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26 Oct 2009 | World's coolest rare bike

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Yamaha's GTS1000 of the early 1990s was a sales flop, though a brave design. In retrospect, it has won some fans and was nominated by Bike magazine in the UK as the world's coolest rare motorcycle. Guy Allen taks about the one he found gathering dust in a shed - engine and chassis number 1!

(pix by Stuart Grant, video by Hugues De Robillard)

But for a stroke of luck, this bike would not exist. Rather than being ridden up a tree, or thrashed into immobility and sent to the tip, this machine ended up under a drop sheet in the corner of a warehouse, unloved and forgotten. Or that’s how the legend goes, as the real story has been lost in the mists of time.

In any case, this GTS1000 sat for many, many years until it was unearthed again last year. I’d heard of its existence, but it was nothing more than unsubstantiated rumour, despite something like a decade of nagging at people who might know.

Fifteen years after it left the factory, I got a phone call. “Y’know that motorcycle you’ve been hassling me about? Come and get it. Now.” So it once again saw the light of day, with a mere 600km on the clock and no keys. It looked good on the trailer, but heaven only knew what monsters lurked under the bodywork. As it turned out, my sense of slight dread was well-founded. There was but one compensation: this GTS was engine and chassis number one.

BOLD INTENTIONS

There’s no question that Yamaha had bold intentions when it first penned the GTS1000. It was to be the corporate techno flagship, with ABS (very unusual in a Japanese model in those days), fuel injection, a catalytic converter and – the real icing on the cake – a version of James Parker’s RADD (Rationally ADvanced Design) front end, combined with a radical and low-slung Omega-shaped main frame.

The front end was developed toward the end of a period when every man and their dog seemed hell-bent on developing an alternative to the fork, which, some engineering purists will assure you, is/was old-hat and not in the least bit clever or even terribly effective. There had to be a better way.

Of course we’d seen the Elf project contesting the world GP series, with Rocket Ron Haslam at the ’bars. It did okay and a version of the centre-hub steered design was trialled on the road by Bimota with its adventurous Tesi.

USA inventor Parker came up with his own variation, running a dual swingarm system, and fitted it to an FZ750 road bike – an exercise called the MC3 that gained enormous world-wide publicity. The claimed advantages included less steered mass, greater rigidity, separation of the steering and suspension forces, and a better
distribution of the latter to the frame.

Yamaha licensed the idea (which it described as hub link steering) and, with Parker as a consultant, turned it into a road-going reality.

Though Parker clearly had sporting ambitions for his design, Yamaha took a more conservative route, developing it with a flagship sportstouring chassis in a machine clearly designed to handle two-up work.

At the time there had also been talk of a voluntary power limit among bike manufacturers of 73.6kW (100hp). It never really held the proverbial water, but was strong enough an idea to encourage Yamaha to detune its premium FZR1000 sports engine (a five-valve-per-pot design) to meet that limit.

Though the new machine was a guaranteed headline-grabber in 1993, the response when it actually hit the market was less enthusiastic. It was not super fast and at 251kg dry was surprisingly big, but most critically it was very, very expensive. Given the market was already leery of the ‘weird’ front end, the price of over $22,600 (plus ORC) was just too steep. This was at a time when a top-flight litre-class sportsbike cost $15,000, while Honda’s 1500 Goldwing was priced at $25,000.

It struggled for traction in most markets and bombed in Australia. The figures are near impossible to find, but the popular wisdom is that about 33 were sold here, while many bikes intended for Oz were diverted elsewhere. (One former trade figure said that GTS came to be known in the trade as shorthand for ‘Gone To Singapore’.)

LET THE DRAMAS BEGIN

So what happens when a new old-stock project bike hits the shed? Getting a set of keys was the big priority, which necessitated removing the upper triple tree complete with the theft-proof ignition barrel and finding a locksmith willing to cut a new set. This turned out to be the easiest and least expensive job in the whole operation.

Then I scored a new battery, tossed some fresh fuel and oil into the appropriate holes and rather optimistically switched it on. The good news was the complex electrics seemed to be in good working order – or most of them. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the size of the beast’s electronic brain – massive compared to today’s kit.

While the GTS would turn over it clearly had no intention of running. And then there was the smell of rotten petrol. So what
happens when you leave unleaded fuel sitting in a complex motorcycle for 15 or so years? It essentially eats everything it can weasel its way into. We ended up having to ditch the fuel tank, the lines, the pump, the injectors – pretty much everything between the filler on the tank and the cylinder head. This is not a job for the faint-hearted, or someone with shallow pockets. I suffer from both afflictions.

It’s a clear warning to anyone storing a bike over the long term: ditch the fuel.

Luckily I had the assistance of the good folk at Stafford Motorcycles, whose Yamaha knowledge turned out to be invaluable. And, bless them, Yamaha Australia had plenty of spares, which it was probably very happy to see sold.

Okay, so the fuel system dramas were disappointing, but they were compensated for by an incredible run of luck with a couple of MT readers. A gent in Sydney turned out to be a former Yamaha staffer who kept some of the original promotional material, including a rare corporate video, and he sent it down with his blessing. Another gent in rural Vic pitched in with a CD loaded with copies of brochures, specs sheets and, most importantly, workshop manuals. Neither wanted recognition or compensation.

