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Calspeed FZR-R4

Low clip-ons look uncomfortable, but thanks to the bike's compact nature, are actually not bad.

Remember the Yamaha FZR400? Compact, light and sweet handling, it was a sportbike pilot’s dream. If you’ve ridden one, you’ll remember it as one of the best-handling sportbikes you’ve ridden. But they didn’t just turn on a dime—the peppy little liquid-cooled four-cylinder mill sang out a 14,000-rpm song, sending something like 50 horsepower to the rear wheel. That race-bred motor and aluminum Deltabox chassis was exotic stuff for 1988, but sadly, other than enthusiastic racers (many of whom are still racing these machines 20 years on), most American street riders chose to buy the steel-framed FZR600 for about the same price, and the 400 was dropped from the USA lineup after three years.

San Francisco firefighter Michael Carion was one of the romantic-minded buyers who valued handling and lightness over raw power-for-dollar. He picked up a 1990 model new in the summer of 1990 and enjoyed it for five years, putting 23,000 miles on it as a daily commuter and weekend twisty-road straightener. A need for a two-up ride prompted him to sell it a few years after, and a succession of sportbikes followed.

The FZR-R4's cockpit looks stock, testimony to Carion's tidy fabrication.

Then, in 2009, Carion reported that “’A co-worker of mine mentioned that he had a 1990 FZR400 sitting in his garage, in excellent condition, ‘low mileage and never crashed,’ and he needed to get rid of it.” Carion had an ’06 YZF-R6, so he had no interest in re-kindling an old affair…until he sold the R6 a few months later. Needing a bike, he asked his friend to ride the FZR to work so he could check it out. Upon examination, he realized it was not just the same year and model—it was the same bike! A deal was made, and Carion rode the bike home. “Before long, I was scraping the edge of my boots on Hwy 84,” Carion recalls.

The bike was pretty tatty, with almost 40,000 miles on it—“not a pretty sight.” So he decided to make it a special project. The most notable mod he’s done is the TZ250 fairing, but he makes out like it’s no big deal—a call to Airtech, lower clip-ons, a little strategic cutting (okay, a lot; the FZR400 may be small, but it’s a whale next to a TZ250), a new fairing stay and it was done. A projector-beam lamp keeps it legal for road work.

Judging by the tire wear, Carion likes to ride the bike the way it was meant to be ridden—leaned way over. So when he found a complete YZF-R6 front end on eBay at a can’t-say-no price, he knew what had to happen. Luckily, he can work machine tools (like most firefighters I’ve met) and made the spacers and other bits needed to make it fit just right. The stock 18-inch rear rim hampered tire selection, so more eBay-ing was in order. The hunt was rewarded with a lovely period-authentic Performance Machine 17-inch wheel.

The prom queen awaiting her gown ...

The engine is mostly stock—race tuners can get 70 peaky, unreliable horsepower out of this motor, but Carion wanted a street bike—except for a cut-down Termignoni exhaust can originally intended for a Suzuki GSX-R750. He seems quite happy (for now) with his old-new creation. When I asked if he misses the R6, which weighs less than the 400 and makes about twice the power, he told me that “the FZR feels really good in my heart. No doubt the R6 is a better bike, but I don’t need the best out there and the 400 makes me happy. I have no regrets.”

Carion will make you a conversion kit so you can bolt up an R6 front end to your old 400 (or, I presume, an FZR600). You can contact him through his Cal Speed website.

27 Comments

  1. rusbravo says:

    um… a friend of mine built this: http://www.fzrarchives.com/ipb/index.php?showtopic=40087

    he won a lot of races with it at BIR, he had motor on most of the SV650s (all of the ones that didn’t asplode during the race season) he has some fun stories about yamaha engineers asking him what he was up to and why he needed parts for a 20 year old bike.

    I have one of his a FZR400 rolling chassis in my garage, i need to get on that project.

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  2. RRocket says:

    I’ve owned 2 FZR400s. But compared to modern bikes, I don’t see what the point is in making this FZR-R4. An R1 has nearly an identical wheelbase and dry weight as an original FZR400, let alone an R6.

    If you must have a 400cc bike, the best and most exotic of the crop is the VFR400 NC30. A mini version (down to the single sided swing arm) of the luscious RC30. And the v4 400cc engine is a gem.

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  3. Slob says:

    “If you’ve ridden one, you’ll remember it as one of the best-handling sportbikes you’ve ridden.”

    Hell yes! It wasn’t even so much that it was the best handling bike that I’ve owned, but it certainly was the one that I “clicked” with the best until now! Dragging knee was dead easy, bouncing off bumps with the handlebars flapping madly, burying myself behind the tiny fairing to try and get a bit more speed, and the cherry on the cake: overtaking and R1s, R6s, Fireblades and even a Bimota SB5 on tight, twisty roads!

