17 November 2015

Two-Stroke Smoke: A guide to two-stroke collector motorcycles

Like the horse and buggy, in their era two-stroke motorcycles were a highly useful technology that eventually got left behind. That’s good news for collectors today, as they’re cheap, plentiful and fun – and range from mild to wild.

They are quick and light, smoky and loud, consume gas at a reckless rate, and will leave your jacket smelling like Eau de Castrol after a long ride. We’re not talking about De Havilland biplanes here, but rather two-stroke motorcycles. Built in vast numbers in Italy, Germany, England, Spain and especially Japan during the 1960-70s, two-stroke bikes were relatively simple, cheap to build, and offered excellent performance for their size. As such, in their time they were the perfect prescription for fun on two wheels. And today, these same virtues make many models collectible, at prices from a few hundred dollars up.

For the uninitiated, in lieu of a four-stroke engine’s valvetrain, two-strokes use ports in the cylinder walls to transfer the air-fuel mixture into and the exhaust out of the combustion chamber. Ingeniously, in its simplest form a two-stroke engine has just three moving parts, and delivers power with every crankshaft revolution instead of every other revolution for a four-stroke. Though intended for marine engines, this animation gives a good explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hV3LImCslpo.

Here is a brief Hagerty guide to two-stroke collector bikes.

Street-legal one-cylinder two-strokes from 50cc to 400cc can be found at relatively bargain prices. Suzuki offered a cool little 50cc TS50 Gaucho street/trail model, while 1980s Honda MB5 and Kawasaki’s AR50 are 50cc sportbikes. Italian firm Fantic even sold a 50cc chopper. Cute! And the choices move right up the ladder from there, satisfying both street and dirt interests. Iconic models include the chrome-tank Hodaka Ace 90 and 100, and the lovely Spanish Bultaco Metralla 200 and 250. A highly coveted two-stroke Single is the 250cc 1968 Yamaha DT-1, the first dual-purpose bike designed for America, which can garner $10,000 today.

Yamaha built an array of two-stroke twins from the early 1960s onward, soon followed by Kawasaki and Suzuki. Once common, today these twins live mostly in garages rather than on the road. Too bad, because they are typically capable, reliable and easy to use, with most having oil injection and some having electric starting. Racing influences permeate the 125cc Suzuki T125 Stinger, 350cc Bridgestone 350 GTO, 250cc Suzuki T20 X6 Hustler, and the best of all, the 350cc Yamaha RD350 and 400cc RD400. Prices range from a few Benjamins for a haul-it-away garage-sale score to over $5,000 for nice examples. Most audacious is the Yankee Z, a 488cc twin created by pairing two Spanish Ossa 250 engines. Few were built.

Kawasaki offered a range of three-cylinder performance streetbikes from 250cc up to 750cc, five models in all. The H1 (Mach III) and H2 (Mach IV) are most valuable, with prices now over $15,000 for top models. Lesser known and more reasonably priced are the 250cc S1, 350cc S2 and 400cc S3, which can be snatched for under $1,000 in needy condition. Suzuki likewise built a range of midsize triples, starting with the air-cooled GT380 and GT550 Indy, and extending to the advanced liquid-cooled GT750. Along with Yamaha’s RD350/400 series, today these two-stroke triples represent the zenith of flight for an audacious, and moto-culturally significant, engineering period.

Now let there be smoke!

