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.
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.