Dumpster Diving for the Yamaha CT3

Joe Rankin revives a ready-for-the-scrap-heap Yamaha CT3.

Yamaha_CT3 Right Front View

Saved from the dumpster, Joe treated the 171cc 2-stroke CT3 with his custom touch. “I don’t really like the term ‘restore,’” Joe says. “Instead, I refurbish to my taste and change things to what I think might have been, or could have been, a hot rod factory version of the bike.”

Photo by Kevin McKlusky

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1973 Yamaha CT3
Claimed power:
16hp @ 7,500rpm
Top Speed: 65mph
171cc air-cooled 2-stroke single, 66mm x 50mm bore and stroke, 6.8:1 compression ratio
Weight: 214lb (97kg)
Fuel capacity: 1.8gal (6.8ltr)
Price now: $800-$1,500

Tough. That single word best describes the character of the motorcycles that live in Joe Rankin’s garage.

Joe Rankin is the kind of guy who has a hard time turning away crippled classics, and a perfect example of the rolling wounded he adopts is this 1973 Yamaha CT3 that landed in his shop, even though he didn’t want it. As Joe tells it, his buddy Tommy Gupton had the Yamaha out on his farm, where it was quietly languishing. “He kept offering me the bike and I really didn’t want it,” Joe says. “It was going to be tossed into the dumpster.” When Joe finally showed up to collect the Yamaha, his first reaction was to agree that maybe the dumpster was exactly where the bike belonged. Ridden hard and put away wet, it was rusty and crusty — but Joe loaded the sorry hulk into his truck anyway.

A few pieces were AWOL, and when Joe asked if the headlight bucket or other missing parts might be somewhere in the barn, Tommy began searching. He couldn’t find the bucket, but he did find a pair of extra Yamaha gas tanks up in the hay loft, and Joe threw those in the cab of his truck.

“On the way back home we started to hear a buzzing noise in the truck,” Joe says. It turned out one of the gas tanks was home to a hornet’s nest, and after a panicked stop Joe and Tommy bailed out. Joe carefully transferred the tank to the bed of the truck, and nobody got stung.

The 2-stroke engine takeover

In the early 1970s a different kind of buzzing could be heard; it was the sound of 2-stroke Japanese motorcycles zipping around on streets and trails across the U.S. While Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki all had their share of 2-stroke, dual-purpose machinery, Honda — at least at first — didn’t join in the 2-stroke wave, opting to power their smaller bore trail bikes with 4-stroke engines. But for the other big three Japanese makers looking to claim their share of the market, 2-strokes were a preferred choice, smaller, lighter and less expensive to produce than a 4-stroke.

Because 2-stroke engines are typically compact and light, the machines they powered became popular for recreational and personal use. It didn’t take long for street/trail bikes like the Yamaha CT3 to find favor with buyers both young and old. With increased ground clearance and tires that offered at least a semblance of offroad grip as well as some onroad performance, street/trail motorcycles gave many riders their first taste of mechanized freedom, first in the dirt, and then on the street.

Joe says this Yamaha was a working motorcycle, used by Tommy and his son on their farm riding the trails, checking cattle and chasing horses. At some point second gear stripped out (Joe suspects too many wheelies), and eventually the bike was parked. It languished in a scrap pile for about five years before Tommy decided it was time to send it to its grave.

Refurbishing rather than restoring

Saved from the dumpster, Joe treated the 171cc 2-stroke Yamaha CT3 with his custom touch. “I don’t really like the term ‘restore,’” Joe says. “Instead, I refurbish to my taste and change things to what I think might have been, or could have been, a hot rod factory version of the bike.”

Joe’s not a fan of chrome, and anything he changes is done very subtly. Looking closely, it’s hard to tell what has been changed from stock, but suffice to say that almost every single piece of this CT3 has been altered in some way, even if it was just the removal of rough edges left behind by the manufacturing process. Joe’s builds are meticulous, guided by a simple philosophy: “Make every part of a motorcycle as nice as you can, and spend as much time on each item as possible.”

Often, Joe starts with no set plan in mind; one thing leads to another and eventually, he says, the result is a completed motorcycle. With the CT3, the first order of business was to strip the bike down. No nut or bolt was left untouched. Joe decided to leave the dual-downtube steel frame intact, leaving all its tabs and brackets in place. He fabricated his own swingarm bushings from solid bearing bronze, machining in grease grooves to aide lubrication. Thanks to friend Tom Davis at Carolina Custom Powder Coating, all the black bits are powder coated, including the frame, swingarm, rims, chain guard, handlebar, fender braces, fork components, gas cap, shift lever and kickstart lever.

Joe fitted the freshly polished hubs with brand new bearings, and Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim laced the hubs with stainless steel spokes and nipples to black rims. Joe put an aggressive knobby tire on the back, and a universal-style trials pattern tire up front. He rebuilt the forks with all new seals and springs and covered the stanchions with aftermarket rubber gaiters. The handlebar is a period aftermarket motocross-style bend. New-old-stock Red Wing shocks, also period-correct aftermarket items, suspend the back end of the CT3. Joe carefully dismantled the engine, and that’s when he discovered a pile of shavings in the bottom of the crankcase that used to be second gear.

Polishing the Yamaha CT3 to perfection

True to his mantra, Joe meticulously cleaned every component, spending hours working with WD-40, mag wheel cleaner and Scotch Brite pads, using nothing but his two hands and plenty of elbow grease to bring a shine back to the aluminum. His secret for getting between cooling fins is to use popsicle sticks, as they’re unlikely to scratch the alloy. “It is quite labor intensive, but I really enjoy doing it,” Joe says.

Both engine side covers were flat-filed to remove deep gouges, then finished with progressively finer grades of sandpaper before being buffed with a polishing wheel. Upon reassembly, Joe installed new-old-stock gears, changed every seal and bearing, and bored the cylinder 0.020-inch for an oversize piston.

Joe cut his own foam, then carefully fit an aftermarket seat cover so the saddle, with its freshly powder-coated pan, would look brand new. He used all of the original Yamaha fasteners that he couldn’t replace, cleaning errant wrench marks and rounded corners with a flat file so the edges are nice and crisp. He bought common metric fasteners as needed, sanding the casting marks from the head of each bolt. When he had a pail of cleaned and restored fasteners, he sent them out for zinc plating.

Joe paid plenty of attention to the rear fender as well, welding the taillight mounting holes shut and removing the rib that originally ran from the back of the seat to the light unit. Friend Glenn Mann sprayed the fenders and the gas tank in a candy finish similar to the stock Yamaha gold hue. Joe likes to reverse things, so some items that were originally gold were finished black, such as the oil tank, and the fenders, which were originally silver and black, were painted gold. In lieu of the stock single taillight, Joe kitted out a set of period turn signals with 6-volt LED lights for running and stop lamps.

The end of the trail

“This one came out looking really good,” Joe says of the finished product. So good, in fact, that Joe never put gas or oil in the tanks. It got pushed into his office, and he bought himself another CT3. He refinished the second CT3 (but not quite to this level), and he enjoys riding it on the trails in the woods near his home.

Joe has always had a motorcycle of some sort, and until recently he even had a 192 horsepower Suzuki Hayabusa. After being re-introduced to small-bore machines, Joe sold all of his big bikes and now owns just offroad and dual-purpose bikes, all of which are 250cc or smaller.

“I’m having fun on smaller displacement machines in the dirt,” Joe says, “and find I can really ride the motorcycle rather than the motorcycle ride me.” But he says he really has the most fun doing what he did with this CT3: rescuing tough, rough motorcycles and making them whole again. MC