It's nearing thirty years since the Yamaha RD350 came to India but even today whisper the name and a reverent hush descends. Faraway looks shine in all the gathered eyes and you can see the glowing memories of speed and performance roaring through the enthusiasts' heads. Until the Kawasaki Ninja 250R and the Honda CBR250R came nothing has had the performance to challenge the venerated two-stroke demon.
But do these two really have the performance to beat the RD? Today is the day we find out. The odds for once are stacked against the Yamaha. It's a thirty year old bike, parts are hard to come by, the best bikes are still a bit lashed together and ragged at the edges. And you can tune the engine all you want, but the frame and the overall capability of the motorcycle is likely to be held back by the unyielding rules of Father Time.
Today we are putting the RD to a test it has aced with contempt in the past. The cornerstone of motorcycle, nay vehicle performance, the quarter mile.
What we all wish it would do is thrash the 33PS Kawasaki Ninja 250R soundly and spank the 25PS Honda CBR250R. But secretly we also wish the RD would get beaten. In our depressingly slow-moving market (on product evolution not sales) it would be a blinding ray of hope. A milestone of progress. The end of an era, even.
So we organised the motorcycles, found an appropriately long, completely deserted piece of tarmac and charged up the batteries on our testing equipment and prayed for the rain to stay away for the duration.
Time for some action. The RD belongs to a different time, when the sounds of motorcycles were not lost in the dreary desert sand of noise emissions to borrow a phrase. It always sounded glorious but it completely overshadows the relatively meek sounds of the other two. It has presence. In the sound, in the smell of burning 2T and in the all-metal no-plastic bare-bones appearance.
The revs rise in anticipation of the startâ¦ Ready, set? Go!
Clutches were popped and it was the RD that was the first to leap ahead, front wheel desperate to leave the ground. The Ninja's whining scream as it heads past 10,000rpm is finally audible as a note not drowned in the RD's roar. It's desperate to catch the blue bike just ahead. The CBR isn't far behind, but decisively in third.
A hundred metres later, one fourth of the way, the RD is still gathering frightening momentum, its clock passing 90kmph, just 6.12 seconds since the test began. It's older and the most obvious sign of age is the gearbox. It's not as slick anymore and I am convinced it would be further ahead if it could shift as smoothly and quickly as the Ninja or the CBR. The Ninja is pressing its advantage. It's 0.55 seconds behind at the 100m mark, going a 1.96kmph slower. The CBR, the sole single cylinder, the softest of the trio is still the last bike. It crosses the 100 mark 0.81 seconds behind the RD and is now 3.73kmph slower, going 86.27kmph.
The next hundred metres take much less time. The RD crosses 200 metres in 116.93kmph clearly pulling away from the other two. It's 9.79 seconds since it blasted off and the Ninja is now a significant 8.73kmph slower and at the 200m mark it takes 10.28 seconds to get there, a half a second more. The Ninja though sounds and feels fantastic ridden like this. Watching the needle head sharply towards its 13,000rpm screaming in anger and enjoying the action is a pleasure. There's the problem of the RD that's inexorably pulling away, but making this Kawasaki engine sing is pure pleasure. The CBR was never meant to run this hard at the very top of its revs and it's beginning to show. It gets to 200m in 10.55 seconds, 0.76 seconds behind the RD but it's only going 105.85kmph. It is still in touch with the Ninja but the rider knows the Honda isn't going to do a Seabiscuit just before the line.
Three fourths of the way down, the RD is singing. It's entered the sweet spot that will fling it from 110 to 150kmph in one headlong rush and there's a thick contrail of white smoke that is going to make the job harder for the clean-piped duo behind. Blue smoke, we have blue smoke. The RD blurs by the 300m mark at 127.41kmph in 12.46 seconds. This is the first time the signs of age show, though. The RD rider is worried. If he holes a piston or has a partial seizure or the famously unreliable once old Yamaha oil pump has a hiccup, it could end in disaster. A full engine rebuild isn't worth teaching these two upstarts a lesson is it?
But you can't back off. The Ninja is in Rossi-mode, just waiting for a mistake. It crosses 300m at 121.49kmph, nearly a second behind the RD â" 13.39 seconds. The CBR, surprise, is still in the hunt, 0.37 seconds adrift of the Ninja, going 117.41 kmph. But we know from our performance testing that the Honda has only another 10-15kmph after which performance will start to flatten out.
Then the RD stamps it authority. The last hundred metres are covered in a sizzling 2.68 seconds and the RD crests the finish line at the tip of an arrow of billowing smoke. 15.14 seconds later, the RD hits 132.56kmph. From a twenty-four year old machine. In what might be considered average condition. There are stock RDs out there that would blow this one into the weeds! The rider, though, sighs in relief and rolls off the throttle. The green flash is spotted at the finish 1.12 seconds later, going 3.73kmph slower. It's not won today but it's a credible performance. And it's happy in the knowledge that motorcycle performance is rarely a straight line deal. In the corners, the Ninja's modern setup would kill the RD350 on any racetrack you choose. The CBR- shock â" hasn't given in. It gamely keeps the Ninja honest. It's only a 0.47 seconds behind and only 4.05kmph off. For a machine not entirely focused on sport and with one cylinder less, this is a bit of a triumph.
To the furious ticking of the trio of cooling engines, smiles dance in rhythm. This is how a good morning is crafted. It's a win-win situation. The RD is still the quickest accelerating motorcycle in the country, but it's challengers are no longer puny or armed with jellybeans and lollipops. Serious performance is here and it's only a matter of time before the RD's legend properly takes its place in our history, instead on continuing to dominate our present. The era has not ended. But now we're sure. It will soon.