A Yamaha RZ350 modified by past AMA champion Jamie James
Years produced: 1984-85
Claimed power: 39hp @ 8,500rpm
Top speed: 115mph
Engine type: 347cc liquid-cooled, 2-stroke parallel twin
Weight (dry): 150kg (331lb)
Price Then: $2,399
Price Now: $3,500
MPG: 33 (est.)
The A385 out of Newton Abbott in Southern England is a semi-mystical piece of motorcycling real estate. Written into folklore by decades of daredevil youths testing their mettle along this sinuous blacktop roller coaster, it was — and still is — my favorite piece of road. Carving smooth lines on my old Laverda triple one summer’s eve back in 1984, playing tunes with the un-muffled, three-into-one Harris pipe, my state of bliss was suddenly, violently interrupted by a Yamaha RZ350. It sounded like I had been dive-bombed by a 400lb housefly, and I was left in a cloud of unburned race fuel with my nostrils wrinkling and my eyes watering.
I pulled over a few miles later in Totnes, the center of New Age hippy culture at the time, and found the culprit hanging out with his mates. Pulling hard on their cigarettes and unable to stand still, these men most certainly weren’t smoking the same stuff as the locals.
They were petrol heads, as London’s Ace Café owner Mark Wilsmore calls them. I had stumbled across a small band of two-stroke-addicted adrenaline freaks with single-syllable nicknames and more broken body parts than a crashed truckload of porcelain dolls. With the Yamaha RZ350 (YPVS in the UK) as the weapon of choice, conversation was limited to stilted monologues fired between cigarette draws and was totally focused on their raison d’etre: Two stroke derived speed!
Twenty years later, I’m feeling their addiction. Diving into a hairpin turn, dropping into first gear, I effortlessly flick the bike on its side before yanking the throttle back to wide open. The front wheel rips skyward and the engine screams its blood-curdling accompaniment as I shift to second while climbing over the front end to force the wheel back to earth. The manic sound exploding from the Toomey pipes is jacking pure adrenaline through my veins as I grab another gear, then another, before brushing the front brake lever and quickly slipping down two gears. With the engine howling on the over-run, I am on my knee through the turn and back on the gas so fast my left foot can barely keep up with the next set of up-shifts. Riding the deserted mountain roads around my North Carolina home on a wildly modified Yamaha RZ350, I’m writing my own prescription for some two-stroke withdrawal therapy sessions later in the week.
Back in the day …
When the original RZ350 hit the streets in the early 1980s, it was the closest thing to pukka race bike money could buy. Weighing in around 350 pounds and producing 50 shrieking two-stroke ponies, the water-cooled parallel twin came wrapped in a cradle-style frame and featured mag wheels with triple disc brakes. It had race-inspired graphics on the bodywork and a small bikini fairing to duck behind at speed. Spawning a burgeoning cottage industry of go-faster parts, heavily modified RZs ruled the back roads of Europe for many a year. Though they never attracted quite the same level of enthusiasm here in the U.S., they did enjoy a period of popularity with local club racers, and this particular RZ actually started life as a race bike. Owned and ridden by AMA Superbike Champion Jamie James, it was parked after a crash and had sat in his workshop ever since, until the winter of 2004-2005. That’s when Jamie and Doug Crawford, a good friend and a tuner from Jamie’s Yoshimura days, decided to see what a little modern technology could do for the old warrior.
First the bike was stripped to the bare frame and any unnecessary brackets and lugs were removed. Then the frame was widened to take a modern box-section swing arm, and deep-black gloss paint was applied. A Yamaha R7 Ohlins shock found its way onto the rear end, and a set of R1 forks were grafted on up front. These were treated to Ohlins internals for improved performance and bolted into a stock R1 lower clamp with a custom Jamie James Productions (JJP) upper triple clamp up top.
