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What the Japanese Bayberry Trees Have Seen Stories from the Early Years of Yamaha Motor

Introducing the stories behind Yamaha Motor's technologies.

15The Decision is Made

On April 26, 1954, President Kawakami called an important meeting for division heads and above where he outlined for us his vision of the company’s future.

“Thanks to all of your efforts, our pianos and organs are selling well. In order to ensure the future of Nippon Gakki, we need to alter personnel distribution to free some hands so we can come up with some new products. Opening our branch in Tokyo was an expensive undertaking but it’s already showing very good results. My plans for the future are as follows: One, we become experts at building motorcycles; two, we export wind instruments; and three, we produce electric products.

“Of these three, we’ve already decided to do motorcycles so I want to put everything we have into it. However, this doesn’t at all mean that we’ll scale down our production of musical instruments. On the contrary, I want increase their production in stages. I welcome any constructive opinions or frank objections regarding this policy.” It was a powerful presentation that set forth a clear vision for the company’s future.

The engineers in front of the first prototype

We also got permission at this meeting to purchase a honing machine since the lead time for its delivery was a whopping six months. The president also designated who would continue to work on musical instruments and those who would oversee motorcycle production. Technology Division General Manager Takai would lead the motorcycle team together with Nemoto-san, Ito-san, Takeuchi-san, Takahata-san and myself.

After much discussion, President Kawakami said, “Prior to starting production, I think we have no alternative but to take the Hercules as an example. But the market is very weak at the moment, so we can’t produce something mediocre; our first machine has to be superior enough to push the competition out of the market. Still, we can’t afford to fail right from the start, so I don’t want you to rush anything. Find talented workers and train them well so that they can manage the business in the future, and put together a solid team of highly motivated people. Ultimately, I want to form a separate company to build motorcycles.”

The president had left no doubt in our minds what he wanted done, and the project gradually began to take shape.

But at the Tokyo Motor Show held that May, one of the models on display was another manufacturer’s copy of the 150cc Hercules—we were right back to square one.

16 Japan’s Motorcycle Industry in the Early Fifties

Before long, rumors began circulating around Hamamatsu, generally along the lines of, “Apparently, Nippon Gakki’s going to start producing motorcycles at a factory in Komatsu. Why in the world would they want to start doing motorcycles of all things at a time like this? Strange company...” It seems like no matter what era, there are always people criticizing anything and everything.

But while that was going on outside the company gate, we were having heated discussions about more straightforward concerns: What price should we set? What about production scale? What displacement should the engine be? What’s the competition we’re up against? These and many other questions remained unanswered for some time.

On May 18th, I met Professor Iwataro Koike of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (currently the Tokyo University of the Arts) for the first time. We wanted to get his opinion on soliciting preliminary designs from the public. This was the start a long and productive relationship between Yamaha and the GK Design Group. Six of professor Koike’s pupils would go on to design Yamaha motorcycles, but I’ll cover that in a later entry.

There were many small-volume manufacturers fiercely competing back then, but, we decided on a monthly production goal of 500 machines for the foreseeable future and a maximum production capacity for 2,000. We also decided to dispose of any excessive machinery not needed for production. Although we still hadn’t decided what model to make, we moved forward with creating a cylinder design blueprint and finished it on May 21st.

It was around this time that Honda finished building and started operations at their new, state-of-the-art Hamamatsu production facility in the town of Aoi.

17Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In mid-June, after disassembling and inspecting a Sachs engine we had a good idea of what direction to take with our design. As we had originally decided, our first choice was the 150cc Sachs engine used in the Hercules, followed by the 250cc DKW and the 125cc DKW.

It was very difficult to decide on which parts to manufacture in-house and which to purchase from outside suppliers. Fortunately, we had the procurement network and know-how of Nippon Gakki to rely on and things gradually became easier.

The main design team was reinforced by Naito-san (currently a director at Showa), Kaneko-san and Toyama-san (currently a director at Hamakita Industry), and further strengthened with newly hired veterans Yasukawa-san (currently a director at Sanshin Industries) and Murakami-san.

A secret workshop was set up under the eaves on the west side of the tool factory. That was where we worked on the design; security was tight and only those directly involved in the project were allowed entry.

There was still some interest in producing scooters. According to some of the production figures for May from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Fuji Heavy Industries rolled off 840 Rabbit scooters, Mitsubishi made 1,572 Silver Pigeons, and Honda produced 1,049 Junos.

On June 23rd, the 125cc DKW we had purchased for study arrived. After inspecting its every nook and cranny, we saw that it was a very attractive machine and some people began suggesting we use it as a model for our own motorcycle.

Two days later on the 25th, it was decided that our first goal would be the 125cc DKW, and intense discussions commenced immediately regarding marketing and financing.

The next day, we invited Kiyoshi Tomizuka, an engineering professor and expert on 2-stroke engines, to talk to us about various technical issues regarding motorcycles. Our question and answer sessions with the professor were very instructive. What was particularly funny in hindsight was the professor’s estimate that, if Nippon Gakki decided to build motorcycles, it would probably be two years before production could start—we managed somehow to begin production just eight months later.

But it was at this meeting that President Kawakami said, “To work carefully is to work quickly.” Those words inspired us to start production in such a short time.