39 Reader Comments

  • 1
    David Riedle Michigan November 18, 2015 at 17:32
    Yamaha had the large water-cooled 750cc Water Buffalo model, which was one of the most interesting two-stroke bikes.
  • 2
    Dean Asheville - too crowded don't come November 18, 2015 at 18:04
    Started riding on a Yamaha R5 - think RD350 with drum brakes. I bought it with Ape Hangers and a Sissy bar. On went superbike bars, and Toomy pipes. I rode it for 4 years through college and working as a lifeguard for the Forest Service. I love that old "ring ding ding" sound of a 2 stroke!
  • 3
    Scott Burns Colorado November 18, 2015 at 18:26
    Interesting to read this article. In 1980 I owned a Kawasaki 400 triple. Once I laid eyes on an availabile 750 going a hundred mph standing still, I had to have it. I still have it today. All together and slightly modified, but not running. I had thoughts of selling it, but I haven't brought my self to depart with the joy of those popping expansion chambers. There was a time when it was look out CB1000, two wheel chain saw coming through. FUN!
  • 4
    Dave Harvard, MA November 18, 2015 at 18:44
    Don't forget the Harley 125 from around 1951
  • 5
    fred fl November 18, 2015 at 18:59
    I bought one new, the Hi Kawasaki in 1969 for $995. Traveled the U.S in it for a year and sold it for $600. Wish I still had it. Best bike I ever owned
  • 6
    Steve Cohea St. Louis MO November 18, 2015 at 19:43
    Had the First Kawasaki H-1 "Blue Streak" in Louisville KY, worked at the Kaw shop in New Albany Ind.. Won many $20 bills from the boys in the muscle cars of the day, nobody had any tires! Ran 12.55 out of the box. Catch me if u can!
  • 7
    Patrick Regan Louisiana November 18, 2015 at 19:52
    I bought my first street bike in 1980. It was a 1972 H1. Got laughed at by the four strokers because of the blue smoke trailing behind me....until we hooked up at a red light and they were left waaay behind in that blue smoke. Scary fast! Wheelies, no problem. Rear drum and single front disc had a hard time stopping this monster. Three sets of points and three Mikunis made it a nightmare to keep running at peak performance, but when they were right, nothing could touch me. Great memories! By the way, still have her, in reasonable shape, but a basket case. Still have all the parts with the exception of the steering damper, which I removed due to the heavy steering response. Any buyers?!!
  • 8
    Red Hamilton CA November 18, 2015 at 20:17
    I bought one of the 1969 H-1 when they first came out; cost $995+tax&license. The factory came out with a fix for the spark plug wires; the CD ignition was powerful enough to cut the wire insulation where it was tight against the cases; the fix was a new side cover with lots more room and a large rubber separator for the wires. I put about 36k miles on it; it would have been better if it had brakes to match, as the later ones did. I loved it though.
  • 9
    John Burkhard San Rafael November 18, 2015 at 20:40
    Two strokes have not been left behind. New interest and technologies such as direct injection may bring them back into the mainstream.
  • 10
    Steve Rogers Sonoma ca November 18, 2015 at 21:23
    Very brief is correct. No mention oh HD Aermacchi, Italian built imported in the 60's and 70's. They have strong world wide collectors with displacement from 50 to 250cc.
  • 11
    Jack Innes Brooklin, Ontario November 18, 2015 at 22:34
    Why will Hagerty not insure antique motorcycles in Canada???
  • 12
    < asd;f November 18, 2015 at 22:47
    no mention of the Yamaha RZ?
  • 13
    Tom Aversa Greensboro, GA November 18, 2015 at 23:08
    I have a mint red... all original /12847 Miles 1976 Kawasaki, LTD KZ 900 for sale ..Best Offer..
  • 14
    Capt. Jack RI November 18, 2015 at 23:26
    Let's not forget the well-regarded Montessa , Jawa, CZ, MZ, & the original, kwerky giant-killing Greeves. All had performance 2-stroke on & off road mounts that were attractive, if sometimes a bit "cobby" as the Brits would say.
  • 15
    Patrick Charleston, SC. 29464 November 18, 2015 at 23:28
