They tell us a picture is worth a thousand words, but that picture can only share a fraction of a second of the full story, and usually only the final result.
Within the realms of modified cars and custom bikes, the best build stories – the ones were can relate to the most – happened long ago. These tales are often interwoven with the blood, the sweat and long hours required to finish the project.
When this Yamaha R1 project was pitched as a potential story, I asked to see some specs. The reply I got was “Well, it’s pretty much all standard,”. So why the hell would Australian motorcycle journalist and bike builder Mark Boxer be so excited about a stock bike, I thought?
And then he dropped the bombshell that somehow he with the help of some good mates had managed to shoehorn the latest parts, tech, and even wiring of a 2018 Yamaha R1 into an original 1998 R1 chassis.
Given that Mark has over two decades’ experience writing, shooting and living the automotive magazine scene, and also able to offer a genuine first-hand account of the process, I can’t think of a better way to showcase this achievement than to hand the keyboard over to Mr. Boxer.
Take it away, Mark.
The Builder & The Plan
Mark Boxer: Having been around the auto magazine game for some time, I’ve never considered myself to be a journalist or anyone of real industry importance. Like everybody else, I’m just an enthusiast who occasionally fills a page with ramblings of my thoughts and other stuff. If people like it, then happy days.
I’m also one of those guys always bursting at the seams with those zany ideas. Ideas that, yeah, some people could think are stupid. Despite the opinions of others, in your own mind it’s an idea that’s easy to acheive, with a clear view of the result in your mind’s eye. Welcome to my brain.
This is something I deal with on a daily basis, and whilst I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just that if I ever had the opportunity to actually build all of these wonderful bikes and cars that exist in my head, I’d probably need another seven lifetimes to get them all done.
But let’s focus on just one of these wild ideas. Let’s take a look at my latest creation and what makes it different. Well, it’s a 1998 Yamaha R1, one of the most iconic sports bikes of the modern era. It’s also one of the very first generation of R1s, making it 20 years old now. It was built in May 1998 to be exact.
The difference with this particular bike though is that every single mechanical component has been removed and replaced with the corresponding one from a brand new current model 2018 R1. This is also the case with electronics. Essentially the bike is what is known as retrotech; it retains its original retro look, but is fitted with all new technology.
Was it a simple and straightforward job? Hell no. Would I do it again? Hell yes!
Since I’m writing this story myself, I’m not about to talk myself up like I’m some superhero bike builder. The simple fact is I’m a mechanic by trade; I love messing around with bikes and I’m an optimist with a bit of a ‘never say never’ attitude. I’m also lucky to have some really good friends around me who helped to get things done.
Without going into too much detail, the project itself is not my own bike but one I was commissioned to build. I was approached to build some bikes to promote certain brands and products brought in by a large motorcycle accessories company, and me being me, I decided to pitch a crazy idea their way.
To be brutally honest I wasn’t sure what they’d say, but it was worth a shot and amazingly after some discussion with their optimistic team and some crunching of numbers, I was given the go ahead. Originally I’d been wanting to do this idea with a Honda Fireblade to mark its 25th anniversary last year, but it wasn’t an option financially for me at the time. Although having been privileged enough to spend some time with Guy Martin last year who was riding for Honda, he thought the idea was “ace”. So with 2018 not far away, the R1 was the perfect option. Maybe I’ll do a Honda in 2022 when they turn 30.
But right now, let’s concentrate on what I’ve dubbed the WE/98. ‘WE’ is the 2018 model code.
A Short History Lesson
Excluding the total R1 tragics, most regular people wouldn’t know that the first batch of Yamaha R1s was sent to Australia. You see, the original launch was held at the iconic Philip Island circuit in 1998. Headed up by Yamaha engineer Kunihiko Miwa. The R1 didn’t just raise the bar, he twisted it.
