Somewhere above Ojai, California, soon after the route changed from state highway to country lane to ranch road, the vibration in the 1964 Yamaha YDS2 began.
Halfway between a frame judder and a handlebar shake, it grew stronger with time and speed, suggesting that whatever mysterious problem had emerged was worsening … and fast. I didn’t know what was wrong, and since the bike had been parked for 25 years, anything was possible. Now miles from town and with no cell service, after getting myself into this mess, I did know I’d have to get myself out.
Blame it on The Ace Cafe. Like Marcus Dairy in Connecticut or the Rock Store in Malibu, in the Swinging Sixties in England, The Ace Cafe was the place for sporting motorcyclists. Located just 10 miles from London, it was ground zero for the period “Rockers” — guys with “pukka” bikes like Gold Stars, Velos, Tritons, Triumphs, Nortons, and likely a few Japanese pretenders. Suitably for the leather-jacket crowd, their defining features included low clubman or clip-on handlebars and a “bum stop” seat, both inspired by grand prix racers of the day. The low bars helped tuck riders out of the wind, and the seatbacks held them in place under acceleration. As such, function and form combined to create the original “cafe racer,” which decades later evolved into the sportbike segment, and thence modern superbikes.
England is a long way from So-Cal, and the 1960s are far removed from 2022. So while I couldn’t visit the real Ace Cafe, which was shuttered in 1969, I thought recently, maybe I could find my own. I craved a new place to go on my old bikes, a place to relax with coffee or food, a place to hang out with friends. And in the nation’s most populous state, it had to be off the beaten track.
Hopping into history
For years, I wondered what to do with the YDS2 that I’d acquired for no particular reason, and I was glad for the easy coalescence of seeking my own personal Ace Cafe and getting the old Yamaha back on the road. The bike had appeared on Craigslist as a non-runner, but was plated with a clear title. Originally from Florida, it had migrated to California in the 1980s and been parked for good in 1997. Subsequently, a well-intentioned owner had started a restoration, but bizarrely stalled after completing only the rear wheel and re-chroming the front fender and chain guard. Thinking “cafe racer” himself, he’d purchased an aftermarket fiberglass seat and simply thrown out the original YDS2 saddle and rear fender. This sequence made little sense, but there you go.
In early Yamaha twins, engineers apparently had carte blanche to build them as they saw fit. The parallel-twin engine evolved from Germany’s pioneering 1953 Adler MB 250, and most components were robust and heavy; at the time, strength and durability took precedence over performance. Oddities abounded, such as a chunky 2.1-pound speedometer/tachometer unit, balanced against an elegant hollow center-stand created from multiple stampings. And then inexplicably, a tiny three-plate clutch rode on the crankshaft rather than gearbox input shaft, spinning three times faster with less working surface area than later designs. But more on that later. In any event, the complete YDS2 weighed a chubby 344 pounds, 53-percent more than Bultaco’s spritely Metralla 250, a benchmark period sportbike. The Spanish led everyone for a brief time.
Dynamically, a cafe racer’s most defining qualification — and what every sporting rider wanted — was the ability to go “ton up” or 100mph. When tests of the new 1962 YDS2 first appeared, its observed top speed was 90mph, while the larger 305cc YM1 later clocked 98mph. So admittedly, hitting the ton on the YDS2 didn’t look possible. But what did seem doable was finding an Ace Cafe of my own. And the old Yamaha looked right for the job.
Wrenching before riding
Even though the YDS2 hadn’t run since Pink Floyd topped the charts, this was pretty easily rectified. Thankfully — and I really mean that because fuel petcock leaks due to cracked, hardened and back-ordered-into-perpetuity seals are the worst — the crucial fuel valve worked perfectly and the gas tank was clean enough inside for government work. Sometimes you get lucky.
