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Future collectible – Yamaha R6 first generation

Yamaha R6

(MT#334 May 2018, updated July 2020)

Yamaha R6

Take 2 screamer

by Guy 'Guido' Allen

A jet and a standard-setter – the first R6 was the second of a Yamaha one-two knock-out

Picture this: barreling down the main straight at Phillip Island race circuit on the newly-released Yamaha R6 and there are liberally-placed banners reminding you of the launch theme, which is 200hp per litre. We’re talking late 1998, and this was the world launch of the series.

It was the first time in living memory an International maker had taken the risk of launching a major model in this part of the world, and the exercise represented a giant gamble. The biggest was simply most of your guests had to fly longer and further than any human should – remember we’re talking 24-plus-hours for anyone from Europe, 16-plus from the USA – to experience the joys of Yamaha’s latest sports tackle.

Given the western markets were then where the money was, making people who could make or break the reputation of your toy travel so far was brave. But it also underlined it as a major event.
In retrospect, this throw of the dice was a reflection of the ongoing and savage scream for attention in the sports bike race. Sure, there was a heated battle between the big four Japanese makers in the premium litre class, but this was a new tactic – treating the equally close 600 class with the same respect. Or more.

Yamaha R6

You need to remember that we’re talking of a time when the R1 was still new and very fresh on people’s minds. It had very quickly become the litre gang leader. To come in so hard and fast with a new goalpost in the 600 class was clearly aimed to be a one-two knockout. If you wanted a cutting-edge sports bike, you bought Yamaha. And for a little while there, they were right.

So let’s walk back a little – what was the whole 200hp per litre thing about? Yamaha claimed 120 horses for the 600, at 13,000rpm. Do the arithmetic, and that equates to 200 per litre. It begged a question over the more modest output of the R1, but never mind…

Really, Yamaha was saying, this is a new standard in middleweights. The company had a point. Tiny for the contemporary 600 standards, with a much-shortened wheelbase, down from 1415mm in the earlier-gen YZF600 to 1380. Weight had dropped from 189kg dry to 168, and claimed power was up from 100 to 120 horses – albeit with ram-air effect.

The pundits of the day reckoned this was Yamaha’s equivalent of a great leap forward. Its previous Thundercat 600 series had fallen behind in the market. Suzuki’s GSX-R600 and Kawasaki’s ZX-6R were regarded as sharper, while Honda’s CBR600 was the all-rounder. Then, in the space of a year, Yamaha grabbed both the litre and 600 goalposts. It was a pretty big effort.

So what did the job? Really there was nothing wild. By this time the firm had largely given up on being radical in its road bike designs. Bikes like the GTS1000 with its RADD-inspired single-side front end had been dumped, as had the company’s once distinctive five-valve heads in the sports class. We were going conventional, slim and trim.

What it did do, however, was take the conventional and push it another few notches. The idea of having a 13,000rpm max power level was notable, as was the 15,500 redline.

As a package, the R6 was tiny but not punishing to sit on. It had a frame that would have done a litre bike proud a couple of years before, the latest and greatest Monobloc four-spot brakes up front and suspension equal to anything in the market. And it had the corporate ‘angry’ styling in the snout.

The result? At the time, this was very much a supersport motorcycle, so it loved being kept on the boil. High revs, slick changes. It was also an impressive handler. Perfect? As a pure sports motorcycle in its day, close enough.

I have very strong memories of the launch of the R6 and a few post-launch long and quick rides for a couple of magazine features. It was hard to imagine a more capable 600-class motorcycle. Light, quick and accurate steering, great brakes, and lots of power.

Yamaha R6

While the R6’s 120 horse claim remains impressive, it was always peaky – you had to work to shuffle the thing along. These days, I can think of several 600-class motorcycles that would comfortably roast it in most circumstances that require grunt and/or easily-accessible power. That’s not to say the R6 is a dud – far from it. Think of it as a reminder of how quick and cruel the sports bike design world can be.

Looking across the forums and reviews over the years, the R6 shapes up well as a long-term prospect. Its biggest challenge is the finish does not weather well if it’s left outdoors. There was an early issue with the detent spring on first gear, but you’d expect that to be sorted by now.

Though we’re talking less than a couple of decades ago, finding a good example is more likely to come about by word of mouth than ads. The motorcycle market was still doing small numbers at the time, so the volume wasn’t great. And people didn’t value or keep these pocket rockets. Even now, they’re not worth a fortune, so if you find a good original one for $4-5k, grab it. They’re tough in the mechanical department, so some semblance of a service record is good. Cosmetics will be your real challenge.

Where does this one sit in the broader landscape? To me, it’s significant for two reasons. The first is as a companion to the R1. I know collectors are on the hunt for the 1000 and you should add the R6 to the list. Same generation, same thinking and both ended up being international race winners. Peas in a pod.

Number two, I reckon this may come to be regarded as a significant exemplar of modern 600-class sports bike design. It comprehensively broke into what was formerly litre-class performance claims, but you had to ride (and rev) the thing hard to claim your reward. And it responded – it’s one of the all-time great and demanding four-stroke sports rides.


David Bean - Yamaha

Mr Bean’s R6

(1998 interview)

One of the characters at the world launch of the R6 at Phillip Island was Yamaha development rider David Bean (above). His career began with Norton and by 1998 he’d been with Yamaha 21 years.

His mission was to ride and provide feedback on motorcycles from early prototype to final product.

“Primarily my role is testing and testing from prototype stage to production but, because of the nature of the business, I really do have to get involved much earlier at paper design stage because time is important.”

And for the R6?
“I think I got involved just over 18 months ago when it was still at paper stage and they were thinking about clay model.”

What sort of feedback do you provide?
“From riding position – the whole shooting match. Some idea of suspension, handling, whether we all agree if the steering is quick enough. I represent Europe, but really it is a team a team of good Japanese riders, engineers etcetera.”

Is there an art to it?
“If you look at a present-day motorcycle, basically it’s not a functional vehicle. It is a toy – an expensive toy. It’s therefore got to be full of character and emotion and these things are very difficult to measure.”


Yamaha R6

Sharp handling
Lots of power

Hard to find good ones

Yamaha R6 1998


TYPE: Liquid-cooled, four-valves-per-cylinder, inline four


BORE & STROKE: 65.5 x 44.5mm


FUEL SYSTEM: 4 x 37mm Keihin CV

TYPE: Six-speed, constant-mesh, 


FRAME TYPE: Twin-spar aluminium
FRONT SUSPENSION: USD fork, full adjustment, 120mm travel

REAR SUSPENSION: Single shock, full adjustment, 120mm travel
FRONT BRAKE: 298mm disc with twin-piston caliper
REAR BRAKE: 220mm disc with two-piston caliper

DRY/WET WEIGHT: 168/197kg



FRONT: 120/60 ZR-17
REAR: 180/55 ZR-17


POWER: 88kW@ 13,000rpm

TORQUE: 69Nm @ 12,000rpm



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