No self-respecting collection of Yamaha dirt bikes could be considered complete without at least a couple of these iconic off-roaders among its ranks. For years, Yamaha have been one of the most important and competitive manufacturers of off-road motorcycles on the scene, and while many other brands have a strong presence in the segment, the engineers and designers at Yamaha have developed a reputation for outstanding excellence, thanks to their revolutionary designs, engineering prowess, and of course, their impressive performance.
You could always play it safe and careful by buying Honda dirt bikes, sure. You could always throw money at the problem and buy yourself an expensive but effective KTM. However, if you want the best of both worlds – an economical machine that won’t break the bank, that’s capable of overcoming any obstacle in front of it – then any model from the Yamaha dirt bikes line up will see you through. But which models are truly exceptional? Before we get into the list, let’s take a stroll through the history of Yamaha dirt bikes: when they first appeared, and why they’re so good.
The History Of Yamaha Dirt Bikes
The Yamaha company was first founded in 1887 by Torakusu Yamaha as a company that specialized in manufacturing pianos – if you’ve ever wondered why Yamaha’s logo features three tuning forks, well, that’s the reason why! As the company grew more successful it expanded and began producing a wide variety of goods, beginning with musical instruments and moving on to electronics, home appliances, and computer systems. Today, Yamaha is a multinational conglomerate that builds everything from golf clubs to robots, but it’s the company’s motorcycles that interest us the most.
Yamaha didn’t jump on the motorcycle manufacturing bandwagon until the 1950s though. The then company boss Genichi Kawakami decided to re-purpose Japan’s war-time production machinery to produce a small run of 125cc motorcycles. These first Yamaha motorcycles, a two-stroke 125cc road bike model called the YA-1, were such a success that the company formed the Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd in 1955. The first of many Yamaha dirt bikes didn’t arrive until 1968, but it was worth the wait.
The Yamaha DT-1, Yamaha’s first ever purpose-built dirt bike, was a 250cc two-stroke enduro machine that could tackle any terrain and offered exceptional performance. Many consider it to be the world’s first factory-produced dirt bike and it was such a global success, particularly in the United States, that is essentially spawned a whole new genre. Yamaha dirt bikes had arrived and changed the landscape, but their reputation for innovation didn’t stop there. When AMA rules changed to accommodate 450cc four-stroke machinery to tackle two-stroke 250s in the mid-90s, Yamaha introduced one of their most famous models: the YZ400F. Doug Henry rode the YZ400F into first place at an AMA Supercross event in Las Vegas, proving that four-strokes were a viable option for the future of the sport, with Yamaha dirt bikes riding on the crest of the wave.
From then until now, Yamaha have been at the forefront of the off-road motorcycle industry, engineering new technology and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible on two-wheels a little further every year. Whether you prefer motocross or enduro riding, or favor two-strokes over four-strokes, or old bikes or new, there are plenty of Yamaha dirt bikes out there to choose from to help you on your way to off-road domination. So which ones get our seal of approval? Here are out top 10 favorite Yamaha dirt bikes from then and now!
10 Of The Greatest Yamaha Dirt Bikes Ever Produced!
#10. The 1968 Yamaha DT-1
First up, let’s look at the first of the Yamaha dirt bikes: the legendary DT-1. After struggling US sales, Yamaha took a closer look at the market and spied a gap. Since purpose-built dirt bikes were few and far between, Yamaha decided to build something with a dual-sport nature, and unusually, they built it from the ground up. Rather than capitalizing on already existing Yamaha motorcycle technology, the DT-1 was 100% brand new in every respect. At its heart, the original DT-1 was powered by a 250cc two-stroke, single-cylinder engine that was capable of producing a heady 18 horsepower. Combined with a five-speed manual gearbox, it was potent enough to handle both the best and worst of on-road and off-road riding.
