Written by Andrew Jones
My partner loves talking about motorcycles. Sometimes, she just bangs on and on for hours and hours about two-stroke service intervals, the history of 500cc two-stroke Grand Prix racing and her favourite subject – expansion chamber designs. I’m joking, of course. She hates bikes. But just imagine if there was such a thing. Imagine a partner that was as keen to mix two-stroke as you were. Well, for San Diego’s Eric Zanutto and his wife Melanie, nature has conspired to do the unimaginable. They both like bikes. Hell, they both build bikes. Here’s their latest creation – a ’71 Yamaha R5 Racer restomod.
“I grew up near Fresno in California,” reminisces Eric. “It was an old farming town. My dad got me into airplanes and motorcycles from a young age. He was a bike builder as well,” says Eric. Sadly, he passed away a little less than a year ago. “So with him being in the Air Force and into planes, I got pretty hands-on at a young age. I’m an aerospace engineer now – I build and ride bikes as a stress reliever and because it’s just a big bunch of fun. But I’m always learning as I go, and I know I have plenty more to understand.”
Eric and his wife picked up this 1971 Yamaha R5, complete with a ’75 RD350 engine transplant, from Rancho Palos Verdes about a year ago. The bike was in extremely rough shape, with rust on pretty much every part imaginable and a whole bunch of mismatched bits. “In the end, we were able to salvage most of the parts and refurbish them. We completely tore the bike down to the frame and detabbed it, then we had it powder coated. Next we disassembled the RD350 engine – which was caked in a quarter-inch of sludge and black widow eggs – and rebuilt it ourselves. We hand polished the drum brake hubs and installed new shouldered aluminum hoops with Buchanan’s spokes.” All-new EBC pads went in the hubs and fresh Bridgestone Battlax rubber was fitted.
“Up front we hand-polished the forks. Progressive shocks went into the rear and an RK gold chain, a Speedy Siegl Racing aluminum brake arm and an Airtech Streamlining TZ250 fiberglass seat were also bolted on. The gas tank had a lot of rust, so we cleaned it out with muriatic acid and sealed it with an epoxy tank sealant.”
Despite every seal and gasket being replaced, the engine’s mechanicals are mostly stock. The happy couple did however install a Power Dynamo CDI ignition, a Motion Pro throttle, Jim Lomas expansion chambers, and it’s running the old Mikuni carbs from Eric’s ’84 Japanese spec RZ350. “Since the CDI ignition had a fairly complete wiring system, we finished off the rest of the connections with a custom wire harness we made ourselves. Lastly, we did our own Kenny Roberts-themed paint job.”
“This is my wife’s first vintage bike and first two-stroke,” notes Eric. “It’s also the first bike she’s helped me build. She has owned and ridden plenty of other modern bikes, though. Neither of us do this for a living. We both have day jobs, so it’s just a hobby and passion of ours. My first bike in high school was my aunt‘s old French Blue ’77 Yamaha RD400 that I cafe’d. That bike taught me a lot at a young age and it’s why I’m now pretty particular about Yamahas, two strokes, and old bikes in general.”
That initial tango with the 400 made Eric aspire to build a slimmer R5 or RD350, with spoked wheels and a more open frame. While in Japan for work, he promptly fell in love with the old Yamaha TD2-style race bikes at the Iwata Yamaha museum. “That was the inspiration for the seat chosen, the overall flow of the bike, and the polished bits here and there.” Aside from the new parts and the powdercoat, the two did all the work on the bike, by hand, by themselves. “Since I was a kid, building bikes was something I shared with my dad. Now I can share it with my wife as well.”
“I would say the hardest part of the build was all the corrosion and rust removal. This bike sat since the ’70s and was in horrible shape. All the shiny bits were polished by hand. And by hand, I mean by hand. There was lots of sandpaper of various grades, working our way down to 7000 grit and then finally using an orbital polisher to finish off the shine.”
“What I like most about the finished bike is seeing something that has been reborn; all those long hours in the garage and memories made while bringing something back to life are really special. Aside from that, I really enjoy the overall sleekness and flow of this bike. From head to tail, it’s everything I envisioned my old RD400 could have and should have been.” A childhood dream come true. It doesn’t get any better than that.
[ Eric Zanutto – Melanie Zanutto | Photos by Sly Imagery & That Yamaha Rider ]