Historic Motorcycle Brands
Yamaha is a Japanese manufacturer of motorcycles, outboard motors and other motorized products. The company was established in 1955 by Genichi Kawakami and began production of its first motorcycle, the YA-1, two-stroke,125cc model, in 1955.
1955 Yamaha YA-1 – Derek A
The 1955 single cylinder YA-1 was a copy of the German DKW RT 125 and was a racing success from the beginning, winning not only the 125cc class in the Mt. Fuji Ascent, but also taking first, second and third place in the All Japan Autobike Endurance Road Race that same year.
This early success in racing set the tone for Yamaha, which began competing internationally in 1956, at the Catalina Grand Prix, where the YA-1 placed sixth.
1957 Yamaha YD-1
In 1957 came the YA-2 125cc two-stroke, with significantly improved frame and suspension. The YD-1 of 1957 was a 250cc, two-stroke, twin cylinder version of the YA-2, but with a larger and more powerful motor.
A performance YDS-1 version had a double down-tube, cradle frame and offered the first five-speed transmission in a Japanese motorcycle.
1959 Yamaha YDS-1
By 1963 Yamaha’s dedication to both the two-stroke engine and racing paid off with their first victory in international competition, at the Belgium GP, where they won the 250cc race.
Success in sales was impressive, and Yamaha began setting up international subsidiaries.
In 1965 came a 305cc, two-stroke twin that featured a separate oil supply which directly injected oil into the petrol, prior to combustion. This did away with the need for riders to pre-mix oil into petrol when filling the tank.
In 1967, a larger displacement, 350cc, two-stroke R-1 model was added to the range.
In 1968, Yamaha launched its first four-stroke motorcycle, the XS-1 (XS650). This 650cc, four-stroke twin was a larger and more powerful machine that equaled the displacement and performance of the popular British Triumph Bonneville and BSA Gold Star.
Yamaha XS650 – Rikita
However, Yamaha continued with its two-stroke bikes and four-stroke twins at a time that other Japanese manufacturers were increasingly moving to four-cylinder, four-stroke machines – led by Honda in 1969, with the legendary CB-750.
In the early 1970s, Yamaha added reed-valve induction to its previously piston-ported designs to produce the twin-cylinder RD and single-cylinder RS families, in a number of cylinder capacities. Incidentally, ‘R appears to have indicated reed-valved, ‘D’ the twin (double) cylinder models and ’S’ the single-cylinder models.
Yamaha RD350 – Alf van Beem
The RD family developed through the 1970s and 1980s, gaining water-cooling, YPVS and other newer technology.
The RS family was produced for many years, without losing its resemblance to its progenitors.
Yamaha also manufactured small FS1, V-50 and V-80 bikes, with stamped steel frames and rotary disc-valved motors.
Its Enduro trail bike was replaced by DT models.
Not until 1976 did Yamaha produce a multi-cylinder four-stroke: the XS-750, 750cc, triple-cylinder machine with shaft final drive. It grew to 850cc later.
Yamaha’s first four-cylinder model, the XS-1100, followed in 1978, again with shaft drive. Despite being heavier and more touring-oriented than its rivals, it achieved victories in endurance racing.
1981 Yamaha XS Eleven Special – Malber
The 1970s also saw some of Yamaha’s first dedicated off-road bikes for off-road racing and recreation. Yamaha was an early innovator in dirt-bike technology and introduced the first single-shock rear suspension, the trademarked ‘Monoshock’ of 1973.
It appeared in production on the 1974 Yamaha YZ-250, a model which is headed for 50 years of production, making it Yamaha’s longest continuous model.
Yamaha’s racing efforts throughout the 1960s and 1970s had increasing success; capped by the XT500 winning the first Paris-Dakar Rally in 1979.
1978 Yamaha XT500 – Reinhard Wolf
By 1980, a combination of consumer preference and environmental regulation made four-strokes increasingly mandatory, but Yamaha continued to refine and sell street-bike two-strokes into the 1980s.
These bikes were performance oriented, water-cooled, twin cylinder machines, designed to achieve excellent performance, by taking advantage of the lower weight of two-stroke engines.
1985 Yamaha RZ350 – Mark Romanoff
The RZ-250 of 1980 kicked off this series and the RZ-350, the largest displacement model, was a ‘pocket-rocket’ that continued to be sold in some countries into the early 1990s.
Throughout the 1980s the motorcycle industry went from building a few basic but versatile models designed to work well in many roles, to offering many more specialised machines, designed to excel in particular niches: racing and performance street riding, touring, motocross racing, enduro, recreational off-road riding and cruising.
Yamaha Virago XV750 – Sorin Lingureanu
Yamaha’s vocational models included the XV750 of 1981 that featured an air-cooled, V-twin, four-stroke engine and cruiser styling. By the end of the 1980s Yamaha had many cruiser-styled bikes in a variety of displacements and engine configurations.
The RZ500 was one of the first ‘repli-racers’: a near copy of Kenny Roberts’ competition GP bike, it featured a liquid-cooled, two-stroke motor of 500cc displacement in a V4 configuration, along with a perimeter frame and full fairing. (Scary in the rain, Allan Whiting remembers.)
A more popular and practical high-performance model for the street was introduced in 1985: the FZ750, 750cc, four-stroke, in-line four-cylinder model. It was the first motorcycle with a five-valve cylinder head that was a feature Yamaha became well known for. It also featured a cylinder block canted forward at 45 degrees and a box-section steel perimeter frame. Production of the FZ continued until 1991.
1985 Yamaha FZ750 – Rainmaker47
Another performance-oriented compact bike was the Yamaha RX-Z, introduced in 1985 as a two-stroke, naked sport bike, related to the RX-135 and RD-135.
In 1998, Yamaha marketed a 1000cc, four-cylinder road bike called the YZF ‘R1’, with a new style of gearbox design which shortened the overall length of the motor/gearbox case, to allow a more compact unit. This design allowed the motor to be moved further forward, to improve handling in a short wheel-based frame.
1998 Yamaha YZF-R1 – Rainmaker47
In 1995, Yamaha announced the creation of Star Motorcycles, a new brand name for its cruiser series of motorcycles in the American market.
In motorcycle racing Yamaha has won 40 world championships, including eight in MotoGP; 10 in the preceding 500cc, two-stroke class and one in World Superbike.
Valentino Rossi 2005 Donington Park – Oz
In addition, Yamaha has recorded 208 victories at the Isle of Man TT and heads the list of victories at the Sidecar TT with 40. Past Yamaha riders include: Jarno Saarinen, Giacomo Agostini, Bob Hannah, Heikki Mikkola, Bruce Anstey, Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Jeremy McGrath, Stefan Merriman, Dave Molyneux, Ian Hutchinson, Phil Read, Chad Reed, Ben Spies, Jorge Lorenzo and nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi.
Yamaha’s first Motocross competition four-stroke bike, the YZ400F, won the 1998 USA outdoor national Championship with factory rider Doug Henry. The Yamaha YZ450F won the AMA Supercross Championship two years in a row, in 2008 with Chad Reed, and 2009 James Stewart.