Yamaha has developed a reputation among riders as a company that builds well-engineered and interesting motorcycles. Yamaha is one of the most well-known brands in the world of motorbikes, and Yamaha motorcycles have a long and rich history.
Yamaha began making motorcycles in 1955. While the brand started out making musical instruments (and still does), Yamaha motorcycles are some of the most popular bikes on the planet, and they are known for their reliability and relative affordability.
The Yamaha corporation has produced and currently produces a massive number of different products. Below, we dig into the history of this ubiquitous brand, and what led them to produce some of the best current motorcycles available.
The Yamaha Corporation was originally established in 1887, at that time called The Yamaha Organ Company. The company first manufactured reed organs, but soon got involved in making pianos. In fact, the first piano to ever be made in Japan was made by Torakusu Yamaha (the founder of Yamaha) in 1900.
Torakusu Yamaha was born in 1851. His father was a lower-ranking samurai of the Kishu Clan. His father was an astronomer, and as a result of growing up in a household of science and learning, Torakusu became enamored with engineering and technology.
Torakusu was born into the time of the Meiji restoration, an event where the government put money and effort towards increasing technological development within Japan. This was the perfect situation for Torakusu.
At age 20 he went to Nagasaki and studied watchmaking under a British engineer. He became skilled at watchmaking and formed his own company. His company was not very successful, and he ran out of money. So, Torakusu became interested in medical equipment, and moved to Osaka to study its production.
After some study, he moved to Hamamatsu to repair medical equipment as a career. This wasn’t fully successful, as Hamamatsu was still a pretty small town. So, Torakusu did whatever else he could find, he repaired watches and wheeled around a rickshaw cart for a hospital director.
As Hamamatsu was a small town, there wasn’t an excess of people there who had strong mechanical knowledge, so a local school asked Torakusu if he would fix their US-made reed organ. He did, and he liked the idea of the instrument, so he started working on his own. Within a year he had produced an organ.
Yamaha’s first organ wasn’t very good. He presented it to various musical experts and got mostly negative feedback. Undeterred, he started studying musical instruments and built a second prototype. People liked this one, and he received several orders. He had founded his musical instrument company.
In U.S. homes, the upright piano was becoming increasingly popular over the reed organ, so Yamaha decided he’d start making those as well. He renamed his company Nippon Gakki Co. Ltd. (Japan Musical Instruments) and opened a new plant to make pianos.
Yamaha was now chugging along, under the guise of Nippon Gakki, making instruments that everyone seemed to like. In 1916, Torakusu Yamaha died of an illness. His company did not die however, and was taken over by the vice-president, Chiyomaru Amano.
Japanese industry grew a lot in World War 1, and Nippon Gakki Co. was no exception. By the year 1920, the company was churning out 10,000 organs and 1,200 pianos every year. Production and sales continued to grow.
Then, times got hard. The Japanese yen appreciated significantly, so overseas sales were less competitive. There were also several fires, destroying multiple factories, not to mention the Great Kanto earthquake, which damaged more factories and destroyed the Tokyo office.
Then, labor unions went on strike, and it took Amano over 100 days to give in to their demands, by which time Nippon Gakki Co. was running out of money. A new president was nominated for the company, Kaichi Kawakami. Despite the company’s troubles, he accepted the role. He cut production costs and reorganized the company’s structure and within two years, over half of the company’s debts were paid.
The Yamaha Motor Company
In 1955, after a few international tours and some manufacturing efforts, the Yamaha Motor Company was founded, and with it came the first Yamaha motorcycle. The company also started producing boats, bows, and bathtubs, all made with fiberglass reinforced plastics, a new material they were working with.
The Yamaha Motor Company would produce a litany of other motorized things, but in the west, it became known mostly for motorcycles. At this point, Nippon Gakki had become so big and successful, that despite owning a large portion of all of its smaller subsidiary companies, they mostly operated independently.
Yamaha Motor Company’s first bike was the 125cc YA-1, which was basically a copy of a German 125cc bike called the DKW RT 125. The YA-1 was a racing success, and won a bunch of different races for Yamaha within its first few years. This early success to some degree set the tone for the future of Yamaha’s motorcycles.
Many believe that some of the success of Japanese motorcycle companies is due to their significant rivalries. Yamaha saw Honda, Suzuki, and Kawasaki as strong rivals, and they have competed constantly over the years for race titles as well as sales numbers.
