A $50 Yamaha and a dream that wouldn’t quit

It’s possible that I may need a therapist, and I am hoping someone can recommend one. You see, I am prone to acting on impulse, most recently wasting a perfectly good $50 bill to rescue the 1964 Yamaha 125 Santa Barbara YA6 seen here, spending untold hours working on it with little hope of any return, and then taking it on a nearly impossible ride.

The embarrassing thing is, I had the money for a better motorcycle. I knew this castoff would be needier than a snubbed Yorkie. And I assumed the ride would be long and painful. And yet, knowing all this in advance, I did it anyway. To frame my admission, it seems fitting to quote a line from a catchy Dierks Bentley tune. “I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?” That about sums up this one-year saga. So please indulge me while I confess.

What I was feeling one innocent afternoon last year was that I just needed a new spark plug or fuel line or something, as I wandered through the backdoor of Sport Cycle Pacific, my local California mom-and-pop motorcycle shop. But what I saw shoved up against a workbench was something else entirely—the forlorn, rusty, dingy Yamaha Santa Barbara a patron had dropped off. Or more like, abandoned. “Huh,” I thought. “A Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara.”

Once Upon a Sweet Ride

Yamaha’s YA6 was actually a pretty sophisticated little bike for 1964. It’s a 125-cc two-stroke with the first application of oil injection in lieu of labor-intensive premix, a robust 12-volt electrical system instead of 6-volt, the luxury of both electric and kick starting, and racy rotary-valve induction, which maximized the small engine’s power band and output. Downsides to the model were small 16-inch wheels and frumpy styling that, although typical for the day, has not aged particularly well.

The machine had been used for just eight years, as evidenced by its 1971 registration sticker and only 761 miles showing on the odometer. Although clearly worse for wear, it was a compelling barn find for the money. And I was the perfect dupe to adopt it. I wasn’t fazed by the rust and crust, broken front-brake cable, or multiple other issues including a stuck motor. Although I rightly should have been.

As for what I was thinking, it was this: Get it running and tackle a challenging ride to prove that you don’t need a new $20,000 adventure bike or a $150,000 Vincent Black Shadow to enjoy a great motorcycle experience. Instead, $50, properly spent, will do. Or so I told myself. Might I be delusional?

Little Bike, Big Dream

My loosely baked plan was to get the bike operable, and then ride from the Pacific Ocean to the top of a SoCal coastal mountain range and back—an all-day ordeal that involved first crossing the city, then transitioning onto a steep, narrow mountain road, and ultimately splintering onto a single-track trail bristling with rocky climbs and descents, ruts and washouts, ledges, snakes, bee swarms, prickly chaparral, cougar tracks, sand and boulders, and ultimately cresting at 4,707-foot Divide Peak. Imagine Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride amplified 1,000 times — and very … alarmingly … real.

But first the YA6 would have to run. Foremost was the matter of the seized engine. No amount of force on the kick-start lever would turn it, and removing the cylinder revealed the connecting rod was free but the main bearings were rusted solid. Likely at some point during its 45 years of disuse, the machine—like the poor cake in that Richard Harris song—had been left out in the rain … maybe for many moons, judging by the state of the chrome surfaces and the rotten seat cover and crumbling foam. Filling the crankcase with oil and then slowly, gently torqueing the crankshaft back and forth gradually produced some rotation, and then a little more, and eventually the crank, swimming in a gritty petroleum bath, was freed. Although its bearings felt quite unhappy and grumbly. With the top end reassembled, the engine kicked through and with a battery installed, the ignition sparked. After replacing the starter solenoid, most everything worked, including horn and lights. We were getting somewhere.

Running well was another matter. Although the engine fired and idled on starting fluid, it would not rev up. Taking the carb apart showed why. The float bowl, and all jets and passageways, were blocked by an alarming bouquet of peach-colored crystals, reminiscent of a high-school chemistry experiment gone wrong. Numerous baths in carb cleaner and much handiwork with picks, wire strands and compressed air eventually produced a working carb.

But the engine still would not build revs. Off came the right cover, the clutch, the primary drive gears, the rotary-valve cover and phenolic rotary valve. And there it was: Instead of the hardened steel pin that Yamaha used to time the rotary valve there was … a cut roofing nail! Some slacker had been here long before me, and the nail, made of low-grade steel, had bent and allowed the rotary valve to spin out of time. Fortunately, the correct pin is ubiquitous; it’s been used on many models over the decades, and the Yamaha dealer had one for $1.05. The clutch plates were worn out, so I replaced them with a used set from a 1974 YZ125, after boring out their centers on a homemade jig. Adding a new clutch-cover gasket and crank seal, and my parts total soared to nearly $20. So far, so good.

