My editorial for R&T yesterday on the uninspiring nature of electric “performance” cars generated all sorts of responses, at least a few of which somehow decided from reading nothing but the headline that I was in favor of electric cars and proceeded to call me an idiot for it. And then you have this fellow above, who thinks I should check out a Yamaha RZ350. As fate would have it, I did check out a Yamaha RZ350, some thirty-two years ago.
The Yamaha RZ350 was the last great two-stroke street motorcycle sold in this country. With about forty horsepower to push 375 pounds, it could run a thirteen-second quarter mile in 1984. Just for perspective, the Ferrari Testarossa was also introduced in 1984. Car and Driver said at the time that “It blows through the quarter-mile like Hurricane Freddy, in a sensational 13.3 seconds at 107 mph.” Although the ’84 Testarossa stickered at $89,995 or thereabouts, transaction prices were closer to $110k for most of 1984 and 1985, leading Ferrari to raise the sticker all the way to $135k in late ’85. By contrast, the 1984 RZ350 retailed for $2,399, in your choice of red-and-white or Yamaha Racing’s team colors of yellow and black.
It’s a Dairy Mart now, but thirty-two years ago 3760 Snouffer Road in northern Columbus, Ohio was the local Yamaha and Kawasaki dealer, a Seventies-era ski-lodge-styled angular building in that brick red so common to the era, with plenty of glass to let the sun shine on the small showroom floor. It was about an hour’s walk each way from our little townhouse in Riverside Green, through backyards and across a couple of fallow cornfields complete with rotting, abandoned farmhouses. In the five years afterwards, those fields were cleared and the homes were burned and a wave of development would wash concrete and asphalt over the whole area, grocery stores and strip malls breeding like lilacs out of the dead land. But in 1984 my peregrination to the Yamaha store would not have been terribly unfamiliar to any Midwestern farmer or rural child.
It’s worth noting that I found the motorcycle shop by chance. I was twelve years old when Bark and I moved to Riverside Green. I had a lot of free time, particularly in the summer, and I was restless. The roads were still arrow-straight two-lanes thick with truck traffic, so I left my bicycle at home and simply walked for hours at a time, mapping out the neighborhood and what lay beyond with the patience and dull repetitive motions of an insect. The Yamaha dealer was more or less alone on Snouffer Road at the time. I have no idea why anybody thought it was a good idea to locate there; the only other major business in the area was a Ford dealership that located at the 270-and-Sawmill Road exit by the imperial orders of Ford itself and which struggled mightily for two decades until the development finally arrived and it began to mint hard cash hand over fist.
My companion for those walks was usually my friend Bobby, half a year older than I was but a foot shorter, stooped and crooked with severe scoliosis. Sometimes Bark would come along; he was seven years old. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the most brilliant idea for us to wander around like that. If I found out that my son, who is that age now that Bark was then, was taking six-mile walks across traffic and whatnot, sometimes even daring to cross the shoulderless two-lane Sawmill freeway overpass, with two other children as his only guides, I’d be too furious to speak.
All through that summer of 1984, the Yamaha shop had RZ350s on the showroom floor. The first time I walked into the dealer, sweating from the walk and afraid of my own shadow in adult company, I was afraid to even touch it. Over the course of the season, as I got taller and bolder, I eventually got to the point where I could engage the salesmen in brief, stuttering conversations. Then, around the time I cleared the six-foot mark, I sidled up to a yellow-and-black RZ and, with a quick glance around me to ensure the coast was clear, swung my leg over the bike.
There I was, sitting on an actual sportbike! It was as close as I’d ever been to one; it goes without saying that my father and his peers would be no more likely to own a motorcycle than they would be to don overalls and start working as pump jockeys at the local SOHIO gas station. I half expected the bike to fall over and crush me beneath it, but instead I was able to flick up the kickstand and just sit there, the RZ’s nose facing the big glass windows and the street beyond.
“Vroom,” I said. Bobby was as far away from me as he could manage without leaving the building; he was terrified that I’d be arrested for sitting on the bike. I shuddered with a surge of desire strong enough to made my shoulders wobble. Earlier that month I’d kissed one of the eighth-grade girls from my apartment complex up against the blank brick side of the northern building and she’d briefly stuck her tongue in my mouth; that’s what it was like to sit on the RZ350, only much better. It occurred to me that I could maybe meet a lot of girls if I had a motorcycle like this, but I would also have the option to just ride the motorcycle around and not waste time with girls at all. “Vroom,” I repeated.
“Hey, kid,” a salesman said from the dark alcove of the finance office, “you can’t sit on that bike. It’s sold.” My veins turned to ice with terror.
“Bobby,” I whispered. He wasn’t even daring to look at me. “BOBBY!” I whispered, louder this time. “You have to help me get off this thing and put the kickstand down.”
“N-n-n-no way,” he said, turning and facing the wall like the next customer to enter the dealer was going to be the Blair Witch.
“It’s okay,” the salesman said, walking up and terrifying me with his facial hair and broad-set jollity. “Put the stand down like this.” And he showed me. And helped me get back off the bike. And, wonder of wonders, gave me his business card and the brochure for the bike. “Come back,” he winked, “when you’re sixteen.”
If my feet touched the ground during the three mile walk back home, I didn’t feel it.
The prosperity that came to the Sawmill/270 area didn’t save the Yamaha dealer; it swept it away. The whole showroom was ripped off the building by a front-end loader, replaced with gasoline pumps. The rest of the showroom became a Dairy Mart. And now perhaps it’s appropriate to move directly to the end of this story:
Bobby died in his thirties from health complications related to his childhood.
Your author bought a 1986 Ninja 600 in the summer of 1994, almost ten years to the day after he’d first sat on an RZ350.
The RZ350 was discontinued for 1986, a victim of the EPA’s no-excuses attitude towards two-stroke engines and the sportbike market’s demonstrated preference for 600cc “supersports”.
Yamaha introduced the R3 last year. It’s the same size, weight, power, and performance as the RZ350, although it spins to a much higher redline and perhaps isn’t quite as ice-cold cool as its bumblebee-colored forebear.
Mrs. Baruth owns an R3. It lives in my house, as does she.
And everything is going to be alright in the end.