Buzzing down Martin Mill Pike, I clicked the bike into third gear and threw it into a hard right corner. Remembering this was a buddy's borrowed bike, I backed off a bit but not for long as the DiClaudios' "Killer Bee" Yamaha RD350 just kept begging for more. The tires stuck well, the brakes had good feel, and the suspension felt predictable. All in all, it was just about everything I could wish for in a vintage bike. I was thankful as I pulled back into their driveway in one piece, and I could totally understand why there is an urban legend that states that the "RD" in the name actually stands for "racing death."
The RD350 is a 1970s-era Yamaha that is powered by a two-stroke, twin-cylinder engine with a displacement of 348ccs. The RD's power band is very peaky thanks to its two-stroke power plant, but in actuality the peakiness of the motor is one of the traits that makes this bike so much fun to ride. A single disc on the front and a drum brake setup on the rear stops the bike, and (for its time) its weight of around 350 pounds wet was feather light.
As of most other bikes of the era, the RD350 is fitted with 18" wheels, which means that there is a pretty good selection of sticky vintage tires for the bike. Noteworthy technical innovation on the RD350 include the first set of reed valves on a two-stroke Yamaha and the addition of seven port cylinders, which allowed the bike to put out 39 hp at the crank. While 39 hp doesn't seem like an excess of power, in its day the RD350 could embarrass 750cc bikes with the right rider onboard.
Out of the box, the bike's styling is classic Japanese 1970s standard, which could either be great or boring depending on your likes. Fortunately, bikes such as the RD350 can easily be manipulated to look the part of a screaming café racer, buzzing dirt tracker, or even as a dual-sport machine depending on your taste. With just a few simple changes such as bars or a new tail, the bike's looks can easily be changed to suit the owner's preferences, whatever they may be.
Every bike does have its downsides, and Yamaha's mighty RD350 is no exception. First and foremost, the fuel economy is pretty abysmal (two-strokes generally are known as heavy fuel sippers) as the bike only gets around 25 mpg if you're generous with the throttle like myself. Secondly, the environmental aspects of the bike are iffy at best and downright bad in the eyes of the EPA. Lastly, although the maintenance is easier on a two-stroke, it is needed more frequently—so if you don't want to be wrenching very often, the RD350 may not be the best choice for you. Blue smoke aside, if you can get over the awful gas mileage there really aren't that many downsides to owning a Yamaha RD350.
The RD350 was only produced between 1973 and 1975 before finally subsiding to its younger cousin, the cleaner burning RD400. For a bike that was only produced for three years, it has made quite an impact on the motorcycling community. Calling it a cult bike would most definitely be an understatement as this bike is loved for its perfect combination of light weight, agility, and power output.
As far as price is concerned, this is truly a workingman's motorcycle, with RDs in decent shape commonly going for around $1,000. A pristine example could fetch in the neighborhood of $2,500 to $3,000, but generally 80 percent of RD350s go between $1,000 and $2,000. Being a two-stoke also means that the bike is relatively easy for everyday folks to work on (since two-strokes don't have valves to worry about) which is as big of a money saver in motorcycling as any.
In the Knoxville vicinity I was able to find several RD350s for sale ranging from $400 for a non-runner to $2,650 for a heavily customized bike with a fairing. Of all the RDs I saw for sale, my personal favorite was a good running RD350 in Northern Alabama that looked pretty good cosmetically for the bargain of $800. I would expect that with a simple carburetor cleaning that this particular RD would be about the best fun that $800 could buy.
Something about Yamaha's two-stroke RD350 is definitely intoxicating. I'm not sure whether it's the smell of premix during a morning ride or the feeling of keeping the bike perfectly wound up in the power band, but the RD350 definitely delivers a riding experience unique to itself. At the price point that you can find RD350s at on today's market, it has to be one of the most fun bikes your can get for your dollar out there.
Two-Stroke Power Band
Easy to Work On
Low Gas Mileage
Dirty Exhaust Emissions
More Frequent Maintenance
Engine type: Twin Two-Stroke, 347 cc
Power: 39 hp @ 7500 RPM
Cooling system: Air
Weight (Wet): 357.1 pounds
Front Tire: 3.00-18"
Rear Tire: 3.50-18"
Front Brakes: Single disc
Rear Brakes: Expanding brake
Top Speed: 105.6 mph
Fuel Capacity: 4.23 gallons