Life on bikes

The RD 250. This is what the fuss was about

The late seventies were cold dark and wet. The economy was failing, unemployment on a massive scale was just beginning and nuclear war was forecast. The only real relief from the unremitting gloom was watching Sally James on Tiswas.

In those pre-internet days me and my malcontent school age skateboard punk mates had nothing better to do than wander the streets at night.

Occasionally we’d hear that crackly exhaust noise, catch a whiff of two-stroke smoke and wander toward the cul de sac where a couple of goons would be disturbing the peace by popping wheelies on antisocially loud smoking two stroke bikes. We were awestruck of course and desperately wanted some of that action.

Becoming a knobhead on a motorbike was the natural next step for many of my associates. Options were limited to second-hand 250cc bikes. Back in those days it was possible to get a provisional license and slap a pair of L plates on any bike up to 250cc and ride away with no training whatsoever.

The big question was what bike to get? Ignoring the zillion smaller bikes available the options were the Kawasaki KH250 with its reputation of being an evil handling bastard (I borrowed one for a few weeks once, it wasn’t all that bad), old Suzuki GT 250s which looked like they’d been designed in East Germany or the glorious Yamaha RD 250.

The RD had the looks, character and appeal to turn the heart of any young boy and instantly became the only object of desire for me and my hombres.

RD stood for Race Developed, which was accurate. Yamaha had a long racing history feeding their development and RDs were raced in all sorts of different categories. They were lightweight and when you hit the powerband they took off like a scalded cat.

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Yamaha produced two-stroke twin cylinder bikes as far back as the late fifties but the bikes I would call recognisable RDs were produced from 1972 onward, initially with rather old-fashioned utilitarian styling which was updated around 1976/77 to the classic slab sided beauties with speed block graphics that typified the look of the era.

We didn’t care about any of that, though. They were loud, annoying, brightly coloured and dangerous and old people complained about them. That was enough for us. We were helplessly in love from first sight. To own an RD and ride it like a dick was to be the coolest kid on the estate and became every spotty kid’s dream.

Sally James tiswas with bucket
As if we’d let a mention of Sally James on Tiswas go. This is what we want!

The RD 250 weighed 152k dry and produced 30 bhp as standard. That’s a recipe for fun even today. Kawasaki’s 250 Ninja R offers pretty much the same power and weight in spite of being a four stroke twin.

But no one bought an RD with the intention of keeping it standard. RDs were in production a long time which had the knock on effect that new, used and performance parts were in good supply. The two most important things on a new RD owner’s shopping list were handlebars and expansion pipes.

Obviously dropped handlebars will add 50 mph to the top speed of any bike and adding 70 decibels to the exhaust’s sound output will provide another 50 mph as well as attracting women. Stickers, paint jobs, little bikini fairings and custom racing seats were desirable but not essential.

The more individual owners, or those that learned the hard way would fit high wide cow horn handlebars to help keep the front end down and under control during the more spectacular wheelie away from the High Street traffic lights on a Saturday afternoon.

Early RD 250
It wasn’t just Sally that was good looking. This early ’round’ tank is too. Owner: Steve Burgess

If you take a look at an RD they are pretty damn simple. There’s plenty of room to get hands and tools in and around the motor. Anyone could take one apart with a basic set of spanners. As well as adding go faster (go louder) bits an owner could easily service or rebuild their own RD. A lot of kids learned their mechanics skills in their dad’s garages scraping the crap out of exhaust ports and removing baffles.

If the 250 ever got boring there was always the 400. Exactly the same bike with more CCs, power and a disk on the rear. These bad boys weighed very slightly more but chucked out 44 bhp which even these days is a very entertaining power to weight ratio. As it was identical to the 250 it was a simple job to swap the 400’s sidepanels for a pair with ‘250’ on them and no one, including the police, would be any the wiser. Not that I condone that sort of thing of course. I just heard about this one kiddie who did it once.

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The character of the RD, and the typical owner, was deliberately obnoxious, sticking two fingers up at pretty much everyone, dropping two gears and leaving them all coughing in a cloud of blue two stroke smoke. That’s the usual nostalgic memory of past owners. And their neighbours.

