The German Roots of Yamaha Motorcycles

Yamaha 250cc YD-1

With Yamaha recently winning a court case against the Chinese manufacturers who copied the Yamaha scooter design, and even the Yamaha name, and an earlier case against Patriot Motorcycles over the Yamoto brand off road bikes they were selling, it was interesting to look at the history of Yamaha itself.

I was digging again in the archives and came across a photo (shown above) in a 1958 magazine of a Yamaha YD-1. It's a 250cc motorcycle and according to the description, was copied from the DKW 350cc and manufactured under license. I seemed to remember and then located a comment on The Kneeslider long ago about Yamaha producing their first motorcycle, the YA-1, which was copied from the DKW RT125. Digging around on Yamaha's web site I found this:

It is a well-known fact that Yamaha's YA-1 was created by studying the structure of the German maker DKW's representative model RT125 and copying its chassis. But, Yamaha was not the only one. Those were times when most of the other Japanese makers were also copying the front-running motorcycle models of the advanced German makers and introducing one new model after another based on these German machines. This was surely a necessary step along the way to postwar recovery for the domestic Japanese motorcycle industry.

And further:

At the time, the RT125 was known as the most copied motorcycle in the world, but the beauty with which the Yamaha engineers designed the YA-1 led many to dub it superior even to the original. Another thing that set the YA-1 apart was its maroon and ivory two-tone color scheme at a time when black was virtually the only color used for motorcycles.

When Yamaha decided to move up to the 250cc machine, they chose the Adler MB250 as their model, and the engineers, again according to Yamaha, wanted to start designing their own motorcycles, so they used the MB250 as a model but went a bit further, making the tank larger and painting it brown. They also designed a few unique parts for the engine.

Yamaha's unique designs were, perhaps, not really so unique after all but it gave them a foothold in the business and allowed them to move on to bigger and better things.

I'm not sure whether any of this borrowing of design or technology was actually done under license, as the magazine I read indicated, or not, the Yamaha web site makes no mention of it, but this certainly seems to have been the usual method of doing things in those early days of the Japanese motorcycle industry and it is more interesting in light of the fact that Yamaha is having so much trouble now with copied designs in China. The one difference, of course, is that China has been turning out enormous numbers of motorcycles for some time, they're not exactly a fledgling industry trying to get started so if they want to compare Japan's route to the motorcycle business with their own, I think the time for that justification is past.

Did early motorcycle buyers refuse to buy Yamahas because they were knock offs of DKWs? It doesn't seem so and as you look at the motorcycle world today, Yamaha is one of the big players while DKW is nowhere to be found, ... and that has to worry a few folks in a lot of businesses when they look at China today.

Link: Yamaha YA-1   Yamaha YD-1


  1. Sid says

    One of the differences history will reveal comes down to quality. It appears many products coming out of China are done quick and on the cheap.

    Japan’s industrialized products have demonstrated an impressive run of decades of continuous refinement and reliability.

  2. Jeff says

    Ready or not here they come . Just like the Japanese . The quality produts will survive .

  3. todd says

    Yes, even Harley and BSA “copied” the world famous RT125. This was known as “war reparations” under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and was done legally. Any and all German (or Axis) engineering was up for grabs to the Allied countries as “guilt payment”.

    The legitimate use of Adler design is not fully known. Adler ceased motorcycle operations in 1957-8 when Grundig bought Adler for its world class typewriters. Grundig must not have seen the value in litigation for designs it had no interest in. However, much of the design and components were directly a result of Yamaha engineering though there are many Adlers running around today with Yamaha pistons… Unlike the Chinese companies mentioned, Yamaha did not attempt to misrepresent their products as Adlers. Of all motorcycle manufacturers of the time Yamaha had the largest, most blatant “YAMAHA” logo on their tank.


  4. todd says

    Sorry, speaking history too quickly…

    Potsdam Conference / Agreement was WWII, Versailles was WWI, duh.
    Same rules apply, however Yamaha was able to achieve German engineering documents one way or another!


  5. Dodgy says

    I can understand the allied countries feeling entitled to take whatever they wanted after the war, but surely the Japanese weren’t ‘allowed’ to Use German IP after WWII? Or was it that the US were actively ‘rebuilding’ Japanese industry, and maybe circumvented the rules?
    I wonder if the (mainly) European manufacturers didn’t take the threat of Japanese copies very seriously. Fighting patent infringements would have been difficult in those days anyway, but it is doubtful DKW or anyone else would have bothered to protect their property in Japan. Yamaha et al would have probably responded with: “This motorcycle is for domestic sale only”. By the time the Japanese really started to export it may have been too late.
    And the sad thing is that the copying that the Chinese manufacturers do isn’t really engineering at all. A large part of it is that a product is made by a Chinese factory for a US designer/distributor etc; and they simply sell that product themselves too.

