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-- The History of Yamaha

We all knew there had to be a reason.......


Yamaha is the world's second largest producer of motorcycles, but before making any motorcycles, Yamaha had become the world's largest piano maker, which explains their trademark "tuning forks" logo. So here's their story, which is also the story of your bike, and how it came about to be.


Yamaha founder Torakusu Yamaha was raised in what is now the Wakayama Prefecture and received an unusual education from his samurai father, a surveyor with broad interests in astronomy and mechanics and a remarkable library. The Meiji Restoration, a government-subsidized effort to hasten the technological growth and development of Japanese society and industry during the late 19th century, put educated people such as Yamaha in a position to capitalize on the new growth.

At age 20 Yamaha studied watch repair in Nagasaki under a British engineer. He formed his own watchmaking company, but he was unable to stay in business because of a lack of money. He then took a job repairing medical equipment in Osaka after completing an apprenticeship at Japan's first school of Western medicine in Nagasaki.

As part of his job, Yamaha repaired surgical equipment in Hamamatsu, a small Pacific coastal fishing town. Because of their area's isolation, a township school there asked him in 1887 to repair their prized U.S.-made Mason & Hamlin reed organ. Seeing the instrument's commercial potential in Japan, Yamaha produced his own functional version of the organ within a year and then set up a new business in Hamamatsu to manufacture organs for Japanese primary schools.

In 1889 he established the Yamaha Organ Manufacturing Company, Japan's first maker of Western musical instruments. At the same time, the government granted Hamamatsu township status, which provided it with rail service and made it a regional commerce center.

Yamaha Organ used modern mass-production methods, and by 1889 it employed 100 people and produced 250 organs annually.

During the 1890's the more inexpensive upright piano surpassed the reed organ in popularity in U.S. homes. Yamaha saw the potential of this market. In 1897 he renamed his company Nippon Gakki Co., Ltd., which literally means "Japan musical instruments".

So the company that we today know as "Yamaha" began life in the music business, first producing organs in 1889. Within ten short years, it had become highly successful in this field and was renamed Nippon Gakki Limited and manufactured a wide range of reed organs and pianos.

Although building string instruments may seem, at first thought, to be mostly a skill of woodmakers and the like, in a large, integrated manufacturer such as this company became, there are also the machines that form the wood, saw the wood, make the brackets, as well as all of the extensive research into the strong, lightweight metal alloys needed for acoustic pianos.......and all of these metal working, engineering, and other such manufacturing skills were eventually applied directly to the creation of metal motorcycle parts.........but that's a story we're not quite ready to tell.


Japanese war efforts required the commandeering of all available manufacturing output for the production of wartime materials, most importantly aviation-related products. Nippon Gakki turned its technical, engineering, and associated manufacturing skills towards the successful production of propellers and fuel tanks for aircraft.

After the war, and the resultant economic hardships in the Japanese economy, there arose a large demand for inexpensive and reliable forms of transportation. Searching around for new markets in which to put their tremendous capabilities and skills to use, in 1953 company president Genichi Kawakami ushered in a new era by speaking these few words: "I want to carry out the trial manufacture of motorcycle engines."

He had explored and considered using Nippon Gakki's manufacturing resources to produce a range of different products, including sewing machines, auto parts, scooters, three-wheeled utility vehicles, and…..motorcycles.

At a later date, when asked about this critical decision, he stated, "I had my research division chief and other managers visit leading motorcycle factories around the country. They came back and told me there was still plenty of opportunity, even if we were entering the market late. As I didn't want to be completely unprepared in this unfamiliar business, we toured German factories before setting out to build our first 125cc bike. I joined in this tour around Europe during which my chief engineers learned how to build motorbikes. We did as much research as possible to insure that we could build a bike as good as any out there. Once we had that confidence, we started going."


"If you are going to make anything, make it the very best there is."

With this thought as their motto, the development team poured all their energies into building the first prototype, and ten months later, in August of 1954, the first model was complete. It was the Yamaha YA-1, powered by an air-cooled, 2-stroke, single-cylinder 125cc engine---basically a copy of the German DKW RT125 model. This bike, also known as the Akatombo (or "Red Dragonfly") of which only 125 units were built, was named in honor of the founder.

