I like the sound and feel of three-cylinder engines. When the Hinckley Triumphs arrived in the U.S. market in the 1990s, I decided to buy a Trophy, which was available as a 900cc triple or a 1200cc four. I rode both, and quickly decided the triple was the one I wanted. Although the 1200 was faster, the 900 just felt more alive, somehow. I fell in love with that motor.
Triumph, of course, is known for its three-cylinder engines. After Hinckley tried to slug it out with the Japanese in the 600cc, four-cylinder supersport category, Triumph wised up and created the wonderful 675cc triple we know today. MV Agusta has recently joined the fray with its own 675cc triple.
Yamaha appears to be next in line. As we reported, Yamaha used INTERMOT to display a three-cylinder concept, and confirmed that at least one three-cylinder model will see production in the near future. As we pointed out in the same article, Yamaha has manufactured three-cylinder motorcycles in the past, including the XS750 and XS850 produced between 1976 and 1981. These bikes gained a good reputation for comfort and engine smoothness, and are still coveted by enthusiasts today. I found this web site dedicated to all things “Yamaha triple” that you may want to take a look at (it contains many interesting links and PDF files).
The XS750 and XS850 were never intended to be the highest performing street bikes of their era, but that doesn’t mean Yamaha hasn’t produced high performing triples.
I am not a snowmobile enthusiast (I grew up in California), but I am aware that Yamaha builds some extremely powerful snowmobiles used for both recreation and racing. One of those is the FX Nytro RTX, which features a modern, liquid cooled, fuel injected 1049cc, four-stroke triple that puts out in the neighborhood of 130 hp.
So, Yamaha certainly knows how to engineer, and manufacture, in-line three-cylinder engines and, at least in snowmobiles, currently has a large displacement triple in production. The INTERMOT announcement should therefore be no major surprise.
The question is what type of three-cylinder motorcycles will Yamaha produce, and when? There is already a rumor that the current R1 superbike and R6 supersport will be succeeded by three-cylinder models approximately in the 2014 model year. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Yamaha put three-cylinder engines in other types of motorcycles, not just sport bikes. The 1978 XS750 Special (pictured) leaned toward the custom or chopper genre, for instance.
There is an additional rumor that Yamaha is trying to obtain guidelines for three-cylinder engine displacement limits for WSB. Currently, four-cylinder bikes are limited to 1000cc and twins are limited to 1200cc. Physics suggests triples should be allowed a special displacement somewhere between the two. Of course, there is already precedent for allowing 675cc triples in supersport racing.
Frankly, we are surprised no other Japanese manufacturer has used the three-cylinder engine as a product differentiator in recent times. Designed correctly, the engines offer great character and performance, with a nice compromise between the low-end grunt of a twin and the shrieking top-end of a four. It will certainly be interesting to watch Yamaha go down this path, once again.