Howard Lees’ ultimate Yamaha RD350

Yamaha RD350
By guest writer Tom Stewart. Hard core café racers are generally built for show and go—there aren’t many built for daily commuting and long-distance touring. But this air-cooled Yamaha RD350 B, purchased new in 1975 by the late British racer Howard Lees, didn’t stay in standard trim for long. As an engineering under-graduate teenager, Lees quickly tore it apart in a quest for the perfect yet affordable road-going motorcycle.

History doesn’t relate why this RD’s frame was replaced by an earlier, very similar item from a 250 DS7. (A major shunt could be one reason.) But the Koni rear suspension and two-inch longer Dresda box-section swing arm with tapered roller bearings are obvious improvements from standard.

Lees added wheels, forks, brakes and engine covers from an RD400 a year or two later, along with a pattern TZ250/350 race fairing—modified to accept twin endurance-style Cibié headlamps. Then came a Lees-designed and fabricated tank, seat, front mudguard, oil/battery box and rear-sets.

Yamaha RD350
To keep pace with the superbikes of the day, and inspired by US tuning house Denco, Lees tuned the RD350 B motor by modifying the crankcases, ports, pistons and heads. He substituted the standard 28mm Mikunis for 34mm Amal Mk IIs, delivering their mixture through big, six-petal DT250 reed valves.

A Lucas CDI ignition with a pair of large coils provided sparks; a beefed-up RD clutch, Lees-designed expansion pipes (originally minus the alloy end cans) and substantially taller final gearing completed the mechanical spec. Horsepower isn’t known, but around 50bhp seems reasonable. What is known is that this RD350B could cruise all day at 100 mph, and—unburdened by luggage—hit a max of 125 mph (200 kph). Impressively, a more moderate 85 mph cruising speed would yield around 55mpg.

As was always intended, the RD350 B transported south Londoner Lees far and wide, from the Isle of Man TT to the Dutch TT at Assen, and from Circuit Paul Ricard to the Italian Riviera to the Munich beer festival—the latter trip once involving a detour around Switzerland via Austria, as Swiss border guards declared the the unsilenced pipes to be too noisy for their country.

The bike was the topic of a feature entitled Renegade Racer in the July 1979 issue of the UK’s Bike magazine. Inevitably it occasionally felt the heat of club-level competition at Brands Hatch and elsewhere during the very early 1980s. Unfortunately a seizure and crash in the south of France, coupled with Lees’ burgeoning racing ambitions—and his untimely death aged 34 in late ’92—meant that the broken RD languished in various sheds.

In the mid-noughties it was eventually repaired and put back on the road; more recently, new owner Ian Martin won the Post Classic 500cc air-cooled class on it at the CRMC Easter 2010 meeting at South Wales’ Pembrey circuit. Not too shabby a result for a home-built, unrestored, 35 year-old two-stroke ‘tourer’.

Check the Howard Lees website for more details of the team’s race bikes.

Yamaha RD350

  • wow.. that awesome. i like it.

  • Great bike. Fantastic history.

  • Greg

    Very cool story… those bikes are just plain ugly though. (sorry! just being honest)

  • Legend.

  • i’m 36 and I don’t trust anything that looks new. It’s a guiding principle I’ve applied when lacking anything else more intelligent or cogent to sort m’self out with, and its been handy as hell for buying clothes, bike parts and dating women. As time has ticked by and glossy, plastic smelling treats fill up the burbs and 40 story condos downtown, that nugget of golden rule has found me wrapped up in the paint smells and skinned knuckles of the dude who come before me. This fella and by that I mean his bike, has the look of a half finished legend waiting for some guy to show up and drop a coin into the slot.

  • db

    Awesome. It just screams ‘character’.

  • Rex Havoc

    If I wanted to look at dodgy looking smoker, I’d go to ebay. Don’t drop your standards EXIF

  • David Enfield

    We owe what we have to those who went before us, thanks EXIF for this reminder. The neighbours must have loved it in the mornings, howling mad.

  • DWr

    Yesss… in fact I can speak from personal experience following the little b*stard (the bike, that is) around various parts of europe, 30 years ago (!) that it would indeed give the neighbours a hard time – and me too… :)

  • Phil

    Chris – i remember the article very well, i used to devour Bike magazine back then. Anyone remember the laverda 500 ‘brain out’ cover ? I can’t find a pic anywhere

  • We owe what we have to those who went before us, thanks EXIF for this reminder. The neighbours must have loved it in the mornings, howling mad.

  • kevin swain

    I went to school with Howard and remember that bike very well. It was loud and fast.