Once finished, it was put through an unprecedented 10,000 km endurance test to ensure that its quality was top-class, as well as winning two of Japan's premier road races of that era, the Mount Fuji Ascent Race and the Asama Volcano Highlands Event.

Due to the outstanding success of this first-ever model, in January 1955 the Hamakita Factory of the Nippon Gakki Company was built and full production of the YA-1 model began. With confidence in the new direction that Genichi was taking, Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. was founded on July 1, 1955. Staffed by 274 enthusiastic employees, the new motorcycle manufacturer built about 200 units per month.

By 1956, a second model was ready for production. This was the YC-1, a 175cc single cylinder two-stroke. In 1957 Yamaha began production of its first 250cc, two-stroke twin cylinder model, the YD-1.

Based on Genichi's firm belief that a product isn't a product until it can hold it's own around the world, in 1958 Yamaha became the first Japanese maker to venture into the international race arena. The result was an impressive 6th place finish at the Catalina Grand Prix race in the USA.

Yamaha took quick action to build upon their momentum gained in the USA, and began marketing their motorcycles through an independent distributor in California. In 1958, Cooper Motors began selling the YD-1 250cc and the MF-1 (a 50cc, two-stroke, single cylinder, step-through street bike). Then in 1960, Yamaha International Corporation began selling motorcycles in the USA through its own network of dealers.

The modern Yamaha Motor Company had begun.


In 1960, Genichi then turned his attention to the marine industry and began the production of the first Yamaha boats and outboard motors. This was the beginning of an aggressive expansion into these new fields utilizing new engines and FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) technologies. The first watercraft model was the CAT-21, followed by the RUN-13 and the P-7 123cc outboard motor.

In 1963, Yamaha demonstrated its focus on cutting-edge, technological innovations by developing the Autolube System---the separate oil injection system for two-stroke models, eliminating the inconvenience of pre-mixing fuel and oil. Further engineering developments such as torque induction, multi-ported engines, reed valves and power valves kept Yamaha at the forefront of two-stroke engine technology.

At the same time, Yamaha pioneered the idea of the "over-the-counter" racer bike, which became a reality with the introduction of the TD-1, the first in a long line of 2-stroke race bikes that were the standard for private race teams everywhere. Eventually, rules and competitive pressures changed, but the stage had been set for the introduction of mass-produced racers based on the same technology as the road bikes, and vice-versa.

Another example of the Genichi's belief in company efforts being focused on the needs of the customer was the Yamaha DT-1. The world's first true off-road motorcycle debuted in 1968 to create an entirely new genre we know today as "trail bikes". The DT-1 made a huge impact on motorcycling in the USA because it was truly dirt worthy. Yamaha definitely "read the flow" of consumer desires when it produced this 250cc, single cylinder, 2-stroke Enduro that put Yamaha On/Off-Road motorcycles on the map in the USA. The DT-1 exemplified the power of original ideas, forward vision, and quick action coupled with keeping in mind the customers' desires.

And once again, in 1975, Yamaha introduced the very first single-shock, production motocross bikes. This was the beginning of the YZ Monocross machines that changed motocross forever.


1970: Yamaha’s first 4-stroke motorcycle model, the XS-1 (650cc vertical twin) was introduced. A new era begins......

The XS-1 model was soon re-fashioned into the popular XS650 model, and quickly followed by the XS750 3-cylinder model in 1976. This was Yamaha's first large-displacement 4-stroke engine, and was also note-worthy as the first widely accepted shaft-drive motorcycle from Yamaha. Prior to its introduction, shaft drive motorcycles were associated only with higher-end, solid, dependable machines of limited performance appeal, such as the BMW and Honda Gold Wing designs.

As always, Yamaha was learning and refining their technologies and skills in order to better serve the developing needs of the marketplace and their customers.

