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1976 Yamaha RD400 – Kickstart Garage

Posted on November 8, 2011 by Andrew in Brat, Café Racer. 44 comments

It just goes to show, you don’t need to over-think a colour scheme. Beautiful

What is it about small bikes? Most bikers will get the bug sooner or later. But just think about it for a moment. In no other area of transportation do you see this phenomena. Cars? With the notable exception of the Mini, you don’t see your average boy racer pining over something with less cylinders and a fraction of the go of their current buzz boxes. And how often do you think your average fighter pilot lays awake at night thinking about that bitchin’ ultra-light he wants to trade down to? Not to blummin’ likely. But things seem a little different with bikes. There’s an undeniable “thing” with the more delicate members of the species. They are small, light, chuckable and they let us feel a little like our favourite racing heroes with levels of horsepower that won’t punish those of us with more enthusiastic right hands. No need to tell this to Craig Marleau from Millville, California. He’s already there, and to prove it he’s banged out this stonking little two-stroke Yamaha to prove a point. Um, Craig? Point taken, my man. Point taken.

Misunderstanding the word “horsepower”, Craig built a fence around the Yammie

“I’m Craig Marleau. My whole life, I’ve been building something with wheels – for racing or show – almost every model of Volkswagen, dirt bikes, restorations of British and European cars for the Pebble Beach Concourse and then some.  You can say I’ve got a thing for all things mechanical! One lesson I learned from the Pebble Beach restorations was extreme attention to detail! What I learned from racing, was performance! My deal is blending the two into a totally unique machine! I’ve got boxes of photos from some of my motorcycle builds over the last twenty years, but  I needed a new inspiration.

All my BMW, Triumph and Ducati builds were cool and unique but I still needed to get back to my roots – a soul bike, you might say. A 2-stroke, adrenaline pumpin’ mosquito killin’ cafe racer! Most of my projects have been cafes, beginning in the 90s, but my core love of 2-strokes was still calling me, and I set my sights on a new concept of an old vision! In 2009, I started Kick-Start Garage as a tribute to all things motorcycle and cafe! Then I found it! A 1976 Yamaha RD400 for sale in a place where no man should ever go by himself with a pocket full of cash! Does “Deliverance” ring a bell?”

Could you ever get sick of an engine that looks that good?

“I brought it home, evaluated and stripped it down. Then the fun began. The frame and wheels were powder-coated, the sheet metal and custom fiberglass were painted “Chappy Red” and I used Canadian graphics – just because they’re different and a tribute to the retro inspiration. After tearing apart the engine, it was overhauled completely with WiseCo pistons, FMF reeds and a mild port job. The original RDs were fast, but I wanted to refine the true nature of the beast. I cut 11 1/2 inches off the exhaust, drilled the brake rotors, and machined my own foot controls to reverse the shift pattern. It also improved rider position, ground clearance and added to the overall reduction of weight. Front suspension features Race-Tech springs and new rear shocks. My custom seat fed the cafe spirit and kept the lines of the tank flowing through the rear of the bike. The Michelin tires completed the bike giving the traction needed for a daily rider.”


“no shows, no frills, just a good, fun, canyon-carving cafe racer”


“The vision was easy – a bike built to ride: no shows, no frills, just a good, fun, canyon-carving cafe racer! Turns out, it gets more attention at shows than those actually IN the show. This bike was a blast to build and when riding, feels like the beast it always wanted to be! This wasn’t the first bike I’ve ever built and won’t be the last. But one thing’s for sure – it gives my soul a stir that not many bikes ever have.”

Here’s one we didn’t prepare earlier. The inevitable “before” photo

Thinking of buying another bike? Having trouble justifying the cost and/or use of space to your better half? Think small. You’ll spend less on parts and consumables and you may just find yourself becoming a better rider when you aren’t battling to keep that needlessly grunty engine from launching you into the scenery. Which is nice.

  • P.J. Flyer

    I had a Red 1977 RD400 and loved it! This just makes me want another one even more than I did yesterday! Nice job, but I wonder what cutting 11 inches off the muffler did to the power band?

  • Dougd

    I have a 72 r5 and i used Meg’s and people said it wouldn’t work.. It actually does, cutting the pipes down probably moved the power band into the higher rpm range. That’s what it did to the r5.. But the r5 is a piston port motor. Beautiful build and lovin the overwhelming amount of 2 stroke coming out of the wood work!

  • ryan graham

    I have a simple explanation for the appeal of a smaller bike: body-to-vehicle-weight ratio.

    Cars (and aircraft) generally vastly outweigh their occupants. Even the lightest street-legal car is going to be at least 10 times heavier than its driver. However, a street motorcycle might only weigh twice as much as its rider (or even less if you’re a complete fatass), so a smaller, lighter bike with correspondingly lighter rotating bits and inertia is immediately and obviously different to ride than a heavier bike.

