The little Yamaha fell into a burbling idle once I finally found neutral. The HT1 transmission likes to pop right past it, and much prefers first or second.
It takes a persuasive and subtle foot to find that passive notch between the gears. I figure it’s because the Yam just likes riding so much — can’t blame the little guy, I do too. I slowly let out the clutch to confirm neutral was selected and kick out the side stand. I reach down to turn off the gas valve, and by the time I looked up, a small crowd is already gathering.
The yellow little Yamaha with the funky front end is always crowd favorite wherever it goes. Most males over the age of 45 or so forget their present company and are magnetically drawn to the little enduro, smiles on their faces. Phones are unholstered like the O.K. Corral, pics are taken, and childhood stories ensue. “I had one just like it … Hold on, is that original?” That’s usually how the first question is lobbed, an extended finger pointing toward the replica Swenco front end. “How does it work?” Is usually question number two. I’ll push my foot down on the back of the cast aluminum “horseshoe” forcing the suspension to compress and will be typically met with “oohs” and “aahs” from the perplexed bystanders.
To use the cliche “smiles per mile,” this slightly modified 1970 Yamaha HT1 is the clear and runaway winner in my garage. As I survey my carefully curated collection of vintage motorcycles, I often recall my humble beginnings in the world of obsolete two-wheelers. I started with a seized and rusted Honda C110 found at a garage sale, and now, well, there are more bikes in my garage than my wife would prefer. I have definitely “leveled up” over the years as my tastes have become more sophisticated and refined, or so I thought. I am first to admit that I have fallen into the “buy and sell” side of the vintage motorcycle world over the last decade as I have bought, sold, and flipped in order to get more prestigious and higher-dollar machines in my possession. Most of them sit silently under covers-too rare or valuable to use much. But the question often lingers in the back of my mind: What’s the point?
As I was doing my daily scroll through the local motorcycles for sale on my Offer Up app, my eyes caught a glimpse of an unattractively purple Yamaha. I cringed slightly, muttered “yikes,” and my finger brushed the sad little motorcycle away as I scrolled on in search of more valuable motorcycle prey. However, something about the little Yamaha held my interest longer than expected. Perhaps it was the nostalgia of wrenching on the shockingly simple Yamaha enduros when I was in my 20s. I scrolled back up. “Nah, you don’t need the distraction,” I told myself. I clicked the ad anyway.
Apparently the sad little Yam was only a few miles away, which was extremely unusual. Most bikes I find are at least a day’s drive from my traffic laden home in Southern California, and many over the years have necessitated contacting a motorcycle shipper. This Yamaha was literally on my way home from work. I could swing by for a moment the next day if the seller just happened to be available at the exact time I would be passing through. He was.
The next day my iPhone led me to a house right off the 15 freeway with a “For Sale” sign planted in the yellowed lawn. The purple little Yamaha was sitting in the driveway, leaning hard against a bent side stand. I approached the purple monstrosity with trepidation. It looked complete, minus the front fender, but it had clearly been stored outside for a very long time. The paint was faded, the seat cover split, some light rust here and there. I had seen much worse to be honest, but it definitely needed a full restoration.
“It’s got really low compression,” the seller murmured. I turned the kicker over by hand. “Well, it is a 90cc 2-stroke,” I replied, “I wouldn’t expect much.” “What’s a 2-stroke?” The seller questioned. Like a prowling shark, I could smell blood in the water. This guy knew nothing about motorcycles. Apparently his son left this in the backyard decades ago. “Would you take two?” I said before even deciding if I wanted it, my inner Wheeler-Dealer spoke without permission. “No, I’m firm at $300,” the gentleman replied.
