Although the Japanese Big Four – Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha – are renowned globally for their reliable, sporty and well-engineered motorcycles, none of these companies started off as a motorcycle manufacturer. They turned to production of these vehicles due to the industry limitations imposed on the Japanese Empire after losing WWII and to meet the transportation needs of the Japanese people who lived in an occupied, war-torn country.
In the following weeks Mexico Automotive Review will present the success stories of the Japanese Big Four and the strategies they used to overcome their limitations and thrive in the global motorcycle market.
Shozo Kawasaki started the Kawasaki Tsukiji Shipyard in 1878 to build Western-like ships, as the Japanese vessels of that time were less spacious and stable, slower and more prone to sinking at sea during typhoons. Over the years, Kawasaki engaged in the production of submarines, civil and military aircraft, buses, warships and locomotives. After the Postdam Declaration banned any industry that could enable Japan to rearm, Kawasaki was forced to explore new industries and started producing motorcycles and motorcycle engines in 1953. In that year, the Kawasaki Machine Industries introduced the KE-1 motorcycle engine and Kawasaki’s subsidiary Meihatsu Industries was created to oversee the production and distribution of Kawasaki’s first scooter equipped with the KE-1. Commercialization of this first vehicle failed, however, due to the company’s lack of a domestic sales network.
After merging Kawasaki Aircraft and Kawasaki Machine Industries, Kawasaki started producing motorcycles sold under the Meihatsu brand. The company began mass production of the KB-5 motorcycle engine and by 1955 the KB-5A motor started carrying the stamped Kawasaki logo on its side cover. In 1960, Kawasaki finished construction of a factory dedicated solely to the production of motorcycles and the company started selling the first motorcycle under the Kawasaki brand: Kawasaki 125 New Ace.
In 1966, the company exported the 650cc W1 bike to the US and its success gained Kawasaki international recognition as a big-motored motorcycle manufacturer. The company started producing more high-cylindered bikes destined for the Japanese and foreign markets and throughout the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, the company implemented new technologies such as belt-drives, oil-based cooling and fuel injection systems.
By 1984, Kawasaki introduced its first “Ninja” motorcycle: GPz900R, the fastest production bike at the time. Ninja motorcycles evolved to become the company’s most popular and iconic sport bikes and a reference in motorcycle automotive championships. Nowadays, Kawasaki manufactures and sells motorcycles in the sport, supersport, cruiser, dual-sport, cross, sport touring and naked segments. According to its 2017 Annual Report, Kawasaki’s Motorcycle & Engine division accounts for 20.6 percent of the company’s net sales of US$13.1 billion.