    The charm of the FZR400 (and other race-replica 400s and 250s) is that you can ride them and feel like a riding god: unlike bigger, modern bikes you get plenty of entertainment at relatively low speeds.

    As for the American readers out there: the 250 and 400cc class was created mainly to satisfy the restrictions in the various bike licence classes in Japan. New Zealanders and Australians had the good fortune to get plenty of these as unofficial imports (“grey bikes”). I suspect these classes still exist, but perhaps not in the race-replica category any more.

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  4. mxs says:

    Sadly, North America doesn’t get small cc bikes (nor they did have undertsanding for small cars … try to buy 1.6L 4 cylinder car; finally we are getting some, but that’s only thanks to the oil prices) and never will.

    Bigger is better ….. screw the handling and factor …. :-(

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    • mxs says:

      Forgot to say, I love my FZR250. Will take it over any 600 any given day. Easier on tires, easier on gas, more fun in the twisties and harder to get in trouble with every stricter getting traffic laws.

      60 less horses than 600 ss? I cannot really say, accept for pulling the pin on a straight piece of highway. But who likes to ride that? OK, maybe Florida, but other than that? Not me.

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  5. ROXX says:

    Memories here;
    I used to race one of these at Willow Springs 89-91 in the formula III class.
    Nabbed my share of trophies too, except when Nick Inatcshe would show up on his fZR400.

    Had a blast harassing the large bikes in open practice sessions.

    Without a doubt, one of the funnest bikes I’ve ever owned.

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  6. kpaul says:

    kawajez makes a great point. If I was the moto God I would have a tiered license system and I would mandate manufacturers to make 250 cc, 400 cc, 600cc, 800cc, and 1000cc bikes. V-Twins cruisers would be outlawed :) just kidding.

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  7. Matto says:

    The CBR250RR’s aren’t exactly what you’d call a fast bike, but they’re great fun. They don’t have huge power, they are peaky, and if you’re big or heavy, then you add a lot of weight (percentage-wise) to the bike. As Tok and Kawajez say, up until recently they were the weapon of choice for “normal” riders trying to get their MC license over here in Aus. The “insane” ones went straight for the 250 2-smokers (and, for the most part, promptly killed themselves) – there was no power-to-weight restrictions, only the rule that if you’d never ridden before, 250cc was your max capacity, and go for it.

    Since the new rules have come in (max 600cc, power to weight restrictions – much more sensible) the bottom has fallen out of the old 250cc sportsbike market. As the others have said, it wasn’t uncommon for people to pay $8k for a freshly imported (but 10yr old, second-hand Ex-Japan) and resprayed grey-market CBR250 or Ninja 250. They looked pretty, which, when you’re 17, is the most important thing anyway. The upside was that a year later when you qualified for your open license, you would be able to sell it for that same money to someone else. These days, well, here’s a bikepoint link that will either make you very happy or very sad : http://tinyurl.com/62owapn

    Having learnt to ride on a CBR250RR with cams and other such niceties, would I go back to a small capacity bike? Probably not. I’m a tall, lanky beggar, so bigger bikes fit me a lot better. The CBR (and a friend’s VFR400 that I spent some time with) were more comfortable for me to ride whilst sitting on the pillion pad. Tuned up and running right though (it rarely was), that little VFR was every bit as quick through the corners as a mate’s much heavier but more powerful CBR1000. On the whole though, I’m less of a corner-carver and more a lazy, long distance rider, so a big capacity motor to make the gearbox semi-redundant has always been my poison. It’s just a better “all-rounder” for me.

    I think Tok nailed it though – “Yesterday’s big is tomorrow’s small” – you only have to look how big the current crop of “small” cars are compared to 10 yrs ago – people equate value to size and are happy with bigger things. Add in emissions and noise regs, and I doubt we’ll see a return to small capacity bikes in any meaningful way any time soon, as sad as that may be. I miss the smell of 2-stroke on a Sunday morning…

    Thanks!
    Matto :)

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  8. kawajez says:

    It’s interesting to me how little Americans seem to know about small-capacity bikes.. It must be nice to be able to learn to ride legally on an R1! Then again, maybe not..