The inline four cylinder engine featured a 20-valve head made a massive 150hp, and these bikes in the right hands were capable of a low 10-second quarter mile ET. It was lighter, more powerful and faster than its main rival the Honda CBR900RR, and aside from being a little bit of a handful in the handling department, steered the modern sportsbike industry in a whole new direction. The other manufacturers must have all had some serious planning meetings in the days following its announcement.
Side note: The day following the launch of the WE/98, we discovered that the 1998 R1 with the wheels pictured below was actually the second ever R1 off the production line. With the chassis number ending in 000002, it rolled of the line right after the first one which was blue, thus making this one the first ever red/white model. Even the owner Michael didn’t know it at the time. Odds on that he won’t be selling it in a hurry now.
Since then, as all bikes and cars do, the R1 has evolved through numerous generations, each time getting that little bit sharper, slightly more powerful and most of all gradually faster. It was in 2009 when Yamaha took things to a whole new level introducing a new crossplane crank configuration; the term ‘Big Bang’ was used to describe this amazing new engine.
How does it work? Without writing a whole separate story, think of it this way: A regular inline four-cylinder engine would normally have two pistons up and two pistons down. In a crossplane configuration each of the bearing journals on the crank are phased at 90-degrees. The firing order is different to normal hence the different sound, but the main difference is that unlike a regular crank which has two main heavy spots, the crossplane is even all the way around at each 90-degree spot. By doing this, the inertial torque created by traditional cranks is no longer an issue, and the result is faster and smoother power delivery.
Anyway, I’m straying away from the main topic here to pretend like I’m some kind of engine guru… In 2015 Yamaha again made a statement with an all new MotoGP-inspired design, the WE/R1. Bold looks, an upgraded Big Bang engine and an amazing new electronic package that featured a six-axis IMU (much the same as a you’d find in a drone) to measure pitch, roll, yaw and acceleration all the while sending information to the ECU 125 times a second. From this, the new R1 has an amazing level of handling thanks to the adjustable traction control, anti-wheelie control and ABS. It really is an incredible bike, and quite a different beast to the original game-changing R1.
Back to the bike build. Let’s fast forward a couple of weeks from the initial plan being given the green light and I’d purchased a 1998 R1 which had been given a bit of a makeover by the previous owner. It’d been repainted R1 blue from its factory red and white scheme, and whist it was neat and tidy it was pretty rough and was in serious need of a birthday (Australian slang for a lot of work, a lot of money, or a lot of work and money).
It was about the same time I’d just taken delivery of the parts donor bike, a brand spanking new R1 with only 20km on the odometer. Both bikes were taken in the workshop and stripped bare. It was the moment of truth. Finally, I’d be able to see just how full-on this crazy idea was going to be.
Measurements were made and we began the process of making the new parts fit into the old frame. To start off with, we made the appropriate modifications to fit both the new forks and swingarm into the old frame. Without going into too much detail, to make the new forks fit we used the old headstem after the appropriate ‘minor’ changes were made.
After some additional machining and with custom spacers the swingarm sat quite nicely in the frame. The hardest of of the swingarm swap was making the suspension geometry work so that things didn’t hit, but also so the suspension worked properly and also at an acceptable ride height.
The original suspension linkage and dog bones needed to be replaced, and with the help of the guys at Solid Engineering and their CNC machine new ones were made. Changes were made to the front fairing support so that the new speedometer could be fitted and many little changes had to be done to ensure everything had a factory-like fit.
All of that was a walk in the proveribal park compared to the next task: fitting the engine. In order to make the engine fit into the frame, the original cast engine mounts from the frame needed to be removed and replaced with a complete custom set. After some trial and error and very careful manoeuvring to avoid damaging the finish on the brand new engine, the engine and frame were mounted to a solid jig plate and new mounts were designed.
With the help of Ben Shaw, a man very well known for him incredible CNC-machined motorcycle parts, we designed brand new billet side engine mounts. These combined with the lower ones made in-house at Solid Engineering, and some amazing TIG welding by Solid’s owner, Cameron Lees, the 2018 engine was finally mounted into the 1998 frame.