As gas prices quenched the horsepower battle of the 1970's, the marketplace demanded more refined, mid-level machines that still performed well. Yamaha answered that challenge with the all new XJ series of bikes, which not only incorporated the now-refined shaft-drive technology (on all but the XJ550 models), but also introduced a newly developed and astonishingly narrow in-line four cylinder engine (achieved by moving the alternator from its usual location---at the end of the crankshaft---to above and behind the cylinders and driving it via a secondary, chain-driven shaft). This engine design proved so successful that it remained in production for over twenty years, while other major refinements were introduced in the area of suspension technology (air assistance and anti-dive valving on the front forks) as well as one of the first uses of computer-assisted operations on a motorcycle (although it was mainly a fancy gadget at that time, it was at the start of what obviously became the standard for the future), transistorized electronic ignition, and the recently developed YICS (Yamaha Induction Control System) performance enhancement for their cylinder heads.

Almost all XJ models incorporated many other desirable performance and safety-related features, such as:

- Self-canceling turn signals.
- Air adjustable front forks and rear shock absorber (on some models).
- Five position rear shocks, with adjustable damping.
- Lockable forks for security.
- A security chain (called a Powerlock) which is used to lock the bike to a pole.
- Trip odometer.
- A seat and helmet lock.
- YICS (Yamaha Induction Control System), a performance and fuel-saving engine system.
- Ignition cut-off safety system that does not allow the engine to be operated under certain conditions (if the kick stand is down, for example).
- One of the first uses of computerized systems monitoring systems, as introduced on the 1982 XJ750RH Seca models.
- Four-into-two exhaust design that provides for exceptional performance and acceptable sound levels.

The XJ-series were perhaps most unique in their consolidation of not only the technical refinements as described above, but also the integration of design and styling aesthetic elements that appealed to a wide population of buyers.....elements that still have strong appeal even today, 25+ years later. Let's take a quick detour and examine why.


Most bikes (especially during the 1970's) were produced as street bikes, off-road, or dual-purpose bikes. Euro-style "café racers", touring bikes, low riders (choppers and semi chops) and the like were mostly custom modified versions of street bikes. During the early 70's most of the Japanese bikes (except Hondas) were powered by 2 stroke engines. By the mid-70's, the larger two stroke engines were being replaced with four stroke engines. Suzuki even introduced a bike that was powered by rotary engine! But by the end of the 1970's virtually all the street bikes being produced were 4-stroke, with Yamaha being no exception.

So by the end of the decade, the entire motorcycle industry was experimenting with giving a particular "style" to some of their newer models. By re-arranging the elements of what would basically be a standard road bike, the manufacturers produced an appearance similar to that of a customized motorcycle.....bringing to the mass marketplace what only the specialized customizers and choppers had been doing for some time.

Once again, it was this appreciation, understanding, and focus on the wants and need of the customers that fed-back into the entire organization---marketing, engineering, and production operations---that led to the development of these newer (and timeless in their appeal) XJ bikes.

So, starting with the XJ650H Maxim model (1980), these bikes featured a sloped down, almost "teardrop" style fuel tank, a semi "king-and-queen" styled seat, and thus have a basic shape giving it the appearance similar to that of a cruiser. But this bike was no low rider...the seat is actually as high as what the earlier street bikes had. The handlebars of the Maxim are high enough and wide enough to provide both comfortable riding and exceptional control.

The Seca models took on more of a sport bike appearance, with flatter handlebars, more scalloped gas tank sides to allow for a more "forward leaning" riding position, and generally a sportier styling and appearance (even though the engine choices, power ratings, and performance were identical to their like-sized Maxim models).

Model choices soon proliferated around this basic design; the following list briefly summarizes the North American model availability:

- XJ550 Maxim and Seca models (1981 - 1983). The XJ550 and later FJ600 models are based on a different 4 cylinder, air-cooled inline DOHC powerplant than the larger 650cc-up models, and were never equipped with a shaft-drive system, only with a 6 speed chain drive transmission.

