Ready for a riot
MOTORCYCLING is speckled with legendary machines. Ducati’s 900SS and 916, Honda’s RC30 and the original CB750, Norton’s Manx single and, more recently, Yamaha’s R1 all have their places in history. They’ve earned it by pushing the performance envelope. But however impressive they once were or still are, they’ll never be as great as Yamaha’s RD250 and 350LC.
While the 900SS, 916, RC30, CB750, Manx and R1 changed motorcycling for ever, they aren’t bikes of the people. They’re exotic, costly machines owned only by the lucky few – unlike the LC. No other humble, small-capacity motorcycle ever had such an effect on biking as Yamaha’s first water-cooled sports bikes, descended directly from the marque’s ridiculously successful TZ250 and 350 GP racers. The LC was the touchpaper for today’s four-stroke superbikes. R1 and R6 project leader Kunihiko Miwa acknowledges: " With the R family we wanted to re-create the RD sensation. "
Sales went ballistic in those halcyon days. Rather more of them went into circulation than the 8000-or-so R1s currently on British roads. Between 1980 and 1985, sales reached almost 30,000 in the UK.
The LC was much more than just a runaway sales success, more even than a milestone in sports bike history. The LC was a cultural phenomenon.
It provoked the Cult of Elsie, a cult of LunaCy which tore up race tracks, dual-carriageways and town centres all over Britain throughout the ’80s. For years, LCs dominated Britain’s sports bike scene and ruled club and national racing.
The LC hit the streets at a volatile moment in modern British history. Punk rock and new wave had swept all before them in the preceding three or four years, Maggie Thatcher and the Tories had got in the previous summer and the country was a seething mass of disaffected youth, half of them on the dole, all of them angry. Unemployment was rising out of control and the kids were revolting.
Perhaps it was mere coincidence, but within a year of the launch of the LC, Britain was burning. From Brixton to Liverpool and from Bristol to Nottingham there was rioting, arson and looting as youngsters vented their fury against a Government that had cut public spending by £100 million in its first budget.
You couldn’t imagine a motorcycle better suited to such a seductive climate of mayhem. The LC was the do-anything-you-want-to-do motorcycle (as punk band Eddie and the Hotrods had sung a year or two earlier): Buy one cheap, learn to wheelie, get pissed, out-run the cops, crash out at the squat, crawl out of bed the next afternoon to collect the dole.
And because LCs weren’t R1 expensive, it didn’t matter if you crashed. In fact, the cult of lunacy demanded you ride like an idiot and fall like a fool. LC owners wore their dinged fuel tanks and scraped spannies (that’s expansion chambers for those of you who don’t speak ’80s) with pride; a scratch-free LC belonged to a wimp.
The early ’80s weren’t about track days and advanced riding techniques, it was just nail the throttle and wait for something scary to happen. That something scary was, of course, the LC powerband, that seven grand kick up the arse that got kids whipped into a frenzy. The original 250LC, launched some months before its bigger-bored brother in the Spring of 1980, didn’t make outrageous horsepower, it just felt like it did. What really mattered was that it was the world’s first true ton-up 250, and this was in the days when novices could walk into a shop, buy a 250 on credit, attach a couple of L-plates and wheelie off down the road, probably straight into an oncoming Ford Escort.
Yamaha’s hooligan creation played a rather large part in the introduction of new learner laws the following year, restricting beginners to 12bhp, 65mph 125s.
The 350 turned up in the autumn of 1980, visually identical except for a second front disc brake and 350 stickers on the sidepanels. In standard form, it wasn’t the loon everyone had expected. But with a bit of judicious work with a riffler file and lathe, it rocked. The 350’s arrival only accelerated the establishment of a countrywide cottage industry dedicated to turning LCs into insane streetbikes, nutty proddie racers or full-blown open-class race bikes.
Tuners like Stan Stephens, Bob Farnham and Dave Swarbrick became legends.
Their names were dropped whenever an owner felt the need to impress: " Yeah, I just got a Stephens stage-three done on me 350, it wheelies in third now, no problem. " " Nah, mate, you wanna get some Swarbrick pipes, really sort the powerband they do. "
It was perhaps inevitable that this LC-evoked infatuation with speed would lead a lot of owners to take to the race track.