Yamaha kept building bikes and started working on new technologies such as oil injection, which would allow two-stroke motorcycles to operate without premixed gasoline. Yamaha bikes saw continued racing victories, now competing in international competitions.
Yamaha Motor Company continued to build newer bikes, doing well with international sales as well as racing events. Their bikes gained different technological advancements with each new generation, and they gained a reputation for being fun as well as relatively reliable.
Despite the Yamaha Motor Company’s deviation from its musical instrument company beginnings, the history can still be seen in the logo. The Yamaha logo is a group of interlocked tuning forks, showing Yamaha’s start as a musical instrument company.
When it comes to motorcycle racing, Yamaha has a lot of history. Since 1961, Yamaha Motor Company has competed in the World Championship Grand Prix. Yamaha has won an astounding 39 different world championship titles. At the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy), an annual motorcycle racing event, Yamaha has achieved 232 victories.
A lot of Yamaha’s early racing bikes had some issues. Many riders complained of terrible vibrations and other issues at high speeds. Yamaha was not deterred though, and they kept improving their bikes and the technology onboard them.
Yamaha was the first company to build a production motocross bike with a monoshock suspension system. They were also among the first to use water cooling on production motocross bikes.
Yamaha also sponsors quite a few different riders in off-road races to this day, some of whom ride Yamaha motorcycles, others who ride Yamaha ATVs. Yamaha’s long history in racing certainly shows in the sportiness of a lot of bikes they offer, and hopefully will continue to help them grow in the future.
1. Yamaha R7
The Yamaha R7 is one of the most powerful bikes available that’s under 1000cc. It’s one of my favorite bikes that Yamaha has built in modern times. It was designed for racing. Out of the box, it made 106 hp, but with the “Race Edition” that figure was upgraded to an astonishing 135 hp.
Power wasn’t the R7’s only qualification though. It was packed with good suspension and intelligent engineering. One of the best parts was that all of this power and design came in a package that weighed only 416 lbs (although that is dry). Even with the added fluid weight, it’s still not very much weight for a bike of that power.
Even in comparison to today’s standards, it’s crazy fast. Compared to a 2021 R6, the original R7 from 1999 weighs only a few pounds more, and if you get the “Race Edition”, it has 18 more horsepower. All this was designed over two decades ago, when those numbers were even more incredible.
The R7 is one of the coolest and most influential bikes ever made by Yamaha. It was a true race bike for the street, and it had the numbers to back it up. Unfortunately, this model was a very limited run, and Yamaha only ever made 500 of them. Perhaps that rarity only makes it cooler!
2. Yamaha R6
The Yamaha R6 is one of the best-known street bikes among people who don’t know that much about motorcycles. The R6 is the top Yamaha of the 600cc class, and the 2021 model churns out about 117 hp. It makes this horsepower, however, at a staggering 14,500 RPM.
Really, if you keep this motorcycle under 7,000 RPM or so, it will be relatively docile. Sure, it won’t be slow, but this bike is designed to make its power at the top end.
Where this motorcycle shines is when you get it up in the rev range. Pass that 10k mark, and you’re riding a two-wheeled rocketship, capable of 165 mph, all with an engine that has about a third of the displacement of a Honda Civic.
This bike is also really not that heavy, especially considering the power it has. The bike weighs around 418 lbs, and that includes all of its fluids. This is really not very much weight for a bike this powerful, and it keeps the R6 relatively agile in comparison to many larger bikes.
Really, the R6 is a race bike that also happens to be street legal. While you can certainly ride it conservatively, there isn’t much point. If you like going fast, this bike might be a good fit. The best part about the R6 is that all of that performance comes at a relatively low price point, especially if you’re looking at used bikes.
3. Yamaha WR250R
The Yamaha WR250R is a relatively recent bike, debuting in 2008. Despite its pretty short time on the market, it has gained quite a bit of traction among the off-road riding community.
The WR250R is a dual sport, powered by a single cylinder, fuel-injected, premium gasoline driven 250cc engine. The single 250 thumper churns out about 30 hp, which for a 250cc single is really quite a lot. It’s certainly more than enough grunt, especially given that the bike only weighs 295 lbs.
