The Seminal Motorcycle

Seminal motorcycle
The author on his beloved Yamaha HT-1, “wheelie-ing down the road on the thing, in defiance of all logic and gravity.” (Photos courtesy the author)

Recently I visited one of my favorite cafés, a short ride up the Pacific Coast from my Santa Cruz, California, home. Called Downtown Local, the place is a syrupy mix of old motorcycles, vintage gas tanks stacked on shelves like cordwood and decades worth of vinyl records, which sound a little bit like music and a lot like crackling bacon. Oh, and there’s plentiful strong coffee. I can’t stay away.

While elevating my heart rate with a double espresso and listening to a Janis Joplin album that may have been used as a Frisbee in a freshman dorm, I spied an object of great affection, right there in the middle of the café: a 1970 Yamaha HT-1 Enduro. Original color, no less: poop brown.

Seminal motorcycle
Wearing a Honda shirt, riding a Yamaha, in jeans. Ah, youth.

This was, for me, the Seminal Motorcycle. It was the one from which all the madness sprung—the catalyst for broken bones, busted bank accounts and bad habits. It was the obsessive object of late nights in the garage when I was 12, divining the mysterious inner workings of the two-stroke engine. This zygote of a motorcycle would reincarnate itself dozens of time over the coming decades, in ways that would cause spousal distress, sidetrack serious pursuits like college and career, and generally wreak havoc on an otherwise promising life. In other words, there were awesome times ahead.

The Seminal Motorcycle is common among our tribe. Give us your Super Rats, your Rupps, your Mini-Trails, your SL70s and your Elsinores. Raise a glass to the venerable RD350s, the Mach IIIs, SOHC Hondas and chronically leaky Nortons and Triumphs. With a wink and a crackle of blue exhaust, these bikes lured us into the sad brothel of moto lust, a place from which we never really escaped.

Seminal motorcycle
Small, poop brown, but mighty.

For this, and more, I blame the wheezing little Yammy. Oh you diabolical little smoker, you! Look what you have wrought!

The poor barista at Downtown Local feigns sympathy, but I can see in her eye that I am the 221st guy to walk in and get weepy over the miniature motorcycle this week. As far as she’s concerned, this whole old-guys-in-love-with-old-bikes thing is a pandemic, and we really should just get a grip. I can’t say I disagree, even though I am among the guilty. She’d probably make more money if she set up shop nearby doing psychotherapy, like Lucy in “Peanuts.” Twenty-five cents per minute and you can talk endlessly about all the old crap you used to ride.

Seminal motorcycle
Trials riding on the HT-1.

The HT-1 was not my first motorcycle, but it may well have been the best. The word “Enduro,” in this context, was wishful thinking. The wheezing engine generated just 8.5 horsepower. Even for my 90-pound teenage frame, it propelled me forward at absolutely underwhelming speeds. But sometimes, the smallest things take on importance out of all proportion to their size and power. This is as true of life as it is of motorcycles.

Were I to ride this puttering Cuisinart of a motorcycle today, I would surely wonder what all the fuss was about. First bikes are essentially Platonic—they exist only in their ideal, purest form. The reality requires kickstarting and won’t make it up a steep driveway without duck paddling. I also thought my first girlfriend Suzie was the best I ever had, until she wasn’t. But unlike with Suzie, the HT-1 continues to occupy a hallowed place in my imagination. I never really got over it.

The beauty of the shrunken Yammy was that it actually looked good, preserving all the proportions of its more powerful sibling, the famed DT-1, right down to the gentle inward arc of the exhaust system. In the absence of anything else nearby, it looked pretty damn good, like a real motorcycle that was left in the dryer too long.

Seminal motorcycle
Lights: optional. Fun: standard.

Since I didn’t have a license, the lights and other accouterments came off in the interest of speed and category dominance in my neighborhood of miscreants. There are actually pictures of me wheelie-ing down the road on the thing, in defiance of all logic and gravity. (I’d say the front wheel had been Photoshopped to appear as if it’s in the air, but there was no Photoshop in those days, so I must have actually done it. Oh, miracle of youth!) If you tried to jump the bike, the relentless laws of physics and gravity would keep you firmly earthbound. A prolonged, top-speed run might cause it to implode in a supernova of parts all neatly labeled with a tuning fork.

No matter. To me, it was the pinnacle of motorcycle technology.

After the Yammy, things acquired a kind of malevolent momentum: there was a Yamaha 100, and a Triumph Bonneville chopper acquired on the cheap, which spit flames out the exhaust, incandescent in the night sky. Somewhere in there was a Honda CT-70 clown bike with what seemed like an inch of suspension travel. You could surmount a leaded pencil without upsetting the chassis.

Seminal motorcycle
Poop-colored puddle jumper? Tiny trail tamer? Smoking speed machine?

It just went on from there, and the madness continues to this day. But no bike ever appealed to my twisted little heart in the same way as the turd-colored Yamaha.

