Looking for the Magic Bullet: 1974-1976 Yamaha RD200

The Yamaha RD200 was targeted at the beginning motorcyclist who wanted an inexpensive and fun way to get around.

| November/December 2015

  • The Yamaha RD200. Note the low handlebars.
    Photo courtesy Yamaha
  • 1973-1977 Suzuki GT185
    Photo courtesy of the Rizingson Collection
  • 1973-1976 Honda CB200
    Photo courtesy of the Rizingson Collection

Yamaha RD200
Years produced:
Claimed power:
18.7hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed:
84mph (period test)
195cc air-cooled 2-stroke parallel twin
5-speed, chain final drive
290lb (wet)
Price then/now:
$995 (1975)/$600-$2,500

Like Goldilocks, Japanese bike makers tried every size to find one that was just right. During the late 1960s, you could buy bikes starting from 50cc at almost 10cc intervals, including 65, 80, 90, 100, 110, 125, 150, 160, 175, 200, 250, 305, 350cc and more. The 200cc class emerged around 1970 as a practical option for commuting, with just enough juice to make a sometime weekend tourer.

Launched for 1974 as the Yamaha RD200, the bike’s roots can be traced all the way back to the 1968 180cc CS1. Although “built on the same scale as the RD125B,” said Cycle in June 1975, the RD200 was 35 pounds heavier. Yet compared with the RD250, the 200 was as much as 50 pounds lighter and also physically smaller, with a seat height of just 29.5 inches and a 49-inch wheelbase.

Yet it had plenty of big bike features. Inside the 195cc, 180-degree 2-stroke twin was a four-main-bearing crankshaft with needle roller small- and big-end connecting rod bearings. Lubrication was by Yamaha’s Autolube system, and fueling by a pair of 20mm Teikei carburetors with the fuel/air charge pulling through four-petal reed valves. Helical primary gears drove a wet clutch and 5-speed gearbox. Electrics included a combined 12-volt DC generator/starter motor unit for push-button starting, though the kickstarter was retained. Interestingly, none of the other RD models including the RD125, the RD250, RD350 or RD400 had electric starting. With the RD200, Yamaha clearly had its sights on the beginner motorcyclist looking for a cheap and fun way to get to work and around town.

In most ways the RD200 was quite conventional. The power unit was suspended from a single-downtube spine frame with a telescopic front fork and a rear swingarm. Tires were a 3 x 18-inch rear and 2.75 x 18-inch front with drum brakes at both ends for stopping. A disc finally replaced the twin-leading-shoe front drum starting with the 1976 RD200C.

Riding the RD200, testers found the power to come on strongly above 4,500rpm (with the torque curve flattest between 6,500 and 8,000rpm), but with little power below that — in spite of the “Torque Induction” reed-valve system that was supposed to boost low end power. As with many small 2-strokes, slipping the clutch was usually necessary for a clean getaway from rest. Pushed to its limits the RD200 could run a standing quarter-mile in 17 seconds at 77mph, with a top speed of around 84mph. Not exactly
breathtaking, but not bad for its small size; UK’s Bike magazine found that “the RD is happy to cruise at 60 to 70 mph all day.”

The quality of handling seemed to be subjective: Cycle Guide found the RD200A’s suspension stiff, which was considered “an asset to its cornering. It zooms round every kind of corner quickly and smoothly.” The RD200’s straight line stability was “very good for such a small motorcycle,” they said, but they did caution riders that at freeway speeds “a small movement of the bars results in a large change of direction.”

Cycle, meanwhile, found the RD200B’s front fork “flaccid,” leading to “suspension surging” and “oscillation” if the throttle was closed and opened in a turn. Both Cycle and Cycle Guide found the brakes perhaps too powerful and too sensitive, especially the twin-leading-shoe front drum. Cycle Guide said it was “too easy to lock up the wheel accidentally. The powerful front brake combined with the short wheelbase makes its controllability during hard braking shaky at best.”

There were some quality issues with Cycle Guide’s test bike: Exhaust nuts came loose; the passenger footpeg broke off; and the seat latch didn’t work properly. Another issue was fuel consumption — especially in the context of the 1973-1974 oil crisis — that barely crept into the low 40s, giving a range of just 100 miles. In a July 1974 comparison test with the Honda CB200, Cycle Guide said the Yamaha was faster and racier, but ultimately called the CB200 the better machine.