- XJ650 Maxim (1980-83) and Midnight Maxim (1981) models. Note that all of the Yamaha XJ650, XJ700 non-X, XJ750, and XJ900 models share the same basic air-cooled, inline DOHC four-cylinder shaft drive 5 speed powerplant and driveline.

- XJ650RJ Seca and XJ650RJC Seca (1982) models. The XJ650RJ Seca model was unique in that the USA versions were equipped with a non-YICS engine and no oil cooler....and were painted silver with blue graphics. The XJ650RJC Canadian versions were painted red, with red graphics, and had the YICS engine as well as a factory oil cooler. Some reports indicate that the red "RJC" model may have been available in the USA in limited quantities, and that it was equipped with the 750cc engine.

- XJ650 Turbo models (1982 and 1983). One of the very first factory-direct turbocharged models, these plastic-wrapped, full-fairing bikes still look modern today, and preceded the sportbike craze by almost a dozen years or so. While there are very few differences between the 1982 and 1983 models, the 1983 model does have a larger fuel tank, as well as a "power-up" kit that allowed for more boost pressure and subsequent higher horsepower ratings. The vacuum control module that was the main feature of the "power-up" kit was available a retrofit to all 1982 models by Yamaha. 1983 XJ650LK Turbo models are very rare bikes.

- XJ700 models (1985 and 1986), both in a standard (air-cooled or "airhead") model and an "X" (water-cooled or "waterhead") version, further described below. The XJ700 models were produced as a response to US import tariffs set up to protect domestic (meaning Harley-Davidson) manufacturers from foreign (meaning Japanese) motorcycle sales success during the mid-80's, but those tariffs were soon dropped. Since Canada was obviously not subject to such restrictions, they got both the XJ700-X and XJ750-X models, while the USA dealers only got the 700cc versions, thus limiting the demand for such models. Therefore, XJ700 owners---of both the standard and "X" versions---and XJ750-X owners own a very rare machine and a testament to a part of USA legal history. An incredibly interesting review of the history of this situation can be seen at:


The XJ700-X and XJ750-X models have a water-cooled engine with the five-valves-per-cylinder Genesis engine based on the 1984 FZ750 model, but use the same bottom end and drive shaft unit as the other XJ650, XJ700, XJ750, and XJ900 models. The Maxim X was perhaps the fastest of the XJ series, as fast or faster than many sport-bikes of its day. And the XJ750-X models are indeed very rare bikes.

- XJ750 Maxim and Midnight Maxim (1982-83) models.

- XJ750 Seca (1981-84) models, although please note that the 1984 XJ750RL Seca is a Canadian- and Australian-only model, which is similar (possibly identical) to the XJ750-F in Europe. It's based on the XJ900, with a slightly different 750 motor than the Seca/Maxim 750 (it uses larger carbs, the airbox from the 900, and the same electronic ignition as the 900). It's so close to the XJ900 that the factory service manual is an XJ900 manual with a short (about 100 pages) addendum for the XJ750RL.

- XJ900RK Seca model (only available in 1983 in the USA).

- XJ1100 model (1982-83). The XJ1100 model was really a re-framed and re-named version of the already-popular XS1100 model, and did not use the XJ-series engine. The XJ1100 engine was based on the earlier XS1100 series, also a 4 cylinder, air-cooled inline DOHC shaft drive, and while the engine families are similar, there are some major design differences internally from the 650/700/750/900-based machines.

Besides the North American models, the rest of the world was also treated to XJ-Fever:

- the XJ550 model (no Maxim or Seca designation), from 1981 to 1983, which resembles the North American XJ550 Seca models (sans the front fairing). These models came with dual front disc brakes, swirly wheels, an oil cooler and the factory "tail rail" unlike their USA and Canadian cousins. However, in 1984 only, there appears to have been a North-American style XJ550 that was offered in the European and U.K. markets, and it is based on the North American XJ550 Maxim model----meaning, it has only a single front disc brake on the left side, a Maxim style gas tank, and no fuel or volts gauge.

It should be noted that beginning in 1984, the XJ550 models became known as FJ600 models in the rest of the world, except for the above-referenced European/U.K. models.

