How can a company that makes musical instruments evolve to produce one of the fastest motorcycles on the planet? The success story of Yamaha Motor Company is presented in this installment of Mexico Automotive Review’s “Changing the Air for the Road” series on the Japanese Big Four.
Yamaha Motor Company is renowned for building some of the fastest and most reliable motorcycles on the planet. The company, however, started when Torakusu Yamaha fixed an organ in late 19th century Japan.
As it first opened itself to trade during the Meiji period, Japan underwent a rapid transition from a rural to an industrial economy. Albeit through unequal treaties, commercial exchanges with the West increased and technology including anything from rifles to watches and pianos started entering Japan from the US, the UK and the Netherlands.
Captivated by Western science and technology, the young Torakusu Yamaha learned the trade of watchmaking. After successfully repairing an organ, Yamaha recognized the business potential of building and repairing Western musical instruments and eventually founded Nippon Gakki in 1897. This company is the forebearer of both Yamaha Corporation and Yamaha Motor Company. As WW1 boosted the Japanese industry, Nippon Gakki tagged along and increased its production.
After Yamaha’s death in 1916 and a troubled decade in the 1930s, Nippon Gakki started building propellers for the Zero fighter planes, fuel tanks and wing parts as WW2 began. The company was aided by Soichiro Honda (founder of Honda Motor Corporation) in the implementation of an automatic machine that reduced the production time of a propeller from one week to 15 minutes. During the war, several Nippon Gakki factories would be destroyed by bombing raids and the company halted the production of musical instruments completely after the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945.
It would take a couple of years for Nippon Gakki to resume production of musical instruments and a decade for the first Yamaha motorcycle to be launched. Seeing the idle machining equipment that was once used to make aircraft propellers, Genichi Kawakami (then president of Nippon Gakki) started thinking of a new business area for the company to expand into. He considered the production of sewing machines, auto parts, scooters, three-wheeled vehicles and motorcycles. Kawakami decided to enter the motorcycle industry, even though Yamaha would be a latecomer to the market.
After adapting the propeller production lines, Yamaha Motor Company was created and the first YA-1 motorcycles entered the road in 1955. These motorcycles were powered by a 125cc, two-stroke, air-cooled engine and won top positions in the most important bike races in Japan at the time: Mount Fuji Ascent and Asama Highlands.
Having received wide acceptance of its first model in the Japanese market and achieving production levels of 200 motorcycles a month, it would only take a year for Yamaha Motor Company to produce its second motorcycle: the YC1. This model was equipped with a 175cc, two-stroke engine that used only one cylinder. In 1957, the company would produce YD1, Yamaha’s first medium-displacement bike. This motorcycle had a 250cc, two-stroke engine that enabled the company to participate in its first Grand Prix in the US.
In 1958, Yamaha de México was founded as a local branch for the sale of music instruments and for the assembly and sale of Yamaha motorcycles in the center of Mexico City. This assembly plant would eventually achieve a production time of 30 minutes per motorcycle. In the 1970s, Yamaha de México would achieve sales of up to 170 motorcycles per month as a transport modernization wave hit the private sector. Years later, the motorcycle would separate into an independent branch with the Yamaha Motor de México name.
In 1960, Yamaha would start selling its motorcycles in the US and producing boats and marine engines. Yamaha was the first motorcycle maker to introduce an auto-lubrication (AutoLube) system that eliminated the need to mix oil and gasoline in the bike’s tank, reduced oil consumption and substantially cutting exhaust fumes.
It would take a decade since the creation of the first motorcycle for Yamaha Motor Company to win a World GP and shortly afterward the company would team up with Toyota to produce the Toyota 2000GT sportscar. In 1968, the company entered the double-purpose segment by introducing the 250DT1 bike. This model was the first Yamaha motorcycle designed to work on- and off-road. As motocross gained popularity, so did the double-purpose and trail segments and the sales of 250DT1 in the US rocketed.
The YZF-R1 (Yamaha’s most successful model in the superbike segment), would see the light of day in 1998. This motorcycle is among the five fastest commercial motorcycles in the world with a top speed of 297km/h. YZF-R1 is equipped with a 1000cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled, four-cylinder engine. Its track version, YZR-M1 (popularized by Yamaha MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi) has a top speed of 350km/h and has won several international builder awards.
A long time has passed since Yamaha opened his musical instrument repair shop or since Kawakami repurposed aircraft propeller production lines to manufacture two-wheel vehicles. Yamaha Motor Company has further diversified its areas of business to offer unmanned helicopters, boat engines, ATVs, watercraft, snowmobiles, generators, lawnmowers, electric wheelchairs, wind turbines and industrial robots. The company’s guiding principles of acting with speed, the spirit of challenge and persistence coupled with Yamaha’s Kando philosophy has enabled it to have positively impacted the global motorcycle market.
Check out our previous installments of the “Changing the Air for the Road” series. A military aircraft company producing motorcycles? Kawasaki. From piston rings to two- and four-wheel vehicles: Honda. Also, don’t forget to take a look at Mexico Automotive Review’s Top-five car commercials of 2017.