Some bike designs don’t age well, while other designs are timeless. A ’79 Suzuki GS1000S might be a bit dated-looking today, but nobody would say it was ugly. Quite the opposite—a designer tasked with building a neo-retro might take careful notes. On the other hand, nobody’s taking a Honda CX500 from that same year, and studying its lines for inspiration. Yuck.
Generally speaking, good design goes a long way, but mechanical reliability and lots of raw power will also do much to keep a bike’s reputation alive years after it’s built. Such is the story of the Yamaha FJ1200—sure, it’s dated in a 1980s sort of way, but it’s not terrible-looking, and that massive motor still has plenty of fans. Even today, it continues to influence Yamaha’s lineup, as it’s the only Japanese OEM that’s really serious about sport-tourers.
An incremental upgrade
The 1986 FJ1200 was an update to the previous FJ1100 model, which Yamaha introduced in 1984. That machine was Yamaha’s flagship superbike, with race-style bodywork and a 16-inch front wheel for nimble handling (that was the line of thought, in those days). In 1986, when Yamaha updated it to the 1200, it became more of a sport tourer, as Yamaha realized this thing wasn’t going to be dominating against the liquid-cooled GPZ/GSXR series.
The engine was still a great choice for street use, though. The original air/oil-cooled 1100 engine with five-speed gearbox was Yamaha’s first full-size inline four with four-valve heads. When Yamaha updated it to 1188 cc, it made 122 horsepower at 8,500 rpm, and 81 pound-feet of torque at 7,500 rpm. This air-cooled dinosaur of the late ’80s still had more than enough muscle to get you well past lose-your-licence speeds. It was particularly rambunctious in the low- to mid-range, where riders actually spend their time when they’re on the street.
While it was dated compared to the liquid-cooled competition with their six-speed gearboxes, the FJ did have some forward-thinking design principles. The engineers had thoughtfully tucked the alternator assembly behind the cylinder bank, making for a more narrow engine when compared to the original four-cylinder superbikes. There were several other clever improvements to reduce overall size and improve power; coming as it did, at the end of the reign of the four-cylinder four-stroke era, Yamaha’s engineers benefited from well over a decade of tuning experience with this style of engine.
Not only did that mean tuning trickery, it also meant Yamaha was able to build a very solid and reliable engine. If you’re looking for a good used bike, this is always a useful tip: Look for something that was built on established tech. Even some of the most reliable engines in Japanese motorcycles (CX500, for instance) had issues in their first production run.
Because this engine was powerful and tough, the FJ1200 is still well-liked today. The chassis—some will like it, some won’t.
The FJ1200 has a steel perimeter frame with aluminum swingarm, “Monocross” shock and anti-dive forks. The anti-dive forks were a popular idea back in the 1980s, intended to provide more stability under braking. The OEMs abandoned the idea when customers didn’t like the new fork design, as it reduced brake feel. Many owners have disabled their anti-dive system in the decades since the bikes left the factory. If you’re buying an FJ, you definitely should find out the story on the bike you’re looking at.
The brakes themselves were decent, though, with dual front ventilated discs and two-piston calipers. Yamaha even made ABS optional in some markets on later models. However, all these braking systems would seem dated now, and so would the 16-inch front wheel that came on the original 1986 model (later models came with 17-inchers).
Good news, though—like many bikes of that era, the FJ1200 lends itself to mix-and-match engineering with other bikes. If you don’t like the suspension, brakes or even the wheels, you can generally swap in something from a machine later in the production run, or another bike entirely. The cool cats at FJowners.org can tell you exactly what bits will swap in and out, as that forum is filled with keeners who’ve owned these bikes for 30 years or more.
The other good news is, as long as the bike you buy is in good running order, you should be able to enjoy it as-is anyway. These were practical and fun in the ’80s, right up to their end of production in 1996. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to have fun on one today.
Buying an FJ1200?
The bike for sale in the photos above is for sale on Facebook Marketplace, on Canada’s east coast, about an hour north of Maine. The owner wants $2,500 CAD, which isn’t bad if everything’s well-sorted and the machine fires up when you need it to.
That’s a long drive for just about anyone south of Bangor, though. You can always keep an eye out on Craigslist, as you’ll usually find something in the continental US, if you fire up SearchTempest (look at this tasty example in Vermont, for $1,800 USD!).
Or, you could just put out the word on FJrider, that you’re looking for one. Guys on there will often know where there’s one for sale, or maybe even be preparing to move one of their own. That could be the best place to start.