Yamaha’s RD350LC: Of a gen­er­a­tion

It’s the noise and ac­cel­er­a­tion above 6000rpm that is still so ad­dic­tive; the sud­den burst of ac­tiv­ity ev­ery time the throt­tle is wound back in anger and the 347cc two-stroke mo­tor comes alive.

Motorcycle Monthly - - Retro Super Cool - Words: Roland Brown Pho­tog­ra­phy: Phil Masters

You might think the thrill would have worn off af­ter all these years, es­pe­cially now so many bikes pro­duce far more per­for­mance than this el­derly ma­chine from the early Eight­ies.

But if the RD350LC can no longer de­liver the gi­ant-killing speed on which its mighty rep­u­ta­tion is based, the lit­tle Yamaha still puts a broad smile on its rider’s face with ev­ery ride. So much so that, if you were to make a list of the most pop­u­lar mo­tor­cy­cles of all time, it should surely fea­ture promi­nently. In fact when a cer­tain weekly pa­per re­cently held a vote to de­cide just that, the ‘Elsie’ came out on top – ahead of the FireBlade, R1200GS and all the rest.

That’s quite an achieve­ment for a hum­ble Ja­panese twin that pro­duced less than 50bhp and had a top speed of not much more than a ton, but for many rid­ers Yamaha’s raw, racy LC was the high-per­for­mance bike of its day. Cer­tainly, few ma­chines can have brought so much fast and fu­ri­ous en­joy­ment to so many as the liq­uid-cooled two-stroke twin that Yamaha un­leashed in 1981.

In many ways the LC had the lot: speed, ex­cite­ment and han­dling – plus rea­son­able prac­ti­cal­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and econ­omy. Al­though it had an ap­petite for fuel and two-stroke oil, it was rel­a­tively cheap to buy and to run. And it looked great too, with a re­strained style that con­trasted with its out­ra­geous per­son­al­ity. No won­der it was such a suc­cess.

The RD350LC was a de­scen­dant of the string of out­stand­ing air-cooled two-strokes with which Yamaha had es­tab­lished an un­matched rep­u­ta­tion for mid­dleweight per­for­mance. The line had be­gun with the YR1 model in 1967. And through­out the Seven­ties, mod­els such as the 350cc YR5, RD350 and RD400 had kept the tun­ing-fork logo to the fore. The ‘RD’ ini­tials stood for race de­vel­oped and were well earned be­cause most of the Yamaha twin’s gains in per­for­mance and re­li­a­bil­ity were due to the firm’s ef­forts on the track.

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly the ini­tial re­ac­tion was not uni­ver­sally pos­i­tive, with some testers won­der­ing whether the LC was too peaky and ag­gres­sive to ap­peal to more than a lim­ited sec­tion of the mar­ket. Well, maybe it didn’t ap­peal to ev­ery­one – but for all those rid­ers look­ing for high per­for­mance on a low bud­get, no other bike even came close. With a 110mph top speed, wheelie-pop­ping ac­cel­er­a­tion and race­track cred­i­bil­ity, this was the stuff of a speed-crazed teenager’s dreams.

The LC needed lit­tle help to be­come a hit for Yamaha, but it got some as­sis­tance any­way in the form of a hugely pop­u­lar one-make rac­ing se­ries. This be­gan in Bri­tain as the RD350 Pro-Am Se­ries, con­tested by a mix­ture of pro­fes­sional and am­a­teur rid­ers (hence the name) in­clud­ing fu­ture 500cc works GP racer Niall Macken­zie. They rode iden­ti­cal LCs, pre­pared by Yamaha and al­lo­cated af­ter keys were drawn out of a hat.

The re­sult was out­ra­geously close, ag­gres­sive, crash-lit­tered and gen­er­ally spec­tac­u­lar rac­ing, which be­came un­miss­able TV view­ing for mil­lions at a time when bike rac­ing was rarely seen on the box. The orig­i­nal Pro-Am chal­lenge soon led to an in­ter­na­tional se­ries that in­cluded rid­ers from many Euro­pean coun­tries plus Aus­tralia. In the last cou­ple of years, some of the orig­i­nal stars have squeezed into their leathers to take part in Pro-Am re­vival races, con­tested on re­stored LCs. Re­li­a­bil­ity was one of the LC’s many at­tributes, both on road and track, al­though it wasn’t in­fal­li­ble. En­gine studs some­times broke,

and ex­hausts cracked due to en­gine vi­bra­tion be­fore the de­sign was changed. Yamaha mod­i­fied the carbs to pre­vent mis­fir­ing, re­vised the rich-run­ning oil pump and the beefed-up the ex­haust mounts with tie-rods un­der the en­gine. They also in­tro­duced a new black/red ‘Mars Bar’ colour scheme, along with an op­tional bikini fair­ing and belly-pan and, in some mar­kets, a full fair­ing.

The orig­i­nal LC’s reign was short, be­cause for 1984 it was re­placed by an all-new model, char­ac­terised by the new ex­haust, whose flap moved at cer­tain revs to op­ti­mise vol­ume for both high- and low-speed run­ning. The YPVS, or Yamaha

Power Valve Sys­tem,

gave slightly stronger midrange de­liv­ery with no loss of top-end, and led to the bikini-faired Yam, of­fi­cially the RD350LC YPVS, be­ing known as the Power Valve.

Other mods in­clud­ing a bikini fair­ing, air-as­sisted forks, ris­ing-rate shock and tube­less tyres helped make it an­other hit. That mid-Eight­ies pe­riod of the Power Valve’s rule was prob­a­bly the high point of the RD350LC’s ex­is­tence, but the model was not fin­ished yet.

The fully-faired 350LC F2 and naked 350L N mod­els were also fairly pop­u­lar, partly be­cause switch­ing pro­duc­tion to South Amer­ica helped keep prices low. The fully-faired LC ini­tially had a rec­tan­gu­lar head­light, then went to twin round head­lights in the early Nineties, re­main­ing in Yamaha’s range un­til 1994 as the RD350R.

With its per­for­mance lit­tle changed, the Yam’s rep­u­ta­tion had in­evitably faded, and most young rid­ers dreamt about the more glam­orous and ex­pen­sive FZR400RR four in­stead.

By the time the two-stroke was phased out in the mid-Nineties it had lasted in its var­i­ous forms for well over a decade, it had sold in huge num­bers all over the world, and it con­firmed its sta­tus as the ul­ti­mate poor boy’s su­per­bike.

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