There’s nothing quite like the smell of two-stroke oil. Or the sound of a swarm of two-strokes hurtling down the track at full tilt. Then there’s that power band—a trait that earned some larger-capacity bikes the title of ‘widow maker’.
Whatever the reason, there’s a certain romanticism associated with two-stroke engines. They’ve powered some of the most legendary motorcycles of all time, dominating track and off-road racing. I’ll never forget the time my dad took me to Kyalami in ’92 to watch the likes of Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan duke it out. (John Kocinski ended up winning that race.)
Sadly, modern emissions laws have seen a drastic decline in the use of two-strokes. There are ways to make them compliant but, as Kevin Cameron explains in this piece for Cycle World, few manufacturers are willing to invest in the R&D required. So most two-stroke engines are now found in scooters and dirt bikes.
So it was time we asked the question: is a vintage two-stroke a good choice for a custom build? After scouring the archives, the answer is a resounding yes. We decided to exclude restored and replica race-bikes, and focus instead on rare and exotic machines, and here are our top five picks.
Let us know in the comments if they inspire you to take up smoking.
Kawasaki H1 by Valtoron Kawasaki’s 498cc, triple-cylinder H1 was one of the first two-strokes to earn the ‘widow maker’ title. This one, a ’74 model dubbed La Bomba, was built by Spanish foundry Valtoron. The H1 was powerful enough in stock form, but it’s been boosted further with Wiseco high compression pistons, and reworked ports and expansion chamber—the result is 70 horses at the rear wheel.
Valtoron also braced and reinforced the H1’s notoriously wobbly frame, dropped the front end and upgraded the rear shocks to Koni items, connected to a Kawasaki GPz550 swingarm. All the bodywork was cast from recycled aluminum, finished with some bronze bits and a leather saddle. The headlight’s particularly quirky—it’s a Zundapp unit, ‘floating’ in a custom bracket. [More about this bike]
Photo by Kristina Fender.
SWM 320TL Trials Lorenzo Buratti wanted a bike for his 17-year-old daughter to learn to ride on that could double-up as a bike for ambling through the woods. So he refurbished this old SWM 320TL—an Italian-made motorcycle powered by a reliable 280cc Rotax engine. Buratti kept things simple – mounting the tank from an old Motobecane enduro bike and electing not to paint the engine or frame. (“I like the idea of a bike that carries signs of the times.”)
He polished the forks and painted the exhaust though, and trimmed and fitted a Kawasaki Z900 rear fender. The air filter’s protected by a tomato can, and most of the bike’s other parts were found at various swap meets. It’s a bike that didn’t cost Buratti much, or take him too long to build, but hits the mark with an effortless vintage charm. [More about this bike]
Suzuki GT550 “Honduki” by MotoHangar This ’75 GT550-powered custom from MotoHangar in Virginia is mental—and downright desirable. It’s a bit of a parts-bin special, but in the best way possible. The subframe is custom, the tail unit is from a Kawasaki GPZ and the expansion chambers are from a Kawasaki H1. There’s also a Honda headlight, a Suzuki SV650 swingarm and GSX-R forks and wheels. Naturally the air-cooled triple’s been bored out as well—to .50 over. Completed entirely in-house, including the paint and graphics, it’s straight out of the left field—but should make for an explosive ride. [More about this bike]
Ossa Copa ‘Grand Prix’ by CRD Café Racer Dreams keep popping up in our Top 5s. It’s understandable though—the Spanish garage has a cohesive and pared-back style that’s hard to ignore. This classically-styled 1979 Ossa Copa 250 proves just how versatile they are. The Copa is a lightweight single known for it’s unusually low mixture ratio—3.5% as opposed to Ossa’s usual 5%.
CRD rebuilt the motor, fitting a Mikuni 38 carb and a hand-made exhaust system. They also strengthened the frame, upgraded the forks and replaced the stock five-spoke wheels with 18” aluminum items. A race replica tank’s been fitted, paired with a Yamaha tail piece and custom seat, and finished in an eye-catching green and white scheme. [More about this bike]
Photo by Kristina Fender.
Yamaha RD350 by Analog A round-up of custom two-strokes wouldn’t be complete without a Yamaha RD350. This 1973-model was bought as an incomplete café-racer project, which sat around for a few years before its owner took it to Tony Prust of Analog Motorcycles to finish the work.
The biggest change Prust made was cutting the neck tube off so that he could graft on a Ducati S2R front end. For the wheels, he laced the original RD rear rim to the front hub, choosing a Yamaha TZ250 GP rim and hub at the rear, and replaced the stock rear drum brake with a disc.
Brembo rotors and calipers have been fitted all round—both linked to the right foot lever. The bars are super-clean, thanks to an internal throttle system and the lack of a front brake lever. A hydraulic clutch has been installed too, and the engine’s been treated to DG expansion chambers and Uni pod filters. The frame has been de-tabbed, and a custom leather and Alcantara seat fitted.
Kiel Sawusch of Crown Auto Body was responsible for the paint—a slick black and white scheme that reinforces just how clean and tight this build is. [More about this bike]
Photo by Timothy Prust.