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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.