• Game Changers: Yamaha RD350

A 350cc crotch-rocket that could scare seasoned superbike riders too!

Back in the 1980s, motorcycling was very different. And no, I’m not referring to the lack of ABS or electronics. That era was more about screaming two-stroke engines and their blue smoke than anything else! I only got a little taste of it, as by the time I got my license the two-stroke era was well past its prime, coughing and choking on its own smoke to say so. I did ride the Yamaha RX100 and RX135 but the big daddy and India’s first performance motorcycle, the Yamaha RD350 eluded me for a long time.

The RD350 is revered as much as it is feared for its wet-your-pants quick acceleration even today, nearly 40 years after it was launched! It is said the RD350 was quick enough to even scare riders used to bigger machines and well, in India, also due to its abysmal braking prowess! The Indian RD350 was a stripped down version – the front disc brake had been replaced by a drum brake unit, engine was detuned and carburettors were retuned for better fuel efficiency.

It’s racing genes though meant the bike was still quick enough to leave performance-starved Indian riders white-knuckled and called for seriously quick reflexes, besides a very judicious right wrist. The two-stroke parallel-twin cylinder engine offered around 32PS here as compared to 40PS abroad, but despite the deficit the Indian RD350 was the stuff of wet dreams for many youngsters back then. However, while youngsters saw the potent engine performance, their fathers saw the RD350’s dismal fuel efficiency numbers as the bike returned around 25kmpl at best or even as low as 10kmpl!

That didn’t stop a lot of these youngsters from going in for what was the country’s first and original performance motorcycle. In a way, the RD350 had changed the way motorcycles were perceived in India. It was quick to make a name for itself for various reasons, be it how it could smoke (quite literally!) anything else on the road or how it was so quick that it was worthy of being called a widow-maker. Given that very distinctive exhaust note you heard an RD350 before you saw it and the next thing you saw was a plume of smoke along with a brief visual of the motorcycle as it whizzed past.

In fact, any time a ‘street-racer’ on any other motorcycle saw an RD350 on the road he knew not to mess with one, unless keen on ‘getting smoked’ and inhaling the toxic smoke from its twin exhausts. And that’s besides the immense tuning potential the RD350 held. It was no less than a pot of gold for tuners and racers. Unlike most other machines back then the RD350 boasted serious credentials abroad in road racing, meaning performance parts could be procured to make your RD go-faster, even if you couldn’t simply order them off Amazon like you can today! Race-tuned RD350s (did you know the RD in its name stands for ‘Race Derived’?) were known to put out well in excess of 60PS and could give higher displacement four-stroke machines a run for their money on track.

The plug was pulled on the RD350 around 1990 since by then it was deemed unreliable, fuel-guzzling and polluting. And a big reason behind that was Hero Honda arriving on scene with four-stroke technology that was way cleaner and far more fuel efficient. Over the years the RD350 has gained a massive cult following though, which in turn has resulted in its value sky-rocketing and most connoisseurs holding on to their prized possessions. This particular RD350 is ‘Parsi-owned’ and belongs to a very old friend who does not let anyone touch his bike. In fact he tells me I’m only the fourth person to ride it! Admittedly, I’ve ridden a couple of them before but none come close to how quick this one is after its last rebuild.

Most RD350s today are not well-maintained, but this one gave me a taste of the kind of fearsome acceleration the RD350 is capable of. This, despite the owner not being happy with its current state of tune! The original front-end has been swapped out to be replaced by a KTM 200 Duke’s – forks, yoke and the whole disc brake setup even. There’s a steering damper for a firmer feel, handlebar risers (along with the KTM handlebar), side draft carburettors, custom exhausts and gas-charged Paioli rear shock absorbers (from the Royal Enfield Continental GT). This one is a 1986 model – almost as old as I am! – but it left me wide-eyed once it hit its powerband in each gear, reminding me yet again why the RD350 was the big daddy of its time. No wonder it commands serious respect even in today’s day and age of 200PS projectiles!

And when launched, I’m told the RD350 was priced at Rs 18,000 which sounds unbelievable even for that time given the potential it held. Try finding an RD350 today and you’ll be shocked on hearing the asking price. A well-maintained iteration will easily set you back by over Rs 3 lakh!

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