The rest of the machine was a remarkably easy fix. New tyres, oil change and filter, a few miscellaneous bits plus a touch-up for some of the panels and it was ready to go. Or was it?

ON THE ROAD

I’ll admit to some trepidation when the workshop fired it up for the first time. Let’s face it, it should run, but there was plenty more capacity for surprise. But nothing untoward reared its ugly head.

I briefly rode the original magazine test bike way back when this thing was first released and remembered walking away with mixed feelings. My relatively brief ride around town had highlighted its bulk, and not a heck of a lot else in the way of virtues.

That being the case, you might wonder why the hell I went to so much trouble to track this one down. Well, it was the techno flagship for its day. Yamaha has often been a courageous maker (for example, the only mainstream maker to so far sell a two-wheel-drive bike) and this was a classic case of the company sticking its neck out. Example number one was definitely collectible.

So, is it a decent ride? It’s an odd experience having to run in a 15-year-old motorcycle, but with a couple of thousand kays under its wheels the thing is turning out to be a treat. What I didn’t get to experience a decade and a half ago is just how uncannily smooth it is on the highway.

The power, though not huge, is more than enough and in the right place – there’s ample midrange. Its ride position is slightly leaned forward, which works when you get up a
reasonable speed, while the suspension and long wheelbase combine to be very comfy.

Downsides? It’s a big, heavy motorcycle, and hardly what I’d call a lithe handler. That said, once you get your head around the fact it likes to be given assertive directions from the handlebars, it tips in nicely and is exceptional in the way it holds a line. Mid-corner bumps have sod-all effect and this is probably the most stable motorcycle I’ve ridden through a curve.

They quickly scored a reputation in the UK for being thirsty, which is the case if you’re up it for the rent. Then again it’s still no match for Hannibal, my hotrod Hayabusa, which regularly returns a mere 8km/lt. Ridden somewhere near the speed limit, the GTS manages 16 to 17km/lt.

This example has the very early seat, which isn’t brilliantly padded – the company quickly changed the material as they hit the showrooms.

Steering is light but slow, while braking is reassuringly good. The built-in anti-dive tendency of the front end results in you getting a slight dip at the snout and a very reassuring attitude as you haul on the anchors. For its size and age, it does very well in this department, with the centrally-mounted single six-piston front disc providing plenty of feel and bite.

While I should arguably leave the monster parked in the shed, given the fact its numero uno of a rare breed, I figure it’s spent enough of its life resting. Besides, they’re meant to be ridden, aren’t they? As it turns out, it’s too good a touring companion to be parked – so Yamaha got that part right.

Given its peculiar history, naming it turned out to be easy. What do you call a bike that shouldn’t exist? Casper, of course…

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WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Could or should the GTS1000 have gone on to greater things, if pricing and market reluctance had not defeated it? Possibly. James Parker, the designer of the front end, comes across as being a touch bitter about how quickly Yamaha backed out of the project.

He obviously had high hopes for his creation, which he felt was a natural for a 2WD format, and he in fact patented such a set-up. Parker has gone on to design a third-generation front, and says he is in discussions with another maker about its use.

One thing we do know, however, is that time has been kind to the reputation of the GTS. There is now a worldwide owners group on the web (www.gtsclub.org) that is still celebrating a remarkable decision by Bike magazine in the UK to name the model as the coolest of rare motorcycles, in December 2006. That’s ahead of exotica such as the Norton F1 rotary.

The rather generous write-up said: “Bold, daring, peerless – Yamaha’s GTS1000 is the embodiment of unconventionality. Shaking off almost a century of tradition, the tourer junked regular telescopic forks for a huge aluminium swingarm working a monoshock, with hub centre steering and a low, arching Omega frame system.

“The Terminator films were still current when the GTS was launched and the single-sided front end had a firm futuristic look to it, blending into the clean, enclosing bodywork to give a glimpse of biking in the future.

“Unfortunately the alien appearance, frankly excessive weight and a steep asking price limited sales – but they don’t matter one iota today.

“This is still ground-breaking and courageous engineering… ride a GTS and you’re on a bike unlike any other you’ll see – with so few sold, the chances of matching T-shirt syndrome are just about nil.

“Scarce and stylish, yet capable and completely useable: that’s cool in our book.”

Specifications

ENGINE

Type: Liquid-cooled, four-stroke, 20-valve, in-line four-cylinder

Bore x stroke: 75.5 x 56mm

Displacement: 1002cc

Compression ratio: 10.8:1

Fuel system: Electronic fuel injection

TRANSMISSION

Type: Five-speed, constant mesh

Final drive: Chain

CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR

Frame type: Omega-shaped main member

Front suspension: Parker swingarm

Rear suspension: Monoshock, adjustable for preload

Front brake: Single 330mm disc with six-piston caliper

Rear brake: Single 282mm disc with twin-piston caliper

DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES

Dry weight: 251kg

Seat height: 795mm

Fuel capacity: 20 litres

PERFORMANCE

Max power: 73.6kW (100hp) at 9000rpm

Max torque: 10.8kg-m at 6500rpm

OTHER STUFF

Price (new): $22,600 plus ORC

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