Overshadowed by the all-round greatness of the CBR600F and the. outright lairy nature of GSX-Rs and ZX-6Rs, the Yamaha Thundercat has still managed to win our hearts and minds. But is it-an emerging classic?
For many mid-1990s sportbike riders, Yamaha’s FZR600R was a track-day hungry, no-frills option at a price initially lower than Honda’s all-conquering CBR600F, but some riders wanted a more civilised means of going about their business that nevertheless still bore the FZR’s racier credentials, and voila, in 1996 Yamaha launched the YZF600R and christened it with more than mere initials: Thundercat. This new, fully faired model retained the earlier bike’s well oversquare, 12:1 comp. 11,500rpm engine but upped its four Keihins from 34 to 36mm and changed the gearing somewhat to make for easier starting and more linear torque delivery, but it was and remains a 100bhp, 145mph proposition.
Engine internals include lightweight, short-skirt pistons which aid revability and ceramic composite bores to reduce friction and improve heat transfer. There’s also a ‘Ram Air’ set-up which as it says on the tin, forces air from fairing ducts into the induction system which, as applied to its slant block design, minimises travel from carbs to combustion chambers. Throttle response was, as you might imagine, super-slick.
The FZRs steel Deltabox frame and alloy swingarm were left more or less intact, as were the excellent four-pot Sumitomo front brakes and the single two-pot rear. The highly sophisticated suspension which features preload adjustment, rebound and compression damping for the 45mm forks and a similar menu for the Monocross rear end which meant that riders could tailor handling and roadholding to suit.
So far, so wow, because although a tad heavier than the earlier bike, the Cat was an ergonomically friendlier bike, especially for the taller rider, which alone nudged it into the sport-touring class where Yamaha really lacked a middleweight presence, unless you wanted an old-tech, air-cooled Divi which, of course, you probably didn’t. And even though it was a practical machine, it didn’t stop them running up front in the European Supersport Championship in the hands of the Belgarda Yamaha team taking second overall in 1997 or running strong with the likes of Mick Corrigan in the British 600 series.
It’s generally believed that the Cat, and particularly its engine, was over-engineered to ensure parity with the hi-tech 600cc competition from Honda and Suzuki and so reliability and durability aren’t major issues. Where the bike really scores though is in its comfort zone which is considerable thanks to well thought-out relationships between ‘bars, pegs and seat and of course the wind-cheating fairing. Actually, it feels like a fully-grown 750, but with the whipsmart flickabilfty of a smaller, lighter bike.
Once the suspension has been appropriately set up, owners report effortless journeys on their Cats — whether across town or across continents and this, and the engine’s great flexibility, renders it one of the all-time great all-rounders.
Unsurprisingly, owners tend to hang on to their bikes and act as evangelists for them and there’s a highly active and helpful forum (www.yamaha-thundercats.org) whose members also enjoy rideouts and holiday excursions with their like-mounted brethren. One vigorous subject of forum debate is rubber-wear for as with any bike, hard riding can equate to a prodigious appetite for rear tyres, and the YZF600R’s OEM Bridgestone BT20s tend to wear out after just a few thousand miles, while Michelin Pilots last rather longer if at a slight expense of surer grip in extremis.
I BOUGHT ONE
Tony Donnelly has owned his 1998 Thundercat, a parallel import from Germany, since 2000. He’s done some 23,000 miles on it which includes commuting from his job in automotive development for the Tata Corporation in the West Midlands, a lot of Sunday morning blasts and most memorably a 10-day, highspeed European holiday team-handed with two R1s, a couple of RSVs and a Blade ‘‘which it had no trouble keeping up with.”
«It’s very capable and very versatile,» affirms Tony, “and although a lot of other bikes have come and gone since I bought it — including an FJR1300, and a Fazer 1000 and his current project, a YD350 Powervalve — the Cat is the one I’ll never get rid of because although it may not be the most exciting bike, it does everything you ask of it and it’s just so dependable. I can pull off the cover after not riding it for a few months, turn on the ignition and it’s ready to go.»
Maintenance-wise all Tony’s done is replace oil, filters, chains, sprockets and brake pads and hasn’t had to touch the top end (valve adjustment isn’t due until 28,000 miles). Extraordinarily, the original Yuasa battery is still in situ and still holding its charge. His only extras are an immobiliser and a luggage rack, “because there’s no real need for anything else.»
As for tyres, Tony initially replaced the OEM Bridgestone BT20s with BT21s but found their grip and ‘feel’ inconsistent and after following forum advice chose the somewhat cheaper Maxxis Super Sports, “which were much more predictable, but wear out after 2500 or so miles. I’m now thinking Maxxis Super Touring might be more economical, at least for my kind of riding.”
SPARES, MAINTENANCE AND TUNING
As already mentioned, the Thundercat is a tough old bird, although like virtually any machine, it does have its Achilles heels.
The mild-steel downpipes for the four-into-two-into-one exhaust system rust out early and most are replaced with stainless items, and for around £180 specialist Delkevic (www.deikevic.co.uk) offers a system that runs all the way to the muffler. Needless to say, many owners then add an aftermarket end-can, but these tend to have little effect save for making ’em nosier.
The rear shocks tend to go bouncy after 12-15,000 miles if ridden hard, both Hagon and Ohlins offering cheaper and in the case of the fatter, arguably better replacements for the OE. Some owners fit stiffer springs for both rear and front suspension, especially if track days are on the menu, but that would seem to undermine the whole point of the Cat, The front calipers tend to stick if the bike isn’t used for longish periods and/or not kept clean, but strip ’n’ rebuild kits are available and it’s a relatively easy job. Much rarer but far more serious is a broken second gear that’s been consistently abused by clutchless changes: a rebuild could cost more than the value of an early or high mileage bike.
Those easily bashed replacement body panels — and there’s lots of them on a Cat — are now available from China at a fraction of the OE price and are of sufficient quality to satisfy forum members, especially when properly painted.
Popular mods seem to be limited to the usual braided hoses, uprated brake pads, and for serious mile-munchers, taller screens and luggage racks. Not much point in engine upgrades for as Tony Donnelly says: “If you want to go faster, buy a Thunderace!”
With a relatively short production life (19962003) and few changes before it was eclipsed by the faster if far less forgiving R6, mileage and condition are more crucial than age when shopping for a Cat. Bikes recently offered by dealers include an early silver and yellow 1996,17,000 mite example at £2200 to a dark red, one-owner 1999 model with 24,000 on the clock for £2000. But private sellers tend to be more realistic and if you want to risk the lack of warranty £1500-1900 could get you a very nice, sub-20k example, possibly with just one owner on its V5. Bargains all round, we’d say as prices won’t go much lower for good ‘uns, although dogs requiring work can be had for £500-700.
Copious protection offered by the fairing makes it tricky to inspect the state of the downpipes but potential buyers should make the effort. Ditto the state of the rear shock and brake calipers, and if second gear is graunchy, especially on higher mileage examples, walk away. Parallel imports like Tony Donnelly’s (above) aren’t necessarily to be avoided because speedo apart, they’re pretty much identical to UK market models, and parts are still plentiful, many of course interchangeable with the FZR.
Get a good one, and it’ll last if not forever, then at least until you decided to hang up your leathers and join the golf club.
Yamaha YZF600-R 1996-2003
Price new £6995 (Jan 1996)
Price now £1200-£2500
Engine 599cc, liquid-cooled transverse 4-stroke DOHC four.
Power 99bhp @ 11500rpm