The engine prowess was one thing, but Yamaha also paid particular attention to the rolling chassis. The duplex cradle style frame was designed with high ground-clearance in mind, and was constructed out of tough materials that could withstand a fair degree of punishment. What’s more, Yamaha also added Ceriani-type front suspension to help (a telescopic arrangement manufactured from lightweight alloy materials) to help keep the DT-1’s overall weight down. When all was said and down, the DT-1 boasted a claimed 271 lbs. Naturally, these early Yamaha dirt bikes sold out in no time at all, and Yamaha had no choice but to produce a lot more of them, in a series of displacements from 50cc to 400cc to keep the public satisfied. While some claim that the DT-1 was the first serious factory produced dirt bike, it wasn’t really – but it might well have been the most important. It’s one of the most sought after vintage Yamaha dirt bikes out there.
#09. The 1974 Yamaha YZ360
While the Yamaha DT-1 line enjoyed a life that spanned between 1968 and 1985, others weren’t so long-lived. The Yamaha YZ360 didn’t enjoy the same kind of longevity, but for a couple of years in the mid-1970s, it was a two-wheeled god. When it first rolled onto the scene in 1974 it took the open-class motocross world by storm, and very few motorcycles could compete with it. Well, that’s not strictly true – brands like Maico, Bultaco and Husqvarna were in the same class in terms of performance, but they were miles behind in terms of build quality and reliability. And the YZ360 wasn’t just reliable…it was light…and incredibly exotic for a Japanese machine.
Like many old dirt bikes, back in its day, it was the king of innovation. Boasting a plethora of lightweight components milled from steel and aluminum, expertly milled features like the front hub, milled-down fork legs, and external reservoir shocks, the YZ360 was seriously advanced. The external reservoir shocks were an industry first, but Yamaha really hit the ball out of the park when they added another industry first, a rear monoshock, to their 1975 update. On top of that, the YZ360 looked the part, with its famous alloy gas tank held down with that classic “Y-shaped” strap, too. Unfortunately, it was a little over-priced in its day, and quickly lost its innovative advantages over copy cat competition, which led to its demise in 1976. Still, it’s one of the coolest Yamaha dirt bikes ever made.
#08. The Yamaha DT400 Enduro (’75 – ’79)
If you ask anyone to name one of the most respected Yamaha dirt bikes ever made, the chances are that they Yamaha DT400’s name will pop up. It’s enormously well-referenced and a list mainstay and for good reason. The DT400 was one of those bullet proof, fiercely capable, and incredibly versatile motorcycles that’s hard to forget. Powered by a potent single cylinder, 400cc, two-stroke motor that could deliver a decent horsepower to the rear wheel at 5,500 rpm, dish out 24 lb-ft of peak torque at about 5,000 rpm, hit top speeds around the 80 mph marker, and all that in a package that weighs less than 300 lbs. Back in the day, if you wanted a motorcycle that can thrash through deserts, stomp through deep mud, and cross rivers, then the old DT400 was your weapon of choice.
Why did Yamaha kill it off then? Like all good things, they must come to an end, and in ’79 Yamaha saw that the writing was on the wall for the two-stroke scene…they were a little premature with their rationale but rather than wasting time in the two-stroke game, Yamaha jumped straight in to the big four-stroke realm, replacing the DT400 with the likes of the 500cc XT and IT models. It was the end of an era, but recent whisperings on the wind hint that Yamaha may be interested in reviving the legendary DT name. In 2016, Yamaha executive Shun Miyazawa had this to say at the XSR900 unveiling: “Now we have the 700, 900 then I think we can definitely do something similar with smaller capacity. It could be [a] DT. After having found SR400, a similar capacity could be interesting.” So, the dream may not be over just yet…but we think we should let sleeping dogs lie.
#07. The Yamaha TT600R (’98 – ’02)
For many connoisseurs of Yamaha dirt bikes, the TT600R is hardly worth talking about. It wasn’t exactly the most exciting machine to have rolled out of the Yamaha factory, and it definitely was the most attractive – but luckily those two metrics aren’t the be all and end all for motorcyclists. Having a sexy motorcycle is all well and good, but ideally you want something that’s reliable, capable, and practical- and the Yamaha TT600R is all of those things. A solid base coat, if you will. Can it handle the trails? Absolutely. Can you ride it long distances on the asphalt? Most definitely. Is it easy to ride? Oh yes, it really is. And of course, it was as reliable as sin.
