Yamaha TZ Tributes

”They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing,” were the everlasting words uttered by Kenny Roberts upon winning the 1975 Indy Mile on a motorcycle with an over-powered liquid-cooled, four-cylinder, two-stroke 750cc engine designed for, and often victorious in, road racing.

Soon to be known as one of the most unruly race bikes ever, Roberts piloted it to a narrow victory during a race in which he bounced off several hay bales on his way to the checkered flag.

Roberts only raced it twice more, but the Indy race and King Kenny’s quote most likely helped propel Yamaha’s TZ750 dirt tracker into one of the truly iconic competition motorcycles of our time, permanently enshrined in the pantheon of moto legend.

Its utter power and brutality helped to bolster its cred, and the fact that the TZ750 is beyond rare has not hurt its cachet one bit. Almost 40 years from new, TZs and parts are quite costly, if you can find any.

About 600 machines were made in all, and they won a lot of road races around the world in their day. Now, well-heeled enthusiasts who enjoy certain pieces with extraordinary provenance want to own one, especially a tracker version.

This is precisely how the Jeff Palhegyi’s build of these two TZs came about — with an Upstate New York Yamaha dealer who, presumably, just had to have one. Ultimately, it was sent cross-country to the buyer in a gold metallic painted crate via FedEx 3Day Freight, but not before the bike got a turn to strut its stuff onstage.

Last December, at the Progressive International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, Calif., Yamaha unveiled two brand-new TZ750 flat track bikes alongside Yamaha’s 2014 production models. Much to the amazement of my untrained eye, they were replicas rather than restorations or originals. Comparisons of the original and the Palhegyi Design bikes did reveal inevitable differences.

One was decked out in the traditional American Yamaha colors of yellow-and-black made famous by Kenny Roberts, while the other sported 1977 FIM Formula 750 World Champion Steve Baker’s European-born Yamaha Motor Canada white-with-red/black graphic paint job, one that Yamaha later adopted in America. The builder chose the two different color schemes because he didn’t want to build two identical bikes.

Yamaha factory racers Cameron Beaubier and Josh Herrin were on the podium with the TZs and, after the crowds diminished, I met the builder — Jeff Palhegyi, owner of Palhegyi Design in El Cajon, Calif.

Palhegyi is a prolific designer and builder who is well known to custom motorcycle aficionados — especially Yamaha and Star fans, as well as to readers of this magazine.

Ultimate MotorCycling featured a Palhegyi Design Stratoliner Deluxe in our August 2010 issue, and took a custom Star Stratoliner he built in 2007 for a road test in Death Valley. More recently, his dirt track 1981 Yamaha XS650 won the Competition Sport Award at this year’s Quail Motorcycle Gathering.

We talked about TZs and Palhegyi told us that every last part on the bikes, save the engines, was fabricated in his shop utilizing the Solidworks CAD program and photographs.

“We had to reproduce the whole chassis, the swingarm, the suspension, the triple clamps, everything,” he explained. All parts are bespoke and handmade completely from scratch. He also assured us that he will not do this again.

When he told us that preparing the build took a year and, for example, he had over 100 hours labor invested in the expansion chambers alone, we knew it was a story that must be told. Palhegyi decided he would create tribute bikes rather than replicas.

“Other than the motor and bodywork, I pretty much didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to making them replicas,” Palhegyi revealed to us. “It would have added a tremendous amount to the cost, and I really didn’t want anybody to think that I was trying to pass them off as the real thing!”

Palhegyi’s association with Yamaha began in the late 1980s, working on ATV suspension systems. He was still going to college and contracted through a third-party. When the companies went their separate ways, he continued to work for Yamaha, although never as a direct employee. Palhegyi slowly started building up the operation into a one-stop shop that could do anything custom that Yamaha needed.

In 1995, Palhegyi was taken into the Yamaha “vault” to see a new cruiser there. It was suggested that he might be interested in customizing the new bike they had built. In 1996, he got his first bike project—a Royal Star Custom. By 1998, he had built as many as 20 Royal Stars, in his estimation.

After that start, Palhegyi did many of the Road Star magazine and press bikes, and has worked mostly on the Star lineup, including the Warrior and Roadliner since their inceptions. He continues his relationship with Yamaha to this day.

Palhegyi’s TZ fascination began in 1998 — he saw a TZ at Daytona and caught the bug. A friend of his in Alabama had one, for which he paid $5000. Recently, he spent $42,000 for one in the same condition and, laughing, says that is what has happened to the prices on TZs in the last 15 years.

“You get kind of addicted to these old race bikes,” Palhegyi shares, with a twinkle in his eye. “You realize how crude they were and how fast people went with such crappy equipment. Life is too short to be building stuff and doing projects that require so much work unless you’re completely motivated and excited by it. So, that’s what I’m gonna do.”

