Although considered to be the best Japanese motorcycle of the 1950s, it was really borrowed from a 1949 German DKW design.

Torakusu Yamaha started building pianos in 1900, but he never saw a Yamaha motorcycles as he passed away in 1916, but his company Nippon Gakki Seizo Kabushiki Kaisha, which translated as “Japan Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company,” drifted into building aircraft parts during the Second World War.

After the war Nippon Gakki once again began making harmonicas and xylophones—thanks to post-war American aid. But in Nippon Gakki’s  workforce were experienced engineers who were experts at machining, casting and metalwork (from their WWII output). Nippon Gakki president Genichi Kawakami decided that the company should take advantage of this skilled labor and enter into the booming post-war need for cheap transportation. That meant motorcycles, but Kawakami thought that a lot of post-war Japanese motorcycles were little more than scooters and motorized bicycles. Kawakami wanted to make the best motorcycle in Japan, so he asked his engineers who made the best motorcycles in the world, and they told him, “the Europeans.” So, Kawakami sent the engineers to Europe find the best motorcycle possible—and they found it in Germany.

Don’t believe it? Here is  the 1949 DKW RT125 that Yamaha drew more than inspiration from. It wasn’t just Yamaha though — Harley Davidson and BSA also copied the patent-free RT125.

It was the 125cc, three-speed, two-stroke, 1949 DKW RT125. Best of all, because of Allied war reparations, Germany had to hand over many of its advanced products patent-free to anyone who wanted to make them—that included the DKW RT125. The RT125 would become the basis for Nippon Gakki’s first motorcycle.

The prototype Yamaha YA-1 started testing in 1953. It shared the basic DKW engine design, but, but Nippon Gakki added a four-speed gearbox and a geared primary drive instead of the DKW’s chain. Production began in 1955 and, in honor of Nippon Gakki’s founder, Torakusu Yamaha, the first actual production Yamaha motorcycle, the Yamaha YA-1, rolled out of the factory with a stylish chestnut red paint job. Japanese motorcycle enthusiasts named it the “Red Dragonfly.” By the summer of 1955 the Yamaha Motor Company was spun off from the music business of Nippon Gakki.

An unrestored Yamaha YA-1 two-stroke engine. It produced 5.5 horsepower in stock trim.

The 1955 Yamaha YA-1 had a telescopic fork and plunger rear suspension . In reverence to their musical instrument heritage, they added enamel badges on each side of the 2.5 gallon gas tank that were designed around crossed tuning forks (another nod to their musical instrument foundation).

The race version of the 1955 Yamaha A-1 didn’t have a lot of trick parts. The high rise bars, reverse megaphone exhaust, cannister-style air filter, trials universal tires, front number plate in place of the headlamp and a seat hump to keep the rider from sliding off the back are about it.

In 1955, there were over 100 motorcycle manufacturers fighting over the Japanese market. Yamaha was just entering the motorcycle business and faced the wrath of the already established marques of Lilac, Marusha, Tohatsu, Showa, Meguro, Miyata and Honda.

Race fans working their way up the course before the 1955 Mt. Fuji race.

To sent themselves apart from their competition. Yamaha decided to enter a team of its Red Dragonflys in the Mount Asama Volcano Race—a 12.5-mile race up the shifting volcanic ash roads of a mountain situated 120 miles north of Tokyo. The fledgling Yamaha team shocked the other manufacturers by winning the Asama Volcano Race. Instant sales success!

The chestnut red and creme colors made the Yamaha YA-1 stand out from all the other black motorcycles that the competition was building. It also got it the “Red Dragonfly” nickname.

Young Japanese riders flocked to buy the YA-1 “Red Dragonfly.” Red Dragonfly flew out of the showrooms. From a standing start Yamaha went on to build 2272 units in 1955, and when YA-1 production came to end in 1957, production had grown to 11,000. bikes.

At a time when motorcycle design was dominated by all-black machines, the YA-1’s simple form and chestnut red coloring attracted a catchy nickname, aided in no small part by theY A-1’s performance at the Mount Asama Volcano race and word of mouth made it the motorcycle to own in Japan in the mid-1950s.

That is Yamaha president Genichi Kawakami  on the right as he and his team of  technicians get ready to ride up the Mount Asama Volcano race course. Genichi Kawakami started working for Yamaha in 1937, where his father, Kaichi Kawakami, had been the president since 1927. Genichi succeeded his father and introduced  motorcycle production to Yamaha in 1955 . He didn’t retire until 1976.

The success of modern day Yamaha is a direct results of the business acumen and bold decisions made by a handful to men who had nothing more than a War Prize patent, a talented workforce and a desire to build the best motorcycle in Japan. They laid the groundworks of what Yamaha is today.

Photos from Yamaha Communications.


You might also like

Comments are closed.