  6. Bryce says

    It’s interesting that some of the Japanese motorcycles were built under license. In that situation, it’s being given, well, a license to copy.

    The other big difference I see is that Yamaha and the other Japanese brands weren’t trying to confuse anyone into thinking they were buying anything but a Yamaha, Suzuki, etc. Many of the Chinese companies, or their American importers, do just that.

  7. hoyt says

    Jeff – please clarify who is “ready” in your thought….yeah, the Chinese are coming, but are THEY ready?

    The Japanese are mainly responsible for the reliable, modern motorcycle. Their product was and still is of high reliable, quality.

    Hypothetically, if you remove Japan out of the motorcycle picture in the late 50s/early 60s and replace them with China, I seriously doubt the British would have been overcome by a Chinese product – based on the poor quality being produced now.

    As Bryce points out, there is a significant difference between what the Japanese did and what China is doing.

    Japan was ready with a quality product that the world realized was reliable.

    China has a lot to prove. Overcoming a suspicious consumer is not easy, especially when Japan and Korea provide extremely viable choices.

    I’m tired of capitalism seeing a gold mine in China. China has to step up, otherwise it is not gold, but a flimsy facade.

  8. Prester John says

    In the 1930’s, DKW became the world leader in two stroke technology, and ran the world’s largest motorcycle factory in Zschopau, Germany. Also during the 30’s, DKW competed in Motorcycle GP racing with some very high-tech watercooled, supercharged two strokes, and while we think of BWM as the German military motorcycle of WWII, the little DKWs served everywhere with the Wehrmacht, too.

    The DKW RT125 was easily the world’s finest small displacement motorcycle of its time. After the war it became not only the Yamaha YA-1, but also the BSA Bantam, the Moto Morini 125, the Russian Mockba M1A and even the Harley-Davidson Hummer! The RT’s two stroke engine also powered Harley’s Topper and Triumph’s Tigress motor scooters.

    Oh – and if you think the old RT’s “streamline” tank profile looks familiar, you’re right – it sits, as it has since 1957, atop the H-D Sportster, a on-going tip-of-the-hat to one of the greatest European motorcycles of all time.


  9. Prester John says

    Oh, about the “disapearance” of DKW: Their factory was in Zschopau, in what became East Germany. A very fine little motorcycle also called the RT125 is still built there by the grandsons and grandaughters of the builders of the original.


  10. red tombo says

    This was an interesting article.

    For the past 10 years I’ve been working for a Japanese machine tool company, of which 20% is owned by Yamaha Japan. And recently, I had a chance to look thru a company publication that celebrated 80 years of existence and it outlined how the company came to relations with Yamaha and how the first bike was engineered. It falls in line with the article here on this website!

  11. Gerry Frederics says

    Yamaha did not copy the DKW or Adler designs, they STOLE them. Ditto with Ariel of England. The Ariel Leader was a slightly modifed Adler SB250. ALL BSA 2-strokes were STOLEN DKW patents. The Honda empire is based on the STOLEN NSU Supermax and the ENTIRE Russian motor cycle industry is STOLEN BMW, ZÜndapp and especially DKW technology. I know it´s not polite to accuse people of wholesale theft but facts are facts and I call a spade a spade. Gerry Frederics

  12. Musicman says

    As the article points out in the very beginning, the Yamaha “was copied from the DKW 350cc and manufactured under license”. Key words being “manufactured under license”. That doesn’t make it a copy, but rather a design that was licensed to Yamaha for production. Manufacturers have done this for years and continue to do it to this day. That’s very different from what the Chinese practice. And the Chinese do this in every industry from automotive, to musical equipment (Oktava Microphones of Russia had their high end mic designs completely ripped off by the Chinese, INCLUDING the logo!). Same with Nady, Shure, and countless other musical/audio equipment manufacturers. So, what Yamaha did back then is very different from what the Chinese are doing now. It’s one thing to make a product under license, or, to even use the original for inspiration, but it’s completely different to carbon copy the design (all excepting for the quality part!) and pass it off as the original.