For this edition of Classic Steel we are going to take a look back at Yamaha’s all-new YZ250 for 1996.
The 1996 Yamaha YZ250 was new from the ground up and quite a departure from the machine that had dominated magazine shootouts the year before. Photo Credit: Yamaha
The early nineties were a good time to be riding a Yamaha in the 250 class. The YZs were not as blisteringly fast as the Honda CRs, but they offered far better suspension and a great do-it-all chassis. In 1995, this culminated with an excellent machine that captured the majority of 250 magazine shootouts and took Jeff Emig to second in the 250 National Motocross standings. The ’95 YZ offered a smooth and easy-to-ride powerband, great suspension and solid handling. It was not as sharp in the corners as some of the competition, but it offered by far the best overall 250 package of 1995.
Literally every feature of the YZ250 was modified, redesigned or reimagined for 1996. A new chassis shortened the wheelbase, reduced weight and increased rigidity for improved handling. Photo Credit: Yamaha
For 1996, Yamaha decided to retire their shootout winning deuce-and-a-half design and introduce an all-new YZ250. Reimagined from the ground up, the ’96 Why-Zed featured an all-new chassis, redesigned bodywork, reworked suspension and a majorly massaged powerplant. Even the color was new, scrapping the lavender and lighting bolts of ’95 in favor of a new deep blue that mimicked the looks of Emig’s ‘95 factory racer. Slimmer, sleeker and sexier than ever before, the ‘96 YZ marked a major departure from its slightly stodgy predecessor.
In 1995, Yamaha’s U.S. factory team had ditched the stock YZ’s white bodywork for a deep blue hue that was quite a shocking change from the team’s previous looks. For 1996, that dark blue made its way to the stock YZs for the first time. While the shades have changed slightly over the years, blue has remained the dominant YZ color ever since. Photo Credit: Yamaha
A new airboot for ’96 improved airflow by repositioning the airbox and straightening the air intake. Photo Credit: Yamaha
Heading up the changes for 1996 was an all-new chassis that shortened up the wheelbase, lowered the center of gravity, and improved ground clearance. The redesigned frame featured a lower steering stem and slacker geometry than the ’95. The wheelbase was also trimmed 3mm and paired with all-new suspension front and rear. Out back, a new swingarm was bolted on that offered less flex and shifted the weight bias forward slightly for improved cornering response. The Monocross linkage was also completely redesigned to offer smoother performance and better traction. Up front, all-new 46mm KYB forks looked to stave off the switch back toward conventional sliders. Finishing off the chassis changes was all-new bodywork that was slimmer through the middle and flatter on top.
Mid-way through the 1995 season, Damon Bradshaw made a crowd-pleasing return to motocross after his surprising retirement at the end of the 1993 season. For 1996, The Beast From The East was back on Yamahas and at least initially, back up front. Podium finishes at the first two rounds had many predicting a return to glory for the mercurial star, but a 19th at round three dashed any hopes of finally capturing that elusive 250 title. By the end of the series, Damon had carded three podiums and finished in a rather disappointing 7th overall. Photo Credit: Motocross Action
Believe or not, these new firework graphics for 1996 were considered quite tasteful and understated by mid-nineties standards. Photo Credit: Yamaha
In order to feed more air into the new motor, Yamaha designed small vents into the top of the rear fender. Photo Credit: Yamaha
On the powerplant front, the new YZ featured a highly modified version of the 1995’s 249cc mill. The ’96 version retained the original drum-type YPVS valve used since 1982 and paired it with an Exhaust Gas Resonance (EGR) chamber to boost low-end torque. A new lighter piston was spec’d and combined with a new cylinder and head that upped compression slightly over the ’95. Feeding fuel and air to the motor was a new 38mm Keihin PWM carburetor and completely redesigned air intake. The intake was moved 10mm inboard and offered a straighter shot from the airbox to the carburetor for increased air velocity. The new airbox also offered more volume and better flow due to an innovative vent built into the top of the rear fender. Handling the exhaust duties was an all-new “low-boy” pipe and shortened alloy silencer that looked to both boost power and centralize mass.
A new piston for ’96 was 18 grams lighter and featured a slightly thicker crown for improved durability. Photo Credit: Yamaha
On the track, the new YZ offered a very different personality for 1996. What had made the 1995 machine so effective was its smooth and always-hooked-up powerband. It was not as outright powerful as the CR, or as hard-hitting as the KX, but it offered an electric style of ponies that could find traction on any surface and pull the YZ to the front. For 1996, all that was out the window.