The RD200 was pulled from Yamaha’s lineup after 1976, yet the little twin continues to draw interest today. Relatively simple, it’s easy to service, and its high build quality means a properly cared for RD200 can return years of solid riding. MC

Contenders: 200cc twin rivals to Yamaha’s RD200

1973-1977 Suzuki GT185
Claimed power:
10.8hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed:
185cc air-cooled 2-stroke twin
5-speed, chain final drive
275lb (wet)
Price then/now:
$925 (1975)/$500-$1,800

Suzuki’s smallest pure street bike arrived as a new model in 1973 featuring “Ram Air” cooling cast into the cylinder heads, kick- and electric-starting (by a dual-purpose DC generator, like the RD200), and a drum front brake (disc from 1975). Two 20mm Mikunis fed the piston-port, 2-stroke twin, which slotted into a single downtube frame with conventional suspension of telescopic forks and twin rear shocks.

That suspension, though, was Cycle World’s main issue in a 1975 test: “The rear end pitches and wallows severely at the same time the front suspension is pogoing,” they said. “A bumpy road is to be avoided because the suspension just can’t handle it.” Fuel consumption was better than the RD200, the GT185 returning 45-50mpg in average riding.

Cycle Guide noted that the GT185 “does almost everything exceptionally well.” They liked the “smooth, constant, flow of power” and the front brake, which was “powerful, yet … works progressively.” While they found “the engine performance far exceeds the handling capabilities,” it was the weak suspension that let it down. Address that issue and “the GT185 could end up being the best thing in its class,” they said.

A later Cycle test of the final year model was more glowing: “As a 200-class motorcycle, the Suzuki 185 is an impressive machine: a refined, smooth, civil piece of hardware with nary a ragged edge.”

1973-1976 Honda CB200
Claimed power:
14.1hp @ 9,000rpm
Top speed:
198cc air-cooled SOHC twin
5-speed, chain final drive
296lb (wet)
Price then/now:
$800 (1974)/$500-$1,500

“The CB200 is a 200cc engine mounted in a 125 frame,” advised Cycle Guide in 1973, adding, “But … with all the civilities you’d find on a 650.” Essentially a bored-out CB175, the single overhead cam, wet-sump, 360-degree parallel twin engine sat in the smaller bike’s single-downtube tubular frame. Starting was both kick and electric, and fueling was by a pair of 20mm Keihins.

Conventional telescopic forks and dual rear shocks provided suspension, while brakes were drum rear and a mechanically operated disc at the front (from 1974).

Though down on power compared with the RD200, the Honda’s 4-stroke engine was more flexible, with a broader powerband and better mileage (50-65mpg, giving a 150-mile range). Controls, including clutch and gearshift, were smooth and easy, and the handling was “light and quick,” said Cycle Guide. Like the RD200, the CB’s short wheelbase needed careful steering to avoid over-correction in the turns, and rain grooves and crosswinds could unsettle it.

Although the CB200 was slower than the Yamaha, Cycle Guide gave it the nod in its 1974 comparo. “The Honda gives the commuter, the beginner, or the economy-minded rider more of what he’s looking for. The Yamaha can do all those things, but the Honda does them slightly better.”

5/11/2016 5:07:57 PM

Hey Rizingson. I'm trying to figure out how that happened. It's not our policy to use other people's photos without asking permission. I'm wondering if those images were on somebody else's site and identified as we used them. I'm trying to confirm that, but either way, my apologies. We're really not trying to fool anyone and would much rather give credit where credit is due along with providing readers a hot link to the provider's page if there's more to see. If you can, could you email me? I'd like to make sure we get this corrected to your satisfaction. Thanks. Richard Backus Editor/Motorcycle Classics rbackus@motorcycleclassics.com

5/10/2016 8:21:41 AM

Interesting article, but was surprised to find that the pictures of the CB200 and GT185 were photo shopped copies of photo's I took of my own bikes. Crediting them to the courtesy of Honda and Suzuki was disingenuous at best. I also own a mint condition '74 RD200A as well. Regards Rizingson Vintage Motorcycles

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