Spannerman has been counting down the 10 best 350cc bikes ever made. Has he got it right? Here’s the countdown from 5-1. Let the bickering begin!
Five: Moto Morini 350
We’re getting to the pointy end of Spanner’s list of the best 350cc bikes of all time and many would claim this bike should be closer to the top.
If this was a list of the best-looking 350s, the Moto Morini Three-And-a-Half (not 3.5) would be closer to the top. Many will argue that it should be closer to the top anyway just on merit.
Unveiled in 1971, the 350 Morini featured advanced use of car design thinking in its 72-degree V-twin engine.
This was probably because Franco Lambertini, the primary engine designer, had come straight from Ferrari. Most unusual was the Heron head concept that uses a flat cylinder head with the combustion chamber set into the piston crown.
It was in relatively common use in car engines but hadn’t been used in a motorcycle before probably because arranging the valves at 90 degrees to the piston would usually mean the engine would be too tall – not a problem for cars but not desirable on bikes. Moto Morini’s solution was clever as well as compact and avoided the problem.
More car thinking went into the valve actuation which was by short pushrods driven by a camshaft located between the two cylinders. The camshaft was turned by a short belt. The forged, one-piece crank had car-type conrods using caps and shell bearings. The perennial problem of cooling the rear cylinder was addressed by offsetting it by 50mm. The end result was an engine that was efficient, reliable, fast and beautiful to look at.
The V-twin was housed in a classic chassis and was available as either a ‘Sport’ or ‘Strada’. The Sport had a sharper camshaft and slightly more compression giving it a four horsepower advantage over the 35hp Strada. It also had clip-ons and Marzocchi suspension. The touring-oriented Strada had a longer seat and originally came with Paoili suspension before eventually joining the Marzocchi club.
Despite the simple design keeping production and assembly costs low, the small production volume meant the Three-And-a-Half was always relatively expensive and buyers in the mid-’70s had plenty of great alternatives. The Morini was as expensive as a Triumph Bonneville or a Norton Commando.
Moto Morini also muddied the waters slightly in 1977 by releasing 500cc versions of the two models. The Sport in particular was known for its giant-killing performance particularly on tighter roads where its superior handling could be exploited.
Maximum torque on the 350 doesn’t arrive until after 5500rpm so the engine responds well to being revved. Gabriella, the daughter of Moto Morini’s founder, Alfonso Morini, eventually sold the company to Cagiva, which allowed it to languish. One day someone will make a series of movies like The Godfather about the Italian motorcycle industry. Nobody will believe it, but I’ll be the first in the queue to see it.
Four: Ducati Mk3 D
Another bloody Italian in Spannerman’s list of the top 10 350s of all time. Is someone monitoring his medication?
It’s a handy thing to know INFO MOTO’s Ian Falloon.
I think he’s up to book number 45 at the moment but if he ever went on Mastermind, his specialty subject would be Ducati.
According to Ian, Ducati made 71 distinct models of single-cylinder motorcycles between 1960 and 1978. Among the best of them were the 350 Mk3 D from 1968 and the 350 Desmo from 1974 to ’78. The 1968 model, though, was the game-changer because it introduced the Desmodromic valve system to a mass-production motorcycle.
Ducati’s Fabio Taglioni had been wrestling with a 125 race bike that he couldn’t get to rev past 11,500rpm before it would suffer valve float. It was the first Ducati to get the Desmo system that uses separate rockers to open and then close the valves – no more valve springs and no more valves kissing pistons.
It won in its debut race in 1956 but Taglioni had to wait patiently for another 12 years to see the system applied to larger production road bikes. The Mk3 D (D for Desmo, of course) was introduced with a red frame, a red/chrome fuel tank and featured twin filler caps.
It had a 250 D sibling and, slightly later, a 450 big brother but the 350 was the most highly tuned of the trio with a high-lift camshaft and a tacho so the rider could keep an eye on the rev-hungry engine.
The engine itself was all alloy with polished cases and deep finning on the barrel. It had a bore and stroke of 76x75mm producing 340cc and usable torque along with a great top-end. Even so, power didn’t really arrive until about 6000rpm with maximum output at 8500rpm although the engine was happy to rev to 9500rpm if required. Not bad for a four-stroke, single-cylinder engine of those dimensions.
