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What makes a motorcycle great?
Sometimes, it’s raw speed. Other times, it’s good handling. Or, it could be good pricing. A truly outstanding motorcycle would combine all three of these factors, and go down as an all-time classic.
And then, there’s the Yamaha BW350. It wasn’t fast, it didn’t have razor-sharp handling, and you could certainly find dirt bikes for a lot less money. But if you wanted a big wheel dirt bike (a real big wheel dirt bike and not the weak sauce that passes for a big wheel today), then the BW350 was the biggest of them all.
Today, when you hear about big wheel dirt bikes, manufacturers are just talking about smallish offroad machines with full-sized wheels, as opposed to smaller wheels intended for youth bikes (those kids have shorter legs, doncha know, so they need smaller wheels). But in the 1980s, a big wheel bike meant the manufacturer had designed the machine with massively wide rims that could mount ATV-sized tires. There were a few well-known offroad-only models along these lines, including three from Yamaha and one from Honda.
Honda’s TR200, aka the Fat Cat, was basically a three-wheeler with one of the wheels removed, and was only in production 1986-1987. They’re hard to find, and are considered by many to be highly desirable, even if they didn’t have the longevity of Yamaha’s line and were panned at the time of their release for weird ergos and general beginner-friendly design.
Yamaha’s BW200 was sold a year earlier, starting in 1985, and was sold until 1989. It was powered by a wimpy 196 cc four-stroke engine. It definitely inspired the TW200, which entered the market two years later, but you’d never mistake the two of them side-by-side; the BW has massive wheels when compared to the T-Dub, and the chassis and bodywork is all different too. And then, there’s the BW80, which was a mini version of the same pattern.
And then, there was the BW350.
The BW350 used an air-cooled, four-stroke single-cylinder 350 engine, quite similar to the engine used in the Warrior ATV (back in those days, there was lots of parts bin engineering going on with Yamaha’s smaller-displacement motorcycles). It didn’t make a ton of power, but it certainly made more than the other big wheel bikes.
Like the others, it rolled on cast rims, and it took absolutely massive tires. Front tire size was 25x8x12, rear tire size was 23x11x9. And like the other big wheel bikes, the BW350 wasn’t really built for speed.
The front wheel on the BW wasn’t conducive to aggressive cornering, as it wouldn’t bite in as much as a skinnier tire would (a problem that even shows up on the much smaller TW200). And, the suspension wasn’t made for MX-style jumps, although you certainly could jump the BW350.
Instead, the bike really worked well in environments where there was a lot of loose terrain, especially sand. The massive rear tire allowed for plenty of grip in back, as long as you had aggressive treads, and if you wanted to shred up a dune, the BW350 was a fun way to do it. And the more impassible the terrain, the better the BW handled it. Sloppy bogs that would quickly bury a regular dirt bike to the axle were a whole new game with a BW.
But just as the oversized front wheel could make cornering wonky, the rear wheel had its own capricious habits as well, as slick mud could leave the BW’s tail end wandering around wildly as it powered forward.
However, the coolest thing about a BW350 is that it just might be the ultimate snow bike. Yeah, we know about those track kit conversions for dirt bikes, but are those really motorcycles, or a sort of weird hybrid with more in common with a World War II half track?
The BW, on the other hand, needs no track kit. All it needs is a willing rider. See below:
You can thank inmate Mr. BigWheel for those awesome demonstrations of the BW350’s might. He hasn’t logged in here for a while, but you can see the excellent Big Wheel thread that he started here. You can find a lot more useful information there, as the thread is ongoing. There you can learn about all the wacky wonders of the BW350’s design, such as the dual-chain setup required to drive the rear wheel.
And then, there’s this 1987 BW350, advertised for sale on Cycle Trader. It’s in Florida (makes sense, it would demolish those sand trails), and the owner wants a cool $3,700. Oooooooh, that’s steep. But wait! The ad says it’s street legal!
If that’s true, that’s a very desirable feature, although it may not necessarily transfer over to your jurisdiction after purchase. That’s a whole other can of worms to get into. But if you want a massive big wheel bike, this is as massive as it gets, dwarfing the current production TW200 and Suzuki VanVan 200 models. And you can ride it all winter long … if you dare.