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Vintage Motorcycling: Looking Back

Vintage motorcycling involves a lot of looking back. It’s an exercise in memory and reflection, embracing the machines and people — and the days — past. Yet as much as I enjoy looking back, I like to think I operate in the present. Yesterday may be fun to survey, but today is all we really have. But every now and then we feature motorcycles and memories that take me back to essential moments that helped define my deep interest in motorcycling.

I was only a few years into motorcycling when Yamaha introduced what would be the last of its air-cooled 2-stroke road burners, the 1979 RD400F Daytona, a machine we profile in this issue. I was sticking to the dirt at the time, still on my first motorcycle and feeling my way around two-wheeled power, and quite unsure if I was ready for the kind of speed and exposure a bike like the RD represented.

I’d come into motorcycling by way of bicycling, working in a shop and racing through high school. Bicycling was — and still is — a thrill, and I hadn’t yet decided how far I wanted to go on motorcycles. At the time I had an eye for a Yamaha XS650, which even in 1979 was sort of an odd machine, a semi-modern bike with one wheel parked firmly in the past, evoking the lore of the departing British twins that so sparked my imagination.

My only hesitation with the 650 was size; I thought it was too big. The RD400F, on the other hand, was perfect, encapsulating the ideals of motorcycling slowly evolving in my head. Those ideals included qualities like simplicity (I liked twins then, still do today), lightness and maneuverability, qualities I’d learned to appreciate riding in the dirt.

The Daytona had it all. In my eyes it was the ideal full-size motorcycle, a light and agile 2-stroke screamer, perfect for carving down two-lane back roads and maybe, if I ever got brave enough, a solid platform for racing. Ironically, the RD was in fact every bit the throwback the XS650 was, the last of an epic and now iconic category of motorcycles, the likes of which we’ll never see again. Well, maybe. If the SYM Wolf Classic is any indication, Sixties simplicity is coming back in vogue.

1979 was also the year I first became aware of the great Mike “The Bike” Hailwood. Only the year before, Hailwood had returned to racing following an 11-year absence to claim victory in the Formula 1 TT at the Isle of Man. It was an incredible win that reverberated for years after. At the time, Hailwood caught my attention more for his previous exploits than his current success, and through him I was introduced to the incredible world of Formula 1 and Grand Prix racing.

The story has always been that Hailwood came back from nowhere, with apparently little to no preparation, to reclaim his position in 1978 as one of the greatest riders of all time. But as Alan Cathcart shares in this issue, Hailwood had in fact prepared and raced in Australia the year before with Jim Scaysbrook on the Moreparts Ducati 750SS, setting the stage for his comeback triumph on the Isle.

The end of the Seventies was a defining era for motorcycling, and for me personally. Today, I can look back and appreciate what I was lucky to experience, while continuing to look forward to the great experiences yet ahead. — Richard Backus