Too, the twin Mikunis required only routine soaking in carb cleaner, clearing of their plugged idle jets and synchronizing, and the ignition points just needed cleaning and gapping. A new 6-volt Yuasa battery (for a friendly $28!), a new Shrader valve for the front tube, new Bel-Ray 80W Gear Saver Transmission Oil and a half a tank of 91-octane unleaded mixed 32:1 with Lucas Semi-Synthetic 2-Cycle Oil got the bike running. Compared to more recalcitrant resurrections, amazingly the YDS2 woke up with just two swats of the left-side kickstarter. Then after adapting a castoff YDS3C Big Bear rear fender and YDS1 seat to the bike, splicing in new taillight wiring, and cleaning the headlight and brake-light switches, the electrics worked.
Gremlins be gone
Four operational problems emerged before my discover-your-own Ace Cafe ride day. Most pressing was a terribly slipping clutch, the aforementioned rotten design. Reasoning that starting a 120-mile day with a clutch that slipped at 20mph would be folly, I removed the clutch cover and dismantled the offending clutch pack. The bike came with a set of new friction plates, but they were for a different model and wouldn’t fit the clutch basket. With the trip looming, I scavenged old parts from a 2010 Catalina Grand Prix race-bike build and used the best ones to rebuild the clutch. It held better — but just barely; I crossed my fingers and vowed to be careful on the ride.
The second issue was the fork, which acted more like a double-legged JCPenney pogo stick than a precision mechanical device. Returning to the garage, I removed the caps and added a conservative 150cc (3/4 of the YDS2’s specified fill) of Lucas Synthetic 15 WT fork oil, reasoning that the fork might have retained at least some oil over the years. (Since no drain plugs were extant, draining the fork legs seemed impossible without disassembling the front end, a job I frankly loathed to do.) Anyway, I submit it wasn’t a bad guess. But as I would learn, the strategy was inadequate.
Third, both headlight beams burned out during a night ride. Deducing that the original 58-year-old sealed-beam’s bulb seals had failed, I found an NOS Beck Arnley replacement online for $18.
The final problem was a wonky voltage regulator, which created erratic readings at the battery, possibly due to rpm, vibration, dirty generator components, corroded wiring or faulty grounds — or some combination thereof. Apart came the regulator, a robust mechanical affair with two sets of windings, various point gaps to set and a huge resistor. The unit on the bike was corroded, so I scrounged for the takeoff regulator among the Catalina GP racer’s spares and found it in better condition. On it went, and the voltage variations lessened. Not exactly to spec, but maybe it would work.
With these hurdles cleared, and a good overall cleanup, chain lube and safety inspection, the YDS2 seemed legit.
Good to know you
Swiping through local coffee spots and cafes on a smartphone yields endless possibilities, but you can’t experience the environment or atmosphere — let alone the grub — unless you’re actually there. And anyway, isn’t the journey actually supposed to be the destination?
On a cool morning last Spring, I rolled the YDS2 out of the garage, opened the petcock, pushed the carb enricher lever, turned the headlight-shell mounted Bakelite key, and kickstarted the engine. Happily, it started immediately and the generator light went off as the revs built to idle speed, just as it should. A minute or two warm-up and we burbled toward breakfast at Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Santa Barbara, California. Run by former pro bicycle racers, it’s got a friendly two-wheeler vibe, a relaxed atmosphere, and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. After parking the Yamaha in front, I bought a ham and cheese croissant and a cup of Colombian coffee, found a table, and contentedly warmed up to the day.
Even in crusty, unrestored form, the Yamaha looked great, I thought, with its flat handlebar and vintage Corona tank bag, which had occupied my various garages for over 45 years. The enviroment here was good and so was the food — but the promise of a road trip proved much stronger, and I soon got itchy feet.