- the XJ650 model (again, no Maxim or Seca designation), from 1980 to 1984, which also resembled the North American XJ650RJ Seca model. These models also came with dual front disc brakes and oil coolers, unlike the USA-Canadian versions.

- the XJ750 model, (guess what: no Maxim or Seca designation) from 1981 to 1984. As with the XJ650 models above, these bikes came stock with an oil cooler, unlike the North American models.

- the XJ900 model, which began production in 1983 and remained in production, off and on, in the rest of the world for almost a dozen years, where it was eventually known as the Diversion. As a special note, Yamaha changed the handlebar-mounted fairing to a frame-mounted style in 1984 (and apparently refitted almost 1200 of the 1983 models----free of charge!---because of high-speed handling problems associated with the handlebar-mounted fairings). Also, the engine size was originally 853cc in 1983-84, and then increased to a "truer" 891cc's for the rest of its production life.

And finally, to throw a little bit of confusion into the mix, we have this:

- Yamaha also produced a couple of twin-cylinder XS400 bikes using the same Seca and Maxim designations for the North American markets. These bikes are the "younger cousins" of the XJ-series bikes, and are from the related-but-different "XS" series of models. Besides sharing the Maxim and Seca names, they use the XJ-series style engine (DOHC, alternator behind the crankshaft, YICS system). They were chain-driven (5-speed on the Maxim, 6-speed on the Seca models), and featured a unique mono-shock rear suspension system. They were available from 1982-83 in the USA, and lasted until 1984 in Canada.

But, just to throw the usual Yamaha "twist" into the plot, there was also a 1982 XS400SJ "Special" model that was related to the older XS-series bikes, having the SOHC motor and a more typical dual-shock rear suspension...........

- Europe and Japan actually got a variety of "real" XJ400 models --- a 4-cylinder, 398cc version based on the XJ550, and the "D" model featured the coolest exhaust pipe configuration this side of XJ Heaven:




These various XJ400 models were produced off-and-on up until the 2007 model year, and included some versions that looked very much like mini versions of XJ550 Maxim, XJ550 Seca, XJ750 Seca, and even XJ900 models due to the variety of fairings and paint schemes and styling cues used.

- Similarly, the XJ600---also based originally on the XJ550 model---was produced in 1984-85, but was known as the FJ600 for the North American market. In later years, a new XJ600, with all-new frame and a mono-shock rear suspension system, was marketed as the Seca II in North America and the Diversion elsewhere.

- Somewhere along the line, Yamaha also introduced the XJR1200 (a chain-driven bike based on the FJ1100 and FJ1200 models) that never made it to North America either. In 2001 that was replaced by the XJR1300 and the FJR1300. Oddly enough, the XJR1300 is the chain drive, and the FJR1300 is the shaft drive, a reversal of the convention used originally in North America.

- Yamaha produced a few limited variations of their standard models over the years. There were Police versions of the XJ550, XJ650, XJ750, and the XJ900 models. These Police versions were used worldwide, and varied by year, model, and equipment options, in at least the following countries: Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Bahamas, Columbia, Cyprus, Dominica, Dubai, Egypt, Greece, Gabon, Guinea, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Macau, Malawi, Malaysia, Pakistan, Peru, Phillipines, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganada, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

The Japanese market had a fuel-injected XJ750-D model, while an XJ750-A model used the XJ650 Seca frame with the 750cc engine installed.

There---study and learn the above and you, too, can claim to be a certifiable XJ expert, nutcase, or both!



However, not all things were quite as meets the eye, and it is an ironic twist of fate that what actually led to the development and introduction of the XJ-series of bikes also led to their demise.

The 1980's were actually a very difficult decade for the company.

In the late 70's/early 80's Yamaha made a conscious marketing and strategic business decision to try and overtake Honda as the largest builder of motorcycles, and that's what actually led to the amazing proliferation in both the number of models and production quantities.

Kawasaki and Suzuki quickly followed the herd, and soon the world (especially North America, the biggest market) was awash in un-sold motorcycles, and the standard price wars that always follows over-production quickly started.

