Spannerman pokes his head out of the workshop to name the 10 best 350cc bikes ever made. Has he got it right? Here’s the countdown from 10-6. Look for number 5 down to the great man’s very best tomorrow!
With wisdom comes great responsibility. Compiling a list of the 10 best 350s of all time is fraught with danger. Don’t hang up on me immediately if you think I’ve missed something important – just read the epilogue at the end (in tomorrow’s instalment) where I explain why your favourite 350 missed the cut.
This is also a list of 350s that were available as road bikes which excludes the phenomenal race bikes available until the 350 class was cut from the world championships in 1982.
What soul is so dead that the thought of an AJS 7R or a Manx Norton 350 in road trim doesn’t up your heart rate? All the bikes listed here were readily available in their day (some, admittedly, at a premium price) and the focus is on road bikes, which is why only one road/trail bike got a trophy despite some wonderful dirt bikes from the likes of Bultaco and Yamaha.
World War II had massive implications for millions of people in many lands but it was also a turning point for motorcycling. Before the war, various countries held their own grand prix races but there was no international series. Racers would travel from event to event with the best of them securing start money and, hopefully, doing well enough to finance their trip to the next race meeting. Race categories were often ‘Junior’ and ‘Senior’ meaning 350cc and 500cc respectively. The ‘Junior’ category still exists at the IoM TT.
Riders in the Continental Circus who were cashed up usually had bikes to race in both the 350 and 500 classes. The best stable was probably a pair of Manx Nortons.
When the Federation Internationale de Motorcyclisme (FIM) announced the world championships in 1949, it was a no-brainer that 350s would be one of the prominent racing classes. This lasted until 1982 when, for a variety of reasons, the class was dropped. By then, though, the 350-capacity attraction had been ingrained into motorcycling’s DNA.
We had plenty of 350 racing here in Australia as well but the capacity struggled in the marketplace mostly because of the now discredited 250cc limit on learner motorcycles introduced in the 1970s.
It meant that you were stuck with a 250 for the first 12 months and, somehow, moving up to 350cc once you had your full licence wasn’t an attractive option. There were vastly more powerful and mesmerising 750s, 900s and 1000s available and the 350 class suffered accordingly.
Despite this, all of the bigger manufacturers offered them in showrooms. They were relatively cheap as well. It wasn’t uncommon for a 350 version of the Honda 250 and Yamaha 250 to be as little as $30 more expensive and the extra 100cc made a huge difference on the road.
As you’d expect, many learners worked out the barrels and pistons of the bigger bike could be fitted to the smaller version which could still carry the ‘250’ stickers and no copper at the time had the inclination or facilities to dismantle the top of the engine and measure the bore. An even-cheaper option was a set of 250 sidecovers fitted to a 350. There were far more 350s on the road in the 1970s and ’80s than most people realised.
The fate of the 350 capacity wasn’t particularly helped by LAMS, which scrapped the 250cc limit and let learners buy bikes with a capacity up to 660cc.
The 350cc class remained a poor cousin in terms of road bikes but it’s a great capacity for light trail and enduro bikes. As for road bikes, Royal Enfield is selling classic and modern versions in its 350 stable with the recently released 350 Meteor leading the charge.
Bracket creep in the 250 category has seen bikes jump to 300cc and then to 400cc, bypassing the traditional 350 size but, as we’re about to prove, 350s have a proud and glorious history by which they’ll always be remembered.
We’re going to count them down from 10 to one starting today with a bike which was much-loved by its owners but just scraped into this list. Buckle up!!
10: Honda XL350K2
Among the handful of bikes from last century that changed the world was the Honda XL250 released in 1972.
It stood out from the pack by being a four-stroke in a period where two-strokes were hogging the limelight. It was a proper dual-sport motorcycle, being handy in the bush but fitted with all the gear necessary to make it road-legal.
It was a huge marketing success and it pushed the other major manufacturers into catch-up mode without them ever being able to break Honda’s market leadership.
Honda released a bigger brother to the XL250 in 1974: the XL350 K1. It wasn’t much faster than the 250 but it was infinitely more pleasant to ride with its additional torque.
The K1’s exhaust system limited its usefulness in the bush, but this was addressed in 1976 with the introduction of the K2. It featured a high exhaust routed through the frame and exiting on the right-hand side.
A new cylinder head gave it a stronger top-end without compromising the low engine speed grunt of the original K1.
