Jamie James Yamaha RZ350 | Review

RZ350 Project Bike

The police radio crackles and a voice comes over the air saying, "just enjoying the show," as ex AMA Superbike Champion Jamie James sets the front wheel of his Jamie James Productions R1 down in a cloud of smoke, somewhere on the wrong side of 130mph. Waving to the State Trooper passing in the other direction I shake my head and wonder how in the world we got into all this.

Well, to borrow a word from our Jamie, to start this particular yarn we need to head back to late last year and a trip to Jamie’s workshop hidden away in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I live less than an hour away, so when he told me about a winter project he was working on I made haste to get over to his place. Aided and abetted by his buddy Doug Crawford, he who tuned for Jamie in his Yoshimura days, the Cajun crazies were cooking up a seriously sick street bike and wanted me to check it out. Heading into the workshop I arrived to find a bare frame sitting on Doug’s lift and the ace wrench with a mile wide grin. The project was a 1984 Yamaha RZ350 that was getting set to head into the modern world.

Back in early ‘80s, two strokes were still in production and available for street use, the RZ 350 being the evolution of decades of two-stroke development for Yamaha. Producing around 50 horsepower from its 350cc twin cylinder engine and weighing 330 pounds dry, there were few experiences to equal the thrill of riding one of these small shrieking two-strokes. With the engine wrapped in a cradle style frame it came with triple disc brakes and looked like a pukka race bike. Riding on skinny eighteen-inch wheels and tires, easily able to flex the frame and outperform the suspension, it was a seriously wild ride though. In the England of my youth, the RZ350, or YPVS as it was known over there, quickly attained cult status. All manner of tuning options were soon available to make the beast go faster, and the salvage yards quickly filled with freshly wadded examples.

Government emission laws eventually ended the life of the street going two-stroke in this country, but not the memory. Having raced an RZ350 early in his career, Jamie decided it would be neat to see what they could do with one utilizing a lot of racing know how and some modern technology. With winter approaching fast, and riding season coming to an end, a lot of hours would be spent in the JJP workshop; a good number of them being donated to the old RZ.

Fast-forward to early spring and I am diving into a hairpin turn out on the quiet back roads around Hot Springs, North Carolina. Ahead of me Jamie is hustling a stock R1 equipped with Moto cross bars, behind Doug is on the JJP R1. Dropping down into first gear, I effortlessly flick into the turn before yanking the throttle back to wide open, the front wheel lifting as the engine screams and I grab another gear while fighting to get the front end back on the floor. The sound emitting the Toomey expansion pipes is blood curdling, and straight adrenaline is jacking through my veins. Another gear, and another, before brushing the front brake lever and quickly dropping two gears, the engine howling on the overrun.

The diminutive RZ so solid and stable under braking I am able to run up tight on Jamie’s rear wheel. Ahead the big R1 starts pulling hard out of the corner, but shifting right in the meat of the RZ’s power band I am stuck up behind him like a fly on a bull’s arse, and the fun continues. Behind me I can hear the breathed on JJP R1 exhaling through the Akrapovic pipe and know Doug is hard on it as we howl into Tennessee. It is early spring so we are able to enjoy the deserted roads without fear of meeting any cage loads of tourists crawling along admiring the view. In the saddle of the RZ my teeth are set to perma grin, and my eyes are standing out on stalks as I flick effortlessly back and forward along this incredible, piece of road playing tunes with the gearbox.

Taking a breather to get some gas and inhale some needed fluids I am laughing like a mad man and just in awe of this wild, yellow machine. Weighing in around 280 pounds and putting nearly 70 horsepower through the gummy 180 section Michelin pilot, I have never ridden anything on the street that was this much fun. The bike is blessed with telepathic handling, beyond phenomenal brakes and the most addictive rush of acceleration, which make the Jamie James Productions RZ350 the ultimate mountain road tool. Forcing you to make two or three times more gear changes per mile than a big four stroke, life becomes a narrow focused game of getting every shift just right. Because, fall below 7000 rpm, or rev it above 11,000 rpm and you get sweet nothing. That is not too say you can’t ride it under seven grand, you can if you are taking it slow, you just can’t keep up with an R1 unless you are thrashing the tits off it.

Later in the day, slumped in a chair like an amphetamine junky coming down off a weekend binge, it is time to make some notes and find out just what Jamie and Doug have done to the RZ to make it such a radical street weapon. Just glancing around the machine it is obvious that few of the original parts have been left, and if so they have been worked on.

Sitting down to join me, Doug emphatically states before we start, " I don’t want to do another one." With the bike stripped to the bare frame, all of the non-essential mounts and brackets were removed, which lost a bunch of weight. The center stand was junked, as were the passenger footpegs, and gusseting added to the frame for strength. The rear of the frame received an old racing modification before being widened to accept the ’87 FZR1000 swingarm that happened to be lying around the shop. Interestingly, it used the same pivot bolt as the RZ, but required some machining to accept the R6 rear wheel. The axle had to be lengthened three inches to make it through the swingarm, and the rear sprocket housing machined to line up with the counter shaft sprocket. This had to be offset some to make the match, with this task being performed by Orient Express.

