When Yamaha sent a genuine works 250 to Australia in early 1966, it was a whole new ball game. There had been works bikes in Australia before; as far back as 1936 Irish superstar Stanley Woods had brought a rare works 500cc Velocette with him on his whirlwind Australia tour. A pair of works Moto Guzzis, including the famed wide-angle 500cc v-twin, accompanied Fergus Anderson on his 1948/49 Aussie sojourn; reigning World Champion Geoff Duke brought two 4-cylinder 50cc Gileras with him in 1954/55, and a year later the Moto Guzzi team of Bill Lomas and Dickie Dale had a couple of the all-conquering 350cc and 500cc singles on which to stir up local opposition on their summer holiday Down Under. Tom Phillis and Jim Redman brought wellworn works Honda 250cc fours with them in 1962 and 1963, but by the middle of that decade, it was Yamaha that was the merging force on the Grand Prix scene. Late in 1965, it was announced that the Yamaha factory, a relative newcomer to motorcycle production compared to its Japanese rivals, would field one of its 250cc World Championship contenders for a series of races in Australia beginning at the Victorian TT at Melbourne’s Calder Raceway on February 13th 1966. Coincidentally, the meeting also saw the debut of another works machine – the 50cc Derbi ridden by factory rider Barry Smith.
The Yamaha coup had been instigated by Victorian distributors Milledge Brothers, and the deal was for the Yamaha factory to dispatch one of the air-cooled disc-valve 250cc RD56 works bikes to Melbourne at the conclusion of the 1965 World Championship at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. By this stage the RD56 was technically obsolete, having been replaced by the RD05 V4 at the Italian Grand Prix in September. The new V4 was at first unreliable, and Canadian Mike Duff scored the factory’s last win for 1965 on an RD56 (possibly the machine sent to Australia) at the Finnish Grand Prix in August. The RD56 made its debut in the final race of the 1962 season in Japan, and by the time the 1963 season rolled around, power had been increased by ten horsepower to 45bhp. It also had seven ratios in the gearbox and importantly, featured a much improved frame that was heavily influenced by the Featherbed Norton design. The new machine brought Yamaha its first GP win – the 1963 Belgian where Fumio Ito led home team mate Sunako in a famous 1-2 where both lap and race records were smashed. The RD56 recorded a top speed of 140mph on the long straights of Spa-Francorchamps, 10mph more than the best Honda. It could have been the start of something big, but Yamaha were still very short of cash following a failed venture into the scooter market, and were not seen again until the traditional season-ending race in Japan, where they recruited British rider Phil Read, who led for most of the race until the RD56 dropped a cylinder. Despite its prodigious turn of speed, the RD56 was a fairly conventional design that had its origins in the RD48 of 1961. It featured an aluminium alloy head and barrel (each barrel with three transfer ports) on a vertically-split magnesium crankcase; essentially two 125cc singles with individual pressed up crankshafts coupled by a central gear. Bore and stroke were 56mm x 50.6mm. A pump located on top of the gearbox pressure-fed oil to the big end and main bearings through the hollow crankshaft. The oil was contained in a tank in the
rear of the seat, while the top end of the engine was lubricated by a petrol/oil mix of 25:1. A magneto was also situated on top of the gearbox, gear-driven from the clutch shaft. In its ultimate form, the RD56 produced 48bhp at 11,000 rpm and weighed 120kg ready to race. Read brought Yamaha the 1964 250cc World Championship and consistent results from team mate Duff meant Yamaha took out the Manufacturers’ title as well. In 1965, Read and Duff finished 1-2 in the championship, but with Honda now armed with their 6-cylinder 250, the RD56 was pensioned off to make way for the new V4. And so the racing community in Australia eagerly awaited the arrival of the works Yamaha, superseded or not. Milledge had signed up young Geelong rider Alan Osborne in 1964 to ride the exKen Rumble Yamaha TD1-A, and he had rewarded them by winning the Australian TT at Calder. Milledge Sales Manager Earl Brooks was assigned the task of looking after the RD56 for the duration of its stay in Australia. Yamaha placed strict conditions on what could be touched and what could not. Brooks was not permitted to work on anything below crankcase level, as Yamaha sought to preserve its disc-valve technology. During its time in the country, the RD56 was insured for £12,000, which became $24,000 in February 1966. Osborne recorded four wins from as many starts in the RD56’s debut at the Victorian TT at Calder, but each was hard fought as he struggled to get the machine under way from the push starts. The Yamaha had been supplied with the same extra tall gearing as used for Suzuka, and was consequently way over geared for the tight Calder layout. The track was also in particularly rough condition and was completely resurfaced in the following weeks. Osborne struggled away last in the 8-lap 250cc TT, only snatching the lead on the final lap from Doug Saillard. It was a similar story in the 350cc TT, with Osborne hunting down leader Ron Toombs’ 7R AJS and squeezing past for victory. Dick Reid’s Manx Norton kept Osborne honest in both the Senior and Unlimited TTs, but the result was the same in each case.