    With the dynamic way in which the rider’s body movement and positioning affect the machine, it’s no wonder small bikes so much fun. You can really toss ’em around. Just for fun, try flogging a lightweight dirt bike or a (tuned) 49cc scooter like a mountain bike sometime to see what I mean.

    P.S. The effect is even more noticeable on bicycles, which can easily have less than 10% of their rider’s mass.

  • Cortlandt_Cash

    I see you set the foot shifter and brake lever back… is there any information on that? Kit or a homegrown fabrication? I dig it.

    • Craig Marleau

      The foot controls are modified Wood craft mounts with home built pegs and levers.

  • TS057

    I’m a big RD fan – have an RD350 cafe racer myself.  I like your work BUT anyone who knows anything about 2-strokes will tell you that you NEED expansion pipes on that thing!

  • Darren B

    I dig it. Not radically different than stock, but just enough. Looks like a TON of fabrication went into those rearsets. I agree though, pipes are a must.

    As far as the topic at hand goes, I’m drawn to small bikes because, well, there isn’t much else for me. I’m 5’6 and 130 pounds. Right now I ride a heavily modified R5 with a built RD350 motor in it. Unfortunately I bought it that way from a crazy old guy, so while it is very quick and a blast to ride, it is also uncomfortably ghetto fabulous. The shift lever was shortened and flipped around for GP shifting from the passenger peg. Apply that sort of mentality to the rest of the bike and you have a pretty terrifying death machine. This winter/spring’s rebuild is going to focus more on making it more reliable, more comfortable, safer, etc since it already goes plenty fast.

    And yeah, I also have noticed an explosion of the old Yamaha 2-strokes on the internet lately. Glad I picked mine up when I did, prices are probably going to go up as more people are exposed to them and realize how great they really are. Hopefully it will result in at least a few being saved from barns.

  • $22174061

    Wow, great job !


  • SmokeyTheBear

    A tuned exhaust (expansion chamber) would have done more for the bike’s performance than cutting the exhaust off. Anyone with a 2 stroke will tell you that.  Still looks awesome though.

    • Craig Marleau

      The bigest reason for keeping these pipes was to keep the center stand, it is very handy for a daily
      rider bike. Thank you for the awesome comment!

      • You need some J&R pipes…  You keep the center stand, and they sound awesome.  Also, this bike looks amazing.  Well done!

  • Craig Marleau

    I must comment on the pipes, it seems people think these pipes are like a four stroke and all that all I did was cut them off, not the case the only part cut down from the factory pipe was the silencer end so the expansion section of the exhaust is still stock! So you see the bike sounds better and revs higher and quicker. Thank,s glad to get that out there. Trust me there is not a loss of power!
    Craig Marleau

    • Cortlandt_Cash

      I apologize for the redudnancy of my question (I inquired about it above), but thought I would ask you directly. Would you be so kind to comment on the shift/brake lever configuration? I really like how it has been set back – is this a custom fab?

      • Craig Marleau

        Yes it a custom fab, I had to weld a bracket on the oil tank side of the frame, and build the rest, the peg mounts are from woodcraft and the rest is custom.

  • I have notice that also with Cars I usually prefer large V8 powered Hot Rods, Muscle Cars and Drag cars but with bikes sometimes I think about ridding small bikes like this and with motocross sometimes I even think about riding a 125!

  • revdub

    Good lord, I love this! Great job, man. That bike is hot. Gotta give it up for a beautiful 2-stroke.

  • davmo

    SMALL BIKES? I must take this moment to chuckle. A 400cc engine is almost 500% larger than my usual ride. The power to weight comments above are on the money. Could not agree more with the thrill of riding small, but come on guys, let’s get really small. You may feel like an outlaw riding your big Harley, but most every time I take one of my small bikes on the street, I am breaking the law. Try a ride through downtown Dallas, 12 riders strong, riding wheelies, in the middle of Friday afternoon, nothing bigger than 110 cc’s, not a titled vehicle among us. Now that’s riding. Oh by the way, the bike is bitchin… for a big bike. Thanks Andre and Scott.

  • Ugh

    Very, very tidy bike. I’d actually like to see more of this kind of thing. This is a stock bike personalised for improved function and tweaked a little for aesthetic taste, not ‘customised’ for aesthetics first (and by that I mean following the current trends) and with practicality and ridability and afterthought (if at all).

    • Mikkelloft

      Great work, I got an RD400 my self that im renovating. What wheels donyou have on yours ?

      • Craig Marleau

        they are 18in yamaha RD wheels

  • Looks awesome man! 2 smokes are my favorite!  I have an RD400 myself, just not running yet!

    Keep up the clean work!