In the rear subframe section I fabricated a new base plate which allowed the mounting of the new battery tray IMU, as well as the ABS unit and other electronics. I even mounted the late model tool kit; two little hex keys.
As the original frame had some cosmetic flaws, and given the fact I’d had to linish back the factory anodising, I decided to take the simpler and route when it came to refinishing it by getting it powder-coated. The colour chosen was called St Elmo’s Fire and has a strong amount of metallic in it. I wasn’t too sure about it at first, but the end result was perfect as it kind of resembles the factory finish, but also adds to the modern style as the new R1 has a painted frame.
For the cosmetics I was lucky enough to be able to get brand new genuine lights, mirrors and turn signals. The fairings that came with the older bike were in such bad shape that they needed replacing, but let me be open and honest in saying that I had to use replicas rather than genuine ones. Given the fact the fairings needed to be modified to fit around the new engine mounts and the catalytic converter, it was much easier chopping them up. The quality was surprisingly good too, and unless you really know what you’re looking for they’re almost spot on. In this case these are to suit a 2000 model, hence the added scollop in the side, but that was all that was available in the short space of time available.
The fuel tank however is the factory 1998 item, but given the new airbox is much bigger than the old one as it features adjustable length runners and secondary injectors, the whole inside front section of the tank had to be removed and a new front wall made. This in itself was a bonus as the previous owner had bogged up dents in the tank that I was now able to knock out so they could be fixed properly. It was painted to match the fairings along with the current model front and rear mudguards.
Finally this new-old Frankenstien of a bike was ready to assemble.
At this point the bike was going back together nicely. I hand-balled the electrics to Tony from Race Bike Services; he’d be responsible for making the necessary changes to the wiring loom, including making the wiring fit and also reach the earlier model lights.
The lights are all as per the 1998 style, but are now fitted with Philips CAN Bus compatible LED bulbs.
On to the trimming. My bargain R1 was trimmed in black, but we’d need red trimming if we were to successfully recreate that iconic red and white livery. Factory covers were no longer available, so I called on the help of a local guru trimmer who helped to source a very similar red and did a brilliant job of replicating the factory shape. Aside from all of that, it was just nuts and bolts and assembly.
As mentioned, everything was left standard all apart from R&G crash protection, Ipone fluids, Vesrah brake pads, a DID chain and JT sprockets. Then I was given a cool-looking Oxford Products paddock stand to sit it on and a cover to keep it clean.
All in all, the project started late February and with some down time was still finished early May, just in time for us to do a launch party. It was a mammoth effort, but the feeling of achievement by all was superb.
What’s next for the bike? Well, right now it’s sitting waiting to be ridden. I’m in the UK this month helping out with an event called Moto Time Attack. When I get back to Australia I’m hoping to take the bike to the track with a couple of well-known ex-racers where we’ll stretch its legs a little.
By no means will it be better or even expected to be as good as a brand new R1 given the 20 years of development in the newer chassis and fairings, but having had a brief suburban ride on it, it’s a huge buzz knowing you’re riding an old bike with everything from a brand new one.
Given the difference in the way the induction works because of the changes in the chassis, the roar is amazing, and the power, well, let’s just say it wakes you up quickly.
Stay tuned as the build series for the bike is going on YouTube and shows the bike coming together in more detail. Yet once it gets ridden, we’ll be adding videos of that too.
Now, on to the next project…
Story by Mark Boxer
Intro & Photography by Matthew Everingham
Mark thanks Liam and the team at Ficeda Accessories, Tony and Graeme from Race Bike Services, Cam, Johnny and Brett from Solid Engineering, Ben from Extreme Creations, Tony from Southland Trim, Ariel from CPC and not to mention Nathan who owns the gorgeous original 1998 R1 pictured up top, his mate Jhye who owns the 60th Anniversary WE/R1 and Michael who owns the 1998 R1 with the white wheels pictured below.
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