But where to go? Out of town, just like the original Ace Cafe. Tracing relatively quiet backroads, the Yamaha and I found our way to Highway 150, a two-lane affair leading into the Transverse Ranges and little Ojai. Surrounded by low mountains covered in scratchy chaparral and pines, interspersed with plots of farm and ranchland, and even oilfields, it’s a town that big-city “improvements” haven’t yet ruined. A concerted climb greeted the YDS2 soon enough, and revealed that the hasty clutch fix was functional but tenuous. Too much throttle, and the 246cc twin was more than happy to jump into the powerband (optimistically, the tach reads up to 14,000rpm) and fry the clutch. The bike climbed fine nonetheless, though I found that staying in the lower gears of the 5-speed gearbox reduced slippage. Handling was pleasant enough; consistent and predictable, it displayed no weird idiosyncrasies and dealt with the winding two-lane just fine. The brakes proved terrible though — particularly the twin-leading-shoe front stopper. Whether the pads were oily or glazed I’d need to learn later, but for one day I’d have to allow extra stopping room. Utterly surprising was the engine smoothness. Despite the rock-hard old seat (the foam had fossilized long ago), neither it nor the Gran Turismo grips nor the footpegs produced objectionable vibration. Chalk one up for iron cylinders, Titanic-sized frame tubes, and a heavyweight crankshaft and gearbox shafts. Why, you could tour quite happily on a YDS2 today.
Maybe we arrived in Ojai a bit early for lunch, but I didn’t care. On the far side of town is Love Social Cafe, a fervently hip breakfast/lunch joint which seems to be fashioned from an old house. The weather in this part of the state invites outdoor living, and garden seating under a live oak provided a shady table and a quiet respite to reflect on classic motorcycles, and the joy of riding with neither destination nor schedule. These last points felt extra-appealing. So structured and hurried is life — a frustratingly locked-down one in recent times — that just being loose on the land for a day felt like playing Monopoly’s famous Get Out of Jail Free card. I settled in, enjoyed a light lunch of avocado sourdough toast and nitrogen infused chilled coffee. The toast was excellent (I made a note to try it at home) but the coffee was too “nutty” for my taste. Still, the location was great. All I needed was somebody to share it with; it was dawning on me that whenever I discovered my own Ace Cafe, I’d need to return with friends.
My right boot
Pleasantly full and utterly content, eventually I pressed forward until discovering an appealing little sideroad that tracked east and then south toward Santa Paula, where Steve McQueen and painter Von Dutch liked to hide from the world. After vectoring onto it, the Yamaha and I were truly alone. And gratefully so, because the bike was running great, the modest speeds didn’t bother the iffy clutch, and early afternoon had brought ideal temps and California’s unique brand of benevolent yellow sunlight.
The honeymoon didn’t last long, because 10 miles along this tertiary road, the juddering began. It was time for some on-the-fly diagnostics, starting with the engine. Its 2-stroke exhaust cloud, visible in the rearview mirror, had been uniform, no undue top-end rattling intruded, power remained good and revs built quickly under throttle, so I ruled out engine trouble. The sprockets and chain tension had looked fine a few hours before, so I likewise discounted a skipping chain. Similarly, the handling remained more-or-less uniform (in a 1964 sort of way), and a quick glance at both tires ruled out a flat.
So, what gives? My right boot, that’s what. While conducting the tire check, I noted oil splashes on the toe box that hadn’t been there earlier. Clearly, they weren’t from the engine, whose cases and exhaust headers looked dry. Then I saw it: The out-of-balance front wheel pounding like a junior jackhammer, pumping fork oil past the old seals. It was the perfect vicious cycle, because less oil in the fork meant less damping; and less damping meant more pounding.
Pulling onto the dirt shoulder, I fished for neutral with the long-throw shift lever, switched off the ignition and felt the engine spin down and chuff to a stop, the last gasp of the intakes and the final pop of the dual exhausts echoing in my helmet. And then it was quiet, except for a gentle breeze rustling through the nearby groves that, in stark contrast to the 2-stroke smoke, blanketed the area with the sweet pungency of citrus blossoms. I swung off the rock-hard seat, tipped the YDS2 onto its side-stand, eyeballed my boot again and then stepped to the front of the bike.
Here, I watched in fascination as a rivulet of fork oil wandered down the right fork leg, hung for a glistening moment at the bottom, and then plopped heavily onto the chromed rim. A very wet and shiny rim, to go with a very wet and shiny tire sidewall. I considered my options: Door No. 1) Call AAA or Hagerty and get a flatbed ride home; Door No. 2) Hitch a ride to a motel, rent a room, order new seals, wait days for them to arrive, hitch a ride back to the bike with tools and more fork oil, and perform a roadside repair; or Door No. 3) Wipe the oil off the tire and keep going, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later, the oil leak would stop. What would you do? It was Door No. 3 for me.
