The Yamaha TZs Were Motorcycle Racing’s Dominant Equalizers
Photography by Simon Clay, with historical images courtesy of the Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum Trust
Story by Rachael Clegg
If there’s one machine that shook the world of motorcycle racing, it’s the Yamaha TZ. Refined, understated, agile, and slim-line, the TZ was—in its ’70s heyday—the ultimate ambassador of Japanese race engineering. These bikes were sleek missiles back then; fast on the straights, and nimble around the corners. And with cut-out tanks and spoked wheels (at least on the earlier versions), they looked great too.
The production TZ 250cc and 350cc two-stroke racers were officially launched in 1973, but Yamaha had tested them in the 1972 racing season with none other than Jarno Saarinen, the “Flying Finn,” in the saddle (it was Saarinen who introduced the acute lean while cornering, a style later adopted by Kenny Roberts).
The TZ was designed to address the issues that plagued its predecessor, the air-cooled TR3/TD, while retaining the TD’s slender build, and the changes paid off in spades: Saarinen proved that the liquid-cooled TZ was unbeatable, winning the 1972 250cc World Championship on the prototype TZ. In 1973 he raced the 350cc TZ350 at the Daytona 200, and finished first, ahead of competitors on much larger capacity machines.
Sadly, however, Saarinen was killed at Monza mid-season in 1973. He remains the only Finn to have won a motorcycle world championship, and his reign as world champion proved that the TZ was Yamaha’s winning formula.
And perhaps even more remarkable was the fact that you could buy one over the counter. As a result, TZs penetrated the racing world: swarms of the two-stroke masterpieces circulated tracks across the globe, and suddenly, budding amateurs and aspiring racers had a shot against the big boys thanks to their Yamahas.
The TZ was, in other words, motorcycle racing’s “Great Democratizer,” as former TT and short circuit racer Dennis Trollope said: “The TZ changed everything. It was a machine very similar to a factory bike, but you didn’t have to be a works rider to own one.” After all, in 1973, a brand-new TZ with a full race spares kit could be had for around $2800. Derek Welch, who raced TZ 250 and 350cc machines from the 1980s until 2007, said: “TZs dominated the racing grid throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The ratio on any grid in any 250cc or 350cc class was always 70% Yamahas.”
Noel Clegg, who raced TZs throughout the 1970s on the Isle of Man said: “The TZ was a great machine and it was something working people could access. It had the massive twin leading shoe front brake, just like the works machines had, and even came with a spares kit. It felt like you had a factory-backed bike. The fact that it was water-cooled rather than air-cooled also meant that there were closer tolerances with the TZ’s pistons, which made it easier to race.”
The TZ brought Yamaha club, domestic, national, and world series championships. Indeed, the list of stars to have jockeyed these formidable machines includes, among many others, the likes of legends as Phil Read, Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Roberts, and Mike Duff. 8-time World Champion Phil Read said of these winning bikes, “The TZ 250 and 350 Yamahas were the beginning of the end for four-strokes. They enabled private riders to be competitive, challenging the factory bikes to give impressive performances, even in GPs.”
But there’s no greater testament to the TZ’s democratizing capability than Joey Dunlop’s first ever TT victory. Then a relative unknown, Dunlop won his first TT on a modestly-prepared privateer’s TZ250 (in a Seeley frame that happened to be handy at the time). Needless to say to those who know, but Dunlop went on to be the most successful TT racer in history. And yet, it all started on a TZ bought outside of any factory racing program.
So it’s understandable that the Sammy Miller Museum has created a shrine to the game-changing, revolutionary TZ series—only they’re not for sale this time. And certainly not over the counter.