Thanks for everything, my pint-sized problem. Life would have been, well, normal, without you.

10 COMMENTS

    • ALL the Brit bikes that came State-side leaked fluids in the 60’s/70’s. Must have been the high-precision engineering at the time. At least they looked and sounded good. 😉

  1. Great article, Geof! I could have copied-and-pasted myself right into your story with the only difference being my might mount at the time was a new Yamaha Riverside 60 in blue. It too was my first motorcycle love. I burned up the gravel roads, woods, and surrounding farmland in southeast Minnesota at speeds approaching 40 and sometimes 48 mph (when I pulled the baffle out of the upswept exhaust pipe). Thanks for the memories.

  2. This article brings back many memories, It all started with a Rupp, a CT70, Suzuki 50 Gaucho. Then I was bitten by the MX bug, YZ125, Elsinore 125, Maico 250 and many RM 125’s (had a local Suzuki sponser). I was always riding never had a chance to get into trouble. The natural progression was to road bikes; GS750, 2 Goldwings, R1200RT and still riding a Triumph Trophy SE. As long as my knees can hold up a touring bike, I’ll keep on riding. Those glory days of racing are forever etched in my mind.

  3. Great article! Oh, for a similar cafe here in Massachusetts, only instead of the “Yammy”, there would have to be a stripped down ’72 Honda SL-100 complete with Preston Petty fenders to make me get nostalgic. Thx, Geoff.

  4. Yes, it was a 1966 Honda S90, Black and Silver and the hottest ticket on the planet (my dads garage)! It got my newspaper route delivered every day, but the hills were calling, so I purchased a knobby tire that was both street and dirt compliant. After that, my weekends were spent in the clay hills behind Lane Community College, showing all my friends that I could out climb them on their street bikes. Their bikes were a Ducati 125 and a Yamaha Twin Jet 100.
    Headed for snow country one day with a friend on his Honda 250 Scrambler. Scrambler Steve was very impressed I maxed my 8 hp. at 65 mph. Me, I thought the engine might disengage from the frame. All went well until snow came between the front tire and fender. Oh, as to wheelies, they were all too often!
    Truth be told, the bug has bitten me as I am restoring a red 1966 S90 as we speak. I have made it my passion to keep Vintage Japanese bikes alive in So. Cal and wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Geof, thanks so much for the story. I hung on every word, however, is it possible the HT-1 received a splash of Root Beer! Just sounds sweeter! 🙂 Bill

  5. Terrific story and comments ! .

    My very first _running_ motocycle was a 1962 Honda C100 Cub : a 50C.C. pushrod engined , three speed auto clutch step through thing that definitely needed my feet paddling on any dirt trail but I loved it just the same….

    Over the five decades I’ve been riding I eventually made full circle and came back to Tiddlers, mostly Honda 90’s from the 1960’s and 1970’s, the plan was to tinker them all back to life and send on down the road once I retired but a near fatal road crash in 6/2017 means I’m struggling to get back to riding and my first attempt will be on a Honda 90 AutoClutch Moto….

    Good times ahead ! .

    -Nate

  6. Reading your story flashed memories of my Kawasaki J1, a 85cc pocket rocket I rode back in 1972-73. Man, was it a great ride after two years on a paltry moped! I loved every second on it. Along with two friends on mopeds, we rode a locally famous track called the Railroad Way, a dismantled forestry railroad in Western Finland. The twenty-miles track was part swamp, part reforested thickets of small trees, part gravel. It took six hours. One guy’s front wheel fell off. It was the greatest day of my youth.
    It didn’t get much worse when I later that year got a beautiful Suzuki TS125, but the rides were not be that crazy. Riding a DR650 nowadays, I could still buy a J1 if it came my way.

  7. Great story.Blew up my sears mini bike summer of ’70 (12yrs old).$325 later my ’71 JT1 was stuffed into the back seat of my mom’s ’67 4Dr chevelle.Rode that bike with a pack of sl&ct 70’s all summer(Matawan nj).Saved more paper route $$ and the guys at Red Bank nj Yamaha sold me a green LT2 100 enduro.Those bikes started the madness.my sl70 buddy and me would later drive to California and back on cb750f’s summer of ’79.Still have my ’75 cb400f ,have a problem selling stuff 18 bikes later(yamaha/suziki/honda/harley)presently with the goldwing and Fat Boy my main rides.It all comes down to personnel preferance .I just retired and am getting the itch for something new i’m not a tech guy guess I can make room for a benelli Sei or cbx I’d always wanted.

  8. Great Read… I also, was 12 in 1970 and this bike was for me… unobtainable , until I found my little Kawa 125 scrambler, with ballon tires and small peanut tank, custom painted of course, and no front fender. Did I mentioned the chrome side covers ? One that got lost on a long trip of 18 miles to the nearby lake.. ha Bronson, look out !

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