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The Indian motorcycle segment has had its fair share of classics over the years. In a mileage-conscious country like ours, performance-oriented motorcycles were never really a requirement. However, one motorcycle changed it all; a performance machine ahead of its time — the Yamaha RD350.
The Yamaha RD350 aka Rajdoot 350 was the very first performance motorcycle to be sold in India. Production ranged between 1983 and 1989. The RD350 came during a time when speeding on a motorcycle was still an uncharted experience for most Indians.
The RD350 was made in India by Escorts Group under the collaboration between Rajdoot and Yamaha. It was launched at a price of Rs 18,000 ex-showroom; a substantial amount for the time.
The Yamaha RD models were among a series of performance motorcycles built by the Japanese brand in the 20th century. Though 'RD' is popularly expanded as 'Race-Derived' or 'Race-Developed', it was actually a prefix like the RX we know of (RX100 and RX135).
There is also a belief that the RD350 was the first motorcycle with the 'RD' prefix. But there were earlier models such as the Yamaha RD48 (1961), RD56 (1963) and RD05 (1965), before the RD350 was introduced.
- Some say that 'RD' denotes 'Road' since a lot of motorcycle brands used to make road-going versions of their racing models back in the days.
- The popular notion that 'RD' stands for 'Rajdoot' is wrong.
Yamaha started the performance two-stroke trend in the global market. Starting with the Yamaha YR3 (1969), air-cooled parallel-twin two-stroke motorcycles became the thing in racing. The YR3 was later followed by the Yamaha R5 (1970) which later evolved into the RD350 (1973). The biggest difference between the R5 and the RD was that the former had port induction for the intake while the latter used reed valves.
While Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki ruled the ‘70s with their two-strokes, Honda focussed more on four-strokes; the reason being that the brand's founder, Soichiro Honda was not a fan of two-strokes.
Suzuki concentrated more on large-displacement water-cooled engines and developed the GT750. Kawasaki, on the other hand, developed the H2 750 Mach IV.
But be it any performance two-stroke, the key was ‘power band'. These motorcycles had a performance sweet spot between 4000 to 7000 RPM. A good two-stroke rider could keep the engine between these RPMs during most riding conditions.
The Introduction Of Performance Two-Strokes In India
The Yamaha RD350 was powered by a 347cc two-stroke twin-cylinder engine. In India, the RD350 came in two variants: HT (High Torque) and LT (Low Torque). The HT variant made 31bhp while the LT model produced only 27bhp; still a high figure for the time. The engine came mated to a six-speed gearbox.
Initially, only the HT variant was available. The LT variant was introduced later in 1985.
On the other hand, the original Japanese Yamaha RD350 had around 40bhp to set loose. The main reason for the power reduction in India was the low availability of good-quality fuels. Fuel economy was also a concern. The Yamaha RD350 gave mileage figures from 25km/l to as low as 10km/l, depending on riding conditions.
Indians were not exposed to such performance figures on a motorcycle either. Most of those who bought an RD back then came to know about its capability only later.
The Rapid Death Machine
The RD350 could easily hit 100km/h in just under six seconds. If pushed, the two-stroke powerhouse could go past the 150km/h mark too. Not everyone who bought the 350 could handle such performance. For the same reason, a lot of its owners have met with accidents; giving the ‘RD', an unofficial abbreviation — Rapid Death.
The Rajdoot 350 also lacked disc brakes, unlike its Japanese sibling. The motorcycle made-do with 150mm drum brakes at the front and rear. The tyres weren't wide or good enough either to put the power down well. This made its handling (especially at high speeds), a task best to be left to expert riders.
In Picture: Jobo Kuruvilla, Managing Editor at DriveSpark, on his 1983-model RD350
The RD350 was also a wheelie-friendly motorcycle. You could instantly bring the front wheel up if you let go of the clutch quickly. But to maintain the wheelie and not injure yourself, you have to have big balls.
A certain number of Yamaha RD350 motorcycles were issued to the police department for officers to nab criminals better. However, the police force too, who were used to riding heavy Royal Enfields, couldn't handle the power of an RD. This added even more to the number of casualties.
The Yamaha RD350 just couldn't be an average Indian's motorcycle.
Innovations Ahead Of Its Time
The RD350 was truly a motorcycle ahead of its time. The bike came with a lot of things that were new to the Indian motoring scene. The RD was equipped with Yamaha's Torque Induction technology.
