In 1984 Yamaha released a road legal version of their factory YZR500 which at the time was leading the world championship with Kenny Roberts aboard. The Yamaha RD500LC was born and all the crazy kids formed an orderly queue.
There was a very short lived period of time in the 1980’s when a small collective of mid-size two-stroke motorcycles captivated the world.
Traditionally, dirt bikes and roadsters, high performance two-strokes were the best fun to have on 2 wheels. It was this reason that manufacturers decided to mimic the world of GP racers with some faired two-stroke motorcycles.
The first motorcycle to enter into this game was the Yamaha RD500LC. The Mk1 version was released in 1984 and the press and public alike were stunned by this new breed of bike.
Yamaha’s ‘RD’ or ‘Race Developed’ line was traced back to the 1970’s with motorcycles like the RD250 and later RD250LC and RD350LC. The latter leant itself towards amateaur or wannabe racers and became an icon of its time.
The 1984 Yamaha RD500LC built on this foundation with the manufacturer promising a real GP racer experience with the new model. It was known as the RZ500 in Canada and Australia and the RZV500 in Japan where the model was lighter but detuned and had upgraded components.
Due to emissions regulations during that time the RZ500 was not made available for the US market.
The engine was a liquid-cooled, 499cc, two stroke, 50 degree V-four, fitted with the Yamaha Power Valve System (YPVS). The motor was capable of 88 horsepower, 65Nm of torque, and a top speed of 148mph. The engine wasn’t a true V4, it was two 180° crankshafts taken from the TZR250 model and put together in a format that the cylinders would sit 50° apart. It had a 6 speed gearbox with O-ring chain for the final drive.
Suspension was in the form of a monoshock, spring preload with rebound damping; this was mounted horizontally on the lower crankcase under the engine.
Stopping power came from two discs on the front and one on the rear. Overall the machine was led by the design of the road race winning 0W80, with a few modifications to make it suitable for road use, even the gearbox positioning mimicked the quick change gearboxes of the GP racers.
Even though it was liquid cooled, each cylinder was over a pound lighter than the RD250 air-cooled cylinders; and in total it weighed in at just under 200kg wet. The motorcycle did everything it could to be light, even taking inspiration from motocross bikes with cast pistons, significantly lighter than the old RD’s components.
The only really heavy component on the RD500LC Yamaha was the exhaust and there was no way around that to reduce the weight, heavy exhaust pipes are durable and do the job well. Ultimately though, the RD500LC Yamaha only weighed 100lbs heavier than the GP racer from which it was derived.
Equipped with Yamaha Power Valve it pulled like a dirt bike at the bottom end and a real racer at the top which was a fun combination. After all who doesn’t want the best of those two worlds.
What did all this mean? Well, it was a revolutionary new concept for a road going motorcycle and excitement was at it’s peak. So, how did it perform after it’s release?
Yamaha RD500LC Performance
While not made available for the US the bike was shipped out worldwide including to Canada and it was the Australian market that was most keen to get hold of the bike, eager to take it to the track and test it’s abilities.
Production for the RZV500 in Japan was only around 1600 units which all reportedly sold within the first week.
Upon it’s first showing to the public at the Paris Salon Motorcyle Show in 1983, it was taunted by journalists as the ‘Kenny Rogers Replica’.
Later in the article the author issues a sentiment that much of public at the time felt “The RD is a road bike. A good one, stunning to look at, but a road bike. With reed valve induction and powervalves, it is designed to produce soft and tractable power.”
The consensus was that Yamaha had built a very good motorcycle that was a road going race replica in it’s style, its attention to detail, even it’s components, but not necessarily in its capabilities on the track. With that said, the year of release, 1984, the RZ500 won the Castrol 6 hour race in Australia.
The downfall perhaps of all GP replicas of the time is that they aren’t actually racing machines and despite people knowing why, understanding it on the surface, deep down people who bought an RD500LC Yamaha wanted to be Kenny Rogers; so there is an irrational disappointment when the replica doesn’t have the speed or performance as their race heroes.
Safe to say the motorcycle still sold extremely well and has an avid following today with many forums and websites dedicated to the model, so Yamaha definitely did something right.