The drawbacks to these do-all motorcycles (apart from their lack of character and flare) is the fact that while they can do everything well, they don’t particularly do anything exceptionally well. If you want a motorcycle that can really thrash through the trails with the best of them, this ain’t it. If you want a motorcycle for lightweight touring, this isn’t the best choice. However, most motorcyclists can’t afford to house ten different motorcycles for ten different jobs in their garages, so Swiss Army Knife versatility is always a plus point…and that’s what makes this 595cc single cylinder four-stroke machine one of our favorite Yamaha dirt bikes. It’s a little vanilla, but sometimes that’s the best flavor.
#06. The 1973 Yamaha RT3
Old but gold, the 1973 Yamaha RT3 is definitely worthy of any list chronicling the great Yamaha dirt bikes of past and present. For many motorcycle history scholars, the Yamaha RT3 is often described as the last real Yamaha enduro style dirt bike from the golden age of enduro riding, for others it’s just another stepping stone between then and now, complete with all of the usual engineering gremlins that plagued these early machines. In our opinion, the RT3 is an icon that showcased the best that the dirt bike industry had to offer at the time. Sure, it ate through consumables faster than you could replace them, and the handling was a lot to be desired…but if the above mentioned TT600R is too sterile for your tastes, then the RT3 has more character than you’d ever know what to do with.
At its heart, the Yamaha RT3 is powered by an air cooled, two-stroke, 352cc engine that could produce a decent 33 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and reach speeds approaching 80 mph depending on how much food you had in your belly – because overall this little Yamaha only weighed in at around 280 lbs, so if you weren’t reaching the factory quoted speeds, you were either overweight or too scared. Either way, the RT3 is a gorgeous thing to look at and we have no idea why Yamaha haven’t optioned something like this for their Sport Heritage line…because an updated RT3 would sell out in no time at all!
#05. 1982 Yamaha IT465
As we mentioned earlier, the Yamaha DT400 was eventually phased out in favor of newer production lines – and thankfully for enduro riding fans, one of those was the IT line, which gave birth to the IT465. Now, the IT465 was quite a revolutionary machine. Taking on ideas from the YZ360, the IT465 came equipped with a rear monoshock – a feature that still wasn’t the norm on most off-road dirt bikes – and it still came in a two-stroke flavor. What’s amazing is that you can still pick these bad boys up in full working order in stock condition, with only the minor consumables being replaced, and the occasional carb upgrades too. And that’s pretty damn impressive for these heavily punished machines.
Described as one of the best International Trials motorcycles of its day, the IT465 garnered plenty of praise from the enduro racing world. In fact, a write up from Australia’s Dirt Bike magazine from back then described that a good rider could happily unload one of these Yamaha dirt bikes straight out of its packing crate and ride it straight into an International Six Day Trials event and ride to victory without having to set up the bike at all or tune it specifically for racing – that’s just how they came. Still, there are plenty of folks that don’t agree with the quality of the IT465…but on the whole, these machines were celebrated as excellent Yamaha dirt bikes.
#04. The 1978 Yamaha DT250
Ten years after the original DT-1 was released, Yamaha rolled out their next absolute gem: the DT250. In 1978, the DT250 came on the scene and took dirt bike riding to the next level. Designed as purpose-built enduro bike, the DT250 proved how far the scene had evolved. Rather than being a dirt bike purely for dirt riding, the DT250 combined off-road prowess with real world practicality, a combination that would prove to be a resounding hit. In short, the 1978 Yamaha DT250 was a motorcycle that could win enduro style races out in the wilderness, but you could also ride it around town and do your grocery shopping on too. And with a passenger if you’re friend doesn’t mind getting very “up close and personal” with your back side. It could do two up…but none of us really recommend it.
On paper, the performance specifications of the DT250 weren’t particularly inspiring or intimidating. The 250cc single-cylinder two stroke only produced a peak power figure of 17 horses at 6,000 rpm, and generated around 15.3 lb-ft of peak torque at 5,500 rpm. Fortunately, what the Yamaha lacked in guts in made up for with surgical handling, thanks to a lightweight frame that offered nimble and agile maneuvers. Better motorcycles existed for on-road riding…but if you were primarily looking for something that could really scramble and thrash about in the woods, then the DT250 wouldn’t be a bad choice. Even today it could still provide you with a thrill.
