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Bikes You Should Know: Yamaha TW200

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Bikes You Should Know appears most weeks as part of Two Wheel Tuesdays. Since Hooniverse primarily caters to automotive enthusiasts, this column focuses on historically or culturally significant motorcycles that are likely to interest a non-riding audience.


Some of the bikes I’ve profiled in the Bikes You Should Know series are notable for their remarkable speed, engineering wizardry, or prominence in motoring history, but are not something you are likely to ever likely to personally swing a leg over. And unless you are both an experienced rider and the owner of a very fat wallet, you really shouldn’t want to. While you should know about them, they are movie stars and exotic supermodels, not girls-next-door.

But today’s profile is a bike that is perfect for a novice rider. Approachable, easily manageable, unintimidating — slow, even. On the other hand, it is deeply beloved by riders who have more bikes in their history and more riding miles under their belt than you can imagine. It’s been around for decades, and it’s still available brand new at your local Yamaha dealer at an affordable price ($4,590 MSRP for ’15). It’s the Yamaha TW200, and it’s a bike everybody can love — and nearly all do, once they get to know it.

THE BACKSTORY

Yamaha BW200 Big Wheel

Yamaha BW200 Big Wheel

In the mid 1980s, ATVs were all the rage, but the original 3-wheeled ATV configuration was found to be so significantly flawed that the four large Japanese manufacturers consented, under pressure, to a decree by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban 3-wheelers, starting in 1987. The manufacturers were forced to leverage the popularity of balloon-tired off-roaders through innovative new approaches. Suzuki came up with the first 4-wheel ATV in 1982, and by 1985, all four big Japanese manufacturers were selling various four-wheelers. That year Yamaha introduced an unusual, though logical, derivation. Instead of adding one wheel to a 3-wheeler, they removed one, creating the BW200 “Big Wheel.” It was built like an ATV, but it’s two fat, low-pressure tires where in line, like a motorcycle.

The BW200 was an oddity that only lasted four years, but it spawned a couple of other similar machines. Honda sold the FT200 Fat Cat for two years (’86 and ’87), and Yamaha introduced a larger version, the BW350. The problem with all of these “two-wheeled ATVs” was that their extremely low-pressure tires handled pretty poorly on hard-packed surfaces and felt a little wonky to ride and steer. Also, like an ATV, they couldn’t be ridden on the road, a disadvantage compared to the many dual-purpose trail bikes on the market. By the time the ’90s dawned, they were all out of production.

However, in the middle of the BW200’s production run, Yamaha introduced an even more quixotic machine, one that was truly a hybrid of conventional motorcycle and off-road ATV technologies. It was called the TW200 Trailway. Instead of the BW’s marshmallow-ish ATV tires, the TW’s tires, while nearly as gigantic, were as hard as an Olympic volleyball player’s abs. Unlike the BW200, which was very limited in where it performed well, the TW performed great on any terrain, anywhere, with nearly any rider.

Yamaha never perfected the recipe for a two-wheeled ATV, but they did create the perfect go-everywhere geocrawler.

An early TW200 with drum front brake.

An early TW200 with drum front brake.


WHAT HAPPENED

What happened? In some ways, not much. The TW200 for sale today is not much different than the original model. Switchgear and charging system components changed a bit over the years. The displacement increased by 25 cc in Japan, though not in the US. The only big changes came in 2001, when Yamaha dropped the kickstarter and added a front disk brake. Other than that, the most notable year-to-year differences have been body color and graphic changes.

hotlapBut what really happened is that riders who started out on a Trailway held onto them after they gained confidence and experience because they were just so damn much fun to ride. Other riders who had long since moved from trail bikes up to big, fire-breathing road rockets found out that the TW200 recaptured the simple fun that had drawn them to motorcycles in the first place.

In both the US and Japan, a cult of owners have customized TWs into every possible configuration. Intrepid adventurers have loaded TW200s down with supplies and set off on unimaginable journeys; riders have crossed mountain ranges and continents with them, and a TW200 was the first motorcycle to reach the North Pole.

WHY IT’S SIGNIFICANT

The TW200 has been around since 1987, and despite its low-tech features and old-style, air-cooled, 2-valve, carbureted motor, it still sells well in this age of multi-map EFI and computerized traction control. That’s twenty-eight years.

The TW200 proves speed is not the be-all, end-all of motorcycle fun. The motor has a reputation for being a bit of a dog, but it’s a friendly dog, and certainly nowhere near as anemic as other cult favorites such as the Trail 90 or Ruckus. The suspension, with about 6 inches of travel front and rear, is a good compromise between trail comfort and street handling, while providing a seat height that accommodates shorter riders.  It is fantastic on the road, if you don’t try to go too fast. It is fantastic in the dirt, if you don’t try to go too fast. It’s cheap to buy, gets fantastic fuel economy, and will run nearly forever with only the most basic of maintenance.

There is probably not another motorcycle I could recommend to more people. Tall or short, novice or experienced, timid or bad-ass: The TW200 is the intersection where all of them can meet, ride together, and have a hell of a lot of fun.