Buying a Yamaha RD500LC
Much like Liam Neeson in the movie Taken “you need a very particular set of skills” to buy an RD500LC, no not CIA Training, guns and martial arts skills just the following:
- Lots of time to find one and a desire to look beyond your homeland.
- Bags of Money.
MCN has two models advertised currently one in Lancashire and one in Buckinghamshire for £19,995 and £27,999 respectively. Both are immaculate, the most expensive has less than 8,000 miles on it and the only non-standard component on it is the side stand.
For those in the US and even those in the UK you could do better to look towards Europe for a Yamaha RD500LC where there are several models advertised.
Prices are a bit less, even with import fees. For example this private sale in Germany is priced at €10,900 which roughly converts to £9300 or $13,270.
There are some very important things to watch out for when buying a Yamaha RD500LC especially because you will have gone through the painstaking process of hunting one down:
- The RZV500 for the Japan only market, was exported privately to collectors. There are some significant differences in the make-up of the two models. The Japanese model is 20kg lighter largely due to a different aluminium frame; the engine was restricted and a host of parts including electronics were upgraded.
If planning to remove the restrictions on the RZV500, it is an easy enough process but bear in mind the steel-framed Yamaha RD500LC version was tried and tested to cope with the extra power.
- Early 80’s fairing plastics were notoriously delicate, so you will want to check for cracks/fractures where it may have been dropped or been in an accident.
- The two stroke engine is what will cost the most to repair/rebuild/replace with rebuilds costing upwards of £1,000. So you want to listen for any odd noises at idle, ideally run through the gears and make sure everything is in working order with no issues.
- Look for leaking fork seals.
- You will want to check for genuine parts, so that you know your bike is original, especially at the asking price of some of the bikes.
- The shock was known to be temperamental, so check that it is working freely and no issues such as it being seized.
- Check frame over, paying attention to the joints where the frame may have cracked and have been welded over in a botch job.
The best way to avoid a troublesome purchase is to go for one with lots of history, lots of service records, ideally one that has been running recently. This is much better than a motorcycle that has been kept in a garage for 20 years by a collector because a running machine, especially one with such value, will likely have been looked after and at least serviced so it is in running condition.
A motorcycle sat for a lengthy period of time may look pretty but have a whole host of issues due to lack of maintenance underneath it all. Further to which the Yamaha RD500LC wasn’t adverse to amateur racers taking to the track especially in Australia. Track bikes aren’t exactly the most roadworthy due to various mods owners perform, so you will want to avoid a pretty looking bike raced in the 80’s, bought by a collector that then sat until you rock up to buy it.
Take your time, do your research, make your purchase and enjoy it.
Restoring a Yamaha RD500LC
There are just a few simple things to consider with restoring a RD500LC. Look towards Europe to find bikes at a better price. It is unlikely, depending upon how much restoration work needs to take place, that there will be much profit if any to be made, if you are taking the project on to make money.
There is a great deal of satisfaction to be made however, with restoring a RD500LC and you will be left with a motorcycle that not everybody is lucky enough to have and have a lot of fun doing it.
Is the RD500LC a Good Investment?
Absolutely. There is no doubt about it that the RD500LC is a good investment. Value is increasing, they are getting harder to find in original condition, and this will continue to cause the value to appreciate.
With only around 1600 RZV500 units built, the Japanese model is highly sought after thanks to its aluminum frame and upgraded components. This would be the best one to go after as an investment if you can find one.
However, any of the models in original condition is a good shout for an investment so you cannot go wrong with any of the regional variants.
The liquid cooled two stroke RD500LC is an awesome motorcycle, a trend-setter and nowadays a rare beast to be seen on the road. It is museum worthy and a huge part of motorcycle history. If you haven’t been hit by a wave of nostalgia for two-strokes after reading this article, then you need to have a strong word with yourself.
If we weren’t needing to save the planet, I’d be shouting at Yamaha to bring back the RD500LC and the other GP two-stroke replicas; in the meantime I’m shouting at the scientists to come up with a fuel that gives us the same performance, smell, engine noise, while pushing out healthy lemon scented oxygen… it’s not too much to ask.