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Yamaha motorcycles - the MCN guide

Published: 15 April 2019

Updated: 15 April 2019

20 years of the Yamaha YZF-R1

Yamaha is the second largest of the so-called Japanese ‘Big Four’ bike manufacturers that have dominated world motorcycling since the 1960s (the others being, in descending order, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki). As such it’s one of the world’s biggest and most significant motorcycle marques.

Famous current models include the Yamaha YZF-R1 superbike, Ténéré adventure bike, Aerox twist-and-go and TMAX super-scooter, while a significant number of its machines have also pioneered new technology such as with monoshock rear suspension (1975 YZ400), liquid-cooling (1980 RD350LC), five-valve cylinder heads (1985 FZ750) and aluminium twin beam frames (1987 FZR1000 Genesis).

Yamaha Motor has also produced car engines, ATVs, generators and is currently a world leader in marine outboard motors.

Yamaha FZR1000 and Yamaha YZF-R1

Read about the most popular Yamaha motorbikes:

Yamaha motorcycles - a potted history

Founded in 1955 as the Yamaha Motor Company, a sub-division of the Yamaha Corporation, a huge Japanese conglomerate dating back to 1887 with products ranging from musical instruments (hence its famous triple tuning fork logo) to electronics, it followed Honda in building small, lightweight affordable motorcycles which were hugely popular transport for a country still recovering from WW2.

Sporting success spurred several serious sportsbikes

From the outset success in motorcycle sport was a feature of Yamaha’s business. Its first two-wheeler, the 1955 YA-1 125cc two-stroke, a copy of the German DKW RT125 used by various manufacturers as part of the war reparations, won its class in the Mount Fuji motorcycle sprints. Then, in the early ‘60s Yamaha achieved its first success in world Grand Prix racing, where it initially concentrated on the smaller classes reflecting its lightweight, road, two-stroke products.

At the same time, and uniquely among its Japanese rivals, Yamaha also began making production racers such as the TD2 and later TZ series which were raced to great success by privateers launching many future stars such as Barry Sheene and Ron Haslam on their racing careers.

Steve Parrish with a collection of classic Yamaha racers

In 1968, Yamaha produced its first larger, road four-stroke, the XS-1 650cc twin, following it up with larger versions of its TZ racers, the TZ500 in 1973 and TZ750 in 1974. This move into larger bikes was reflected on the road with Yamaha’s first, large-capacity, multi-cylinder roadster, the XS750 triple in 1976 and XS1100 four in 1978, which saw Yamaha’s road superbikes competing with Honda and Kawasaki, who had stolen the march on multi-cylinder four-strokes in the early 1970s, for the first time.

Yamaha moves into motocross

The mid to late 1970s also saw Yamaha become a significant force in motocross, Heikki Mikkola becoming back-to-back 500cc world champion on their monoshocked machine in 1977-8 and as a producer of both two and four-stroke single-cylinder road legal trail machines. Its XT500 of 1975 is today reknown as the grandfather of today’s adventure bikes and was widely copied while a modified version won the first Dakar Rally in 1979.

Yamaha XT500

The early '80s saw the rivalry between Yamaha and Honda at its peak resulting in a series of fantastic bikes from each on both road and track. While Honda responded to Yamaha-mounted Kenny Roberts three 500cc GP crowns by building the astonishing oval-pistoned NR500 in a bid for four-stroke victory, Yamaha over-extended itself with an ever-larger and more diverse road bike range, including under-developed failures such as the XZ550.

But with its liquid-cooled, five-valve FZ750 in 1985 Yamaha finally became a credible superbike producer. (Indeed, a version of the FZ engine was used by Bimota to win the very first World Superbikes race in April 1988.)

In 1987 Yamaha produced a 1000cc, racing-inspired ‘R’ version, the FZR1000 Genesis, which, thanks to what Yamaha called its ‘Deltabox’, was the first mass-production, large capacity sports bike with a lightweight, GP-inspired twin spar aluminium frame, a concept retained to this day. This evolved into the FZR1000R EXUP in 1989, thanks to the addition of a midrange power-boosting exhaust valve, a bike universally agreed to be the dominant superbike of its day and which inspired a whole family of Yamaha FZRs through the ‘90s.

Yamaha R1 immediately sets the bar

Further pioneering technologies weren’t far away. In 1998 Yamaha re-wrote the superbike rulebook again with its superlight (175kg) super-powerful (150bhp) YZF-R1, a true racer for the road which set the template for all superbikes which followed. That original bike and its successors have cemented the R1 as arguably the most successful and identifiable road sports machine of the modern era.

1998 Yamaha YZF-R1

A year later, in 1999, Yamaha rewrote the rules of the more junior 600cc supersport class as well with its ‘mini R1’ – the YZF-R6, a thinly disguised and incredibly potent and fun 600cc sportster which completely refocused the supersports category.

While around the same time, in 1998, Yamaha also revolutionized world motocross with the introduction of its four-stroke YZ400F, a bike which, after years of domination by two-stroke machines, is credited with ushering in a new era of four-stroke success.

Original Yamaha YZF-R6

Valentino Rossi and Yamaha

One further Yamaha revolution in bikesport came in 2004 when reigning back-to-back MotoGP world champion, Valentino Rossi, sensationally switched from dominant Honda to the then much poorer performing Yamaha squad and sensationally went on to win two more back-to-back titles. The Italian GOAT (Greatest of all Time) has so far gone on to claim a further two world championships for Yamaha and today remains unquestionably the most famous rider associated with the brand.

Rossi wins on his first outing for Yamaha

More recently Yamaha has become particularly known for a radical all-new range of entertaining and affordable bikes based on a modular principle and connected by the MT prefix, which stands for ‘Masters of Torque’.

The three-cylinder, 900cc MT-09, twin-cylinder, 700cc MT-09 and spin-offs which include the MT-03, MT125, Tracer 700 and 900 XSR 700 and 900 and more are, today, the mainstays of Yamaha’s road range and have proven hugely successful. While Yamaha continues to also offer trail bikes, scooters, tourers and more.

Bikes such as these and its global network have helped Yamaha maintain its status today as the second largest of the Japanese ‘Big Four’. While its continuing success in bikesport, in MotoGP, WSB and off-road, together with a racing and technological legacy second only to Honda and with a historical emphasis on performance two-strokes, means Yamaha retains a devoted following among bike fans the world over.

Yamaha Tracer 900 GT

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