#03. The Yamaha YZ125
Any of Yamaha’s YZ125 models are included here, but we’re specifically talking about the most recent iteration of this absolutely fantastic dirt bike. While we like Yamaha’s “WR” family, we prefer the YZ beasts instead. The YZ models are designed for competition use and make little in the way of compromise. The YZ125 has been a staple in the Yamaha dirt bikes line up since the 1970s and it’s not hard to see why: it’s simple, effective, and an all-round, no-nonsense dirt bike that can get the job done. And it’s a two-stroke, which makes it even better, since many manufacturers have dropped their two-strokes in favor of cleaner, four-stroke technology.
The most modern version of the legendary Yamaha YZ125 comes equipped with a 125cc, two-stroke, reed-valve inducted single-cylinder engine that provides plenty of power that’s ideal for beginner riders but can keep experienced off-roaders interested too. The YZ125 also boasts quality KYB suspension, Nissin brakes, MX ready Pro Taper fat bars, light Excel rims, and serious Dunlop Geomax MX52 rubber to make the most of your ride experience. In real life, the bike handles well and delivers power exactly where and when you need it. Since it’s such a simple motorcycle, it really is hard to find fault with…and that’s why it has been such an amazing success. They’re not cheap though, and one of these little Yamaha dirt bikes will set you back around $6,499. But quality costs money, right?
#02. The Yamaha YZ250F
If you need more than the YZ125 has to offer, then the next level up should be exactly what the doctor ordered. The Yamaha YZ250F is a motorcycle that has already proven itself countless times as one of the best Yamaha dirt bikes on sale, and as one of the most potent dirt bikes in the world, with plenty of MX and SX championship accolades attached to it. This is the right tool for a lot of jobs…except road riding, because you won’t be doing any of that on one of these. However, the YZ250F is so capable you can literally say “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” and brap off into the distance without worrying about what kind of surface you’re riding over. In terms of how good it is, it’s Doc Brown good.
At the heart of the Yamaha YZ250F there’s a powerful four-stroke, liquid-cooled, 250cc single cylinder engine that comes equipped with a reverse cylinder head arrangement that delivers plenty of power in the low revs and decent pull all the way through to the top end. Thanks to some clever weight distribution, the bike is amazingly light and the front and rear which makes for excellent handling and balance, which in turn allows the Yamaha to scurry up steep inclines or navigate tricky trails with relative ease. It’s a competition winner, for sure, and the price reflects that. Yamaha give the current iteration of the YZ250F an MSRP of $7,699 which is more than fair considering what it can do.
#01. The Yamaha YZ450F
If the YZ125 is good, and the YZ250F is better, then the range topping YZ450F has to be the king. Designed new for 2018, the YZ450F is Yamaha’s ultimate off-road machine. As the bigger brother of the YZ-range, you can rest assured that the YZ450F takes the best technology from the other models and rolls it into one formidable package. Powered by a beastly 449cc liquid-cooled, four-stroke, single cylinder engine that comes equipped with four titanium valves and a rearward slanting cylinder, the YZ450F boasts plenty of torque and more power than most riders can logically handle. Despite the massive power, Yamaha have actually made the YZ450F easy to ride and controllable, even for a beginner – though we don’t recommend this bad boy for beginner riders.
Although it’s specifically tuned more towards enduro riding than anything else, it can excel at any kind of off-road riding you want to throw at it. To make it maneuverable and practical, Yamaha have treated the YZ450F with an all new frame with a slimmer profile than we’ve seen before, decent KYB suspension, strong brakes, an electric start, XC racing tires, and new from 2018 onward: a smart phone app that allows riders to tune their engine and get the best ride experience. As far as Yamaha dirt bikes go, this is as good as it gets and that’s why it gets the number one spot. However, as we’ve said before, leave this one for more experienced riders. And with prices starting at $9,199 for this beauty, we think beginners probably won’t be eyeing it up as their first choice…
While there’s no definitive “best” Yamaha dirt bike or unbiased buyer’s guide that can please everyone, these are just 10 of our favorite models in the wide range of Yamaha off road machines ever made. What do you think? Do you agree?