The stock gearing was retained, and a 520 Regina chain rolls over the black, hardened Vortex sprockets. Responsible for the supple, yet controlled ride out back is an Ohlins’ shock originally intended for a Yamaha R7. Jamie is an Ohlins’ supplier and tech, following the AMA Superbike series setting up suspension for Ohlins equipped teams. While the R7 was a lot heavier, Jamie found that the spring rate worked perfectly due to the RZ’s linear link. The top quality shock is adjustable for pre-load, compression, rebound, and ride height. Stock R6 rear brake parts are used with the addition of a Wave rotor, but even at manic speed, it was something of an afterthought as the front brakes are just in another league, but I will get to them in a minute.

Up at the business end of the RZ, Jamie used a Yamaha R1 inverted fork from an ’02 model, with an Ohlins’ valving kit inside. These are held in place by a stock lower triple clamp and a JJP upper triple clamp. The set up needed a little help in the form of two bottom bearings and a spacer, but other than that the forks bolted right on. Rolling between the fork legs is an R1 front wheel with Wave rotors attached. A pair of ‘02 R1 calipers with carbon-carbon SBS brake pads puts the squeeze on them, with the fluid traveling from the master cylinder in braided steel lines. Pushing the fluid down the lines, a stock R1 master cylinder gets worked on by a GP tech adjustable, folding lever. Just like a race bike it is possible to adjust this on the fly. GP tech is also responsible for the handlebars and adjustable clutch lever and R6 style rear sets.

Out on the road the bars are pretty comfortable as they are not too low, and once set to my preferred settings, the levers felt perfect and have to be a must for any sport bike rider. The front brake set up is not for the novice rider, requiring some serious mental reprogramming to avoid overdoing it. Basically designed for stopping a 400 plus pound R1, hauling the featherweight RZ down from speed requires little more than a breath on the lever to scrub speed fast. Unless you have ridden something like the Poggipolini NCR we tested recently, you will never have experienced a brake set up as powerful as this one. It is simply mind bending how fast the RZ can stop when needed.

Staying with the suspension, it was interesting to see Jamie has stuck with the same philosophy found on his ultra-trick R1s. The bike is set up with real road riding in mind, and soaks up any surface irregularities with ease, while not sacrificing anything in the handling department. Had we taken the bike the track I have no doubt we would have been making some adjustments, but on road the bike was near perfect.

So, with the rolling chassis complete, the frame took a trip to be painted and the boys went to work on the motor. Toomey pipes were sourced, as was a Toomey carb kit and air intake system. A set of Boyson reeds was installed and Doug milled 15 thousands of an inch off the heads to bump compression, before porting them for better flow. The stock pistons were kept, with some Yamaha sourced rings and the motor was reassembled with a factory gasket kit. Kudos to Bob Star and Jeff Jones at Yamaha for making this happen. Back in the frame, a run on the local dyno resulted in 69 smoking stallions, which is not bad when you think we are close to half a mile above sea level up here in the mountains.

One area of the bike that really took some time was the bodywork. Severely beaten from a bad crash, Jamie did all the prep work before his buddy at Russell’s Paint and Body in Black Mountain applied the mirror finish yellow. The quality of the paint is absolutely flawless and with Jamie’s signature Cajun claw on the tank looks the absolute business. All of the bodywork is stock except the front fender, and this, not surprisingly, comes from a ’02 R1.

The list of jobs continued, as Doug told me how the stock wiring harness had to be customized, the fairing lowered four inches, the exhaust brackets relocated and a complete custom dash fabricated. This is a really trick set up, with an electronic speedometer, tachometer, and series of shift lights. It also has a top speed memory program as I found out after my first high speed run. "Whatcha hit," Doug asked me. "Had to be closing in 120mph with more to go" I mentioned. "119 mph" Doug informed me with a touch of a button.

Thankfully this high-speed run was right before Jamie climbed in the saddle for me to shoot the pictures and we met our friendly local policeman. Luck would have it he used to watch Jamie race and was a big fan, which resulted in Jamie pulling stand up wheelies for our new friend as the State Trooper came in the opposite direction. Like I said earlier, I just have no idea how some of this stuff happens. What I do know is, Jamie and Doug have created one of the most outrageous back road burning motorcycles ever built. The only bad news is, it is not for sale and, with the new series of JJP R1s getting set to start rolling out of the shop, there is not much chance of them doing another. The good news is, Jamie will be taking it to select shows and events around the country so check it out if you see it and say hi to the guys.