Japanese motorcycles won the West in a unique way – by putting ordinary people on two wheels.
Orbiting as we are in the Goldilocks zone, just the right distance from a perfectly sized star, and with just the right atmosphere, water and the rest, the miracle of life on Earth is possible. Call it serendipity, chance or God’s work, but most scientific estimates say it’s all happened against extremely long odds. And almost as improbably, major motorcycle shows such as the Quail Motorcycle Gathering and the Barber Vintage Festival now fully embrace Japanese bikes right alongside classes for Vincents, Broughs, Indians, Crockers and other esteemed members of motorcycling’s upper echelon.
Ah, Japanese bikes. A.k.a. Rice Burners. A.k.a. Ring-Dings. A.k.a. Jap Crap. For decades after their arrival in the U.S. in the 1950s, Japanese motorcycles weathered such painful lashings from spiteful “experts.” The Harley crowd. The Europhiles. And the pukka Brit-bikers, who looked down their windblown beaks at the thoughtful and systematic advance of the funny little Asian motorcycles.
From the Ashes of War
Equally miraculous is the Japanese motorcycle industry itself, emerging as it did from the rubble of WWII. By V-J Day in 1945, much of Japan’s industrial capacity was ruined. Among the fastest to their feet was Soichiro Honda, who before the war had manufactured piston rings. After the conflict ended, he built accessory engines to power bicycles, and soon afterward a complete lightweight motorbike, the Dream D. With a step-through frame like a Vespa scooter, it had a simple small-displacement two-stroke motor and was long on utility but decidedly short on pizzazz. But in those years, few in Japan cared much about pizzazz – they needed to get from here to there.
However things were different in America, where peacetime had returned home vast numbers of enlisted men and women. The Baby Boom generation had begun, and recreation became a major theme across the country. Camping tents, sleeping bags, fishing boats and all manner of outdoor products entered a period of historic growth. And soon, that mix would include motorcycles.
At this time recreational motorcycling didn’t exist in Japan; the focus was on utility and economy. But unlike in Asia or Europe, where motorcycles were always an accepted means of transportation, in vast America, they found their welcome in good clean fun. “They hit the U.S. at a time when there was a huge number of small families forming,” says Ed Burke, a Yamaha product planner from 1967 to 2007. “Every piece of land was open for motorcycle riding; it was perfect timing.”
Gaining a Foothold
Insightful Honda and Yamaha first saw this potential, thanks to American executives like Jack McCormack, who helped Honda establish its dealer network during the late 1950s. A former Triumph rep, McCormack saw a fascinating dynamic at play in the existing motorcycle business. “Most notable for me was that the business was so inbred,” he says. “It only talked to itself, and the only ads were in bike magazines, or maybe dealer ads in newspapers. Existing customers trading brands did not expand the market.”
There was also the “black jacket” problem, as McCormack calls it, in which the public regarded motorcyclists as hoodlums. Hollywood did little to help in this regard – both in dark movies like The Wild One and even lighthearted flicks like Beach Party, bikers were the bad guys.
A few years later, the answer was Grey Advertising’s door-opening “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” campaign. Printed in Life and Collier’s, the ads presented motorcycles as a friendly lifestyle instead of as, well, motorcycles. As McCormack notes, “We didn’t even call them motorcycles. We called them ‘two-wheeled fun machines.’” The floodgates opened, and annual sales blossomed from the 50,000 range to 1.2 million within the decade. Other Japanese companies followed, including Bridgestone, Hodaka, Kawasaki, Lilac, Marusho, Suzuki, Tohatsu, Yamaguchi, Yamaha and more. Not all survived.
Designed for America
There were more hurdles to cross for the industry, including the fact that the American market required vastly different models than Asia or elsewhere. And while the existing Japanese bikes had good quality and offered such advanced (for the time) features as electric starting, they didn’t yet provide the more spirited qualities that Americans wanted. Honda fixed that with the 1961 CB72 Hawk and CB77 Super Hawk, respectively 250cc and 305cc twins with energetic new styling, updated suspension and more performance – exactly what the market craved. And instead of requiring the rider to mix oil and gas in the tank, new two-stroke models designed for America – notably the Suzuki X6 Hustler, Kawasaki A1 Samurai and Yamaha Big Bear Scrambler – featured sophisticated automatic oil-injection systems starting around 1964.
The Off-Road Boom
Motorcycle recreation soon involved more than just riding around town on a sunny Sunday. The tremendous freedom that Americans enjoyed on open lands in the 1950s and 1960s created an unprecedented opportunity for trail bikes. Their hallmarks were light weight and reliability – essential virtues when you’re cow-trailing through the boonies. Such little bikes as the 1960 Yamaha Trailmaster 80 and 1961 Honda Trail 50 started a love affair with off-road riding that continues today. And as the studious Japanese sought to gain market share, the bikes only got better. In the early 1960s, the record for driving from Tijuana to La Paz – the 1,000-mile length of the Baja California Peninsula – reportedly belonged to a pickup truck at five days. In 1962 American Honda hired Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson to tackle the same dirt route on a pair of new 250cc CL72 street scramblers, with Walt Fulton dropping lime bags out of a Cessna to help guide them. They completed the trip in 37 hours. Off-road motorcycling had arrived.
