Yamaha – Past and Present
By Staff Writer
Yamaha’s history started over a hundred years ago when Torakusu Yamaha founded the company in 1887, which began producing reed organs. The Yamaha Corporation in Japan (then Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd.) has grown to become the world’s largest manufacturer of a full line of musical instruments and a leading producer of audio/visual products. But they are more than just music. Ever since the Yamaha Motor Corporation was established, the company has grown over the past 50 years to become the second largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world.
In 1953, Genichi Kawakami (Yamaha Motor’s first president) was looking for a way to make use of idle machining equipment that had previously been used to make aircraft propellers. He explored producing many products, including sewing machines, auto parts, scooters, three-wheeled utility vehicles, andâ€¦motorcycles. Market and competitive factors led him to focus on the motorcycle market. Genichi actually visited the United States many times during this period.
Thus, the development team poured all their energies into building the first prototype, and ten months later in August of 1954 the first model was complete. It was the Yamaha YA-1. It was a copy of the German DKW design, which the British BSA Company had also copied in the post-war era and manufactured as the Bantam. The bike was powered by an air-cooled, 2-stroke, single cylinder 125cc engine. Once finished, it was put through an unprecedented 10,000 km endurance test to ensure that its quality was top-class. This was destined to be the first crystallization of what became a long tradition of Yamaha creativity and an inexhaustible spirit of challenge. Production of the first motorcycles began.
Then, in January of 1955 the Hamakita Factory of Nippon Gakki was built and production began on the YA-1. With confidence in the new direction that Genichi was taking, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. was founded on July 1, 1955. Staffed by 274 enthusiastic employees, the new motorcycle manufacturer built about 200 units per month.
That same year, Yamaha entered its new YA-1, known to Japanese enthusiasts as Akatombo, the “Red Dragonfly”, in the two biggest race events in Japan. They were the 3rd Mt. Fuji Ascent Race and the 1st Asama Highlands Race. In these debut races, Yamaha won the 125cc class. And the following year, the YA-1 won again in both the Light and Ultra-light classes of the Asama Highlands Race. This bike established a reputation as a well-built and reliable machine. The racing successes helped boost its popularity and a second machine, the 175cc YC1 was soon in production by 1956.
The first Yamaha-designed motorcycle was the twin-cylinder YD1 produced in 1957. The racing version, producing 20bhp, won the Mount Asama race that year. Production was still modest at 15,811 motorcycles, far less than Honda or Suzuki.
The company grew rapidly over the next three years. In 1958, Yamaha became the first Japanese maker to venture into the international race arena. The result was an impressive 6th place in the Catalina Grand Prix race in the USA. News of this achievement won immediate recognition for the high level of Yamaha technology not only in Japan but among American race fans, as well. This was only the start, however.
Yamaha took quick action using the momentum gained in the USA and began marketing their motorcycles through an independent distributor in California. In the same year, Cooper Motors began selling the YD-1 250 and the MF-1 (50cc, two-stroke, single cylinder, step through street bike). And in 1959, Yamaha introduced the first sports model to be offered by a Japanese factory, the twin-cylinder YDSI with five-speed gearbox. Owners who wanted to compete in road racing or motocross could buy kits to convert the machine for both road and motocross racing.
By 1960, production had increased 600% to 138,000 motorcycles. In Japan, a period of recession followed during which Yamaha, and the other major Japanese manufacturers, increased their exports so that they would not be so dependent on the home market.
To help boost export sales, Yamaha sent a team to the European Grand Prix in 1961, but it was not until the 1963 season that results were achieved.
After the Korean War, the American economy was booming and Japanese exports were increasing. In 1962, Yamaha exported 12,000 motorcycles. The next year, it was 36,000 and in 1964, production rose to 87,000.
In 1963, Yamaha had produced a small batch of 250cc road racing motorcycles for sale, the air-cooled, twin-cylinder TDI. Ever since then, Yamaha has built and sold motorcycles that could be raced successfully “straight out of the crate”, and as a consequence, Yamaha machines have won more road races than any other make, exposing Yamaha to a good deal of publicity.
That same year, production was 244,000 units, split about 50/50 between home and export sales. One of the biggest drawbacks to the sales of two-strokes was that the rider had to mix oil with their gas. Yamaha demonstrated its focus on cutting-edge, technological innovations by developing the Autolube System. This landmark solution was a separate oil injection system for two-stroke models, eliminating the inconvenience of pre-mixing fuel and oil.
Yamaha was building a strong reputation as a superior manufacturer which was reflected in its first project carried out in the new Iwata, Japan Plant, built in 1966. That same year, the first overseas factory was opened in Siam to supply Southeast Asia. In 1967, Yamaha production surpassed that of Suzuki by 4,000 at 406,000 units. By this time, Yamaha had quality products that had proven themselves in the global marketplace based on superior performance and innovation. Distribution and product diversity were on the right track.
In 1968, Yamaha established a lead with the introduction of the Yamaha DT-1. The world’s first true off-road motorcycle created an entirely new genre we know today as trail bikes. The DT-1 made a huge impact on motorcycling in the USA because it was truly dirt worthy. Yamaha definitely “read the flow” when it produced the 250cc, single cylinder, 2-stroke, Enduro that put Yamaha On/Off-Road motorcycles on the map in the USA. The DT-1 exemplified the power of original ideas, forward vision, and quick action coupled with keeping in mind the customers’ desires.
In 1969, Yamaha built a full size road racing circuit near their main factory at Iwata. The following year, the number of models had expanded to 20 ranging from 50cc to 350cc, with production up to 574,000 machines, 60% of which were for export. Also, Yamaha broke their two-stroke tradition by launching their first four-stroke motorcycle, the 650cc XSI vertical twin modeled on the famous Triumph twins.
Yamaha realized the long-term potential of the two-stroke engine and continued to develop two-stroke bikes, concentrating on engines 400cc and under.
In 1973, production topped one million (1,000,000) motorcycles per year for the first time, leaving Suzuki way behind at 642,000 and catching up on Honda’s 1,836,000. During the 1970’s, Yamaha technicians concentrated on development of four-stroke models that were designed to pass the ever-increasing exhaust emission laws and to be more economical than the two-strokes that had made Yamaha’s fortune.
In the 70’s, the RD twin cylinder sports models were a big success as well as the RD250LC and RD350LC water-cooled versions that replaced them in the eighties which were based on the famous TZ race bikes.
Production in 1980 was 2,214,000, with export sales of 1,383,000. In the 1980’s, the company introduced the compact XJ four cylinder models, ranging from 550cc to 1100cc. Not wanting to miss anything, the company also introduced the 750cc and 1000cc air-cooled V-twin models followed by the XZ550 water-cooled, mid-weight sports bike.
In years to come, Yamaha continued to grow and continues to this day. Diversity increased with the addition of products including snowmobiles, race kart engines, generators, scooters, ATVs, personal watercraft and more.
Genichi Kawakami set the stage for Yamaha Motor Company’s success with his vision and philosophies. Total honesty towards the customer and making products that hold their own enable the company to provide an improved lifestyle through exceptional quality, high performance products in thirty-three countries.