    • Craig Marleau

      It be cool to have a two stroke day in the USA, we all smoke at the same time!

  • matt muellner

    Very nice & clean custom.  I hope my 350 comes out half as nice.  I do agree that some aftermarket expansion chambers would really look nice though.  Hear you about the center stand, but this is a cafe!  😉  You’d save even more pounds by the switch out of the exhaust & removal of the center stand, plus more hp.  A cleared unpainted high dollar ones you see on ebay would look tremendous.  That said, not everyone, myself included, can stomach putting a $1000 pipe on a $1000 bike.

    • Lloyd

      You can get yourself some really fantastic pipes from Spec II for under $500.  Or just slightly over if you want the external stinger, GP look.  I’m assuming you’re talking about the Jim Lomes pipes — I don’t think he makes a set for the air cooled RDs.

  • Myronwhitt

    Its a very nice build but I doubt the pipes cut down help power any & all yams are piston port bikes some just have a reed valve

    • Nash

      what? “piston port” & “reed valve” are not the same thing. also yamaha made plenty of bikes with rotary valve induction…

  • What does it say on top of the sidecovers? I can’t make it out.

  • classicjapanesebikes

    Wow! That was a quick reply! Thanks Andrew.

  • Den

    Great bike, but it is not small; a 125 is small. When the RD 400 came out it was regarded as the larger end of a mid-size, it was not that long ago when we had the premier GP class only 100cc bigger (how times have changed). Also plenty of racing drivers lust after Caterham Sevens. That said, once again: great bike!

  • Cdhunter05

    nice looking rd. i have one my self. same year everything very fun. 

  • Mspears

    this bike is perfect, it would be incredible in yellow

  • Yamaha RD400 was a quick, nervous bike to ride. It was launched in 1976 as a slightly more refined version of the RD350 firecracker.

  • Samchisholm

    Doers anyone have the email details for Spec II ?

    • Redstruckfour

      He never checks it even if you do write him…. That dude(Gary) is coo coo for coco puffs. He had my bike for over two years. Can’t complain about the quality though. He is the best.

  • Not sure that I would consider an RD400 a small bike.  Small-ish in size, sure, but the fact that it can smoke many of it’s larger cc contemporaries keeps it from being truly “small” in my mind. 

  • Davemanger1

    If the rds a small bike then is my h1-500 mid-size? It takes an experienced rider (not a beginner to ride an rd-400 or how about my s2-350 triple) and many know it alls have underestimated the small bikes ability to launch ones ass into the stratosphere and they have wound up picking gravel out of their ass for months or worse.If you are smart people you guys will invest in these rds  (all sizes) and grab those kawi triples up now.They are the best 401k you could invest in.Dont listen to me .Go to your stock broker and search for another enron to invest in. Or i could get you bernie madoffs’ address and you can get some advice from him. You smart guys kill me. Dont you think the man that built this bike knows what the hell he’s doing?All you need is back pressure from your pipes for two strokes to perform.However, there is a whole lot more to tuning one of these bad boys than throwing on some chambers and re-jetting.It is obvious the owner likes his pipes and i think his bike is kick-ass from stem to stern.He obviously set it up to please himself.He posted so everone who chooses can admire it.I for one thank him immensley.I think you guys telling him where to get pipes and what kind he should put on HIS BIKE oughta buy pipes for your own bike when you get one.And when you do finally get a bike if you need help with the training wheels (on or off) I will help you with them.

  • John

    The RD looks great, where did you get the seat unit from.

  • Clintonwbates

    Would this style of bike, even with the pegs moved back be comfortable for a person 6ft2?

  • jojojoj

    Considering these two-strokes are so dependent on their exhaust systems I have to wonder how this thing ran with half of it missing. I would have to assume that much volume missing would kill the low end grunt of these machines that make them so wonderful to ride. I know he has talked about this already but I have been in these pipes before and it’s not just about the expansion chamber there is also the volume… and loads is missing. plus he says it revs faster and higher and that right there tells me the3 porting no longer matches the tuning of the exhaust. They must match to perform their best. I’m sure it still runs and runs good but anyone that builds these exhausts from specs can tell you that just chopping stuff up so it revs higher aint the best way to go about things.. It just doesnt work that way.

    • F^3=From Follows Function

      I would have to agree. Math & science Vs. art, M&S will win races every-time. .

  • toni

    what a great bike in its time I had the rd400 yellow and black it was something else o yes they where the days

  • welshreddragon

    I am modifying the same bike and for now have decided to do something like you did with the
    Shortened stock pipes. My question is, where did you cut off the 11″ off the pipes??. Because when I look at your bike I don’t see where you can cut off 11″ in one piece. I would greatly appreciate your comments.
    Robb Williams.
    PS- your bike is my screen saver.

  • KingCaster