IMAGE SOURCES: Wikipedia, kickstarter.org, & Toshi225’s GeoCities Page.
Lede photo is a Yamaha press photo. Visit the 2015 TW200 webpage here.

  • Because of my somewhat Benjamin Button-esque career as a motorcycle rider (starting on a KZ650, it was 10 years before I rode anything smaller) I recently found myself in the market for a small dual-sport bike of the 80% dirt / 20% street variety, and the TW200 was definitely on my radar. I have a friend with one who says it takes the fire road to her vacation property better than a DR350. I ended up with a DRZ400S, but I'm advocating for my first-time-rider, 5' 4" housemate to get a TW200. Hell on tall bridges in the wind, I imagine, but so is Honey Bunny's DL650 V-Strom, due to it's expansive profile and low weight. Like driving a rudder.

  • marmer01

    Wow! A Suzuki Trailhopper for grownups! I'm kind of a big guy, sure wish it came with a little more displacement.

  • Waywords

    Dang.

    You did it. You've converted me.

    I have always been a hard core anti-motorcycle guy since witnessing a gruesome accident 35 years ago. I swore I'd never ride one.

    Then this series started and, because I read Every. Damn. Article that Hooniverse publishes, I've been reading and enjoying it. Setting the bikes in context and the vivid descriptions of the riding experience got me to realize that a lot of fun could be had on a bike for not much money. The relative simplicity of the mechanicals probably means that my rather dormant wrenching skills, honed on early 60s British roadsters, might actually be useful.

    Then this Yamaha called out to me. Simple? Check. Cheap? Check. Easy to ride? So says the Tanshamoni, and no one knows better. And something about those fat tires just seals the deal. I WANT ONE!

  • Jeff

    We've been using these puppies to teach new riders for 15y and they cannot be broken (and new riders can do things to a bike that seasoned riders couldn't imagine in their widest dreams). We still have around 20 and they are the bees knees.

  • My fantasy road trip rig is a pickup with a small camper, and a small boat on a trailer. This looks like it will fit nicely on a bumper mounted rack to finish off the setup!

  • st1100boy

    I did the MSF basic ride rcourse in 1987 in Minot, ND on a TW200. Fun bike as I remember. Fun enough to truly hook me. 27 years and over 200k miles later, I'm still a bike junkie with no plans for rehab.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    I want simpler.

    1986 Honda Trail 110…

    12V electrics, centrifugal clutch, dual-range trans, large wheels…done.

  • Johnny Ro

    A wonderful reminder. Thanks Mr. T.

    Best accompanied by a weekend home out in the mountains or other boondocks. Japanese use this as serious city bike, a huge mod scene as the picture shows.

    Keeping this non-technical, US readers should de-EPA the carburetor, using two $0.05 #4 washers. The TW forum is a great resource. Can be made into a dead serious intercontinental machine.

    Feel like a kid again for cheap.

  • 2cver

    So how does this compare to the XT250? Just picked up an '80 model and can't wait to get it running after sitting for years.

    • Rover_1

      Pretty much the same, but with more ordinary tyres.

  • jeepjeff

    On the advice of this fine column, I bought one. It was $5100 out the door, it did 90 miles on its first gallon of gasoline (per the odo; definitely more than 80 based on the route I took) and has been a blast to ride. As of this posting, I’ve got 160 miles on it. And yeah, it isn’t fast, but it doesn’t struggle to hit top speed (around 60 indicated). It is a riot for a hooliganmobile to blast around on in the East Bay.

    I’ll report back again after I get it in the dirt.

    • jeepjeff

      Finally got it in the dirt after over a year of ownership. It’s great in the soft stuff. It’s still not fast. I now have a middle weight bike (Yamaha FZ-07) for going fast. And even though that bike is an incredible street bike, the TW200 is still a ridiculously fun bike to ride and I have no intention of ever selling mine. Fantastic starter bike, and it doesn’t lose its charms as you move up in the world. (I’ve got about 6000 miles of riding under my belt now, about half of it on the Tdub.)

    • Batshitbox

      I have joined Club T-Dub, what’s the secret gang sign I should throw?

      http://hooniverse.com/2016/11/29/last-call-going-commando-edition/

  • kr

    I just to one of these and have been on the dirt a couple times with the standard knobby tires… it does a great job moving over rough terrain. I have new tires that I am getting ready to install.. they are the bridgestone TW204 Trail Wing.. they look a lot smoother ride and also have trail capabiltiies.

  • ThatGuy88

    I have a TW200 that I mainly ride in the Pine Barrens of NJ. It’s perfect for the deep sand and an absolute blast to ride. You can’t help but smile riding the thing.

  • phastphil

    Suzuki actually had 2 bikes that were street legal that had tires almost as big as the BW200. They were made in the 70’s RV90 and 125 I think . I always thought it would have been good to offer the TW in a 350 version too.

    • jeepjeff

      Suzuki still makes the RV125, and it has the same tires as the TW200. They just announced that they’re bringing the 200cc version of that bike to the US. EDIT: Looks like they re-introduced the RV125 in 2003, but it was not sold in the US.