He also adheres to the idea that if you are going to build one, then building two will be better— one to keep, of course. Palhegyi has owned about 25 TZs, trying to make a little money on each and trade up to a better bike along the way.

“There are no more $5000 bikes. No 500s. No 750s,” he says authoritatively. “500s are super rare and the value of the smaller bikes is starting to go up. The 350s and 250s and 125s were $2500 then, and $12,000 to $15,000 now.”

Over the years, he has done myriad deals sourcing TZs and their parts. While this story is about two tribute bikes, Palhegyi’s history is thoroughly authentic TZ. Much of the reason to put the effort into these bikes was because the engines became available. Having bought and sold so many TZs, he has innumerable stories about how he got his hands on each piece. Most leave the listener wide-eyed with a slack jaw.

Palhegyi tells the story of a Japanese motorcycle museum owner whose death, long ago, resulted in the liquidation of the bikes, many of which ended up at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles and then filtered down to other owners. One TZ ended up at an auction. Palhegyi spotted it and bid, but the bike never achieved its $12,000 reserve price.

Later in the day, he saw this bike in the no-sale corral and was shocked to see that it had serial number 1. Thoughts of this haunted him for the next few weeks as he did his homework tracing the history of the machine. He discovered that the bike had been essentially stolen from Yamaha by their team after a race at the Sugo track. It was then sold and ended up in that museum, or so the story goes.

Needless to say, Palhegyi contacted the seller, went to visit, made a deal for less than the reserve price. Further examination found that the bike was “the prototype bike for the monoshock TZ750,” Palhegyi tells us. “It’s got a lot of prototype weird stuff on it.”

With the permission of the new owner, Palhegyi showed the TZ at the recent AIM Expo in Orlando after making a deal to include it in the K&N filter booth. Because the TZs have a rack of K&N filters on them, and K&N has a long history with Kenny Roberts, it was a natural. Roberts stopped by and it was a real success, with some calling this the best-of-show. No doubt, fans all want a photo with Kenny Roberts and a TZ750.

Palhegyi believes that there are only two or three TZ750s that the public can view — the Steve Baker bike in the late Steven Wright’s famed collection, and the Kenny Roberts bike at the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame museum.

People love multi-cylinder two-stroke history and, after Roberts rode Ray Abrams’ TZ at the Indy Mile five years ago, interest renewed and has increased dramatically. People always seem to gravitate to a TZ in the wild.

After AIME, the Long Beach show was just a week away. Bob Starr, General Manager Communication at Yamaha, called and said he was interested in doing a West Coast unveiling of these two bikes at the show. Palhegyi brought five bikes, including our two subject TZs that went on the podium. Attracting a large crowd, the fans were very excited and couldn’t keep their hands off the bikes.

Palhegyi is enthusiastic about the current state of the motorcycle industry. There are many projects and lots of things he can’t talk about, but he likes the direction in which popular style is moving.

His opinion is that, “bike building has completely changed. It’s gone from ‘buy every piece of chrome you can stick on your bike’ to ‘buy a bike and see what you can make yourself.’” He also notes that billet has fallen out of favor.

He attends many motorcycle auctions and reports that billet-covered, chrome and fancy bikes, some which previously sold for $75,000, are bid to $8000.

“Nobody wants them. You can’t give them away. And choppers, choppers are worthless,” Palhegyi says. “They are only worth the value of their motors. The only thing that is really going on and has staying power are the baggers. They are purposeful, and exploded out of the chopper craze.”

Custom baggers and café racers, or just that garage-built retro look, “are the two areas where I see a lot going on” Palhegyi says, “and I think the garage-built kind of thing is strong and the scrambler will be coming up in popularity.”

This is going to be led by people who have the same drive and desire as the big builders, but don’t have the disposable income. “They still want to customize stuff. They still want to make stuff that’s cool. They’re just doing it themselves.”

Palhegyi is bullish on high-quality vintage bikes. “Stuff that’s really rare is a good investment,” he says. “It’s good stuff; it’s a fun way to put your money into stuff you can enjoy and fire up once in a while and get all excited.”

As for these two examples, both were assembled with freshly re-built motors and modern electronics. They start and run and reportedly sound amazing. “If you have ever heard one of the original TZ700s run, they ran these pipes,” Palhegyi says, “and it is very cool.”

One bike now sits in a friend’s collection, and Palhegyi kept the other. When asked about riding it, he says he plans on starting his soon, but doubts he will ride it far.

Palhegyi has over 3000 square feet of Yamahas and racing memorabilia at his home, though he does have a 1916 Harley-Davidson eight-valve, and a solitary Triumph. Working with his team four 10-hour days a week leaves Fridays for the fun stuff.

Other than pizza delivery in high school, he has worked for Yamaha his entire professional career. “It’s been fun and they’ve been good to me,” he says. “I plan on it being my last job, too.”

Photography by Ryan Hagel, RCH Designs

Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.