Can you wheelie an RM400? Are you old enough to even remember what an RM400 is? No, not that Suzuki four stroke thing, although they’ve been around for ages now, too. But long before the DRZ400 plonked into life there was the RM400 two stroke. It wanted to hurt you and everyone you loved, all the time. And if you were 14 years old, you might as well have strapped two wheels to the space shuttle and given it a coat of angry hornet yellow paint for all the power, pain and thrills that it stood for.
I was 14 once. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had dust in my veins, and the faint whiff of burned Castrol R premix on the wind was just about enough to launch a trouser tent. Two strokes rocked my world, because back then, four stroke dirt bikes were heavy old plonkers that couldn’t pull the skin off hot milk. Having sampled a few two stroke power bands – via tiddlers like YZ and RM80’s – I’d chosen my team and dammit, my team ran premix.
I grew up in a small country town on the Murray river. I had a school mate named Dash who shared my love of the stinkwheel. He lived on an orchard just as I did, but his dad’s property backed on to ‘The Island’, a big chunk of sandy bushland, once farmed, but abandoned long before I was born because it would flood when the river rose every few years. The Island would then be cut off from the rest of town by a moat of water that would hang around for weeks.
Dash and I were dirt bike kids and The Island was our weekend playground. We’d tear it up all day on our mini bikes, only pausing if Dash’s mum flagged us down to stop for lunch. We’d bolt down her toasted sangers and be gone ten minutes later, exploring, riding, repairing, learning. I’d get to Dash’s place ever so slightly illegally on my YZ, following dirt tracks that I had decided weren’t really legitimate roads, so perhaps I didn’t really need a driver’s licence. I arrived one fine Saturday to find Dash looking amped up and speaking in a tone of pure conspiracy. “Come and see what’s in the shed!”
What Dash had found was his future brother-in-law’s Suzuki RM400, propped against a beam in the shed. Wide eyed, I had to touch the bike to prove to myself that it was real. “He’s not back until next week”, said Dash. “What do you reckon?”
I’m a weak man, and I was probably weaker at 14. With brother-in-law and parents all absent, we had the RM fired up and warming over in about 2 minutes, courtesy of a big hill behind Dash’s shed and a lucky bump start. (We were concerned that kicking it from cold would break our scrawny legs.) What followed was an hour of utter madness, one of us following on an 80cc motocrosser, eating dust, while the other tore it up on the big RM, throwing roosts, hoisting wheelies and dipping into that wonderful, grunty power. You couldn’t have scrubbed our grins off with a wire brush.
Eventually, our high adrenalin shenanigans led to ‘The Flats’, a clay pan, now dry, that during floods was a decent sized lake. “How far do you reckon we could wheelie this thing?” cajoled Dash. We both decided it would be rude not to try, and took turns marking out distance and working our way up to big, third gear monos on the balance point. I flipped it in first at one stage. I was fine and more importantly, so was the bike. Dash punched me in the arm, fired up the yellow beast – now warm and easier to start - and hogged the next turn, getting up to third gear, front wheel sailing…then flipping it at frightening speed, sliding off the back. I’ll never forget watching Dash and the bike bouncing along separately in big, dusty explosions until all forward motion had stopped. By the time I had run over to the crash site, Dash was on his feet, dusting himself off, laughing. No damage done.
Then we walked over to the bike and Dash let out an extended “Faaark…”
The rear mudguard had broken off, the classic damage of a flip. There was no hiding it. Or maybe there was? We decided to get the bike back to the shed, pronto, and see what we could do. Except the bike was going nowhere. It was flooded. We were both knackered, and our weedy kicks got us nowhere. We started pushing the bike, taking turns, me listening to Dash postulating that, after all, this whole predicament was at least fifty percent my fault. Away from the clay pan the sand got deep. We gave up pushing, both got on the little YZ80 and headed back to the shed to grab a 4WD or a tractor with which to salvage the big RM. The high from earlier in the day had worn off, to say the least.
The high plunged to a new low when, not half an hour later, we arrived on Dash’s dad’s tractor to find the big RM gone. I felt pretty bad. Dash actually cried, wailing that Ben, the owner of the RM and the man shaping up to be his brother-in-law, would kill him and that worse, perhaps the incident could somehow sour things between Ben and Dash’s sister to the point where the wedding would be called off. Crying. Hadn’t seen that in awhile. I administered some half-hearted shoulder hugs (in the early eighties any more than this would have made us gay, which we understood to mean enjoying live theatre and flouncy shirts) and we headed back to Dash’s place on our little crossers.
I went back to my own home after that, and I can only guess that Dash started working on his will. Days later, when Ben returned, Dash summoned me to his place for moral support to help break the news to Ben. We confessed to ‘borrowing’ his bike, and admitted blame for the theft that followed. Ben, years our senior, was royally pissed off, then suddenly calm. “I’m gonna head into town and go see Sarge. In a little place like this I reckon they’ll track the bike down in no time. Besides, I have to report it so I can claim insurance.” Cops? Dash and I almost peed our pants right therre.
Dark days followed. The cops knew nothing. The insurance thing wasn’t working because of some technicality. The bike really was gone for good. A week or so later Ben had decided on the way forward and called us in to the shed – where all truly meaningful things are discussed - to reveal his plan. “So”, he started. “The bike was worth $2,200 and it’s gone, and the way I see it, I’d still have it if you clowns hadn’t pissed off on it that afternoon. But because I’m a gentleman, I’m going to say that all you owe me is two grand, and you can pay it off bit-by-bit with what you earn on the orchards.”
I started calculating my split. Back then I was being paid $5 per bin to pick oranges for my dad. So…I’d be picking oranges until I was what…27 maybe?
Dash had turned very pale. Ben stood silent, watching our reactions. “So that’s the way it has to be, I reckon.” He turned, headed off to the back of the shed. “Unless.”
Dash finally worked up the courage. “Unless what?” Ben replied “Unless…” And with that, Ben pulled down a tarpaulin that had been hanging from the shed rafters, to reveal a yellow RM400, missing its rear mudguard. But not actually missing. At all.
It turns out that Ben had come home early from his trip (he was racing speedway outfits interstate and had blown an engine) and was driving on to the island when he noticed how badly carved up The Flats were. He stopped to take a look around, stumbled on the bike, put two and two together, loaded up the RM and went to stay at a mate’s place for a couple days to set up the ruse. Everything else had been acting. Probably really bad acting, but terrified 14-year old kids are not theatre critics, and are easily fooled.
“So wash the bloody thing, get me some cash for a new mudguard and keep your hands off it in future, you sneaky little wankers!” And that was it. I went home, feeling free and light and full of respect for what I judged were Ben’s incredible skills of deception. I slept well that night, for the first time in a week.
And that’s where the adventure finishes up, nice and neat. Until I made off with another bike. It was 18 months later and the bike was my brother’s KX500. But that’s a story for another day.