Motorcycle History: Yamaha YZ125 – The First Water-Cooled MX Bike

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Each week RideApart looks back at key milestones in motorcycle history from technical innovations to significant model introductions to racing successes and, of course, some of the disastrous things we’d rather forget. This week it’s the first ever water-cooled motocross bike – Yamaha’s ubiquitous and highly successful YZ125.

Liquid cooling is nothing new in the motorcycle world. Pre-war manufacturers had used the system on road bikes but it took until 1981 for a water-cooled motocross bike to be launched.

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1974 Yamaha YZ125

Yamaha’s first introduced its YZ125 in 1974. It came with dual rear shocks and a 125cc, two-stroke, air-cooled engine. The following year it adopted Yamaha’s then revolutionary monoshock, which it has retained right up until it was discontinued in 2005.

However, the biggest change to the YZ125 didn’t arrive until 1981 when Yamaha’s engineers designed a cooling system for its engine making it the first dirt bike in the world of motocross to become liquid-cooled. (As an aside, the air-cooled Yamaha YZ125’s were the G models – VIN numbers start with a 3; the water-cooled models from 1981 became the YZ125 H with VIN numbers beginning with a 4).

There was initial skepticism from the media and Yamaha’s customers who couldn’t see a reason for Yamaha to make the YZ125 ‘wet’.

Principally it was done to increase the lifespan of the engine, especially the top end parts. On a regular air-cooled 125 the top end needs new rings after every race. With a water-cooled engine it could last as long as four races before any freshening up was needed and with a lower compression ratio just a single ring was used.

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1981 Yamaha YZ125

Yamaha used a small aluminum radiator mounted behind a bulky front cowl for the YZ125’s water-cooled system. Rather than have long hoses going from the engine to the radiator, water was routed through the YZ125’s triple clamp and steering head. This effectively meant there were no hoses that could be twisted or stretched. The new water-cooled system, including the radiator, added around 9 lbs over the air-cooled version’s wet weight of 198 lbs.

Dirt Bike Magazine said at the 1981 launch of the water-cooled Yamaha YZ125: “The bike works well and the water cooling is a big plus for a rider at any skill level… Our first test riders were on the new bike and it felt plenty quick, but it didn’t overwhelm us.
After half an hour on the water-pumper, we slung a leg over the 1980 air-cooler. Wow! The difference was more than apparent. The water-cooler’s midrange is much snappier and throttle response throughout the range is more positive.”

There was no difference in power output between the air-cooled bike and the water-cooled version. Both developed around 33 hp. The top speed was the same, but the water-cooled version was a little quicker in acceleration with a broader power band. Maintenance was a lot easier on the water-cooled rather than the air-cooled version as you didn’t have to constantly keep taking the off the engine head. Other than normal nut and bolt tightening before using the liquid-cooled YZ125H, you just needed to check the tiny radiator’s fluid level. Then you were good to go.

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2002 Yamaha YZ125

The Yamaha YZ125’s were produced between 1996 to 2002 and are regarded as some of the best dirt bikes of their generation due to their wide power band and terrific handling. In those years they were also ridden to five AMA National Motocross Championships and multiple regional Supercross championships.

Have any of you ever owned or been able to ride one of these early 1980s YZ125s? It would be great to hear if you thought they were as good as some people claim.

Related Links:
Motorcycle History: 25 Years Ago Today – BMW First to Offer Antilock Brake System
Motorcycle History: 50 Years of Full-Face Motorcycle Crash Helmets
Motorcycle History: 26 Years Ago Today – Radial Motorcycle Tires

  • sospeedy

    “The Yamaha YZ125’s were produced between 1996 to 2002…” I am confused by this statement as YZ 125s are still made to this day.

    Anyhow, a used 1986 YZ125 was my first bike. It was a compromise with the parents who said “no way!” to a street bike as I was approaching licensing age. I rode that YZ as much as I could (and skipped out on high school regularly to do it!). I learned how to maintain and strip down the engine and chassis, raced it for 2 years, then moved on to a YZ 250 in 1991. That little YZ ignited my passion for motorcycles! So…I thought it was pretty good!

    • PowersportsWebmaster

      Hey sospeedy. I had a 1986 YZ125 too. I raced it for a few years, then got an ’89 YZ250. I started racing in 1978 on an XR75 Honda and had Yamaha’s and Suzuki’s after that, but my favorite race bike was always that ’86 YZ. It didn’t get the best reviews in the magazines and I raced it pretty much box stock, expect for an aftermarket pipe, but I loved it. Wish I still had it!

  • Chris

    My first bike was a 1980 YZ125, great suspension and super light. Notice how the chain is on the right side like a European bike on the 81 water pumper pictured. The 80 air cooled version of that motor lived on in the IT200 which was the best trail bike I’ve ever ridden because it was so light and had such mellow power. I dream of Yamaha reintroducing a green sticker legal (smog compliant) trail bike again.

  • Jordan

    Not trying to be rude, but that’s not a 2002 YZ125 pictured above. Yamaha didn’t start using that frame until 2005.

    Really wish I could find one of those 2005+ bikes gently used on Craigslist. I’ve read they’re one of the best two stroke bikes you can buy, but finding one that hasn’t been turned into an urban wheelie king with Monster energy graphics is near impossible, unless you want to pay $2500+ dollars for it and still have to replace the shift stopper on the 2005-2007 bikes and hope that the reservoir piston assemblies in the forks haven’t been cracked from hard landings.

  • travis

    yamaha 125 is sick

  • travis

    2012 is best

  • Jeff Hirtle

    The first water-cooled Yamaha 125 was ridden by Tim Hart at the 1975 Hangtown National. And the principal benefit of water-cooling is the late moto prevention of power loss due to the engine getting too hot, as was the case with all air-cooled motors back then, amplified in the 125 class due to the relatively low output of a small motor.

  • MidLifeMX

    I bought a 1981 YZ125 the day they came out (September 1980). That thing was awesome! It’s major flaw, that it was top heavy, was also what was so exciting about the bike! It was great for doing wheelies! The next year I bought a 1982 RM125 and I can understand why the magazines named the RM top dog. The RM’s power band was broader and it’s handling was more suited to a motocross track. The YZ’s power came on all at once but that was more exciting. The YZ’s handling seemed better suited to desert racing because the front end was lighter. Now, many decades later, I wish I had that YZ!