“Cool! No worries. Have a good one!” I shook the man’s hand, and before he could respond I made a beeline to my truck and felt like I had dodged a bullet as I drove home without the unneeded basket case. A couple weeks went by, and I heard the jingle of an opening cash drawer from my phone and knew I had received a message on Offer Up. “I’m moving and need this bike gone. I’ll take $200,” the message stated. I was completely over it, my interest in the 90cc Yamaha had waned, and I had completely forgot about the little thing. However, I’m a stickler for follow through, possibly to a fault. “I made an offer, so it’d be bad form to renege on it,” I thought. My wife always says my “go down with the ship” follow-through is both a strength and a weakness. I wasn’t sure which led me to drive over that evening and hand the guy $200 bucks for something I didn’t even really want anymore. But the fact was the purchase price for this bike was less than some of the cheapest consumable parts on my other bikes.
“Now what?” Was the question circling in my mind as I glanced into my rearview mirror to see the HT1 staring back at me from the truck bed. “It’s kind of a cool little bike,” I admitted to myself. “Maybe I could make it a pit bike or a little grocery getter.” I was trying to justify the purchase in my head, but was fumbling a bit.
Within an hour the purple project was parked next to my shed in the backyard, and I debated if it was worthy of my precious garage floor space and the company of far more valuable motorcycles. I decided the answer was no. I showed my two daughters the little bike, curious if they would appreciate the diminutive purple two-wheeler. Their scrunched faces answered my question quickly. They were not amused.
A new idea
About a month went by and I visited a very good friend of mine, John Jones, in search of a few parts for a Ducati I was restoring. We have been great friends for over a decade, meeting over the wonderful shared interest of vintage motorcycles. We both continue to be enamored by Bultaco and Ducati street singles, however, John also had an affinity for Hodaka off-road racers, the kind he raced in District 37 events held in the early 1970’s California deserts. I have always thought Hodakas were cool bikes, but I just never seemed to have the space or time for another make to obsess over.
As we sat in the shade of his garage chatting about bikes, family, finances, and just about anything going on in our lives, I couldn’t help but stare at the Hodaka Ace 100 with the funky front drenched in sunlight parked a few feet away. I knew the backstory on this bike. John had found a Swenco leading link front end at a motorcycle swap meet at Willow Springs Raceway several years prior. He installed the crazy looking forks on the Hodaka and built it up as a tricked-out period desert racer. I loved it. There was something incredibly cool about the bike, especially the eye-catching Swenco front end.
The brainchild of Jerry Swenson, and built by his small aftermarket parts company Swenco Manufacturing, in Cucamonga, California, the Swenco front end helped off-road racers cope with the dismal fork travel found on racing machines that started their lives as street and trail bikes. Swenco advertised the forks to have less unsprung weight over stock, an incredible 6-7 inches of suspension travel, and also give the rider unheard of adjustability on the front end by tuning the shock preload. Desert racers especially gravitated to the funky design, since the added suspension travel could come in very handy when hitting an unexpected obstacle while streaking through the blinding sand. Often referred to as leading link forks by design, the Swenco utilized an arched fork tube that joined a pivoting, cast aluminum “horseshoe” to produce the magic. A little math and geometry (stay in school kids!) convinced a rear shock with only 2-3 inches of compressible suspension to give the rider double that in its new location. The chromoly tubes slipped right into your bike’s stock triple clamps making the forks a quick and easy mod. Shockingly, the bulky looking forks were no heavier than stock, and could be yours for $99.85. Knowing that he had something truly rare and unique when he found the Swenco front end, John utilized some of his old-world connections to have a few of the aluminum bottom horseshoe brackets of the Swenco forks re-cast by a local foundry. Through his ingenuity and decades worth of meticulously cultivated contacts, John was actually able to reproduce a handful of replica Swenco front ends for his other Hodaka projects.
As we sank into a couple of folding lawn chairs in his garage I mentioned my recent, and quite random purchase of the Yamaha HT1. “Hey, maybe I could make it into a little desert racer, like your Hodakas,” I said with an audible question mark in my voice. “You know what would be cool,” John replied, “a Swenco front end on that bike.” “That would be cool,” I conceded.