Even the carburetor was new for ’96, with a 38mm Keihin PWM handling the mixing duties. Photo Credit: Yamaha
For 1996, Yamaha repositioned the linkage and revised the rising-rate to improve ground clearance, increase traction, and provide a more-progressive action. Photo Credit: Yamaha
The new motor ran absolutely nothing like the outgoing mill and offered a short and punchy style of power that came on late and gave up early. There was very little torque below the midrange and virtually no pull on top. All the bike’s power was situated dead center in the midrange and keeping it on boil required quick reflexes and a fast left boot. Once on the pipe, it was reasonably fast, but that thrust was over almost as soon as it got started. The new YZ actually ran much more like a blue RM than a typically easy-to-manage Yamaha 250. It had none of the earlier YZ’s powerband flexibility and required a “gun-and-run” approach to going fast. Pin it, slam in another cog, and pin it again. If you let it fall below the midrange, or tried to squeeze out that last gear a bit too long, the YZ threw out the anchor like a Tornado 250 on Mount St. Helens.
The 1996 YZ250 maintained the same basic motor design it had used in ’95 with some minor tweaks. The drum-style exhaust valve (in use since 1982) was back and paired with an ATAC-style exhaust resonance chamber to boost low-end torque. Photo Credit: Yamaha
The comeback kid: In 1995, Factory Honda’s Doug Henry had been badly injured in a spectacular crash at Budds Creek in Maryland. Surprisingly, Honda proceeded to drop their injured two-time 125 National Motocross champion at the end of the season. Thankfully though, Yamaha was willing to take a chance on the recovering Henry and give him a ride for 1996. Although he would start off slowly, by the end of the year, he was starting to show flashes of his old speed on the new machines. This comeback would culminate with a hugely emotional second-moto victory at Washougal in August. Two years later, Doug would deliver Yamaha their first 250 National Motocross title since Ricky Johnson in 1984. Photo Credit: Donn Maeda
On the suspension front, the new YZ was only slightly more successful than in the motor department. For 1996, Yamaha tried to improve the handling of the YZ by beefing up the front of their middleweight machine. A new set of 46mm Kayaba forks were spec’d and paired with redesigned clamps and a larger 20mm front axle. The new forks retained the “mid-valve” design of 1995, but added a larger piston for the cartridge rod and 3 additional millimeters of diameter for the upper stanchions. The new clamps were also stronger in an effort to decrease flex under heavy loads.
Even though the basic architecture of the ’96 YZ250 motor was little changed from the year before, it ended up running completely differently. Whereas the ’95 motor was smooth and broad with a long pull, the ’96 version ended up being short on breadth, with a punchy delivery and quick turnover. Photo Credit: Yamaha
After the long pull of the previous few years of YZ250s, the new burst-motor came as quite a shock to long-time Yamaha owners in ’96. The new motor offered very little low end and even less top end. It ran much more like an early-nineties RM than any YZ250 since the Reagan era. Photo Credit: Motocross Action
Because of its short power spread and meager overall output, the ’96 YZ required precision and commitment to generate competitive speed. On hard pack, it was reasonably effective, but if the soil was deep and loamy, you were going to be left sucking on red and green vapor trails. Photo Credit: Yamaha
On the track, the new forks proved a step down from the 43mm KYBs they replaced. They were harsh in action and undersprung for anyone above 150 pounds. With a typical 250 pilot aboard, they hung down in the stoke and banged to the stops on any decent-sized obstacle. This droopy nose also gave the bike a stinkbug stance that played havoc with the bike’s handling until the chassis balance was sorted out.
The Runt: At 41.7 horsepower, the ’96 YZ250 gave up three to four horsepower to the most powerful bikes in the class. Photo Credit: Dirt Bike
A beefy new 20mm front axle helped make the YZ‘s turning more precise for ‘96. Photo Credit: Yamaha
Although its motor was not particularly impressive, the handling of the ’96 YZ was the best ever seen on a tuning-fork machine. Once the chassis balance was sorted out, the YZ offered solid turning, commendable stability and excellent aerial manners. Photo Credit: Yamaha
Out back, the YZ suffered from a different issue. From 1993 through 1995, many riders had complained about the rising rate of the YZ250’s linkage and claimed it was prone to dropping through the initial part of the travel under acceleration. Both DeVol and Noleen made a killing in these years selling replacement links to alleviate this issue. For 1996, Yamaha addressed this problem by redesigning the entire Monocross rear suspension system and bolting on a new KYB shock. The new rear suspension repositioned the linkage mounts and offered a completely new rising rate. The swingarm was also redesigned to reduce flex and provide better rear-wheel traction.