Torque Induction ignition system in a two-stroke engine uses a reed valve (check valve) which allows charge (air+fuel mixture) to go only in one direction i.e. to the combustion chamber. If there is no reed valve, the mixture in the combustion chamber tends to flow back down to the crankcase during a low-pressure situation (when the piston moves up).
The result of Torque Induction was high low-end torque without compromising much of top-end power.
The Rajdoot 350 also featured twin carburettors and was the first bike in India to have a tachometer. All these components together made the RD350 more suited for somewhere other than public roads — the racetrack!
The Racing Heritage
The Yamaha RD 350 is one of the most iconic names in Indian two-wheeler motorsports and a good mechanic can tune its engine to more than 65bhp. The RD 350 was especially popular in drag strips. The sheer torque would leave a similarly-powered four-stroke motorcycle to smell its white cloud.
In Picture: A 11.5-second drag-spec RD350 built by Nisar Khan, NMW Racing, Bangalore, crossing the finish line
Custom-made RD350s, popularly known as Race 350s, were a common sight on race tracks. Be it a drag or a circuit, there will always be a certain group of people who come only to cheer for the RDs. No other motorcycle will be of interest to them.
In Picture: A drag-spec RD350 built by Nisar Khan, NMW Racing, Bangalore
After its end of production, most RDs found the rest of their lives on racetracks. Even today, enthusiasts and racers would go places in search of ignored and rusted RD350s in the remotest of garages. Once they acquire it, they will soon start its revival and the motorcycle will become either one of the two: Race RD or a bone-stock Rajdoot 350.
Fun Fact: Race 350s are not allowed to compete with most bigger capacity 4-stroke motorcycles, even today. The sole reason for this is, chances of them getting beaten by the 30-plus-year-old motorcycle is really high.
The Yamaha RD350, even though being the best motorcycle for its time, was a market failure. The motorcycle compromised a lot on fuel economy. The RD350 was also infamous for its high maintenance and parts cost. In addition to this, the service network of Escorts group was poor. Above all, the number of accident reports involving an RD entitled it to be a motorcycle, never to be bought.
The quote, ‘All Good Things Come To An End Someday' stayed true for the RD. The greatness of the Yamaha RD350 was too much for the normal Indian to handle.
Finally, in 1990, production of the Yamaha RD350 was stopped. The unique sound, exhilarating performance and the smell of the white 2T oil smoke became things of the past. The less powerful RX100 and the RX135 just couldn't replace it either in the minds of enthusiasts.
The Yamaha RD350 had reached the end of its life-cycle.
Thoughts On The Best Motorcycle You've Missed Buying
Today's stringent emission norms will never bring back two-strokes. However, the legacy still stays and RD enthusiasts from across the country try to save as many of them from rusting off. The stories and heritage have helped in developing a cult following for the RD350, all over the world too.
A lot of RD350 clubs are active in the country with members of all ages. Every once or twice in a year, the members join together and share their passion towards RDs and two-strokes in general.
The Yamaha RD350 was a motorcycle, India never actually wanted but every rider deserved.
Some Extra RD350 Facts To Know
- The bike was introduced to rival the Royal Enfield Bullet, Yezdi Roadking and the Jawa 350.
- Almost 7000 models were sold in India. Towards the end of its production cycle, 99% of the parts were domestically made.
- 90% of Indians who were in their 20s dreamt about owning an RD350 during the 1980s.
- The RD350 was a ‘chick-magnet'. Anyone who had an RD350 back in the day found it easy to get a date.
- A well-maintained RD350 (like the one you see here) can easily sell for prices above three lakh today.
- The biggest challenge in maintaining an RD350 today, is the availability of parts. Some people go to the extent of importing them all the way from Japan and the US.
- The RD350 is the best motorcycle to know what two-stroke is. Many claim that once someone starts loving the RD and its two-stroke motor, no other four-stroke will impress more.
- There is a saying among RD fanatics, "Every man deserves an RD in his life".
- An RD350 TV commercial had a popular line, "Don't feel bad. You're not the first 750 rider to get blown off by a Yamaha 350". This also gave the RD another title — the Giant-Killer.
The 1986 Rajdoot RD350 you see here belongs to Mr Maqsood Baig from Bangalore. His motorcycle is one of the cleanest RD350 examples you can find in India.
(Writing by Abhinand Venugopal; Additional inputs and editing by Jobo Kuruvilla; Photography by Abijith Vilangil)