Honda sold thousands upon thousands of 250 Superdreams during the late seventies and on through the eighties. They weren’t actually bad bikes but they looked sensible, were bought by sensible people for sensible commuting and although it’s possible to see an occasional one on the road, they’re not loved, revered, restored or pimped up like RDs. The whole being a hooligan thing seems to be what people remember and love about the Yams.

Classic RD 250
Lovely 1977 model. Owner, John Robert

The ‘Race Developed’ tag meant that Yamaha continued to work on the RD and in 1980 they rolled out the next model, the RD250 and 350 LC. They were improved in every way, lighter, more powerful with superior handling thanks to more modern suspension and brakes. And they were just gorgeous to look at.

But something was missing. They sold extremely well of course but by the early eighties the law in the UK had changed restricting learner riders to 125cc bikes which cut Yamaha off from many of its traditional customers.

Although the LC was an exciting ride it wasn’t quite the hooligan that the air cooled bikes were. The old RDs cooling fins would ‘ring’ in sympathy with the vibration from rising and falling pistons. Air cooled RDs came with little rubber strips pushed between the fins to try to reduce that annoyance but they never lasted long.

Combining that ringing with a peashooter expansion pipe and a complete disregard for other people, the sound of a full spec knobhead’s RD could set your teeth on edge two streets away. At close range they could be deafening.

Although they’re fucking annoying there’s something fantastically attractive about a bike that asserts its presence in such an unmistakable way. The LC with its water cooling and standard pipes burbled and crackled nicely but was actually very civilised in comparison.

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A few years later the following YPVS version added complexity to wring a genuinely shocking (contested) 52 or 59 BHP out of its 350cc engine. There were no 250s then as there was no market for them after the 125 law came in.

The YPVS was, according to MCN “the nearest thing to a road going racer ever produced” which turned out to be a bit of a problem really. Genuinely racey in that you had to be a skilled rider to keep it in its power band to get the most out of it. On a track it was tons of fun, very popular. But on the road it was just tiring hard graft. I worked with a kid who commuted on one. He hated it.

The YPVS was functional but uninspiring to look at and was to be the last of the popular road going RDs. Petrol prices were escalating, pollution from two stroke engines, being highly visible, was extremely unpopular. All manufacturers were scaling back their development of two stroke engines and moving toward the more sensible, more economical, more acceptable four strokes.

It seems like a sad thing for such a charismatic line of bikes to fade away like that, crushed by economics and slowly tightening legislation.

The eighties ground slowly on and choices dried up for aspiring hooligans. I remember seeing a lot of DT 125 LCs being wheelied past the local school’s youth club. The only way forward from there was, and still is, to pass the bike tests which becomes a bigger deal with every change in the law, and move onto bigger bikes, or stick with the 125.

But it’s not the end of the story. It came as a great and happy surprise to me to learn that in these politically correct, safety conscious, environmentally friendly times Yamaha were to start making bikes with ‘exuberance’ again that were not totally outside the purchasing power of the average kid who’s just passed his or her test.

They’re not two strokes and they’re certainly not cheap but the MT-07 and 09 are direct descendants of the RD 250 and 400. Not in pure design terms but in spirit. The bike licence tests put these bikes out of the reach of learners which is a Very Good Thing, they’re a lot more powerful.

But anyone who rode an RD like a twat back in the good old days will feel right at home on a second hand MT with a loud exhaust and an obnoxious paint job.

Many middle-aged reformed hooligans such as myself have smiled wistfully and given thanks that this small niche tradition of being a teenage (twenty/thirty/forty/fiftysomething) wanker on an antisocial motorbike will continue for some time yet.

More of Marc’s musings can be found on his blog at: https://isontheroad.wordpress.com

Get yourself sorted:

If you’re a fan of the RD (the ‘proper’ aircooled one, at least), join the Yamaha Aircooled Owner’s Club on Facebook.

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The Author

Marc Ryan

Marc Ryan

A bike nut since he was 17, Marc was forced to lay off the bikes for over 10 years, on doctor's orders. Finally given the nod he thought he'd ease himself back in gently on an XL 250 but promptly bought an SV650 which made him shit his pants for the first month.
He also writes his own random meanderings at his own blog, https://isontheroad.wordpress.com