Despite my early hesitation on this project, I knew the entire time that the Yamaha HT1 was a fantastically designed motorcycle. My project bike provided a glimpse into Yamaha’s sophisticated line of 2-stoke singles that completely took over the late 60s and early 70s dual-sport scene in America. The “Enduros,” as Yamaha labeled them, were street-legal trail bikes that could do it all. They were capable and safe on the street, and actually adequate performers in the dirt too. Available in everything from the 60cc JT-1 all the way to the 360cc RT-1, Yamaha had every rider in mind when they launched these bikes, starting first with the iconic 250cc DT-1 in 1968.
Nearly all of the Yamaha Enduro engines were essentially the same basic construction in varying scales. A single-cylinder, piston-port 2-stroke engine with a 5-speed gearbox was the heart of each model. They even had a direct-injection oil pump right to the crank, fed by an external oil tank, so the rider didn’t need to deal with the awkward task of adding oil to the gas or worry about confusing pre-mix ratios. The Enduros earned instant reputations for being incredibly reliable, extremely versatile, and infinitely tunable. One could easily and affordably hop up the Yamahas through the manufacturer’s own GYT (Genuine Yamaha Tuning) performance parts, or the massive aftermarket that evolved in order to upgrade them into legitimate racing machines.
The designers did not only create an engine design that lasted decades, they also did an incredible job creating a line of motorcycles with a timeless look. From the slender pinstriped tanks to the flip-up, tuck and roll seats, the bikes just looked good. Each model was similar, but perfectly proportional to its displacement and intended rider. If you are wondering what the RT1 looks like, just imagine this HT1 a bit bigger, and in black.
My appreciation for the neglected Yamaha HT1 grew day by day. Over a period of a week, I began slowly dismantling the bike as a “Why not?” kind of a side project. I’d give it a budget restoration I decided. To my surprise, the side project started morphing into something a little more meaningful as I began to rekindle the simple joy of restoring a bike for fun, and not prestige or profit.
The more I worked on the little Yam, the more I liked it, and the more my imagination got going thinking about what this little bike could be. I contacted John to see if he was still serious about the Swenco front end conversion. He was indeed. I got the stock HT triple clamps to him, and he took on the challenge of grafting one of his replica front ends onto the bike and took to the task as if it was for a project of his own. He visited numerous suppliers until he finally found stout metal tubing with the exact same external diameter as the 27mm HT1 forks. His go-to pipe bender had called it quits, so he spent several days visiting fabrication shops until he convinced an off-road chassis builder in Rancho Cucamonga, California, to use one of his hydraulic bending dies to put the subtle bend into the would-be fork tubes. Another old-school contact finished machining the raw “horseshoe” aluminum casting and welding on the necessary brackets onto the bent tube. Ironically, all of the work was conducted a near stone’s throw from the original Swenco Manufacturing location.
I showed up at John’s place a couple months after our initial conversation to find a replica Swenco front end installed into the stock HT1 triples sitting on his bench, ready for paint and installation. That’s what I call a great friend.
The rest of the build was quite simple, because I made it that way. I wanted to emulate the “desert racer” vibe I loved so much about John’s Hodakas, so like a period racer trying to save weight, I ditched everything I could. The battery, wiring harness, and oil tank were removed. I even ditched the keyed ignition. I made a simplified wiring harness from scratch that utilized a kill button and high/lo beam headlight switch. Magura style levers and a mini quarter-turn throttle from an XR50 went on the original bars. The obligatory Webco style aluminum spark plug holder went where the oil tank once was, another of John’s replica creations, and a desert racer must. I had an old school Circle Industries flat blade front fender out in the shed that ended up looking perfect. KDI Repros made me a new seat foam and cover, which I pulled over the original repainted seat pan. Things were coming together, and I was having way more fun with this little bike than I had ever expected. Like a parent playing favorites, I relegated a Rickman Triumph Street Metisse project and a Ducati Mk 3 to the back corner of the garage to make more room for the little Yamaha restoration.
I’ve always loved the patina of original paint, but the poorly faded purple on the HT1 just wasn’t working for me. On an internet search I stumbled upon a pic of the HT1MX racing model, with its bright yellow paint and instantly decided that was the direction this Yam was going. Recalling my penny-pinching days of restoring Yamaha enduros nearly twenty years prior, I remembered how to do a half-decent paint job with spray paint. Gasp.
