Helen of Troy had a face so beautiful, she launched a thousand ships (or at least, that was the Grecian excuse for the Trojan War; one wonders, after 10 years of fighting, if they figured  she was worth it). The motorcycling equivalent? Consider the Yamaha YSR50, a machine that was so much fun it probably launched a thousand roadracing careers.

Built for (low) speed

The YSR50 debuted in the mid-1980s, when superbike racing was big business. I’ve never seen an in-depth explanation of the machine’s roots—was it designed for beginner street riders, or was it designed to be a trackday toy from the start? Whether or not it was actually supposed to be a race bike, the YSR50 became famous at the track. Its red-and white bodywork looked just like a proper Yamaha racer, even if this was a pocket-sized bike.

The original YSR engine was an air-cooled 49cc two-stroke, with reed valve induction, with five-speed gearbox and a kickstarter (how many sportbikes come with a kickstarter these days?). Supposedly, it made 7 horsepower at 8,800 rpm, and a very modest 4-ish foot-pounds of torque at 8,500 rpm. Considering the teeny-tiny engine, those number weren’t terrible. Since many of these were sold to racers, it’s unsurprising that many of them ended up modified for much more power (more on that later).

Still in street-legal trim! Photo: Photo: Paul Boyd/Facebook

Even without getting into big bore kits and engine swaps, there was lots of potential with this engine, as with any two-stroke. But no matter what you did to the engine, you were never going to turn this into a high-speed superbike—there just wasn’t enough room in the frame to stuff in scary-fast power.

That was the appeal of the YSR50. As long as you could physically fit on the bike, you could have yourself a sharp-handling machine with looks reminiscent of the era’s fastest race-winners, but you weren’t going to be ripping around at insane speed. Instead, you could focus on cornering. In stock form, the bike topped out around 40 mph. Instead of straight-line adrenaline, you could focus on muscling those 12-inch wheels around corners at max lean angle. Dry weight was 165 pounds; with a 25.5-inch seat height, this was a bike that anyone could manage.

Having said that, it was definitely a machine that favoured smallish riders, as you can see in the video below (note that the machine below is a previous ’88 YSR the New England Motorcycle Museum had for sale, and that one is long gone by now):

Fun at the track

The YSR50 was street-legal from the factory. It came with blinkers, a brake light, a headlight, and everything else needed to keep Johnny Law happy. So of course, the first thing that many riders did was—strip off all that crap, and take their bike to the track. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, you’d see these bikes at racetracks, sometimes serving as pitbikes, sometimes shoehorned into some sort of minibike series, and sometimes starring in their own spec series.

Not everyone was interested in the machines at first, but some industry insiders saw massive potential. One of my moto-buddies, Frank, owned a string of dealerships in Atlantic Canada through the 1980s and early 1990s. When he saw the YSR50, he called up Yamaha Canada and ordered a whole container of the bikes. He told me head office called him back, thinking he’d made a mistake. Nope, he hadn’t—Frank had a plan.

Over the following months, Frank and friends set up a YSR50 spec series that ran all over Atlantic Canada, even closing down major city streets to race the bikes on public roads. They had no problem moving the container-load of YSRs. Sadly, the series didn’t last; the bike went out of production, and now, the machines themselves are becoming increasingly rare.

Check it out! That’s a YZ125 motor in there, and the front end and brakes are different, too. Photo: Paul Boyd/Facebook

So what about this bike?

Sooooo … while the stock YSR was cool and all, this 1988 model, for sale in Ontario, Canada, is even more interesting. The seller has it listed for sale on the Vintage Road Racing Association Facebook page with the following details:

“1988 YSR50 with valid Ontario ownership.
Alex Mays built and tuned YZ125 water cooled motor.
One off Alex Mays pipe.
Custom xs400 based forks.
Braced swing arm
Daytona wheels with Yokohama tires
Grimeca calipers upfront and disk on the back.
Too much other crap to type.

A tuned YZ125 motor, with custom exhaust? Surely that puts out at least 30 horsepower. The braced swingarm and upgraded brakes and wheels sound good too, and as for the XS400 forks … it sounds a bit mad, but they must work, if they’re still on the bike.

Honestly, this isn’t a machine for everyone, not even your average hoon. It all sounds like dank whoolies and general fun, but if you’re just looking to smash up a minibike, please buy a Honda Grom. It’s what they’re good at. But if you’re looking for a mini-racer that would be all sorts of fun at your local club, then maybe it’s worth figuring out how to get this bike delivered from Ontario. Sure, cross-border travel is pretty much out between the US and Canada, and also between some Canadian provinces, but commercial carriers are still going back and forth. Where there’s a will to own a two-stroke racebike, there’s a way! It’s currently listed as a “trade” option, but everyone knows that cold, hard cash talks.

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