Club racing throughout Britain became an LC fest; battered, rusting Transit vans arriving in paddocks from Brands Hatch to Knockhill, each disgorging two or three LCs and their spotty, dishevelled owners (me among them), who would race in just about every class going: Production, formula and open class. Proddie racing was the biggest deal - with gridfuls of LCs and nothing else.
These were the years when British club racing collectively removed its brain, placed it in a toolbox and went out to race. The 250 and 350 proddie classes were the big entertainment at every club meet.
The racing was totally insane. I know because I spent my second and third seasons racing a 250LC. Six-lap, 12-mile races at Snetterton would start with 40 riders and end with less than 20.
First corners would claim five or six victims. I remember having tyre marks on my bike’s fuel tank and across my leathers and helmet after one turn-one mass pile-up. And it was rare for a race to go its full course without getting red-flagged to allow fallen bikes and riders to be dragged out of harm’s way before the carnage resumed.
Weekend meets got wilder and wilder. Huge Saturday night piss-ups in the Snetterton paddock bar were followed by Sunday’s first race at 10am – still pissed. No-one really seemed to care. If you tipped off, LCs were cheap to fix and you could always blag spares off some other LC owner in the paddock. Or nick a street bike. Various police raids in the late ’80s established that a large proportion of proddie LCs were stolen; no-one seemed very surprised.
Serious physical injuries seemed remarkably few and far between. Mere scabs and broken bones were things to be admired and laughed at. And anyway, the nurses at Norwich hospital were the cutest.
My first LC, bought with a loan in the Spring of ’81 (I didn’t tell my bank manager what it was for), never did the business. The squish band was too big, or the exhaust port too low – something like that.
But my ’82 250 was a rocketship. That summer I won 40 races on the bike and on a 350 borrowed from a mate. I set a few lap records at Brands and Snett and used one front tyre all season. I may also have changed the piston rings at some point, but I can’t even guarantee it.
The cult of Elsie spawned some pretty serious racers, too. Mick Doohan started on an LC. He had bought a 250 (called an RZ250 Down Under) for the street and lost his licence five times before he was 20 for speeding, pulling wheelies, the usual LC lunacy.
He also crashed the bike a lot – pretty much totalling the thing on a trip to Australia’s infamous Bathurst races in ’83, looping the bike after a wheelie went wrong, then riding into the side of a car in a gas station. He replaced the wreck with one of the just-out YPVS RZ350s, convincing his dealer to affix 250 stickers to the sidepanels because he didn’t have a full licence.
Doohan was a typical LC hoon – fast as you like and not giving a flier about anything.
His elder brother Scott remembers: " He’d be sliding around with 15psi in the tyres, his shirt hanging out between two-piece leathers. He was a bit loose in those days – it was just all good fun. " Exactly.
Doohan only started racing because a mate had borrowed his RZ and stacked it. His local dealer – having witnessed his talent on dirt trackers – offered to fix the bike for free if he could be bothered to enter a race. The rest is history.
Multi-British champ Niall Mackenzie also started on an LC. " My first road bike was a 350. I’d read about them and reckoned they were the most gorgeous bikes ever built. I scrimped every penny to get one. Within months I was racing.
" I was 19 with a death wish. I didn’t care about anything – crashing, argy-bargy on the track, everything was fine. LCs were hooligans’ bikes, for young kids, not born-again bikers. "
Mackenzie’s LC career ended with the Pro-Am championship, a berserk, televised one-make LC series. Pro-Am had been designed for mass-appeal armchair entertainment and provided exactly that. There was full BBC coverage (in an age when bikes never made it on to TV), serious prize money (£500 for a win was big bucks back then) and, most of all, bikes loaned (and fixed) for free by Yamaha. It was a recipe for trouble.
The Ams were riders in their first year of international racing, the Pros were a bit, but not much, more experienced. Competitors were allocated bikes by lucky dip, picking keys out of a hat minutes before practice. The racing was never less than terrifyingly close and though Mackenzie never won the series, he had plenty of laughs.