After the Yamaha became operable, more problems emerged. The front tire wouldn’t hold air, the chain broke on the first ride, and the front brake cable needed replacement, of course. Dave at Sport Cycle Pacific ordered new tubes and rim bands, and eBay produced a new cable and air filter, which was missing entirely. Oh, and this was no 761-mile motorcycle, as proven by the missing speedometer drive gear, discovered while the front wheel was off. Judging by the shape of the sprockets, a fair guess would slightly north of that—like 10,000 miles.

However, regular local rides revealed this dilapidated pile was actually willing and able. It started first time, every time on the electric starter, made good power, and all systems worked except for one headlight beam and the oil-injection pump (hello, premix). And so, after a few more months of work on the finicky carb and ignition timing, and lowering the gearing for trail use, it appeared that this old dear might withstand, for any reasonable person, a pretty daunting trip. And why couldn’t I have chosen a sensible route instead, through the local wine country, for instance? Search me. That’s why I need help.

From Sea to Summit

On a pleasant spring morning, photographer Bill Masho and friend John Fosmire met me on Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, Masho toting his camera gear on a small dual-sport bike and Fosmire in a pickup. With the YA6 setting the pace, we purred up State Street, past the historic Mission, onto Mountain Drive and then up Gibraltar Road, the narrow, punishing climb previously used in the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race. Here the road gains over 3,000 feet in about 11 miles, so I throttled the Yamaha carefully to ensure its survival for what was to come—namely the Divide Peak trailhead, nearly 20 miles distant and where the real challenge would begin.

To call the climb a crapshoot might be too kind, as besides the visibly cracked old tires, the Yamaha’s 4-speed gearbox shifted reluctantly, the condition of the charging system was not fully proven, the freebie replacement drive chain was of unknown quality, and most of all, the engine bearings ground and rattled with such intensity that I turned to earplugs (33 dB reduction) simply to gain some relief. And so, on this day at least, my normal riding zeal was tempered by knowing the ultimate victory would be reaching the trail’s end and making it back—not any heroics like wheelies, slides, or dust clouds.

As testament to the mettle of Yamaha’s original design, remarkably by midmorning the old YA6 reached the trailhead, still quite clattery but seemingly no further degraded. After a gearbox oil check, topping off the fuel tank with more 32:1 premix, lowering tire pressures and clamping on a spark arrestor, we began the dirt ridgetop route, with Masho ahead setting up photos and Fosmire following on another dual-sport bike while wearing a backpack full of tools, spares, food, and water—and a tow rope.

Measuring 15 miles each way, the out-and-back ridgetop trail is deceivingly complex, once likened to music that suddenly morphs from easy listening to death metal. As the accompanying photos show, the easy parts are pure bliss and the hard parts are pure hell. For instance, for a time we rode along sweetly on relatively flat ground, with the ocean way below on our right and the Los Padres National Forest sprawling endlessly to our left. And then the trail changed, swinging right and presenting a chaotic little uphill littered with sand, rocks, and ruts, then darting tightly up and left to reveal a five-story high, steep wall of rock. Heavy winter rains had badly eroded both edges of the climb here, leaving the bumpy, crowned center section just passable—and both sides cratered out like a leering Mt. Everest crevasse. Fall here, and you’ll remember it for a long while. Among the many challenges, this one defines Divide Peak as the riding equivalent of a double-black-diamond ski run.

As remarkable as the climbs was the Yamaha’s performance. With its lowered gearing, it actually had the power necessary to get up every ascent (even if its primitive short-travel suspension, ancient tires and low ground clearance likened it to a dachshund running the steeplechase). Herein, line choice became extra important as every ravine, ledge, and rock brought renewed opportunity to high-center the bike or smash toes between foot pegs and unforgiving stone. Unfortunately, I know firsthand.

In all, there are about a half dozen hard climbs and another 10 moderate ones along the trail. I began thinking of each climb as a round in the octagon. Lasting just a few minutes each, they are both difficult and crucial, but not unending. And after each hard section came the reward of a mile or so of decent trail. Onward and upward we went, climb after climb, and the little 53-year-old Yamaha kept at it, kept running, and kept moving. Until finally, with a lunge up a narrow chute lined by a thicket of scratchy manzanita, and bouncing through one last rock-infested section, we were at the summit, a simple turnaround flanked by towering, timeworn boulders.

A nervous wind kicked up as we wrapped Zip Ties around the now badly delaminating rear tire, changed the spark plug in hopes of combating a worrisome misfire, and gave the oil- and dust-caked YA6 a good eyeballing. Then we shared a celebratory can of Rockstar “Punched” (an appropriate name, considering the terrain) and took in the inspiring 360-degree view—blue Pacific to the south, shimmering Lake Casitas to the southeast and green scrubland to the north and west—while marveling that somehow, my ridiculous $50 bet had actually paid off.

All we had to do was get home again. And quickly find me a therapist.