The next day on the 27th, we invited motorcycle journalist and test rider Heikichi Ito to the factory and had a very active brainstorming session about what a motorcycle should be. We had Ito-san ride both the 125cc DKW and the 150cc Hercules to compare them, and I remember him rating the DKW as the better of the two. However, he was somewhat dissatisfied with the DKW having just a 3-speed gearbox.

We were a bunch of motorcycle novices that had only just gotten started, so these two days spent absorbing mountains of technical knowledge had been incredibly enlightening and instructive.

If we could master the casting and machining of a cylinder and its complex port shapes, the 2-stroke engine’s advantages of a simpler engine construction, higher performance and lower costs compared to a 4-stroke of equal displacement eventually—and completely—won the engineering team over.

18The Model is Chosen

After overcoming hardship after hardship, and much repeated trial and error to select a motorcycle to model ours on, the day for a final decision came and we chose the 125cc DKW. We had initially received an unofficial command on the morning of June 28th to first build a 250 and then the DKW, but that afternoon, the president revised the order and made the final decision that the 125cc DKW was the model we would use.

There was no more doubt after that; the path leading to the birth of the first Yamaha motorcycle had been decided. All that was left was to focus on using the DKW as a model for our work. As the expression jukuryo dankou (being deliberate in council and decisive in action) goes, the time for discussion was over—it was time to go to work!

It wasn’t until the real work started that we later realized how difficult making that final decision must have been for the president, and the fact that it was such a spot-on decision in the end simply won my admiration.

Recent photo of the author

It was also on this day that we got the go-ahead to start constructing what was then called the Komatsu Factory, and we got started on the floorplans.

On July 3rd, the first meeting was held for the project’s key personnel and Technology Division head Takai gave a passionate talk about the startup of this new business venture: “I want to make something different from Honda. We always have to set our goals high, establish a corporate spirit, and aim to put the motorcycles we make not only on the streets of Japan, but eventually, overseas as well.”

This was the turning point when our company began moving in a new direction, and we hit the ground running as we set to work on a range of tasks.

Two days later on July 5th, we started casting cylinders at Nippon Gakki’s casting factory. Our first try was a complete failure, with the cooling fins a broken mess. But on the second try, the cylinder came out much better, much to everyone’s relief.

Under the guidance of Nemoto-san (currently a Managing Executive Officer), the design of the new machine was also progressing well. The transmission was changed to a 4-speed, and we set the deadline for the engine design on July 20th, and on the 30th for the chassis.

On July 12th, Kenji Ekuan (currently the president of the GK Group), Shinji Iwasaki (currently the vice president of the GK Group), Kenichi Shibata (currently at the Kyoto Design Center), Yasushi Sone (currently the assistant manager of the GK Shop), and Hiroshi Sakasai (also currently at the Kyoto Design Center)—all professor Koike’s students—came with the professor to the company and began design work on Yamaha’s iteration of the 125cc DKW.

This was a completely new field for them, but they were all completely engrossed in the task at hand and came up with unique ideas one after another. Their work on the bike would later be very highly regarded as a breakthrough in the field of industrial design. By the way, this group of talented young designers would eventually go on to establish the GK Industrial Design Research Center.

It was also in mid-July that the company purchased additional machines,

- Staehely hobbing machine
- Supfina Superfinish lathe
- Liquid honing machine
- Multi-spindle lathe × 4
- Hitachi centerless grinder

19The First Prototype

The first 250cc cylinder was completed at the company’s iron casting factory on July 27th. It was then installed on the DKW engine and test run. We had entrusted the casting of the prototype 125cc cylinder to an outside supplier.

Our plates were full day after day as we worked to resolve a myriad of issues throughout this period, like which parts to make in-house and which to order, process planning and cost issues. And then there were the aspects interrelated with those, like model sales prices, the profit margins for dealers, the dealer network, arrangements for factory machinery and preparation of jigs and tools.

Also, when trying to make progress with the prototype parts, just deciding the engineering tolerances posed an enormous challenge for those new to such an endeavor.
Design work was also moving forward; on August 11th, it was decided to paint the bike in “Yamaha Maroon,” which later led to the bike’s Aka-tombo (“Red Dragonfly”) nickname, to paint the sides of the fuel tank in ivory white and to have the Tuning Fork Mark emblem done in cloisonné.

Because we were still unskilled in heat-treating, many of the parts were only completed after much trial and error.

The engine itself was scheduled for completion at the end of August. It was thanks to the steadfast efforts of the engineers machining the prototype parts—an incredibly arduous task—and everybody else involved that engine assembly began on August 28th.

The next day, the engineers labored through the day and night, and we were finally able to hear the engine fire up for the first time on the morning of the 30th. But the clutch wasn’t working and there were a bunch of other mechanical issues we had to deal with. We ended up spending two days working to fix them all while getting the chassis prepared at the same time. But it was starting to look like a motorcycle! After a slew of problem-solving rebuilds and re-adjustments, the prototype was finally completed at 10 o’clock that night.

Remarkably, only a little more than two months had elapsed since the final decision was made to model our prototype after the 125cc DKW. The engineers were ecstatic with having fulfilled their goal in such a short time and gazed at the completed prototype that would become a new Yamaha product like mothers at a newborn child, their eyes bloodshot with fatigue and their hearts filled with pride. These men had challenged the unknown and opened the door to a new world; we had witnessed an incredibly emotional moment at the Nippon Gakki tool factory on August 31, 1954—one of the hottest days of the year.

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