A Competitive Streak
Then as now, racing proved a glorious way to grab headlines and build brand strength. The first Japanese effort in America occurred on Catalina Island in Southern California in 1958. Yamaha brought a handful of 250cc two-stroke factory racing twins, and team rider Fumio Ito scored a credible sixth place in the lightweight class. Within a year, Honda would go to the Isle of Man, and the race was on for the Japanese to develop GP bikes that would conquer the world. Honda won the first world championship for a Japanese company in 1961, a legacy that continues today.
High points for classic Japanese factory racing bikes include the Honda RC161, Japan’s first four-cylinder factory GP machine. Yamaha followed with its equally audacious RD56, a four-cylinder disc-valve 250cc two-stroke. Both would win world championships. Unquestionably among the greatest was the Honda RC166, which packed six air-cooled cylinders and 24 valves into just 250cc – that’s just 41cc per barrel, one-twentieth the size of a Cobra 427 cylinder – and revved to 18,000 rpm. Even the little 125cc cylinders of the 1.5-liter 1948 Ferrari 125 F1 V12 Grand Prix car were massive by comparison. And notably, for 1967 Suzuki built the twin-cylinder, two-stroke RK67 50cc GP racer with a jewel-like 14-speed gearbox.
Yamaha did the best job at making factory-bred racebikes available to the public, starting with the 1962 TD1. An air-cooled, twin-cylinder two-stroke shrieker, the TD1 and its descendants brought near GP-level speed to the local dealership, and club racers ate them up. A steady stream of improvements eventually begat the TZ750 liquid-cooled four-cylinder tour de force that would change premier-class racing in America, dominating the Daytona 200 for years afterward. And in a sign of the times, Italian world champion Giacomo Agostini forsake MV Agusta for Yamaha in 1975, spelling the end of four-stroke and European Grand Prix dominance in the premier class for some four decades.
Yamaha’s Ascot Scrambler of 1962 was considered the first factory-bred Japanese dirt-racing bike available, and while powerful it was heavy and frail, and not suited for the soon-to-emerge sport of motocross. But the 1968 Yamaha DT1 fixed that. A single-cylinder 250cc two-stroke bred for Yankee dirt but outfitted for street use too, it led the way for the Japanese in off-road performance. Then Kawasaki and Honda both pounced on the sport in 1973 with a new wave of bred-for-motocross models, the KX250 and CR250M Elsinore, respectively. Yamaha and Suzuki followed suit, and the technology race has advanced ever since.
Listening and Learning
Racing aside, Japan’s embrace of kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement,” and its interest in technological and manufacturing excellence with a customer focus, defined the Japanese bike industry early. These nationalistic passions yielded several machines that became true game-changers. First were the super two-strokes. Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha introduced fantastic performance to the alpha-types with twin-cylinder “’strokers” that would smoke (literally) the best of the Brit bikes at a fraction of the price. Tops among them were Kawasaki 500cc H1 and 750cc H2 two-stroke triples, which earned the name “widowmaker” for their raucous power and limited handling.
True Engineering Acumen
Unquestionably though, the real game changer was Honda’s 1969 CB750 Four, a towering monolith of sophistication, smoothness, reliability, civility, fit and finish, and performance, all rolled into one exquisite piece. It had not a line wrong anywhere in its design, and hardly an engineering fault either. Overnight, the CB750 Four recast what it meant to be a motorcycle, to ride a motorcycle, and to be a motorcycle manufacturer. Of course the CB750 was eventually followed by ever more impressive bikes, notably the Kawasaki 903cc Z1 of 1973, but in its time it truly changed everything. The CB750 didn’t just throw down the gauntlet. It was the gauntlet, the glove, the jacket and silk tie, all in one.
Along the way, Japanese motorcycles embraced nearly as wide a range of engine technologies as their four-wheeled brethren. Besides two- and four-stroke designs, included were all manner of induction and cooling systems, engines ranging from singles and twins to triples and fours (including twin-crankshaft “square” fours), and sixes. In the mid-1970s, Suzuki even offered a Wankel rotary engine.
Also in the mid-1970s, emissions regulations caused the transition from two-stroke to four-stroke designs for good, ending a decade-long run of hyperkinetic two-stroke bikes. Although in racing and off-road, two-strokes would stay on top for another 20 years.
Emerging as Art
While the Japanese motorcycle industry embraced engineering and performance, few models are regarded as highly artistic – at least, in the same vein that one would consider a Vincent Black Shadow or a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic artistic. While design was certainly important to the Japanese at the time, the real beauty was found in their engineering, and even more importantly in their aim. As such, each Japanese model from the boom period of the 1960s and 1970s represents not just a product, but rather one frame of a long film, the visionary journey that binds them all together.
So the next time you find a little cluster of Japanese classics at cars and coffee, or an entire group of them at a major concours, find some time to enjoy them for their intricacy, for their engineering, for their gleaming paint and chrome, and especially for their mission. For they are not just bikes, but cherry blossoms from the springtime of postwar Japan.
Copyright 2015 by John L. Stein