The WR250R is about as good as you’re going to get performance-wise, when it comes to single cylinder 250 dual sports. The small engine is capable of getting the WR up to almost 100 miles per hour – if you’re going downhill anyway. A 250 will never pull like a 600, but the WR250R is about as much as you can easily get from the 250 class.
Beyond the WR’s peppy little motor, it also has some pretty nice suspension, ready to easily deal with at least light to medium off-road riding. Part of the reason the WR250R is so cool is that it clearly has roots in Yamaha’s past bikes.
Yamaha has built quite a lot of small off-road motorcycles over the years. These bikes were designed to be light and nimble, and easy to whip up tight mountain tracks. The WR250R really feels like the next evolution of this idea. Pretty light, pretty agile, but with the power and gearing to keep up with the speed of modern traffic.
It’s really a great all-purpose motorcycle, and they can certainly be expensive, even on the used market. If you’re looking for a great multi-use off road and street motorcycle, I recommend trying to find one of these. They really are great bikes.
4. Yamaha TW200
Another feather in Yamaha’s off-road hat is the TW200, affectionately known by many of its fans as the “Chunky Monkey”. The signature of the TW200 is the incredibly beefy rear tire, giving it a very fun and off-road sort of look.
Yamaha first released the TW200 in 1987, and the design hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. It can be hard to tell different years apart, that’s how little the design changed. Sure, Yamaha tweaked a few things here and there, and updated the brakes, but basically, they’re all the same bike.
The TW200 is a beefy little trail bike. It comes with a single cylinder 200cc engine, churning out a thoroughly adequate 16 hp. That 16 hp is enough to get the bike up to about 70 mph, not that you’d really want to be there for very long.
The TW200 is not meant to go fast. It’s really designed for rolling around on gravel roads and looking for mild adventure in the weekend sun. It’s for riding around small tracks when camping, or for off-road exploration. It’s meant to dawdle around and have a great time doing it.
Despite its severe lack of high power figures or showy suspension design, the TW200 has amassed quite a following of dedicated fans, fans who claim the bikes can go just about anywhere and love to show off the cool places they’re able to reach with a relatively stock TW200.
The only negative side effect of this devotion and popularity is that it’s hard to find these bikes for cheap. Even on the used market, they seem to be worth only slightly less than the price of a brand new one. It may therefore just be worth it to buy a new one – if you can find one. Either way, it’s a great little off-roader and all-round excellent bike.
5. Yamaha SR250R
I’ll be honest, the SR250R is mostly on this list because I happen to have owned one. That said, this bike to me represents a lot of what I think makes Yamaha great. Their simplicity and devotion to a quality product, no matter the product.
The SR250R is a perfect example of the essence of Yamaha. It’s not a particularly amazing bike in any way. It isn’t that fast, and it isn’t that pretty. It won’t win any races or style awards, or probably any honors at all. History will look back on it as a bike that existed, likely nothing more.
Beyond this not very notable facade though, lies design excellence. The SR250R is one of the easiest bikes in the world to work on. Changing the oil, the oil filter, the spark plug, even adjusting the valves, all jobs have easy access.
Yamaha even labeled the oil filter on the bike. The metal itself is stamped with “oil filter”, so even if you’re an absolute beginner when it comes to motorcycle maintenance, it’s hard to take off the wrong thing by accident!
These little details may be overlooked by many, but I think they represent Yamaha’s understanding of how to provide a quality product. A bike that is designed to be as easy as possible to keep on the road, what more can you ask for?
The SR250R is pretty fun as well. It certainly isn’t a sports bike, making what little power it does relatively low in the RPM range, but it has enough power to be useful. It’s pretty light, at just under 280 lbs, and feels relatively quick and nimble to move around on.
It probably won’t see a lot of recognition elsewhere, but it’s built to work, not to be fancy or sit in a garage. It’s a lovely, well designed little utilitarian bike, for those who don’t need a motorcycle to be fancy, they just want to get out and ride. They’re usually not hard to find for pretty cheap, and I can’t recommend them enough, especially as a first bike.
The fascinating history of Yamaha, and the vast number of excellent motorcycles they’ve made over the years, make it one of the most exciting companies around. Legendary racing motorcycles can trace their lineage back to a poor watchmaker in a westernizing Japan, and his idea to start producing reed organs.