    I grew up on Kawasaki triple's, great wheelie machine's. 1st,2nd & into 3rd gear coming back down on two wheels at almost a hundred miles an hour, what a rush in 1973. That was my Purple 750, YAHOOO
  • 16
    Bob Arper Bremerton, WA November 19, 2015 at 01:09
    Wow! Although my Yamaha is a 1973 DT-3 rather than a 1968 DT-1, perhaps I should get it back on the road like I have been hoping to do for the past two summers.
  • 17
    Frank Schoenbeck Dead end gravel road in GA November 19, 2015 at 13:16
    As one of the 2-stroke lovers reading this, we already know the joy and frustration that can come with the love of 2-stroke smoke!!. I've got a few in the shed myself. Corrections? Electric start was not so common on the two-strokes I am familiar with. Yamaha 125cc singles and 200cc twins come to mind as exceptions that did have electric start. Good story.
  • 18
    Chris Gal Seabeck, Wa November 19, 2015 at 02:00
    I love the two strokes! Music to my ears. I have many RZ 350s, a couple RD 400F Daytona Specials and my favorite, the RZ 500 V4. Love the smoke!
  • 19
    Rick California November 19, 2015 at 03:03
    1973 Yamaha 350 RD
  • 20
    Peter California November 19, 2015 at 16:28
    In 1971, I owned a first year 1969 Kawasaki 500 triple (white like the one in your photo). It would stand up on the rear wheel with the twist of the throttle. Problem was, they would seize up on the center cylinder. Probably not hard to deal with, but I was a kid and it completely intimidated me, so I sold it to a bike mechanic friend.
  • 21
    Gerry High River Alberta November 19, 2015 at 16:31
    Anyone heard of "NSU Quickly" bikes?
  • 22
    Chris Stonkus Coldwater Ontario November 19, 2015 at 17:35
    Don't forget the Yamaha RZ500.had one new, still got the scars. wish I had the bike.
  • 23
    Steve Denham Cleves, Ohio November 19, 2015 at 18:57
    Had a SUZUKI X-5 Invader in the late '60's, 200cc and 5 speed gearbox, loved it !
  • 24
    Kevin S. FL November 19, 2015 at 08:00
    I had the Kawasaki 500 triple which was a lot of fun in college and a real screamer on the street!
  • 25
    hans schulz stockton.ca. November 19, 2015 at 21:31
    I,m fortunate to own a couple of twoke strokes myself.among them is a 500rgv gemma suzuki a 500 yamaha rd ,500 yamaha rz etc.
  • 26
    Dave Harvard, MA November 19, 2015 at 09:35
    Don't forget the Harley 125 from 1951.
  • 27
    Robert Canada November 19, 2015 at 09:47
    I had an RD350 in the day and if you pardon the pun would smoke a Kawasaki Ninja 900 4 stroke every time. The were light, fast, and extremely fun.
  • 28
    Sean Calgary Canada November 19, 2015 at 11:17
    Having restored and owned a 1972 H1B, I think it makes a great collectable as there were of no use to ride. They are a really pretty - classic motorcycle and I love the look of them. I drove mine just a few times after restoring it (after the prior owner holed the block). The power band was horrid with the power of a 100cc four stroke until 4500 RPM, then at 5000 it came on like the space shuttle with nitrous, combined with cornering nearly as good It was the most miserable motorcycle I have ever ridden. It really did just about shoot out from under me the first time I opened it up. Thinking something was really wrong with it making no power I was not expecting "ignition sequence start" and front wheel lift off. Other owners confirmed that this Jekyll and Hyde was "normal". It is no wonder they killed so many riders as it was a motorcycle you had to be technically aware of every second of your ride. Not a fun ride. My daily rider at the time was a Yamaha XS 1100 and although it drove more like a truck it was predictable and improved the chances of returning home immensely. The H series are a fabulous page in motorcycle history when you could sell a product so demanding to ride and not be sued out of existence. I hope mine is in still around and in good hands and that it still goes to shows - in a trailer.
  • 29
    Stu Vancouver, WA November 19, 2015 at 00:58