Noting how the 350 was being used in the marketplace, Honda increased the bike’s rake and trail to make it more stable at speed and also added passenger footrests.
The XL350K2 was never a proper enduro motorcycle (as wasn’t the original XL250) and tended to be used more as a comfortable, upright commuter and mixed-terrain tourer where it developed its reputation for riding ease and reliability.
It had a top speed around 140km/h but would cruise easily at 110-120km/h. That’s not to say it wasn’t handy offroad.
A combination of 30hp and 137kg made short work of moderate trail riding and the extra torque available was always appreciated.
Sales were never particularly strong due to the curse of the 250cc learner limit but the sensible few who could see the virtues of the 350cc will always remember them with affection and it’s a worthy bookend to INFO MOTO’s top 10.
Nine: Aermacchi Harley-Davidson 350 Sprint SS
An Italian Harley Spanner? What?
Buying the Italian Aermacchi motorcycle company in the 1960s wasn’t Harley-Davidson’s worst corporate decision (that would be selling to AMF or buying Buell), but it’s not something you’ll see proudly displayed in the Harley-Davidson museum.
Aermacchi motorcycles (a bastard child of an aircraft manufacturer) only really had one engine: a horizontally mounted, four-speed, pushrod single with an initial capacity of 250cc.
H-D felt it needed smaller bikes to counter the intense pressure coming from Japan but, on paper, Aermacchi didn’t look like it could do the job. What it did, though, was eventually produce Harley’s only road racing world championships.
In 350 form, Aermacchi H-Ds filled four of the top 10 places in the IoM Junior TT from 1968 to 1970, including two seconds in 1969 and 1970 and the great Australian rider Kel Carruthers took the bike to third in the 1968 world championship.
As the company expanded and moved into two-stroke production, it was Walter Villa who won the 350 world championship in 1976.
He also won the 250 championship that year. To give you some idea of what an achievement that was, the following nine bikes were all Yamahas.
But the bike we could buy between 1969 and ’74, was the Aermacchi Harley-Davidson 350 Sprint SS. It’s difficult to get a horizontal engine hanging from a spine frame to look good and it produces mixed feelings among those who’ve seen or ridden one.
If you think the SS looks odd, you should see the SX scrambler version from the same year that had a high pipe and guards, plus knobby tyres.
By the standards of the day, the H-D 350 was a very average bike. Harley-Davidson at the time had cornered the market in bad suspension and the SS came with no indicators or electric start.
It did have that engine, though, which managed to drag the SS to a top speed of 150km/h despite a four-speed gearbox and a weight of 147kg.
Adding to its issues was poor engine mounting resulting in serious engine vibration.
So how did it make our top-10 350 list? It’s mainly the engine: Aermacchi didn’t just beat Yamaha in ’76, it beat MV Agusta, Honda and everyone else trying to win.
Yes, the race engine was two-stroke by then but it’s absolutely in the same family and there are still plenty of four-stroke Aermacchis to be found in current classic racing.
Oh, and with the Harley connection, it’s probably the best conversation starter of all the bikes on our list.
Eight: Suzuki T350
Wait a minute – this isn’t even an actual 350. What’s it doing in Spanner’s top 10 350s list?
The Suzuki T350 is in this list largely because of one race: the 1972 Castrol Six-Hour. After six hours of flat-strap racing, a T350 came home in front of Kawasaki 750 triples, Yamaha TX750s, Ducati GT750s and multiple Honda CB750s.
And it wasn’t even a 350 – just a bored-out 250.
Its actual capacity was 315cc, which is as much as you can take from the 250 barrels before the cooling fins start collapsing on each other.
The basic T350 was, nonetheless, a very developed bike. Suzuki pioneered six-speed gearboxes in its 250 range in the late ’60s which gave it an advantage over the five-speed ’boxes of rivals such as Yamaha.
Its ‘Posi-force’ lubrication was also very effective, reducing the age-old problem of two-stroke seizures. Suzuki is widely regarded as having the most reliable of the bikes in its class during this period.
The Castrol Six-Hour race started in 1970 for production bikes in three classes: 250, 500 and unlimited.
The only modifications to showroom bikes you were allowed to make were to the handlebar, tyres and brake pad material. It will forever remain the best test of production bikes ever displayed in Australia and NZ and the results had a huge impact on what consumers would buy the Monday after the race was over.
How could a 315cc two-stroke compete with 750s for six hours?
