Although the first Yamaha motorcycle didn’t appear until the mid fifties, the company’s history dates back to 1887, when the father of the company, Torakusa Yamaha began producing reed organs. The Yamaha Motor Corporation sprang into life on July 1st 1955, and remains part of the Yamaha Group. It has grown to be the second largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, which is no mean feat for what was a fledgling company that arrived late in the motorcycle market.
Their first offering was the YA1, a 125cc, single cylinder two-stroke, was a copy of a German motorbike. The Japanese have often been accused of copying European models, but let’s not forget that BSA also used this very same design to produce their Bantam. This machine, fondly known as the Red Dragonfly, laid the foundation of Yamaha’s reputation for reliability, and success on the race track contributed to the bike’s popularity.
The twin cylinder YD, the first machine designed by Yamaha, was introduced in 1957. A win a Mount Asama boosted sales, but at less than 16,000 models a year output was still way behind Honda and Suzuki. However, the company flourished during the following years, and in 1959 Yamaha were the first Japanese company to offer a sports model, the twin cylinder YDS1, complete with five speed gearbox. A kit was available which allowed the owner to adapt the bike for racing, both on and off road.
By 1960 the company’s output had increased by a massive 600%, but a period of recession forced Japanese companies to look further afield to sell their products, and in 1961 Yamaha entered a team in the European Grand Prix. In the early sixties, America’s economy was on the rise and Yamaha managed to sell 12,000 motorcycles in the States. In 1963 the figure was 36,000 rising to 87,000 in 1964. Yamaha’s first factory outside Japan was opened in Siam (present day Thailand) in 1966, in order to supply Southeast Asia. By 1967, with 406,000 bikes built, production had overtaken that of Suzuki. Racing was important to Yamaha, so much so that in 1969 they constructed a full size race track near to their Iwata factory.
In 1970, Yamaha’s catalogue carried 20 models, with a range from 50cc to 350cc. Production had reached 574,000 units per year, the majority of which went to overseas markets. That year also saw the introduction of the first four-stroke machine, in the shape of the 650cc XSI, although two-stroke engines were were still favoured for bikes below 400cc.
By 1973, Yamaha were producing over a million bikes annually, leaving Suzuki firmly in their wake. That year, Honda turned out 1,836,000 machines. During the seventies, Yamaha’s RD twin cylinder sports bikes were proving a big hit and the company had once again backed a winner. As the eighties arrived, over two million bikes were passing through the factory gates. During this period, the four cylinder XJ’s were developed with displacements ranging from 550cc to 1100cc.
One of Yamaha’s most successful projects was the Virago, which was introduced as a 750cc, but 500cc and 920cc models were soon available. This bike was the first cruiser to come out of Japan, and proved to be immensely successful, so successful in fact, that Harley Davidson was running scared. They pressed for a tariff on imported motorcycles over 750cc, so Yamaha had to replace their 750cc Virago with the 699cc version, but at the same time, the 920cc grew to 1000cc. It eventually became the 1100cc. One of the most loved versions of the Virago is the XV535; their reliability and easy handling has delighted riders worldwide. The larger Virago’s were replaced by the V-Star and Road Star models and the last model to carry the Virago name was the 2007, 250cc version.
It’s understandable how Yamaha have accrued such a dedicated following. Over the years, their bikes have married cutting edge technology with reliability, which is no mean feat. Their designs have earned admiration from far and wide, and continue to do so today.