    Up until fairly recently here in Australia, you had to ride a bike that was a maximum of 250cc’s for 12 months when you were learning. So we have a pretty big selection of 250s that you guys don’t seem to get. We also had pretty casual import laws back then, so we had all the awesome ~40hp, 4-cyl 90s bikes like the CBR250RR, ZXR250C, FZRs, etc. And all the two-strokes – RGVs, KR-1S, TZRs, NSRs. Honda Aus. noticed how many CBRs were being sold (most good ones for around AUD$7000), and thought they’d import their own from Japan for the pricey sum of $9990 – but they were all brand-new bikes with warranty – a far-cry from the resprayed imports. To put it into perspective, you could buy a new CBR600F2 in 1994 for $10600 or a CBR900 for $15000.

    For further reference, you can buy a 2011 CBR250R for $5490.

    I guess my point is, I don’t see why the manufacturers can’t return to making awesome 250s. Even if going from single cylinder to four adds another thousand dollars – surely there’s a market for it ? And what’s wrong with the younger generation these days buying such crappy 250s ? Who really wants to ride a single-cylinder 250 ? Or even a 125 single ? I just don’t understand why the 600+ sports bikes are getting lighter/faster/better, and the 250-400 bikes are either dying or becoming slow sports-tourers. Is there something I don’t get ?

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    • Ruefus says:

      “I just don’t understand why the 600+ sports bikes are getting lighter/faster/better, and the 250-400 bikes are either dying or becoming slow sports-tourers. Is there something I don’t get?”

      It’s very, very simple – no one will buy the bikes you suggest. Not in America anyway.

      It’s been tried and failed repeatedly. Motorcycles in America are thought of mostly as toys not tools. Wanted but not required.

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  9. mpolans says:

    Gabe, what makes you think they’d cost $12k? I wouldn’t spend that much, but I could see $4500-5000 for a CBR250rr and $7000 for a CBR400rr.

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    • Gabe says:

      Why would 250cc four-cylinder four-stroke cost any less than a 600cc four-cylinder four-stroke? How would Honda be able to bring a four-pot 250 to market for only $500 more than the cost of a Single? Or a 400cc for less than what Kawasaki charges for a very low-tech Twin? A camshft costs what a camshaft costs, a cylinder head costs what a cylinder head costs…same for FI components, frames, wheels, brakes, etc. That one is 20% smaller than the other makes little difference in the cost. That’s why we don’t see bikes like this anywhere, in any market.

      The moto-gods don’t charge by the cubic centimeter. To bring a modern, high-tech sportbike to market you have to spend a ton of money…I’d argue that the smaller the displacement, the MORE expensive, not less.

      That said, maybe $12k is an exaggeration. Maybe they’d sell it at a loss and price it $1000 less than the 600RR. In any case, nobody would buy the 250 or 400, at least not in the numbers required to make it commercially viable

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      • Tok says:

        It does take almost as much effort and cost to manufacture a 250cc/400cc four cylinder bike as a 1000cc provided the equipment spec is similar. That’s not the issue though as the actual per unit cost of goods is a fraction of what it is sold for.

        When small displacement bikes sold well in the 70s and 80s they were sold for drastically less than large displacement bikes. To manufacturers the profit margin was less but that was okay because the people buying them either could not afford the larger bikes or did not want them. The lower profit they made on the smaller bikes did not hurt sales on the big bikes and they sold plenty so they were still worth making.

        Things change though. Yesterday’s big is today’s small and now not enough people want to buy small bikes anymore so manufacturers either don’t make them or don’t make as many. Those that they do make are simpler with a lower per unit cost of goods. This is not so much because of the cost of making them but rather because there is no incentive for them to try harder. Building a four cylinder 250cc bike now will not get a flood of customers even if you charge very little for it.

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      • Mark P. says:

        A lot of the cost associated with current sport bikes are due to R&D costs that are amortized over increasingly shorter model lives. Since there is nothing equivalent to it these days, they could just dust off the tooling from the previous CBR250rr and CBR400rr, de-restrict them (they were restricted in the Japan market), update the emissions, and sell them as is with virtually no R&D investment…the R&D investment costs were probably amortized on these bikes a long time ago. The cost should then be way lower than what you are thinking. The only thing providing upward pressure on price now would be how strong the yen is vs. the dollar right now, since Japan stupidly refuses to devalue its currency.

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  10. Bud says:

    So he has the fabrication skills to make adapters for the fork but that was the best he could do on the muffler install – an automotive muffler clamp? Ouch.

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    • Ruefus says:

      ……and the crickets (aka – critics) are in fine form again.

      This is not an attempt at a concours rig. 40,000 miles, flat black paint and the wheels not matching should’ve been your first clues. The guy wants to RIDE the thing. Besides, have you looked at some of the hack-job clamps some aftermarket pipes ship with? That u-bolt is downright classy in comparison.

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  11. bluemax750 says:

    Reminds me of the old Honda CBR250-RR, which I think was a way better bike, almost as much HP and way lighter.

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