Yamaha Motor Company is about to celebrate 65 years in the motorcycle business! The company was founded by Genichi Kawakami, the eldest son of Kaichi Kawakami, who was himself the third-generation president of what is now the Yamaha Corporation. At the time, that company was called Nippon Gakki, and it’s what became the massive electronics and musical instrument company known worldwide today. Since we’re not PlayApart, we’ll tell you about Yamaha's motorcycles instead of pianos and saxophones.
Post WWII, Genichi was figuring out what kind of company he wanted to build. He’d risen up through the ranks of Nippon Gakki, even becoming president at age 38. One factory had a bunch of propeller-building machinery that was just sitting idle, so Kawakami wanted to find a good way to use it to the company’s advantage.
Like any reasonable person, he did a bunch of research before figuring out what to make. Sewing machines? Useful, but no. Scooters? Still not quite right at the time, although that did eventually enter the picture years later. Motorcycles? Ah, yes. There was the potential they wanted. So, Kawakami and several of his staff paid visits to American and German motorcycle factories in 1953 and 1954.
Naturally, Kawakami insisted that if they were going to come relatively late to the game, they needed to be the best. In 1954, they started working on the YA-1, their very first 125cc air-cooled, two-stroke, single-cylinder bike. That bike, incidentally, bore an awfully coincidental resemblance to the DKW RT125, but it’s not DKW that’s having a birthday this year. Anyway, by January 1955, the new Hamakita Factory was built to mass-produce the YA-1, and by July 1, 1955, Yamaha Motor Company was founded.
Gallery: Yamaha Motor Company 65th Anniversary
Not every motorcycle company can say it went out and won races a few days after being founded, but in Yamaha’s case, that’s exactly what happened. Wanting to quickly build its reputation, the nascent Team Blue took the YA-1 and entered it into the third-ever Mt. Fuji Ascent race, as well as the first-ever Asama Highlands race. They won both races with their first-ever machine.
Just three years later, in May, 1958, Yamaha beat Team Red to the punch when it became the first Japanese bike maker to enter international competition at the Catalina Grand Prix, about which they had the foresight to make a video even way back then. Meanwhile, Honda’s fledgling IOMTT effort wouldn’t take place until later that same year. Soichiro was decidedly unhappy about this young upstart stealing his glory, but that’s a story for another time.
Yamaha went on to finish in sixth place in a race that saw just 11 bikes complete the event. Afterward, Yamaha’s racing team returned to Japan, but left the bikes in California to do promotional events and build Yamaha’s fledgling reputation in the U.S. Now, in 2020, we can see how that all turned out. Cheers to a long and happy life, Yamaha Motor Company.