Obviously, the bike was good and it had better cornering clearance than many of its bigger competitors but the secret may have been its rider, Joe Eastmure. Joe and his mate, Dave Burgess, won the 250 class in the 1970 event and may have won outright on a 350 in 1972 if the bike’s chain hadn’t broken towards the end of the race.
For 1972, Joe raced alone on a 350 provided by the Suzuki importers. He had a mate run it in who forgot to fill the oil tank and seized it.
The top-end rebuild allowed them to match the factory porting by shaving a little off the piston skirts. The horn was also removed as it got in the way of cooling airflow over the heads.
That was enough to have the bike disqualified after its victory but by then the whole world knew a modest Suzuki 315 could take on and beat the best production bikes in the world.
It was a beautiful bike to ride in daily use and, despite it being a 315 rather than a 350, it’s an honoured participant in our list of the 10 best.
Seven: Kawasaki A7 Avenger
Despite having a frame made from licorice, Spannerman thinks the Avenger deserves to be in his list of the top 10 350s of all time.
Kawasaki frequently flies under the radar and produces mind-boggling road bikes seemingly out of nowhere. Its first 350 two-stroke is a good example.
Based on the A1 250 of 1967, the 350 A7 (actually 338cc) looked like a bored-out version of the 250 but was a significantly more powerful bike.
The engine produced 30.9kW (42hp) at 8000rpm and was good for 175km/h but both hydraulic and friction steering dampers were used to keep it relatively stable at that speed. Japanese companies could always produce the horses but chassis technology was a dark art for them early in their development.
Kawasaki was competing in the 250 class with the Honda CB72, the Yamaha YDS3 and Suzuki’s T20.
While the two-stroke competitors stayed with the traditional piston/port design (fuel mixture went into the crankcases from the carbs and was forced into the combustion chamber and forced out through a series of tunnels), Kawasaki went with rotary valves, which had the advantage of better control of the fuel mixture going into the combustion chamber to improve the burn ratio but had the disadvantage of increased fuel use, engine width and poor running in hot weather.
Kawasakis were always faster in a straight line, though, so the company stuck with the engineering right up to the KR race bikes in the 1980s.
They were more peaky than the competition, too, which meant they had to be ridden in the sweet spot or the bikes with a wider power spread would get away from them.
At the time, the Kawasaki A7 Avenger offered astounding performance. Kawasaki built on this with the A7R racer, which used the same engine design to produce 53hp (39kW) at 9500rpm – good enough to win the Bathurst 350 TT in 1968. Australian champion Gregg Hansford finished third in the 350 class for Kawasaki in the world championships in 1978 and 1979.
While Kawasaki was making up its mind in which direction it would take regarding its infamous triples, there was also a program to develop a 500cc version of the A7 Avenger twin. It would have been a fearsome ride.
Six: Norton International Model 40 1957
Now we’re getting somewhere in Spanner’s list of the best 350s of all time: Norton – just saying the name is almost enough.
Norton is probably best known for its Manx Norton 500cc race bikes (Model 30) but it also produced a 350 known as the Model 40. The International was the road-going version on which the race bikes were based, and it started life in 1931.
Known also as the ‘Cammy’ Norton because of its overhead cam single-cylinder engine, the International was an instant hit as an Isle of Man TT replica. Norton regularly got 1-2-3 finishes in both the Senior and Junior classes and the production procedure at Norton allowed you to order a stock 350 International but fit it with the IoM performance parts of your choice.
A 25-year model life allowed for plenty of development but the engine remained fundamentally the same. An alloy head and barrel became available in 1936 and Roadholder forks arrived in 1938. Manx Nortons were extremely popular with privateer racers throughout this period and were still winning world championship races as late as 1969 despite Norton pulling out of racing in 1954.
The pick of the International Model 40 350s is probably after 1953 when the alloy head and barrel engine were reintroduced and the engine was housed in the now-legendary Featherbed frame.
Their popularity declined because competition was fierce from faster twins but there probably isn’t a much better ride in the classic world than a 350 International in a Featherbed frame.
Production finished officially in 1955, but you could still order a Model 40 for the following three years. It’s not bad, is it? An engine designed in 1931 was still capable of winning a round of the motorcycle world championships in 1969.
Arguably, the Norton Cammy engine is up there with the Honda Four as the engine of the last century. The 350cc version was no less successful in the Junior racing classes. Norton. Wear the t-shirt with pride.
There you have it. Tomorrow, Spanner counts down to the greatest 350 of all time. Don’t miss that!