I stripped the tank, primed it, and sprayed on an even coat of gloss black. After letting it dry a couple days I used a flexible pinstripe-blocking tape to create the thin black outline on each tank side. Then several even coats of Rustoleum Canary Yellow was a perfect match for the factory Yamaha color, a tip I picked up from a Yamaha Enduro online forum. While the yellow coat was still tacky, I carefully lifted the pinstripe tape to reveal the look I wanted. As strange as the process sounds, I’m told it is exactly how Yamaha did it back in the day too, well, minus the rattle cans. I finished up all of the yellow parts with Por 15 Gloss Clear Top Coat, to give it a shiny and protective finish. Is it a perfect paint job? No. Does it look like I did it in the backyard with a few cans of spray paint? I’d like to say “no” to that question, too.
Being a desert-racer inspired 2-stroke, I had to do something cool with the pipe. After all, that was the first thing a would-be racer would swap out in search for a few more ponies. John had a chopped up Hooker chamber for a Hodaka hanging in the rafters that he donated to the project. I hacked the stock header from the HT pipe, grafted it to the Hooker pipe, and built a small silencer from scraps. The heat shield was just a piece of flat aluminum sheet I gave the Swiss cheese treatment, budget-racer style.
Going down the list there were other parts to fix. The side stand was placed in a vice, heated and smacked back to shape with a massive rubber mallet. The speedometer was in good shape, but the “glass” was cracked. I gingerly pried off of the chrome bezel, cut a new piece of plexiglass, and made it as good as new. The engine was in shockingly good nick. The crank was tight, in a good way, and the bearings looked brand new. The original bore and piston also looked practically new, with cross-hatch honing marks still on the low-mileage barrel, so I left them be. In fact, all I did was replaced the gaskets and seals and made it pretty again. The chassis came together with rebuilt wheels using some cheap spokes found on eBay, a pair of chunky Shinko tires, and finally some brand-less shocks from the famed San Francisco moped shop Treatland.
Light ’em up
The moment of truth arrived and I splashed some premix in the tank and kicked it to hear the ear-splitting crackle of a little 2-stroke racer on the second jab. I grabbed my helmet and took the HT1 for a quick lap around my neighborhood.
She ran! Not great, but she ran. A little fettling with the carb was in order, but the bike had a more obvious problem. As I screamed down the street like a deranged honey bee, I noticed something. In fact, anyone within a mile radius noticed something. The minuscule Yamaha was loud. Incredibly loud. The ear-splitting crackle of the 90cc little monster echoed off the houses as I rode, creating a cacophony of 2-stroke shrill right into my helmet. The silencer I made had very little effect on the Hooker chamber. “How could a 90cc bike be so loud?” I wondered.
What would be music in the desert turned into a reason to call the HOA in this setting. As the throttle was turned, the pipe grabbed ahold of the building revs and would send the HT1 into a fury, precisely as it was designed to do. The only problem was, I didn’t plan on running Barstow to Vegas with this little guy. I was more interested in hitting my local coffee shop. It was time to wheel the HT1 back into the garage and reassess my work.
The problem didn’t require much thought really, I just had to be a bit more practical and simply run the engine as Yamaha designed it and put the stock pipe back on. Since I had hacked up the original pipe to build the chamber, I had to resort to eBay to find another. The pipe arrived covered in layers of grease and unburnt premix. It was a mess. Such a mess, that on a whim I decided to check the pipe’s flow. I wiped the end clean, then wrapped it in tape so I could put my lips to it and blow. Not the most sophisticated means of testing, I’ll admit, but it told me exactly what I wanted to know. Absolutely zero air passed through. It was completely plugged. I used an angle grinder to cut the back off of the pipe and spent a couple of hours scraping and brushing out decades of clay-like residue to get the pipe to the point that it would actually allow the little 90cc 2-stroke to breathe. I welded it all back together fighting flames along the way. Finally, it was all back together, and the new/old pipe worked like a charm.
