In 1955 Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd was a relative latecomer in a market where as many as 150 motorcycle manufacturers competed for survival. New ones were starting up and others were folding at an incredible pace and few survived, but Yamaha knew that if they could build a product that was truly world-class there was a good chance of success. It is this spirit of challenge in these early years that forged the company into the global corporate group that Yamaha is today, in pursuit of the perpetual goal of being best in the world market.
It all began when then president of Nippon Gakki (now Yamaha Corporation), Genichi Kawakami, put to use some machining equipment used in the production of metal airline propellers to develop the first Yamaha motorcycle. It was the YA-1, a 125cc, 2-stroke, single-cylinder, street bike, nicknamed ‘Aka-tombo’, meaning red dragonfly after its maroon and ivory two-tone colour scheme, at a time when black was virtually the only colour used for motorcycles.
With a starting capital of 30 million yen, 274 employees and two single-story wooden factory buildings with a capacity to turn out 200 motorcycles a month, the fledgling company dared to confront the competition. The YA-1 went on sale in February 1955, and on July 1 of that same year the new motorcycle division was separated from Nippon Gakki to found the new company Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd.
The YA-1 immediately demonstrated its high performance by winning the third Mt. Fuji Ascent Race in July 1955, and then swept the top places in the ultra light class of the first Asama Highlands Race of the All Japan Endurance Championships. Despite its high price tag, due to the highest possible level of precision engineering and quality, over 11,000 units were produced before the YA-1 went out of production in 1957.
Although Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd were latecomers to the motorcycle industry, with their unbounded success on the racing scene and the introduction of the YC-1, a deluxe version of the YA-1, in 1956, they were able to prove the quality of their product, boosting the brand image of Yamaha and drawing the attention of motorcycle fans across Japan.
In 1957 Yamaha launched the YD-1, their first 250cc, two-cylinder engine, a completely original motorcycle, hauling the Japanese motorcycle industry from its mode of copying into the new realm of innovation. At the time of the YD-1 debut, the trend in Japanese 250cc models was towards a greater sense of weight and presence. But, with the appearance of the compact YD-1, with its sporty engine performance, that trend would be reversed. In 1958 Yamaha introduced the YD-2, a 250cc, twin cylinder, 2-stroke street bike, which had a bit more emphasis on utility use. It was the presence of the YD-2 at the other end of the spectrum that enabled Yamaha to pursue a purely sports model with the new YDS-1, a pedigree that today lies at the heart of the Yamaha spirit.
In a Japanese market dominated at the time by utility models, the YDS-1, launched in 1959, brought a new image of sports performance. The YDS-1 dynamic design caught the imagination of sports riders, who quickly nicknamed it ‘Japan’s first sports model’. Looking back, it’s clear that the effect of both the YD-1 and YDS-1 was tremendous in setting the Japanese motorcycle industry on a course that would define its future.
After the success of Yamaha’s earlier motorcycles the 1960’s saw the introduction of several new models including Yamaha’s YA-3, a 125cc, single cylinder, 2-stroke street bike; the YG-1 and AT90, both represented a great combination of utility and sports riding which became very popular. Yamaha’s YDS series had also evolved steadily from the YDS-1 introduced in 1959 through the YDS-2 of ’62 and then the YDS-3 in 1966.
In addition, Yamaha introduced their first moped, the MF-1, and their first scooter, the SC-1, in 1960. The MF-1, which would become the base for the Mate that was to follow later, featured an electric starter that helped establish the image of the moped as a machine that anyone could easily ride. The 1950s saw a large number of both foreign and domestic manufacturers enter the scooter market, creating a big scooter boom. Amidst this, the SC-1 opened the eyes of the scooterists of the day with its outstanding running performance and avant-garde form.
In the latter half of the 1960s the US economy was suffering from the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. The motorcycles that had once been the symbol of adventurous young men were not selling anymore. The motorcycle industry was in a slump and Yamaha was no exception, however, market research by Yamaha’s US sales company at the time, Yamaha International, concluded that there would be future growth in the off-road class. The new model that was developed as a consequence of these research results was the Yamaha DT-1.
Prior to the DT-1 the concept of an off-road motorcycle in Japan was simply a road sports machine modified for off-road riding. It was an era when the makers sold genuine kit parts to enable owners to convert their road sports machines into scrambler motorcycles but, both in terms of performance and cost, these machines did not offer riders an easy and affordable means to enjoy off-road riding. Japanese motorcycle manufacturers had begun to compete successfully in international road racing, but off-road racing was still dominated by the long-standing European makes.
When the Yamaha DT-1 debuted in 1968 it was hailed as the pioneer of a whole new genre of bike, winning an unprecedented following and starting a worldwide boom in trail bikes. At the same time as its launch in Japan, Yamaha enlisted the cooperation of its dealers nationwide in the holding of Yamaha Trail Schools, to teach as many users as possible the fun of off-road riding. As the number of off-road sports fans quickly grew, the success of Yamaha’s original aim of building a product that would make motor sports accessible to anyone was realised. In this way, the know-how and technology that went into the development of the DT-1 and the promotion of the Trail School activities and races can surely be seen as the birth of off-road motor sports in Japan.
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 enables the company that serves people in thirty-three countries, to provide an improved lifestyle through exceptional quality, high performance products.
Genichi Kawakami’s history with Yamaha was long and rich. He saw the new corporate headquarters in Cypress, California and the 25th Anniversary of Yamaha become a reality in 1980. He also watched bike number 20 million roll off the assembly line in 1982. Genichi passed away on May 25, 2002 yet his vision lives on through the people and products of Yamaha, throughout the world.