Vintage Motocross: 1974 Yamaha YZ360

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Vintage MX Motorcycles

In 1974 I was in high school, deeply embedded in my obsession with the budding sport of motocross. I was the happy owner of a 1973 Honda Elsinore but, as with all riders, was constantly aware of – and in some cases desirous – of other machines.

Motocross Action Magazine was the publication of the day, entirely devoted to motocross, and one month the cover carried a photo of the all-new Yamaha YZ sailing through the air, with a full test review inside. The bikes looked exactly like what Pierre Karsmaker, the Dutchman who was stomping Americans on the AMA scene, was riding.

In its day the Yamaha YZ 360 was the manufacturer’s weapon for what was called the open class (500cc max…and there was also a 250 YZ). The production bike was technically exotic beyond the imagination in 1974.

The motocross industry was on the verge of discovering and developing long-travel suspension, so despite what may look horribly antiquated in the pictures, this was state of the art, baby.

To start with the YZ looked beautifully mean. The silver paint, set-off by the red and black highlights, was visually stunning.

For a kid just 5 feet and a few inches in height, the bike seemed inordinately tall. Like all 2-strokes of the day the YZ possessed a very narrow powerband, and despite giving up a lot of displacement against other open class machines, the Yamaha YZ made up for it in the machine’s extremely light weight.

Following the release of the Elsinore the previous year, the YZ took over top honors as the production bike with the most trick bits of milled aluminum and lightweight steel. It had a beautifully machined conical front hub that held a small but effective drum brake. And for shocks the YZ sported the first external reservoir shocks. Very trick.

The lower fork legs were milled down so far to save weight the first thing every YZ owner did was to slap a set of fork protectors on to prevent errant rocks from dinging them up. Perhaps the coolest aspect of the bike in terms of aesthetics was the famous “Y” gas tank strap. It still looks cool today.

The YZ had an exhaust note that managed to combine the ping of a 2-stroke with a throaty roar. The Yamaha was critiqued in most magazines as being reserved for only top-level pro riders – which I’m sure scared away a lot of would-be buyers. The other thing that scared people off? The price tag. In 1974 the Yamaha YZ 360 retailed for the staggering price of $1,700. At the time that was unheard of.

Visit to see examples of some of the motocross machines from the early days of motocross.

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