Back on the road
The collective results of this little side project Yamaha were infinitely better than imagined. The little HT1 seemed as if it couldn’t be happier with its new lease on life. The little Yam was once again completely behaved in suburbia, but with a little more pep after a few modifications I made to the inside of the stock Yamaha pipe while I had it apart.
Most people that see this bike are hung up on the front suspension, and understandably so. You don’t see too many bikes running forks like this anymore, so the natural question that arises is are the Swenco forks really better than original? Secondly, if they were so great, why didn’t all the bikes use them?
To properly understand the Swenco forks, I think one must look at the brief moment of time they were created and used. In the late 60s and early 70s, all out off-road race bikes were expensive and not available to any Joe Racer looking to hit the trails, especially in the sub-250cc category that was growing in popularity in America. The accessible and affordable options for lightweight off-road racers were typically modified road bikes that tried to get by with suspension that was in no way up to challenges found once the asphalt ended. And that’s when the Swenco fork came into play. For a brief moment in time, the Swenco forks, and others like it, were the best solution to a massive suspension problem. But, as always, time marches on, and in the world of racing, nothing lasts forever. By the mid-70s, mainstream manufacturers would begin offering purpose built lightweight off-road racers to the general public, with properly designed suspension, and in a way, completely eliminating the need for creative solutions like the Swenco forks. Aftermarket fork manufactures like Swenco, Van Tech, and Ceriani began to fade into the history books. You just can’t stop progress.
So, how do the forks perform in 2022 on a 90cc Yamaha HT1 while buzzing up to a local coffee shop? Splendidly. I’ve never hit a Yucca tree at full song while streaking across the California desert with these replica Swenco forks, but from my experience thus far, the forks are absolutely wonderful. The initial compression is a bit stiff, but that’s due to my rather heavy shock selection, and not a fault of the design. A common misconception is that the bike handles sluggishly from these leading-link forks, and the front wheel is much further in front of the bike than it should be. A lot of that is optical illusion. In fact, if you just hopped on the bike and started riding it without knowing about the funky front end, you wouldn’t have a clue it was anything different than OEM except for one interesting off-road-racing-linked advantage it has. The bike is exceptionally stable. You can remove both hands from the bars, and even with the diminutive 48-inch wheelbase, the front end tracks straight and true with no hint of twitchiness. Turning doesn’t require the strength of Hercules either. Just a thought about a steering input will dance the feather-light front end into a quick turn with ease.
The brakes are definitely a weak area on this bike, and the rear brake seems much more effective than the front, strangely. However, with a bike that weighs less than 180 pounds, and has a claimed 8 horsepower, not a ton of brake is needed to slow it down. On the subject of power, this little HT is not going to win any drag races. With my 6-foot, fast-food-fed frame, it’ll hit 45mph or so pinned in 5th gear. It may not be the greatest power plant for climbing my local hills, especially when there is a time-crunched delivery driver bearing down, but by taking the back roads away from the traffic and steep inclines, the little HT will pull me around town with ease, just not very fast. Perhaps lowering the 49-tooth rear sprocket to the lower 40s might give me a little more top speed and also allow first gear to be used for more than the one and a half seconds it currently lasts.
After restoring a vintage motorcycle, I often ride it once or twice and then start planning the next one. I’ll often sell the bike I just poured my heart and soul into in order to reinvest the funds in an attempt to acquire something even rarer and more valuable. It’s the classic buy and sell. This little Yamaha HT1 has made me confront the error of my ways. I can’t imagine getting rid of it, as it’s way too much fun to ride and show off. Why level up if you’re enjoying the level you’re on? The little Yam reminds me of why I got into vintage motorcycles in the first place. It has reminded me how fun it can be to return a forgotten motorcycle back to its former glory. The feeling you get when you fire up a bike that has sat silent for decades. I’m remembering again how enjoyable it is to find the road less traveled, and explore your very own town on a motorcycle with about as much power as a lawn mower. And, maybe the best of all, this funky little Yamaha has reminded me how these old bikes just make people smile, myself included. You can’t buy and sell that. MC
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