The front wheel was another R1-sourced item, and it was treated to a set of wave rotors. The stock four-piston calipers were retained, but with the addition of some race-compound SBS pads. Up at the custom bars, the stock R1 master cylinder was used, with the fluid traveling through braided-steel lines after being activated by a fully adjustable, folding brake lever from GP Tech. The rear wheel came from an R6, and a wave rotor and stock caliper supply the needed braking power.
While this was going on, the bodywork underwent some major refurbishment to repair the crash damage before being painted at Russell’s Paint and Body in neighboring Black Mountain, N.C. Now absolutely flawless, it subtly features Jamie’s Cajun claw that he made famous during his long AMA racing career.
All this took time, and it allowed Doug to focus on finding a few more ponies inside the RZ’s engine. A set of Toomey race pipes was purchased and added, along with a carb kit and an air intake system. Boyson reeds were installed, and Doug milled the heads to raise compression before giving them a complete port job. The pistons remained stock, and the engine was reassembled with a Yamaha factory gasket kit.
With the engine together and back in the frame, Doug tackled the many small details a custom project of this nature requires to become a complete motorcycle. The rear sprocket had to be machined to line up with the countershaft sprocket, and he added a 520 Regina chain to complement the new, lightweight Vortex sprockets. Another call went out to GP Tech, and a pair of rear-sets designed for an R6 found their way onto the RZ. Next came an electronic dash, and the stock front fairing was lowered and modified to work with the new forks. A custom wire harness was necessary, and all manner of small parts had to be custom painted or powder coated. And so, as the winter progressed, the bike slowly took shape. By late spring, just as the buds came back to the trees, it was ready to roll.
One of the first orders of operation was a dyno run, which netted close to 70hp at the rear wheel. That doesn’t sound like an alarming amount of power until you consider its propelling a bike that weighs substantially less than 300 pounds. All that power comes in a narrow power band of course, with very little happening below 7,000rpm or above 11,000rpm. This just makes the diminutive RZ all the more addicting, as life becomes a narrow-focused mission to keep the screaming yellow demon on the boil. Let the engine fall under seven grand and you are rewarded with a muted gurgle and very little forward progress. Keep it in the power band and you are hit with the most addictive rush of acceleration on two wheels, accompanied by a screaming-banshee wail from the Toomey expansion pipes.
Back in the saddle …Blasting through the one-horse towns of Luck and Trust, N.C., Jamie and Doug are riding with me on a brace of R1s as we make our way along the deserted roads that will take us into Tennessee. In the saddle of the RZ, my teeth are set to perma-grin and my eyes are standing out on stalks as I flick back and forward through the non-stop series of bends. Riding with a pair of big four-strokes, I am conscious of how many gear changes I have to make to keep up, and this just shovels on the fun content in spades as I make sweet music with the gearbox.
Howling into impossibly tight corners, the RZ is blessed with telepathic handling, and it can change direction anytime, anyplace, anywhere. This superlative handling and ride control are, without a doubt, due to the careful setup of the Ohlins suspension, and I simply can’t fault it. Trail braking into corners is a breeze, and the super sticky 180-section rear Michelin pilot never loses traction, no matter how hard the throttle is twisted.
As insane as the bike’s acceleration and handling are, the brakes leave me totally speechless. Using a set up that isn’t much different from a Yamaha Superstock race bike, the way they haul the feather-light RZ down from speed is simply mind bending, and not for the inexperienced. With the lightest one-fingered squeeze, it felt like I was doing a push up with Roseanne Barr on my back as my upper body was slammed toward the bars. This allowed me to leave the braking until later than my brain could comprehend, which meant that if the big R1s had made some ground on the straights, I could get it all back into the corners.
Taking a break at a gas station to find my breath and give Jamie and Doug some feedback, my ears were ringing, and I was jabbering like a Starbucks employee who had been drinking the profits. Back in 1984, the Yamaha RZ350 was the fastest motorcycle along a twisty back road by a country mile. Twenty years later, after a winter rebuild and the genius of two Cajun crazies who know a thing or two about tuning and racing Championship winning motorcycles, the JJP RZ350 is once more the fastest thing along a country road, and, without doubt, the most exhilarating.