It has been noted that by the early 1980's that Yamaha alone had over 1 million unsold bikes in their dealer and factory inventory, and to try and move them out, huge price discounts started appearing......and that started eating into Harley-Davidson sales and profits.

This is when H-D went to the US Government and got an import tariff and restriction on 700+cc sized bikes. Which wasn't really necessary, since Yamaha had given up on their grand plan by then, and they and others simply slowly bled off the excess inventory via the discontinuance of most models (XJ's included) and no new production in most of 1983 and 1984.

In fact, soon after the 1985-86 models hit the showroom, H-D had gone back to the US Government and told them that the import restrictions were no longer needed! (and the restriction and tariff was lifted in 1987). Of course, for the USA, it was too late for those dealers to get the larger XJ750-X models........and by then, the consumer rush to the newer style model "sport" bikes and huge cruisers had started, and that was the end of the XJ-series of street-sport-cruiser style bikes.

So by this era---the mid-to-late 1980's---all manufacturers were styling most of their North American street bikes to fit into one of three basic categories:

Touring: Large, heavy bikes, with storage trunks, fairings, sound systems, and all sorts of comfort and convenience features----two wheeled "rolling couches".

Sport: Light, nimble, jack-be-quick race styled bikes, with lots of body shrouding ("plastic"), usually with high-revving, smaller displacement engines.

Cruisers: Smooth styling, low ride, mellow tuned.

All the major manufacturers produced some really great touring, sport, and cruising bikes; however, many motorcycle enthusiasts really did not see any of them falling into the category of what was really still desired.......and that being a capable, dependable, good-all-around "road bike".

The original XJ Seca and Maxim models seem to be some of the last of these "all around" road bikes that were available in the marketplace; that is, they don't really fit into one of the three basic categories above, but these bikes did have there own particular styling that suggested they were on the edge of both the cruising or sport styled categories. Sadly, models such as the XJ Maxim and the Seca did not continue in production anywhere, as the evolving Seca II type style (sport bike) seemed to become the market preference.

In years directly preceding and following these brilliant XJ-series of bikes, Yamaha continued to grow (and continues to this day). Product-line diversity increased with the addition of products including snowmobiles, race kart engines, generators, scooters, ATVs, personal watercraft and more.

Genichi Kawakami set the stage for Yamaha Motor Company's success with his vision and philosophies of total honesty towards the customer, making products that hold their own, and which provide an improved lifestyle to people through exceptional quality, high performance products. His history and influence with Yamaha was long and rich. He saw the new corporate headquarters in Cypress, California inaugurated in 1980, and the 25th Anniversary of Yamaha Motor Company become a reality in 1980. He also watched the 20-millionth bike roll off the assembly line in 1982. Genichi passed away on May 25, 2002 yet his vision lives on through the people and products of Yamaha, throughout the world.


Today, it's no wonder there are riders and collectors that still prefer these classic bikes to anything they have seen produced since. While it is certainly true that these bikes have their share of flaws and faults----electrical system upgrades are a must on these older bikes, as they were barely adequate to begin with----but with some small changes such as upgraded technology and material usage in the brake system, they are one of the finest and most durable examples of the classic sport-cruiser models ever made, and thus retain their desirability, collectibility, and value even 25+ years after they were first introduced.

One owner sums up the XJ Experience with this insight:

"I just can't believe how much smoother the motor runs compared to my VMX. This old XJ motor is a real jewel. My brother rides a Yamaha FZR and he is very impressed with the smoothness of the XJ. He revs it up a bit at idle and remarks how much smoother it is than his FZR. With the stock pipes, the XJ750 sounds so sweet! It does this throaty 'woom-wooom' sound, and will rev to the moon and back, and it sounds just like music to my ears."

And so it should be, and perhaps was ordained to be. Yamaha started off almost a hundred years earlier making beautiful music---organs, pianos, and the like---and has never stopped.

Additional details and in-depth analysis of Yamaha technical innovations can be reviewed at:




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