the bike flat out, but I changed gears conservatively at 12,000 rpm – rather than the 14,000 rpm of its heyday. This might have been a cautious approach, but no one thanks you for bringing back a valuable race bike with a large hole in the crankcase!

We were very grateful to Bikers Classics for allowing us to run the OW01 at their nostalgic event. The Spa Francorchamps’ circuit is the best race track in the world, being wide, grippy and with a huge range of climbs and descents. In fact, it’s a true GP circuit and very much the natural home for this world championship bike. Jim’s OW01 had not been on a track for a while, so the first job was to scrub the dirty rubber off the tires. Once clean, we had some

Yamaha OW01
Few OW01s remain available in mint condition today as most have suffered accidents at the track.

real fun.

Despite Yamaha’s best efforts at making the bike lighter, the OW01 is still a big motorcycle and needs a lot of muscling through corners. It’s not so much that it’s difficult to ride, but rather that one is very aware that it won’t ride itself.

Like all thoroughbreds the harder I rode it the better the OW01 became. Towards the end of the session I was starting to push through corners, using plenty of counter steer and, when ridden like this, the big Yam was beautifully balanced and begging for more. Truly, a bike I wanted to race.

The rest of the package was just as good. Despite my self-imposed rpm limit, the bike flew up to what Jim estimated was in excess of 150 mph. This estimate was probably correct because the Yamaha left the late classic race bikes in my class for dead.

The brakes were also good. Requiring no more than a gentle squeeze, the Nissins scrubbed off speed effortlessly and contributed to the overall feel that this was a bike that could be a delight to race.

Good as the OW01 was it did not dominate WSBK – winning just 16 races in three years. Yamaha had designed the bike to bend the rules to the breaking point, while Honda stretched them even further with their RC30, as did Ducati.

Now to the present day. The first problem for any aspiring OW01 owner is that the majority of the bikes ended up on track, and a lot of these became close friends with gravel traps. Of the 196 examples sold in Britain between 1988 and 1991, only 88 were registered for the road. A smattering of the unregistered ones became collectors’ exhibits, but really nice examples are few and far between.

There are still a few zero-mile OW01 bikes around, but these are now tremendously expensive. One I know for sale is priced at around $75,000.

Yamaha OW01
Ultimately the OW01 offers superbike level performance but fails to match the potential of other designs like Honda’s RC30. 

This made my caution with Jim’s bike all the more sensible because, as I pulled alongside his van and cut the engine, he beamed and told me that while I had been out on track an Australian collector had concluded a deal to the buy the bike. Informing the new owner that his pride and joy was upside down in the gravel would not have been an experience I would have welcomed.

If you don’t have a spare $75,000 is an OW01 still worth having? The answer is ambivalent and predicated on what you want to do with it. There are more desirable homologation specials than the OW01, and also bikes which have won more races. As an investment for the future, an OW01 is better than the stock market or government bonds, but it isn’t in the same league as a Honda RC30.

There are also many better sport bikes from the era if you fancy a 1000-mile trip to see a MotoGP or WSBK round.

Ironically, these factors combine to make the Yam a real hidden gem. Worn but useable OW01s are always available for under $15,000. While this is not exactly bargain basement, I can’t think of another bike from the era which is a better value for the money – and certainly worth aching wrists, a sore back, clattering EXUP valves and oil blowing past the two ring pistons.

Our thanks to Jim Blomley of JB Racing for the loan of the OW01 and to Clive Padgett of Padgett’s Motorcycles for his help with the background information on this bike.