It is 1954 in the midst of another sweltering Japanese summer. If you depart on the 7:36 morning train from Tokyo, you pass the front of Mt. Fuji some three hours later and are treated to a spectacular view of the iconic peak. Another two and a half hours of the train car’s gentle rocking and clickety-clack soundtrack will have you pulling into Hamamatsu Station in Shizuoka Prefecture at around 1:00 in the afternoon. For the students, the long trip to distant Hamamatsu made it quite an occasion, feeling like a proper journey west.
Inside their bags are freshly earned motorcycle licenses. For the past month or so, they have thrown themselves into reading motorcycle publications and visiting motorcycle shops to meet and chat with real enthusiasts, driven by a thirst for knowledge. Like heating steel in preparation for forging a sword into its final form, the students did all they could to prepare to absorb as much information as possible during their brief visit to Hamamatsu.
Among these students from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (today’s Tokyo University of the Arts) were those who called themselves the “Group of Koike” or “GK” for short. They were an enthusiastic study group of three fifth-year seniors and two others in their fourth year, all passionately exploring ways to express the ideas and concepts for industrial design in Japan as advocated by their mentor, Professor Iwataro Koike.
Shortly before the students’ final summer vacation began, Professor Koike told them, “We’ve received a request to design a motorcycle and I want you to think long and hard and decide if you’re up to the task.” The previous year, the group’s design for an upright piano won out in a competition sponsored by Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd. (today’s Yamaha Corporation) and had already been transformed into an actual product. Although they were still technically students, their design work had already been tested and proven in the real world.
This was to be Yamaha’s first motorcycle and the group had come to Hamamatsu to help them start on its design. They were given a room to work in in the corner of the main factory and their roughly one-week stay began.
However, most of their time there was said to have been wasted away in a state of constant worry. Despite all the time they spent, the motorcycle they were hoping to create—and its design drawings—was simply not emerging from their minds. That being the case, they decided to use their time instead to better understand what the best motorcycles in the world were like, and requested test rides on the imported motorcycle Yamaha had in its possession. However, the answer was blunt: “There is absolutely no way we’re going to let a bunch of students with no riding experience and barely fresh motorcycle licenses go out on the irreplaceable machine we’re using to learn from.” Instead, they were only allowed to test-ride a Japanese domestic model.
“We were so disappointed that we didn’t even feel like making sketches. But after repeated test rides on that domestic model, we got a faint but general idea of what a motorcycle should be like,” wrote one of the students years later. They now had plenty of ideas to bounce off each other and it was during those discussions that they came to the conclusion that while the basic construction of the DKW RT125 reference machine was good, they found the ideas behind its form to be somewhat orthodox and old-fashioned. “Let’s go for a more modern design and finish!” It was around this conceptual framework that ideas for the new motorcycle’s design began to coalesce.
With just two days left before the deadline for presenting their design, the group finally received the reference model and the blueprints for parts. There was no time to waste; they all assembled in their dormitory and dove into their work. They split up sketch duties, making each person responsible for a certain component of the machine. They all began drawing furiously, from the front and rear fenders, chain case, side covers and luggage rack to the lights, knee grips, handlebar grips, fuel cap, and ignition key.
No one got a wink of sleep on the last day, for they spent every waking moment drawing. After working until the very last minute, they went to the presentation meeting and delivered full-size profile sketches in color, exterior quarter views, part diagrams, and their clay models. At the time, the mark of a modern avant-garde design was to eliminate the use of decorative parts to the greatest extent possible in order to highlight the functional beauty of the various parts themselves. The one exception they made was for the tuning fork ornament mounted on the front fender.
When asked about the origins of the ornament’s design, a designer who carried on the torch lit by the Group of Koike said, “I don’t know the exact details, but GK back then was heavily influenced by the modernist designs of the German Bauhaus art school and the American Streamline Moderne style. They’d probably seen and admired the elegant hood ornaments of American cars of the time.”
When their design was presented at the meeting, no checks were made regarding possible technical considerations to make, potential issues with production and manufacturing, and things of that nature. The group simply made a thorough enough explanation and handed over the sketches and clay models. The next day, the exhausted students boarded the train and headed back to Tokyo.
For some time after returning, there had been no news or feedback from Yamaha. Wondering if their design had been discarded in the end, the students’ summer came to a close with their unease still very much in place. The year prior when they had designed the upright piano, there had been many discussions and modifications made toward turning it into a feasible product and those memories only weighted the sense of uncertainty among the young designers.
It was already well into autumn when word finally came from Hamamatsu and they once again boarded the train from Tokyo. “The autumn sky that day was so high and flush with blue that it felt like you could drown in it,” one of them recalled. When they arrived, they were taken to the newly constructed Komatsu Factory (today’s Hamakita Factory). That was where the YA-1 would be produced and Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. founded a year later.
And there, sitting on the lawn in front of the factory, was the YA-1 in all its resplendent glory. As one of the students later recalled that emotional moment, “We were astonished to see a completed YA-1 sitting right there before us.” Their design had been carried out to perfection, without a single change or alteration. The full-size sketch they had drawn out on the floor of their dormitory had been faithfully brought to life in three dimensions and was now there patiently awaiting their arrival. Even the small details had been beautifully finished and the designers could only guess at the kinds of trials and the amount of effort the engineers had expended to so authentically reproduce the passion they had poured into their drawings.
Nested on the maroon front fender was the elegantly crafted brass ornament, proudly sparkling in the sunlight.