John Humphreys once told me his definition of freedom was ‘the ability to do what you want with what you have’.
That includes being able to do something for no good reason, other than the fact that you want to.
Like buying one of these:
This is the 1998 Yamaha R1: a 998cc four-cylinder sportsbike.
It cost about $17k when it was first released. It was extremely popular. You don’t see many of them on the roads any more. There’s a good reason for this: almost every one of these bikes wound up at the wreckers not long after they were purchased.
The original R1 was a truly lunatic piece of machinery. It had more power than any bike in its class. It also had quite a bit less weight. The result was a power-to-weight ratio that was simply in another universe from any other road-legal vehicle on two wheels or four. That wouldn’t have been as menacing if the R1 had been given a chassis which could handle the power. It hadn’t. The R1 was as stable as a teenage girl on crack. Giving this bike to your average road rider was like handing a grenade to a toddler: sooner or later, it was going to end badly.
If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, but want some idea of what this bike felt like, then imagine this: you are riding a bicycle down a very steep slope, going very fast. You aren’t wearing any protective gear. You start going around a corner without slowing down. It’s kinda scary, but you’re in control and it’s lots of fun. Then, all of a sudden, somebody jumps out of the bushes and kicks the rear wheel out from underneath you.
Magnify that example to motorcycle speeds, and you’ve now got a good idea of what the R1 was like to ride.
So, we had lots of people buying a bike which cost as much as a decent car, which couldn’t carry stuff, which was hideously uncomfortable, expensive to run and very expensive to insure, and – most notably of all – everyone who bought it knew damn well they were very likely to end up wrapped around a tree.
But dammit, it was gorgeous, it sounded amazing, and best of all, it was so blindingly, terrifyingly fast.
It was a glorious, triumphant finger-in-the-eye to blubbering nanny-statist safety nazis everywhere. Here was a major automotive manufacturer unapologetically selling a product which was wholly unpractical, dangerous to use, and existed for no other reason than to help people to break our road laws, and have lots of fun doing so.
The R1 has left a beautiful legacy: in the nine years since, the ‘hypersports’ class pioneered by the R1 has given us a range of even more powerful and politically incorrect machinery from both Yamaha and the other ‘big three’ Japanese manufacturers, with the Italian manufacturers now also getting in on the act.
So drink a toast dear friends to the Yamaha R1. In our increasingly sanitised and over-regulated world, the R1 remains a stunning monument to human passion, adventure and risk-taking.
The R1: Freedom’s Motorcycle.