On to the coast
Thanks to good fortune, or else a barely adequate amount of oil left in the fork, the Yamaha behaved manageably as the road eventually crested and started a long descent into the Santa Clara Valley. Ironically, while snaking through the Santa Cruz Mountains en route to the valley and then coast, at one point raw petroleum was visible leaking out of the shale, all glistening, black and sticky, to form a small stream alongside the road. And talk about pungent: For a few memorable seconds, the scents of the Yamaha’s exhaust cloud and the natural crude blended perfectly.
Rolling into 150-year-old Santa Paula, I’d hoped to find my ideal Ace Cafe — a friendly mom-and-pop diner with parking out front, comfy booths tucked against old-timey picture windows, and an amicable, unhurried staff serving thick, fresh-brewed coffee and homemade shepherd’s pie. But that dream vanished after a thorough recon of the main drag. What I was after just didn’t exist here — nor later in bustling Ventura, ideally situated next to the coast but way too busy and businesslike for my vision. In desperation, I ordered an albacore sandwich and espresso at a surfing-themed diner but the food and setting were average at best. After refueling (61mpg) I moved on, picking up the Pacific Coast Highway and heading north.
But not before a precautionary stop to forestall possible clutch burnout on the upcoming, fast-flowing highway. Under a shady red and green madrone tree in a nearby neighborhood, I retrieved hand tools stashed in the tank bag and the Yamaha’s metal tool box, removed the aluminum cover for the clutch throw-out, loosened the lock nut with a 14mm box wrench, and backed out the screw adjuster fully. Just possibly, I thought, the clutch slip was due to mis-adjustment here. However, this wasn’t the case, and entering the freeway, the clutch definitely was losing its grip. Fourth gear at about 55 mph felt like the maximum sustainable performance, and with 30 miles still left to go, I thought better of trying for more. It was a freeway-legal speed, and hugging the slow lane, it got me to a turnoff for the Rincon Parkway, a beachside secondary road paralleling the PCH.
If there’s such a thing as a real “Ventura Highway” as popularized in the 1972 America song, this is it. A mellow two-lane with little traffic during most weekdays, it bisects agricultural fields and the Pacific’s tumbling waves, and feet from the ocean, can at a moment’s notice reward or punish riders with sunlight or fog, pleasant or chilly temperatures, calm air or wind. The Yamaha made its way northward, pleasant enough at 45mph and 4,300 rpm, and pushed through sections of clammy mist followed by periods of sun, under the long shadows of coastal palms, toward home.
The Ace is anyplace
Disappointment rode with me at this point, as nearly 100 miles and four towns hadn’t produced what I’d been seeking. Maybe it didn’t exist at all, other than as sophomoric fantasy? I was just about to accept this sad reality when a little turnout for Faria Park beckoned. With only a modest sign announcing it, well, if you blinked, you could miss it. I recalled seeing a snack shop here decades ago, but given recent world events I gave it a zero-percent chance of being open.
Happily, I was totally wrong. Winding down from the elevated road into the park, I was delighted to find the family-operated Faria Beach Market. Despite me arriving as the kitchen closed, a nice young lady agreed to make up something. Thinking wistfully of the real Ace Cafe I’d never get to visit, I asked about fish and chips. They had the chips (French fries) at least, and she kindly fried up a batch and boiled some water for tea. That seemed adequately English, I thought.
At day’s end, then, I found my Ace Cafe wasn’t a cafe at all, but rather a picnic bench, where I sat with my face to the Pacific breeze and soft afternoon sun, huddled in a leather jacket with a cup of hot tea in hand, studying an improbable little vintage Yamaha. Sometimes the small, unexpected, calm moments teach us the most, and I realized with a jolt that my imagined Ace Cafe wasn’t a physical place at all, but anyplace where I felt happy. And now that I know this, I’ll happily bring my friends back here — and lobby hard for fish and chips. MC
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