All About Yamaha

This essay discusses the history of Yamaha and talks about some of the company's most memorable motorcycles.

The Yamaha logo found on the tank of the company's hyper-sports bike, the R1, might look like a ninja throwing star to the young squids driving the bikes, but it actually harkens back to the company's origins in high-quality organs. The three tuning forks design suggests the workmanship and artistry of Japan's second-largest motorcycle manufacturer.

Torakusu Yamaha's pianos were so renowned that the company was awarded an Honorary Grand Prize at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Today the company has branched out and produces everything from electric keyboards to high performance motorcycles, but it continues to bring that old-world quality to all of its projects.

Yamaha's first motorcycle - the YA1 - was a single-cylinder two-stroke produced in 1954. Throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Yamaha gained a reputation for creating hellacious two-stroke motorcycles. The 1957 YD1 was the forerunner of the world-famous RD and RZ series of motorcycles that dominated racing in the 1970s and '80s.

Two-strokes had traditionally used a pre-mixed formula of gas and oil to lubricate the engine and had much room for human error, but Yamaha designed a system to supply a regular amount of oil to the engine cylinder. Yamaha's innovative oil injection system, called Autolube, was created in 1964. The Autolube ran off the throttle cable to inject an exact amount of oil into the engine at every revolution per minute. This system made the two-strokes of the day more reliable and user friendly.

In the early 1970s Honda and Kawasaki both released big inline four super bikes, and Yamaha was slow to respond. The CB750 and Z1 900 were blinding performers for their day, but many recognized the excellent back road handling of Yamaha's RD350/400, and it was not uncommon to see these larger, more powerful bikes trailing the little two-stroke through the curves.

In 1970 Yamaha released the XS-1. The XS was the company's first four-stroke motorcycle and it followed in the tradition of the classic British twins in the 1960s and '70s. Offering classic Yamaha reliability and modern performance, the XS would soldier along as the company's only big motorcycle until the three-cylinder XS750 was released in 1976.

The XS750 is a cult bike like many of the Yamahas during the 1970s. Although not as sporty as the machines being offered by other Japanese manufacturers, the mighty 750 was a bit of a revolution for the company, sporting shaft-drive and double overhead-cams. Although it couldn't compete in pure performance terms with the DOHC CB750, Z1, and GS of its day, it proved to be a comfortable and mostly reliable motorcycle.

Yamaha shifted into high gear in with the XS1100, a four-cylinder, shaft-drive behemoth, in 1977. At the time the XS was the largest bike produced by a Japanese manufacturer, and it trumped Suzuki's GS1000 in terms of power, but the bike was judged harshly by the industry press of the day for its flex-prone frame and excessive weight.

The 1980s harkened a new level of sophistication at Yamaha. Over the decade it would refine its inline four-cylinder power plant, create a liquid-cooling system for its two strokes, start development on a new series of lightweight frames, and push its way into the lucrative cruiser market.

Although the company had created a special version of its 650 XS bike, in 1981 the company released the Virago 750, a V-twin cruiser. The Virago was a shaft-driven cruiser with the muscle to back up its image and did not sacrifice performance for style. It used a single shock on the rear end - a revolution at the time - and later pumped the already torquey engine out to 920 ccs in 1982.

Yamaha released the FZ750 to meet the fierce competition among the 750-cc sport bike class. The FZ was the first production four-cylinder Japanese bike to use five valves per cylinder, and the bike steered well due to the fact that the engine was hung low in the frame and had class-leading braking due to its three-disk brake system. In 1987

Yamaha used its revolutionary EXUP exhaust system valve to provide higher horsepower output throughout the power band on its FZ series.

In 1985 Yamaha released the V-Max 1200, a cruiser / muscle bike sporting a V-4 engine with the sort of raw, intimidating power that had never been seen on a street bike. Mighty Max, as it is known to enthusiasts, is still in production today with only minor changes in the machine. With a quarter mile time faster than many sport bikes and a tremendous amount of torque at hand, the V-Max was an instate success for Yamaha.

Yamaha released its legendary sport-tourer the FJ1200 in 1985 as well. The engine had its roots in the XS1100, but the parameter frame was unique to the motorcycle, and the bike's smooth, torque-driven power plant won accolades throughout the motorcycle press. Nearly as fast as the V-Max, the FJ had the evasive quality often attributed to Italian and American motorcycles: Character.

The late 1980s and early 1990s marked the arrivals of the FZR1000 and FZR600, which both offered trick aluminum frames, and the innovative GTS 1000, which used a front swing-arm, and featured EFI, ABS, and a five-valve Genesis Engine. The company released the RZ350 - a water-cooled version of its famous two-stroke engine complete with catalytic converter to meet emission standards - in 1984 but the peaky power plant could no longer keep up with the sporting inline-four sport bikes of its day.

Yamaha had also flirted with a retro single-cylinder sport bike, called the SRX600, but sales proved sluggish and it was discontinued.

The company refined their products in the 1990s. In 1996 the Royal Star was released and the Virago line expanded to cover various different displacements. Wheel sizes were improved on the FZR series and the FJ1200, ABS was offered on more street bikes, and more engine choices became available.

In 1998 the company released a bombshell in the form on the YZF-R1. The R1 weighed less than previous 600-class motorcycles, yet produced much more power. With a wheelbase of 54.9 inches and almost perfect distribution of weight, the R1 quickly became the class-leading liter bike. In 1999 Yamaha released the R6, which shared many of the R1's components, but was even lighter. Both models feature the best four-piston motorcycle calipers ever put on a bike and razor-sharp suspension parts.

In many ways Yamaha had taken the formula that had worked so well on their two strokes - a good proportion of weight to power - and put it to use on their inline four motorcycles, creating bikes that not only were blindingly fast, but also handled and stopped well. It was very nearly a full circle for a company that had made its name crafting fine instruments.

© High Speed Ventures 2011