Calspeed FZR-R4

May 4, 2011

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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.

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