Tim Carrithers: 1975 Yamaha RD350 - Revisionist History

Retracing The Trajectory Of Yamaha's Original Pocket Rocket

It was a moment that didn't matter to anyone but me. We're driving up 19th Avenue in Golden Gate Heights. A San Francisco Police Department Harley rumbles alongside our 1964 Cadillac Fleetwood, close enough to feel. I look up through a rain-spattered rear window at a motor cop looking down at me. I smile. He nods. The light goes green. I can see his right wrist roll back and the deal is sealed. I wanted something like that. Wanted it like my dog Cadbury wants the pound and a half of tri-tip on the kitchen counter. With pure, perfect focus and a faraway look in 10-year-old eyes.

It didn't happen right away. When it did, the something that actually materialized was about as far from a '69 Harley-Davidson Police Special as you could get, but the hook was set. Deep. My father was an excavating contractor and incurable gearhead. This much I knew. Putting a motorcycle in our garage would be easy as long as I played to his weakness for solid, smart machinery. No recoil-start mini-bikes, thanks. Briggs & Stratton engines were for mowing the lawn. Preliminary research told me he'd go for something that looked like a real motorcycle scaled to fit pre-adolescent dimensions. Something my 6-year-old brother could at least aspire to. Yamaha obliged with the '70 Mini Enduro: a 60cc rotary-valve two-stroke single that looked like a 1/4-scale DT-1. That begat a red-and-chrome L5T-A Trailmaster-Yamaha's 100cc answer to the Honda Trail 90-after my little brother Mark cried every time I got on the Mini Enduro. After the Trailmaster went to a watery grave I still don't like to talk about, we swapped its remains for a bright-yellow HT1 M, a.k.a. 90 MX, a.k.a. Scourge of the Neighborhood and bane of every Honda SL100 at the after-school outlaw Uvas Creek Grand Prix. The AT2-M that took its place was rendered obsolete by Honda's CR125 Elsinore and my new driver's license. The parental units never regained their original enthusiasm for the whole motorcycle thing after my 80-mph endo on the '74 RT360A. May it rest in peace. So the '77 RD400D was my show from the minute it rolled out of San Jose Yamaha until we fished its sad steel bones out of Bidwell Creek, which is another sad story for another day.

Every motorcycle that lived in our garage during my formative years was a Yamaha, all because of a guy called Joe Bellina, owner of Bellina Cycles in Hollister, California. He was pure old-school: honest, opinionated, hardworking and chain-smoked Camel straights. Dad became a fiercely loyal customer roughly 15 minutes after walking into the gritty little showroom. Seeing Joe's son Dave's 750cc Yamaha flat-tracker did it for me. He was an AMA Expert, blindingly fast, and always treated me like another guy who rode motorcycles instead of some customer's kid. In other words, he was a god. And when it came to setup, maintenance or modifications, my dad took Joe's advice as gospel. Inviolate. After all, Joe was the one-man sales and service department. He tuned Dave's 750 for the same sacrosanct dirt ovals that Kenny Roberts rode. Roberts, whose name was pronounced around our house with the same reverence as the President of the United States, rode a Yamaha. Case closed. Coming home on a Honda would've been roughly equivalent to shaving my head and showing up for Thanksgiving dinner in flowing orange Hare Krishna robes. My father would have had me deprogrammed or deported or worse.

What you rode once upon a time says a lot about who you were. Or at least who you wanted Nancy Bliss and the Keahey twins to think you were. I'm not entirely immune to the national nostalgia epidemic. Certain facets of 1972 beat the h-e-double-hockey sticks out of 2009. If I'm honest, with myself at least, the AT2-M was not one of them. You can't go back home. If you try, it won't be the same. I drove by the old house once. Some aesthetically impaired band of heretics had painted the garage purple and there was a '78 Honda CX500 decomposing in the driveway. Revisionist history leaves Memory Lane undisturbed while allowing a detour to the way you wanted things to be. To those who actually owned a spanky-new 183-lb. CR125 back in high school and never had to i.d. some corroded steel frame as the skeletal remains of your 50-horsepower RD400D: You've had your fun. This is my story.