" It was wild and it couldn’t happen nowadays because it wouldn’t work with all the different sponsors and teams. We were mental, we didn’t care if we crashed. It was free racing – free bikes, wreck as many as you liked and no-one complained, and brilliant prize money. You could put it on the line and, if you got away with it, you’d win.
" There’d be 10 different leaders every lap. I was the original left-hand-on-the-fork-leg, both-feet-up-on-the-seat merchant. The antics got crazy, hitting rivals’ kill buttons on the straights and so on. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion and pretty much anything went. A fair amount of kicking went on – that was fairly serious and malicious, a lot of it instigated by Alan Carter (the last Brit to win a 250 GP).
" The Yamaha importers sometimes got a bit concerned that it could all go a bit pear-shaped. Luckily, it never did. "
Mackenzie’s final race on an LC was the ’83 Euro final at Hockenheim. By then the LC cult had spread far beyond these shores. Mackenzie, Kenny Irons (who went on to race GPs but got killed in ’88), and a few others, including myself (I’d finished top Am in that year’s UK series), made up the British team. Mackenzie and Co blazed a trail of chaos through Germany that autumn, crashing hire cars, doing runners from bars (no doubt confused by the Continental system of not paying for your drinks round by round) and terrifying the locals.
They had the No1 French hope in tears after ganging up on the guy during practice and running him off the track at 100mph-plus. And they dealt with the threat of super-quick Brit Steve Chambers - who was being dead serious, going to bed every night at a sensible time - by calling up whores from the local brothel and sending them round to his hotel room in the early hours.
Irons lucky-dipped a dog of an LC and compensated for its lack of speed by pulling himself past anyone ahead by hauling on the leading bike’s pillion grabrail, then swerving violently, forcing Johnny Foreigner to back off or risk a high-speed endo. Manxman Graham Cannell won the race by a gnat’s from Chambers, and the defeated Continentals shuffled home, struck dumb by the Brits’ aggression. But it was only what Cannell & Co had been doing at home for years.
That LC madness goes on. While the machines’ status as a race-winning phenomenon may have withered, there’s now a special class for LCs. Formula LC is a cheap way of starting in the sport. Bikes go for less than a grand and beginners can even rent them for £150 a meet.
On the streets, the LC’s signature chainsaw massacre exhaust wail is a rare sound and owners so few and far between that they have to communicate on the net, logging on to sites like rd.linefeed.com.
The ‘sod you all!’ spirit lives on in angry discussions on the site’s packed message board.
" Was last night’s Chelsea run any good? Couldn’t make it meself, " asks one LC idiot.
" The run was good – glad you weren’t there! " comes the reply from another.
" It’s a good job your parents gave you a name with only three letters. You’d have been struggling with any more than that. "
Morons one and all – just the way it should be.
MESSING WITH PERFECTION
THE original RD250LC appeared in Britain in the Spring of 1980. It was a descendent of the air-cooled RD250, which itself was ultimately derived from Yamaha’s original sports twin, the 1959 YDS1.
It remained on sale for six years, undergoing just a handful of minor changes during that period – the bike really was that good from the start.
The fully square 54 x 54mm motor employed technology learned from Yamaha’s range of TZ250 and 350 racers but was nevertheless a fairly straightforward piston-ported two-stroke with reed-valve induction.
The stock motor made over 30bhp, with well-tuned versions exceeding 40bhp.
The 108mph 350, with a 10mm bigger bore, turned up six months later. Yamaha claimed 47bhp from this engine and, like the 250, it responded well to simple but clever tune-ups. Also like the 250, the chassis needed few mods for the track. Fit sticky tyres and some spacers in the forks and you’re winning races.
The 350 underwent a major revision for a mark two version appearing in 1983. It had handlebar and belly fairing, uprated chassis and YPVS exhaust control. The motor was more powerful and easier to use than the original, with a smooth 59bhp and 115mph top speed.
Later versions gained unpretty full fairings. As sales faded in the late 80s, production switched to Brazil. They even stopped making them there in the mid-90s.