    Most interesting are the split-single ("twingle") two strokes. These have two pistons working under a single combustion chamber. One piston controls intake and the other exhaust. the pistons move up and down almost simultaneously. So one combustion event pushes both of them down. Puch, in Austria, made them and Sears sold their 175cc and 250 cc versions in the US in the 1950's and 60's.
  • 30
    Jim Master NV November 20, 2015 at 18:31
    The Metralla shown brings back memories. A sweet handling bike, even by modern standards. I still have a 72 Pursang which was campaigned many years ago. I'm not so sure the two strokes were so much left behind as legislated off the roads by early climate changers.
  • 31
    Dave S Central Virginia November 20, 2015 at 20:03
    I had a Yamaha RD250 while in college for a while in the late 70s. I bought it new as a leftover, the RD400 was already on the market, so i got a really good deal. I remember a couple of classmates who had Honda 400s that simply could not keep up with me. The Yamaha was faster than I was and I crashed it trying to keep up with a co-worker on a similar RD250 coming home from work one day. He was an amateur racer with a lot more talent than me - and apparently much stickier tires.
  • 32
    Birney Montcalm Douglasville, GA November 20, 2015 at 08:12
    To Robert in Canada: I had a Kawasaki 350 A-7 Avenger twin with rotary valves that would outrun any 350 Yamaha with piston port induction. Kawasaki dominated the streets back in the 70's.
  • 33
    Alvin Alberta November 20, 2015 at 21:05
    H1 - No use to ride???? I drove my first H2 - much quicker at the rip old age of 13... was a speed freak then and still am, and still love the triples. I don't care how short the power band was, you just need to be ready for it and hold on. What a great bike, then at 16 I got one of the first GPz 550's in Canada (my dad was the Kawasaki dealer) and although the RD350 was fast and fun, it still was behind me most of the time. :-)
  • 34
    Mark Myers Houston, Texas November 20, 2015 at 12:49
    I purchased a 1973 Yamaha Dt-3, brand new and it is still running strong with only 2,500 miles on it. Fun bike on the road and the trail.
  • 35
    Harold Johnson San Francisco Ca Bay Area November 28, 2015 at 17:25
    I drooled over Triumph 650's but lacked the $ in 1967 when I was 18, then I saw a Suzuki 250 X6 Hustler do a wheelie, then SCREAM past me at it's red line in 1st gear with 2 on board--I WAS SMITTEN WITH ENVY ! So I bought a Suzuki Touring 305, It would lift the front wheel off the road in 1st, 2nd & 3rd gear's midrange with full throttle, & 6th gear's redline was 130 mph by myself --( thought I was in 5th, tried to shift up, then looked at the speedo, the broken white lines becoming dots, got scared & backed waaaay off !! )-- It could only manage about 90 with 2 on flat ground & struggled on hills like 2 strokes do, but a total blast regardless ! Swapped it for a '57 Chevy wagon when I swore off riding motor cycles in 1970, never let anyone tailgate me then & traffic is too crazy for me to own 1 now, BUT I WISH I HAD A BIG STRONG 4 CYLINDER HYPERBIKE IN MY GARAGE FOR THAT "ITCH" I FEEL, SEEING ONE CRUISING ON SENIC ROADS WITH 2 ONBOARD !
  • 36
    rick n.c. November 30, 2015 at 12:12
    in 1978 i traded a 1974 torino for a 1977 400 maico it was a rocket ship i still have it today
  • 37
    Scotty Brown So. Cal December 2, 2015 at 14:21
    Back in the 70's I had a YR1 350cc Yamaha with an attached International sidecar. Rode if all over the Rockies, about 6000 miles. No troubles and great fun.
  • 38
    Jody Micanopy March 21, 2017 at 06:57
    Two strokes rule, always have, always will. F Honda and there lawn mower motors
  • 39
    Raymie Johnson Nor Cali July 27, 2017 at 23:08
    Got a 75' Suzi GT 550 Indy. Grew up on and still ride 2 strokes. Nothing more fun, reliable and cool. Also have 1970 Yamaha DT1 250. Original complete with less than 5k miles. Big fartin' factory compression release too Also got original 1980 Yamaha yz125.

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