I never owned an RD350 when you were either on one or chasing somebody else's. I was trying to convince Carrithers Savings & Loan that $908 for a '74 RD was an investment in the future. Nice try, but no dice. This despite the fact that no less sterling source than Cycle magazine put the bike in a class by itself. "An expert's motorcycle in every sense of the word, it is a superbike that simply happens to be short." I carried the December '74 issue until it disintegrated, memorizing all the best road-test lines. "It is stiff and taut and at times has a shade of race-bike reluctance." "Twisting the throttle open in low gear produces a gradual, easily controllable wheelie. A full-power shift to second brings the wheel back up about a foot. Through third and into fourth gets you to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds and the scenery is beginning to blur at the edges." I resented my 360cc single for what it wasn't. Yamaha 350s had been beating up on bikes more than twice their size in AMA roadracing for years. But the dream did not die. When a friend offered up his pristine '75 for $1000 back in '96-$211 less than Yamaha's original sticker price-I wrote the check.

Unlike the ill-fated '77 400, this RD was 100 percent stone-stock, and I planned to keep it that way. After evicting a few literal and figurative bugs from the intake tract, it would click off low- to mid-14-second quarter-miles and ran out of steam at 95 mph at the top of sixth. After a few rides, I parked it under a MG Mitten cover that used to protect my dearly departed '78 Honda Civic. The Dunlop F11 front tire and K95 rear were above average rubber for the day. They were also of legal drinking age in '96 and genuinely scary just to look at. I'd lever on something suitable as soon as I had a free weekend.

Thirteen years later the bike is sitting in my friend Jim Cooksey's garage in Palmdale, minus the wheels, which are being fitted with a pair of Avon Streetrider tires. Fortuitous discovery number one: Mr. Cooksey misspent some percentage of his youth ripping up the Antelope Valley on a Kawasaki H2 triple, and taking pity on my current lack of garage space, volunteered his. What happened next is more like a miracle: After replacing some quantity of very old unleaded with fresh stuff and bringing the kick-starter up against the 6.6:1 compression, we worried. It blubbered. I prayed. It started. Once the choke came off, it spun up to 3500 rpm in a cloud of blue smoke and it was 1975 all over again: some good, some bad and completely different.

Even a stock RD requires major adjustments. It's small: maybe two-thirds the size of a modern middleweight. It weighs 352 lbs. ready to roll: 76 fewer than a new Yamaha YZF-R6. It's also lower, shorter, narrower and somewhere between quick and twitchy when you wick it up. Without the appropriate historical context, the brakes don't, suspension doesn't either and the engine seems better suited to an industrial-strength leaf-blower. But recalibrate your mental circuitry to the year Tiger Woods was born and it's like watching Jaws again. The rubber shark is obvious, but it still gets your attention. Low revs are tolerated, but not happily. The party starts at 6500 and ends just as quickly 1000 rpm later. Backroads that were narrow on a 100-plus-horsepower 600 become boulevard-wide, making 60 mph feel more like 90. Even at that clip, the steel footpeg mounts looped under the mufflers drag earlier than I remember and there's nothing you'd recognize as engine braking. After alternating between fear and frustration for the first six corners, I catch myself checking the trip meter to see if there's enough unleaded left to check out Spunky Canyon. There is. Along with just enough 10w-30 on the muffler to tell me the shift-shaft seal has had enough for one day. There's a cold Widmer Hefeweizen waiting for me at home and some Bel-Ray Si-7 for my friend.

It was a good ride. Better than most, and punctuated with the sort of moments that still don't matter to anyone but me. If that brings the whole story right back where it started now and again, it's okay by me.

My friend Jim Cooksey helped breathe life back into the RD because he's a nice guy ... and because I let him ride it whenever he wants.
After nine years of suspended animation, the only mechanical glitch was a sticky piston in the front brake caliper. Liberal amounts of patience and brake fluid restored function to 1975 levels.
Orange paint on the 3.2-gallon tank comes complete with visibly ironic orange-peel. Stripes were designed by Molly, the '70's design guru who came up with Yamaha Yellow and Kawasaki Green.
Gear oil snuck through a keyway on the primary gear and into the right cylinder on previous models, prompting the only engine change for 1975: an o-ring on the crank near said primary.
Aside from one peeling decal, paint and plastic bits look just as they did the year Wheel of Fortune premiered on NBC. Odd angular artifact in the foreground is called a kick starter.