The reception of the Mk3 D was complicated by Ducati struggling to stay afloat and eventually surrendering itself to the government but it sold well in Italy where there was a registration cost advantage for bikes under 350cc. It also sold well in the US.
The restyled 350 of 1974 pushed the Mk3 D into the background but the biggest impact was made by Paul Smart winning the Imola 200 in 1972 on a V-twin Ducati that Taglioni had designed and built in less than a year. Ducati’s future was set in concrete and the singles were no longer part of the big picture.
Three: Honda CB350
Plenty of you have been waiting for the appearance of this bike in Spanner’s list of the best 350s of all time. Bland can sometimes be beautiful.
In 1968, the year before Honda changed everything with the CB750 Four, the CB350 was massive. Sales were a little slow in countries with 250cc learner limits but, overall, in the five years during which the CB350 was available, between 250,000 and 300,000 were sold.
For many Southern Cross residents, it was their first experience of 100mph and they could do it day after day if they wanted to without hurting the bike. Top speed was over 170km/h. It was also the bike with which Honda came of age as a manufacturer.
The CB350’s predecessor was the 305cc CB77 Superhawk, which didn’t exactly stand out in a crowd. Honda did what it’s always done best: take a bunch of underwhelming ingredients (air-cooled, five-speed, 180-degree firing, two valves per cylinder, pressed-roller crank) but package them with laser accuracy in the marketplace. It was the era of the two-stroke screamers, all of which were faster than the CB350, but none had the same presence in the showroom.
You could, of course, make them go a bit faster, and Japan offered a mind-boggling 91-piece race kit for them. Unfortunately for Honda, Yamaha had released the TD3, which was uncatchable in its class no matter how much you spent on go-fast CB350 bits.
Honda’s reputation for reliability developed during this period as the bikes were clean, civilised and hard to hurt. Ask any 65-year-old rider if he’s ridden one and his answer will always be yes. He may even go further and tell you he owned one.
CB350s went into a lull after the CB750-Four became available and the model run only lasted until 1973. Nobody talked about them much but, as classic racing has grown in popularity, plenty of riders have been looking under the covers in the back of their sheds.
In the Junior TT at the Isle of Man Classic TT in the last pre-pandemic year, 15 of the top 20 places went to race bikes built from Honda CB350s, with the fastest bikes averaging over 100mph. An AJS 7R came home in sixth, a Manx Norton in eighth and an Aermacchi rolled in at 15th but if you weren’t on a CB350, you were nowhere near the podium.
Two: BSA Gold Star DB32
Being expensive doesn’t always make a bike good but, in Spanner’s last instalment before the best 350 of all time is revealed, money certainly helps.
“The Clubman model Gold Star has been developed for competitions in road and short circuit events and its specification is such that it is neither intended nor suitable for use as a touring motorcycle.”
This is from the 1961 BSA catalogue and is, of course, poppycock: even the speced-up Clubman came with lights so it could be road-registered and all its go-fast bits were available to anyone who ordered a Gold Star from the factory.
The Gold Star started life because BSA entered an Empire Star in a Brooklands race in 1937 and was rewarded for a 100mph lap with a ‘gold star’ pin. It immediately started calling a version of its M24 a Gold Star but the Second World War interrupted proceedings so it wasn’t until 1948 that the name reappeared on the 348cc B32.
Gold Stars were largely hand-built so customers could specify what state of tune they wanted. BSA wanted to race the B32s at the IoM in the Clubman class so it had to produce 100 of them in 1949 for homologation purposes. More than 20 were entered and it was the start of eight years of domination in Clubman and Junior TT racing.
The 350 and 500 Gold Stars got better in 1953 with a new frame featuring a swingarm and conventional dampers. By the late ’50s, the competition from multicylinder bikes had become fierce and production of the DB32 ground almost to a halt. They were still available, though, through special order until 1963.
As well as being fast, the Goldie was beautiful to look at. It played a major role in the development of the British motorcycle psyche and had a big impact in distant lands, including Australia and New Zealand.
