Once upon a time, there was a 350cc two-stroke that prowled our streets. It was wicked nd unforgiving, but the thrill of riding it was second to none. It arrived on the wings of two-stroke twin thunder, shocked an unprepared motorcycling population half to death and before anyone could get their breath back, it was gone in a trailing cloud of blue smoke. The Yamaha RD350 was a 24-carat, solid gold milestone in our motorcycle history.
The argument about what RD really stands for is endless. What was already crystal clear was how potent the machine was and how much thrill Yamaha had packed into the cylinders. Branded Rajdoot, it was introduced in 1983 when the only other motorcycles around were ageing Yezdis and the Bullet. Some say the RD was before its time. Other argue that the RD was simply too wild. We’re just thankful that, anachronism or mistake, the RD happened. That its cult took root here. There’s no way such a disproportionately insane machine would make production in India today. No one will have the sheer nerve!
The RD350 HT (high torque) was introduced with a demonic 30 horses under its belt. A big leap forward for us, and yet, 9 horses behind its closest cousins in the US. The RD didn’t go down well; it couldn’t. Its unspeakable fuel economy was probably the biggest factor. The shrewd people in white coats decided that taming the beast to 27 bhp would make it more acceptable. Out came the RD350 LT (low torque) in 1985. It wasn’t much more of a success either, though it did cement the stalwart status that HT’s now occupy in RD fan circles. After a few years of flagging sales, Rajdoot’s flagship meekly turned around and left our shores for good. When we set out for celebrate the R15, we realised that it couldn’t be done without stopping to look at the RD350, to whose spiritual roots the R15 hopes to return Yamaha to. Hrishikesh and Alok turned up with two fully stock RDs, well-kept but wearing all manner of prized original items. The RD350 wasn’t an exceptional looker at the time. It was svelte and light-looking,but otherwise a typical Jap bike – round headlamp, boxy tank, flat panels and a simple seat. In India, it got saddled with a rustic-looking chrome front mudguard and saree guard. Thankfully, the evocative twin-pod meters made it. And among the design highlights were the little wings on the sidepanels, that look superb.
Neat looking as it was, the talking point was always the motor. The mildly tuned 349cc thunder maker, with its abrupt power bands and inescapable charm, was the heart of the RD’s aura. It would feel weak until it hit its stride and then it would do the damndest to turn your world into a freaky whirlwind, pulling arms from your sockets, twisting your gut into new shapes and giving you more reasons to appreciate its nature. And there was more to come. Drag racing air-cooled RDs have made as much as 80 bhp! That said, most RDs owners found the mildly-tuned bit very hard to swallow. How could an engine this insane be mild?And riding it today, having lived on a steady diet of meek four-stroke singles, I’m having to re-think riding itself. Engine braking, for one, is almost non-existent and when a corner comes up in a blink, I was maniacally going down the gearbox, pulling hard on the brake lever with the desperation of a man clawing his way out of his prison cell with bare fingers.
Thankfully, while the engine’s wicked, the handling’s pretty sweet. It’s reassuring and impressive even 25 years after the fact. As soon as I got over the engine-braking and no-braking hiccups, I was chasing apexes at speeds I would’ve never thought I had the guts to handle. It’s easy to scrape those fat rubber footpegs even today, on this lovely 25 year old beauty. Of course, with Hrishi nervously looking on, I took it a bit easy. But I’m coming back to this road on my not-so-stock RD very, very shortly indeed. At the limit, though, the RD would change character. The spindly swingarm would begin to give up, the soft springs would throw in the towel, and only the brave scraped stuff at more than 130 kph. The suspension is the one area on this bike that clearly shows its age. It isn’t all saggy yet, but there is a hint of wallow in corners and squat under power that wouldn’t have found a place in a new RD’s menu. But for something that’s been absorbing our roads for 25 years, this is still pretty impressive.What isn’t impressive, and never was in the first place, are the brakes. For all its power and glory, RDs in India received pitiful brakes. There were scooters smaller than that drum on sale, but ironically, the scooters would probably stop faster than the RD. The thing was never a match for the 27 bhp and stopping RDs was always about a calm head, loads of planning and if push came to oh-crap, body english. While Karizmas and P220s have no chance of matching an RD for pace, the RD would be killed under braking. If Yamaha were to, for instance, re-launch the RD (give us a rupee for everytime you heard that rumour, and we’ll give you seven of the richest journos in the world), the first change would be a set of proper disc brakes.
Many years ago, I nearly shredded my left knee on an RD and promised never to venture into the demon’s lair again. That lasted the two weeks I was in bed. And then, I was back. Back in the game, back on the throttle. It’s been 25 years since the RD happened to India. Not that much has changed, really. Thank god.
Thanks go out to Alok and Hrishi for their bikes and their patience.
Apologies to all those who tasted the revered blue smoke that morning and didn’t know what it was.
What can we say, our education system sucks.