“A vintage race bike without fairings…but for the street.”
This was the vision Jesse Crane (@crane_moto) had for the 1975 Yamaha RD350 café racer you see here. You might remember Jesse from his ’71 Yamaha R5 350 we featured last spring, which he bought as a seized-up basket case and transformed into a 295-lb (fully fueled) rocket ship — a bike he took on the storied Tail of the Dragon last fall.
Jesse works as a Chassis Engineer for a major motorcycle manufacturer, and he and his son both race in the Road America Supermoto series. He’s a man who knows how to build a bike to perform on the street and track, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that racers build some of the best customs.
This ’75 RD350 was actually the donor bike for a lot of the parts on Jesse’s R5, which was just fine because the RD would be a ground-up build. Jesse had even higher ambitions for the RD…or should we say lower, given his emphasis on the old Colin Chapman adage: add lightness.
“Goal of the build was to create a vintage race bike without fairings…but for the street. Current weight of the bike is 260 pounds with a full tank.”
Jesse de-tabbed and braced the original frame at the headtube and rear shock mounts to reduce chassis flex. He relocated the upper rear shock mount locations, pairing them with a set of 320mm YSS rear shocks. The tank is an RD60 unit modified to fit the frame, and the value is more than aesthetic:
“In my opinion, one of the biggest handling issues of the original RD350 was too much rear weight bias. The small RD60 fuel tank and clip on handlebars help shift weight to the front end for a more even weight distribution with the rider.”
A TZ-style tail section was narrowed to interface with the new tank, giving the machine that vintage race bike look. Up front, there are the aforementioned custom clip-ons, as well as a GP-style aluminum upper yoke machined to fit the 2″ mini speedo. An adjustable steering damper keeps things steady.
The brakes are a weak point of the stock RD, but Jesse took care of that with a Honda CRF450R front caliper and master cylinder, custom reaction bracket, and Ducati 998 rotor:
“For those with RD350’s looking for a front brake upgrade, I suggest a Ducati front rotor swap and custom reaction bracket. Not only does the new Honda/Ducati front brake system have significantly better power/feel, it is also 10 pounds lighter than the stock master/caliper/rotor.”
The OEM hubs were lightly polished and laced to a pair of lightweight aluminum rims (1.8″ F / 2.15″ rear) with Shinko 712 rubber. Jesse thanks his buddy Cody Zainey for convincing him to paint the bodywork GM Bright Aqua — a C4 Corvette color that might be atypical of a 70s Yamaha, but looks just right on this machine.
As Jesse is a Chassis Engineer, most of his focus was on the chassis and handling, but the engine got a few choice upgrades as well: Wiseco pistons, 30mm PWK flat-slide carbs with pods, JL chambers, Vape ignition, and the oil pump has been removed to run premix at 32:1.
As you can imagine, this 260-lb smoker is a revelation in the handling department.
“While the R5 felt like a vintage cafe racer, this RD350 feels more like a resto-mod. Purists avert your eyes.”
Jesse says the JL chambers make the engine sing, and he has a hard time riding it at any kind of constant speed because it sounds too damn good on the throttle or during engine braking. Then there are the reactions of everyone who sees the bike:
“I love riding this bike to weekly bike nights or to lunch on a Friday afternoon and seeing people’s reactions. The typical reaction I get is ‘What the Hell is that thing!?!? Looks awesome whatever it is!'”
Of course, the final weight is a big point of pride for Jesse — as well it should be.
“I hope others can find the beauty of simplicity and added lightness as I do.”
We certainly do, Jesse! Below, we talk to Jesse for the full story on this featherweight café racer.
Yamaha RD350 Café Racer: Builder Interview
• Tell us about your Bike…
This is a heavily modified café racer, based on a 1975 Yamaha RD350. Goal of the build was to create a vintage race bike without fairings…but for the street. Current weight of the bike is 260 pounds with a full tank.
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride the finished bike?
The bike’s chassis feels surprisingly modern. Gusset reinforcements to the frame at the headtube and upper rear shocks help reduce chassis flex. Taking off about 100 pounds from the factory RD350 also helps a lot. In my opinion, one of the biggest handling issues of the original RD350 was too much rear weight bias. The small RD60 fuel tank and clip on handlebars help shift weight to the front end for a more even weight distribution with the rider.
The upgrades to the front braking system are pretty wild, and provide fantastic bite and feel. For those with RD350’s looking for a front brake upgrade, I suggest a Ducati front rotor swap and custom reaction bracket. Not only does the new Honda/Ducati front brake system have significantly better power/feel, it is also 10 pounds lighter than the stock master/caliper/rotor. Compared to my R5 cafe racer that was featured earlier in the year, the bike rides with a more modern feel. While the R5 felt like a vintage cafe racer, this RD350 feels more like a resto-mod. Purists avert your eyes.
The JL chambers really help the engine sing at high RPMs. I have a hard time riding this bike at constant engine load, because it sounds great at throttle and during engine braking. I love riding this bike to weekly bike nights or to lunch on a Friday afternoon and seeing people’s reactions. The typical reaction I get is “What the Hell is that thing!?!? Looks awesome whatever it is!”
• Any idea on the horsepower?
The engine doesn’t have much for engine modifications besides the Wiseco pistons, PWK flat slide carbs, and JL chambers. Power is probably somewhere around 45hp. Nowhere near what some people have achieved with a RD350 engine, but I am a Chassis Engineer and not a Powertrain Engineer…so you can clearly see where I focus my attention. I also say I would rather ride a low powered lightweight bike over a high powered heavyweight bike anyday. You don’t need much power at 260 pounds!
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
I am definitely the most proud of the finished weight of the project. I was originally thinking this bike was going to be closer to 280 pounds, but was shocked when I put it on the scale and saw 260. So there isn’t really any one particular modification I am proud of, as it requires all of the modifications to achieve the final product. I hope others can find the beauty of simplicity and added lightness as I do.
• Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
A big thank you to my wonderful wife Kayla Crane. She has always been supportive of my motorcycle shenanigans. Also I need to give props to my friend Cody Zainey, who convinced me to paint the bodywork in GM Bright Aqua. Even though the color is atypical for a 70’s Yamaha, it really looks great and is quite unique.
- Frame de-tabbed, gusseted, relocated upper rear shock point
- RD60 fuel tank, modified to fit the frame
- TZ style tail, narrowed to interface to the RD60 tank
- Body is painted in GM Bright Aqua (C4 Corvette color)
- Custom rearsets and clip on handlebars
- Honda CG125 front fender
- YSS rear shocks, 320mm
- 5.75 bottom mount headlight, custom aluminum bracket
- HVC cycle GP style aluminum upper triple clamp, custom machined for 2” mini speedometer
- OEM wheel hubs lightly polished
- Lightweight shouldered aluminum rims, 1.8” wide front and 2.15” wide rear
- Shinko 712 tires
- Ducati 998 front brake rotor
- CRF450R front brake caliper and master cylinder, custom reaction bracket
- Aluminum pitbike throttle assembly
- Adjustable hydraulic steering damper
- Wiseco pistons
- VAPE electronic ignition, running battery-less
- PWK 30mm flat slide carburetors with pod filters
- Yamaha Banshee throttle cable
- JL exhaust chambers, stainless steel with carbon fiber silencers
- Custom kickstart lever to integrate with engine case
- Oil injection removed, premixed at 32:1