Of the 350s listed here, it will be the most expensive to buy if you can find anyone prepared to sell. Go for a post-1953 model. There’s a higher demand for the 500 so if 350cc is enough, you might get lucky.
One: Yamaha RZ350LC
You might have disagreed on some of the bikes in Spanner’s countdown of the 10 best 350cc bikes of all time but who can disagree with this?
Is the Yamaha RZ350LC the best 350 of all time? INFO MOTO thinks so and it’s a tribute to a motorcycle manufacturer that went the full distance from early two-strokes through a racing program that eventually resulted in a production liquid-cooled 350 producing an almost unbelievable 52hp and a computer-programmed rotary exhaust valve that spread the love over the entire rev range.
You need a wall chart to follow what Yamaha called its RD bikes in different markets but for Australia and New Zealand, the last of the series was the RZ350LC. RZ picked up on the racing heritage and LC stood for ‘liquid-cooled’ which separated the later bike from the excellent range of air-cooled ones that preceded it.
When the RZ350LC was released here in 1983, it featured the Yamaha Power Valve System (YPVS) that had debuted on Yamaha’s racing 500 GP bikes in 1978, proving once again that racing really does improve the breed.
What it did was roll a tube with ports in it so that the exhaust-port timing could be varied according to the throttle position. It allowed for maximum torque until everything was flat out in which case there was no restriction to gas flow.
When you turned the engine on, there would be a buzzing noise while the power-valve system rotated to clean itself before the engine would start. With the exception of Yamaha’s own RZ500 and Suzuki’s RG500, there probably has never been a road bike more closely associated with its race-bike heritage but it was also an easy bike to ride at city speeds. In fact, it was actually comfortable for taller riders.
I was working at the time with a magazine that had a Yamaha factory racer as our road tester and there were tears in his eyes after his first ride. Environmental concerns killed it in the end despite Yamaha’s best efforts, which included catalytic converters in the exhaust. Despite everything, about 30 per cent of fuel escaped unburned.
If you were close to death and whatever god you believe in offered you the chance to ride one 350 of your choice, of all the bikes listed here you should pick the Yamaha. It was crisp, fast, handled well and proved convincingly that you were well-and-truly alive while you were riding it. I wish I was on one right now…
I know what you’re thinking: why is there no Honda CB350-Four or Kawasaki S2 350 here?
What happens when you shrink fours and triples is that you lose mechanical efficiency. So much mechanical energy was used up in the Moto Guzzi 250 Four that it was slower than a single. The Kawasaki S2 350 triple was slower than the A7 Avenger twin and Kawasaki eventually made it a 400 to compensate.
Honda 350 twins have survived and are flourishing in classic racing but the 350 Four simply isn’t competitive. It doesn’t mean it’s not a sweet ride (which it is) but it’s not up there with the best,
Okay, what about bikes like the Velocette MAC? It was an excellent machine but built in a specific period where fuel grades varied and it settled on the lowest common denominator. This meant it was always a bit slower and less spirited than its competitors. The pre-war 350s from Britain’s myriad manufacturers were mostly about cheap transport for poor people. Riding for fun was yet to be discovered.
Royal Enfield? If this was a list of the most enduring 350s, RE would be at the top but it’s an interesting take on the idea of ‘retro’ in that the basics of the 350 engine haven’t changed much. The current RE 350s have better metallurgy and technology and make a viable everyday bike that no other manufacturer has been able to manage but they’re not in the same class as, say, a Yamaha RZ250LC in terms of performance. INFO MOTO’s Spencer’s recent launch report video on the RE 350 Meteor is a good watch if you’re interested in a practical 350 with a link to history.
There were plenty of 350s from the major Brit manufacturers that were pedestrian commuters. They were slow and technologically challenged but, most importantly, cheap, making them popular. That isn’t the same as good.
If you need proof of the difference between cheap and good, have a gallop on the current Honda CB125E which, ironically, is the country’s best-selling bike.
I’m looking forward to the best 400s of all time, so we can argue some more.
Hmm, where can I get my hands on a Honda CB400F?