Yamaha RT1: The Keeper | CRANKED

I’ve wanted a Yamaha RT1 ever since I saw Danny Alverez riding his black 1971 model back in grade school. That motorcycle was an unholy beast fit for hell raising and finger pointing. Only the strongest kid could dream of starting the RT1. Heaving down on the kicker with all my 85 pounds would yield a moist, phlegmatic cough, followed by an unsatisfied looking fuel cloud wafting accusingly from the Yamaha’s tail pipe. It was a look that in married life I would come to know all too well.

If the Yamaha didn’t break my leg, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The harder it kicked back, the more timid I would become. This strategy fed the bike’s remorseless evolutionary mission to kill off the halt and the lame. I had as much chance at internal combustion with Alverez’s RT1 as I had strapping down a struggling, cat-suited Emma Peel from “The Avengers.”

Once running, though, first gear on that 360cc two-stroke would demolish our rag-tag collection of Briggs & Stratton mini bikes and Honda step-through 50s. And there were four more gears waiting for the rider with enough courage to use them. That RT1 caused brave men to lie awake at night, devising compression releases. What a bike!

I couldn’t afford a RT1 360 back then. My soda bottle return-for-deposit business, at 2 cents per bottle, was deep in the red just purchasing the doctor’s recommended daily allowance of chewing gum. Several years later, I traded a flathead six-cylinder Dodge pickup for a 125 Enduro. It wasn’t the same though—no off-the-bottom, torque monster response, no pipe-induced 6500-rpm brick wall, no broken leg, no fun. Besides, the 125 had electric start. A man’s got to draw the line somewhere. After the AT1, I completely lost my mind and wasted many years consorting with reliable, conservative, yet ultimately soul-killing four-strokes.

The year I decided to stop waiting for life to happen and began taking the battle to the enemy—my year of living dangerously—was 2006. I never forgot the lonely pop, pop, pop sound of Alverez’s grunty 360 threading its way through the pinewoods across the Ludlum canal. The very first item on my danger list was to finally get that RT1.

Months were spent watching eBay. I bid whenever a ’71 360 was listed yet they always rose to silly, baby boomer-fueled prices. Trying to find a good deal, because I’m fabulously cheap, a year passed lurking on auctions and trolling Craigslist. My efforts resulted in jack-all. Then one day Godzilla came online at $1600, buy it now. Thirty-five years of wanting and all it took to relieve the pain was the push of a button. Godzilla was mine.

Packing a few more unaccounted-for pounds behind my kicking foot, Godzilla and I have criss-crossed the country several times. We’ve ridden from California to Florida on two-lane highways. We’ve ridden the Trans America Trail; taken several runs from Florida to Oklahoma. I rode the bike back from Utah. Far from complaining about the long hours on the road, my enthusiastic wife drops me further and further away from the house. All told, more than 14,000 miles of relatively (except for that baffle incident) trouble-free riding have passed beneath the old Yamaha’s wheels.

Godzilla’s been featured in Motorcyclist twice. She’s a star, like Lady Gaga or something. And like Lady Gaga, the RT1’s not pretty but it was my legs that wore the paint off her flanks. My crashes have shaped the contours of her handlebars. My hands have kept her stuttering along America’s dirt roads and highways. Godzilla and I roam the American continent in search of the elusive altitude and jetting combination that will suit her bizarre requirements. If I ever find a spot where she runs right I’m going to move there.

Godzilla is rattling the same 0.025-inch oversize piston and rings through the same ventilated bore that came with the bike when I bought it; a feat modern four-stroke riders may find unspectacular unless they happen to also own one of those yellow DT400s. Through it all Godzilla’s piston beats a steady rhythm to my life. She’s a keeper, boys—the first thing I’ll grab out of a shed fire and the last motorcycle I’ll part with.

Some men grew up fearing the wicked Kawasaki triple, or Honda’s inline six. Gresh’s nightmares were populated by the Yamaha RT1, a beast he has since tamed.