As has been discussed before, the back lanes of Chipping Ongar in Essex were a great proving ground for a very young 16 year old me and my superb, at the time, Simson S51 sports moped. Glorious days riding around in the seemingly permanent sunshine of the summer of 1989, before the CBT and written tests became law. It really was the case of getting your provisional licence on the day of your sixteenth birthday through the post, sticking a pair of ‘L’ plates onto the front and rear of the bike, trying to understand the correct ratio of two stroke to petrol and away you went in a cloud of blue tinged smoke and excessive wailing from an over revved 50cc powerhouse.
But those halcyon days couldn’t last, after all, there comes a time when 4bhp @5500rpm is just not enough anymore and more power is both desirable and necessary, especially as one approaches the magical seventeenth birthday when . And in June 1990 there were only a few learner legal 125s that the youth of the day would naturally gravitate towards. Ignoring the desirable but completely unobtainable, due to their high price at the time, Aprilia RS125, Gilera GFR125 and Cagiva Mito what were we aspiring speed freaks left to play with?
The decision was a simple one as you either favoured pure road bikes or trail bikes and for both, certainly in Essex, there was only one choice of manufacturer. Yamaha and their superb TZR125, with it’s sporting beam frame and full fairing, or the trail biased DT125, a race replica of a different kind. Perhaps it was different where you lived, but for me and my mates, those three tuning forks resonated at exactly the right frequency. Of course, no discussion regarding early 1990s learner legal 125s is going to be complete without mentioning the other manufacturers offerings.
The more hardcore Kawasaki KMX125 would certainly have been looked at as one of the Yamaha DT125s nearest rivals but unfortunately it is now an extremely rare sight on the roads as there are only around 500 left on the compared to 2000 or so DT125s but that’s the problem when you allow seventeen year olds with little or no mechanical sympathy or ability to ride bikes that will become collectible in the future. From the more sensible side of the tracks we had the Honda MTX125, another trail bike powered by the commonplace water cooled, two stroke single cylinder engine and yet despite Hondas reputation for build quality official figures show that 20 years ago, when MTX production ended, there were nearly 3000 of them on the UK’s roads, but today there are fewer than 200 left in roadworthy form. So the DT125, popular back in the day and still around today, more so than its rivals.
And then we had the race replicas, refugees from the track, full fairings, sizeable rear tyres, beam frames, these were the bikes that you desired if trail bikes just didn’t do it for you. Tales of extreme speed amongst friends, embellished with bravado and the odd white lie meant that these were the bikes upon which reputations were made. First up has got to be the Honda NSR125, a bike that still looks good even today, with later models channeling the spirit of the legendary NR750, but for a seventeen year old, the NSR just looked a bit too safe and dare I say, a little boring, heresy for a race replica.
As previously stated, the Aprilia, Gilera and Cagiva were so unobtainable for the average seventeen year old (without rich parents) that they can be dismissed for the time being although a quick check through back issues of Practical Sportsbikes shows that they are still expensive and still highly desirable. Maybe one day.
All of which brings us full circle and back to the stuff of dreams. Yamaha had the history and race results around 1990 to impress with Wayne Rainey strutting his stuff on the world stage in the heyday of 500 Grand Prix racing. Indeed, 1990 marked the beginning of the Rainey era with the Marlboro Yamaha rider taking 7 wins and scoring points in every race but Hungary after he had already clinched the championship and on the other side of the coin, there was Terry Rymer on the Loctite Yamaha OWO1 winning the 1990 British TT F1 Championship. Yamaha were on it in a big way.
It’s no surprise that this race success translated into sales and with Yamaha already riding high in the minds of Essex youth with their iconic RD series of machines the die had already been cast. The DT125 had been with us since 1968 in one form or another but, in my mind, really came of age with the DT125R of 1989, a bike that looks fantastic. This Yamaha, more than any previous incarnation of the DT, managed to combine the single cylinder, two stroke, reed valve 123cc engine with a full on motocross look developed during the heat of competition. On the mean streets of Chipping Ongar, that racing pedigree meant the world. The fact that the DT could also complete a standing quarter mile in 16.9s also appeared outrageous to our young and impressionable minds. And this wasn’t a bike that was unobtainable or particularly expensive, as there were plenty of secondhand machines plucked from hedgerows or sold by concerned parents to prevent their loved ones from getting back on a motorcycle. What a bike. I desperately wanted one.
But what about the Yamaha TZR125? Back in 1988, If trail bikes weren’t your thing, then Yamaha were more than happy to sell you their version of Wayne Rainey’s Marlboro Grand Prix machine, albeit in learner legal 12bhp form. That’s perhaps stretching the facts a little but the TZR was a full on sports bike and it showed. When coming from a Simson S51, the Yamaha looked amazing. From the full fairing with its traditional Yamaha speed blocks, wide rear tyre, howling exhaust and rumoured near 100mph top speed for the unrestricted edition, watching a TZR125 howl past in a cloud of two stroke was akin to seeing your first R1 howling down Bray Hill in June. Stunning. Even in restricted form, the 12bhp was used well with momentum being the key to riding one hard and fast. Comfort was adequate and like the DT125, cost wasn’t outrageous either as a decent examples were around £1000 at the time.
So what then did I replace my Simson with? Was it the trail bike style and riding experience of the DT or the road and race orientated TZR? Well neither as it happens. My dad found a rather worthy Honda CD125 Benly which he said would be perfect to take my test on. The Honda couldn’t have been further away from the Yamaha’s if it tried.
Where will you go?