The new bronze-colored 46mm Kayaba cartridge forks found on the ’96 YZ looked cool, but worked poorly. From the factory, they were undersprung, poorly damped, harsh in action and prone to a tooth-rattling bottoming. Photo Credit: Yamaha
The effect of all this rejiggering was a different, but not necessarily better rear suspension experience. The new rising-rate linkage got rid of the old bike’s rear-end drop under acceleration, but had the opposite effect of making it feel too stiff. The initial part of the travel was harsh and the bike kicked and chattered on acceleration bumps. Once it moved deeper into the curve, the shock became too soft and struggled to prevent bottoming. It was both too hard, and too soft at the same time.
Like the front, the rear of the new YZ was harsh in action and prone to bottoming on hard hits. Small bumps jackhammered your backside and big leaps left a large patch of black rubber on the underside of the rear fender. Photo Credit: Yamaha
While the motor and suspension on the new YZ turned out to be a mixed bag, the new chassis proved a more successful upgrade. The new bodywork allowed much easier rider movement and the bike felt lighter than its 229 pounds. Turning was improved over ’95 and the bike maintained its reputation for solid high-speed handling (once stiffer springs were installed and the balance was sorted out). It was certainly not going to dive under an RM or CR, but neither was it going spit you off down that fifth-gear straight. Overall, it was a nice compromise between stability and precision.
Beastmobile: For 1996, the works Yamahas kept the blue color of the stock YZs but added a blue frame and front fender to distinguish from the stock machines. Photo Credit: Dirt Bike
While most people lauded the new YZ for its slim profile and trim lines, knee brace wearers had to endure a constant battle with the rear-most radiator shroud mounts. This little piece of plastic loved to hook on rider’s knees and bow out, leaving an ugly white crease in that lovely new blue plastic. Photo Credit: Motocross Action
After years of playing second fiddle to Honda in the braking department, Yamaha pulled an end-around in 1996 and switched from Nissin to Akebono components. The new master cylinder offered a lot of adjustment and far better power than the year before. Photo Credit: Yamaha
In the details department, the new YZ proved impressive in some areas and disappointing in others. The 50th redesigning of the YZ gearbox since 1982 once again proved ineffectual at providing decent shifting feel. Missed shifts and a notchy engagement remained a YZ “feature”. The clutch was also panned for its feel, although it did prove durable. The new bodywork looked great and most people liked the slim ergonomics, but the new seating position proved very cramped for those over 5’9”. The new shrouds also had an infuriating habit of getting hooked on knee braces and trying to pop out of their mounts.
One area where Yamaha really dropped the ball in 1996 was in the quality of the wheels. Both the rims and hubs proved alarmingly fragile and failures were a common occurrence. Photo Credit: Yamaha
Controls for ’96 were also a bit of a mixed bag. The stock steel bars continued to offer the funkiest bend in motocross and everybody hated the YZ’s palm-chewing grips. Yamathumb lives! Lever quality was decent, but crashes that would leave a slight tweak in a Honda lever would snap a Yamaha one in half. On the braking front, the YZ did make a major stride in ’96; after years of trailing Honda in braking, Yamaha broke ranks for 1996 and ditched Nissin in favor of an Akebono master cylinder. The switch worked, and the new YZ offered the most competitive Yamaha brakes since the days of drums.
After his up-and-down Supercross season, Damon Bradshaw enjoyed a similarly tumultuous outdoor campaign. Podium finishes at Glen Helen and Washougal (pictured), were offset by double-digit finishes at Unadilla and Broome-Tioga. By season’s end, both Bradshaw and Yamaha had soured on their relationship and decided it was best to move on. Photo Credit: Motocross Action
On the endo list for ’96 were the Yamaha’s wheels. Both the butter soft rims and fragile hubs proved problematic at best. Hard riding was sure to cause a failure and exploded wheels were an all-too-common occurrence. On the bright side, at least the motor proved reliable. This was exactly the opposite of Yamaha’s new 125 for ’96, which was rocket-fast, but prone to premature expiration.
In 1996, Yamaha made a lot strides in overall design, but the final product lacked the polish necessary to run at the front of the 250 class. The new-look YZ was too slow and too soft for hardcore motocross, but the basic DNA of an excellent racer was under that new blue skin. Within a few years, this 96-pound weakling would be transformed into the 225-pound gorilla of the 250 division. Photo Credit: Yamaha
Overall, the 1996 YZ250 turned out to be a major disappointment for Yamaha fans. It looked great and offered a lot of potential, but was saddled with an anemic motor and poorly set-up suspension. With a little work and some fine tuning, it was capable of winning races at the highest level, but as delivered, it was a novice machine at best. For Yamaha fans, the great days of YZ250 dominance would have to wait for a few more years.
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