Three weeks later, the public road circuit at Longford in Tasmania hosted the 1966 Australian Grand Prix, in what transpired to be the final appearance for motorcycles on the famous track. The high-speed layout was custom made for the
RD56 and Alan made short work of both the 250cc and 3500cc races before facing Reid’s Norton in the Senior race. However after leading for two laps and showing that the 250cc Yamaha had the edge in top speed over the 500 Norton down the 1.5 mile Newry Straight, Osborne felt the engine go off-song and he immediately pulled out, leaving Reid to win from Bill Pound. Various astronomical top speeds were quoted for the Yamaha (one newspaper stating that it had been electrically timed at 166 mph), and Longford’s slightly downhill main straight, at around 1.5 km in length, was certainly conducive to rapid motoring, but the true speed was somewhere near 140 mph, or 225 km/h – as fast or faster than the best of the big Nortons or Pound’s Vincent/Norton. With the engine refreshed by Earl Brooks, Osborne was back on the grid the following weekend for the Tasmanian TT at Symmons Plains. Smashing the lap record set by Tom Phillis on the 250cc Honda-4, Osborne led home Barry Smith’s rapid Bultaco to win the Senior TT, after earlier claiming the 250cc race. However his colours were lowered by Barry Smith, who took out the 350cc race when Osborne again had trouble getting the Yamaha to fire. The year’s premier event was the Australian TT, held for 1966 at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, and few expected to see anyone challenge Osborne and the works machine. In the 250cc TT, he chalked up Yamaha’s first local road racing title (the Australian TT being the official Australian Championship in those days), but once again, it was a long and lonely push in the 350cc event before he got under way. With his head down, Osborne went through the speed trap on Conrod Straight at 141mph (227 km/h) but just as he began to challenge Ron Toombs and Terry Dennehy for the lead, the Yamaha’s engine cut out, ending his weekend.
There was one more event on the RD56 schedule, the Open meeting at Oran Park on May 22. Despite the absence of established stars Kel Carruthers, John Dodds and Len Atlee, who were all in Europe, a large crowd turned out but Osborne and the works Yamaha failed to make the grid. In practice, Alan slid down and sustained an ankle injury that made riding, and certainly push starting, difficult if not impossible. Worse still, the Yamaha’s side-mounted carburettor ingested a helping of gravel and dirt, and with the embargo on any work within the crankcases, the machine was out of action indefinitely. After some months a replacement engine was sent from Japan but this was reportedly damaged in transit and could not be used. The now battle-scarred racer sat around in the Milledge workshops for the rest of the year and was finally crated up and returned to Japan early in 1967. Whether it still exists is unknown, but for a short period it was the hottest thing to hit the local scene in many a long day.
The RD56 exposed. Coils are mounted on the rear frame tubes.
Wide engine can be seen in the overhead view.
Push starting in the Bathurst pits.
Heavily gusseted steering head on the Norton-inspired frame.
ABOVE Exiting the Dipper at Mount Panorama. LEFT Magneto sits above the gearbox.
Rounding Hell Corner and about to open the throttle for the run up Mountain Straight at Mount Panorama.
Earl Brooks (overalls) checks the RD56 during practice at Bathurst, Easter 1966.
BELOW Osborne with the RD56 in the dusty pits at Bathurst.
Tidied up and with the fairing repainted after the Oran Park spill. Curiously, front brake appears different and rear shocks look like Girlings.