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Motorbike stories: the four japanese giants

27/02/2023
Marcella Colombari
Pubblicato in: ,

Good morning, Misses! Today, I’ll tell you about a bit of history. I looked for some curiosities about motorcycle manufacturers and decided to follow my heart, starting with the four Japanese ones, since my first bike was a Japanese brand, and I still love them… even though I’ve “cheated” on them more than once. Don’t worry, in the next articles, I’ll gradually talk about other brands too!

NOT TODAY, DAVIDE, TODAY WE TALK ABOUT GOLIATH

First of all, let me clarify: here, we are not simply talking about “motorcycle manufacturers,” but real giants of the industry. Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki are all huge multinational corporations, and none of them exclusively deals with motorcycles; they have massive subsidiaries.

While on one hand, this may seem less romantic compared to a small manufacturer, let’s look at the many positive aspects: from the perspective of development and competitiveness, there’s no competition with other manufacturers.

In simpler terms, Japanese motorcycles will generally cost less and will have been extensively tested, with tangible advantages in terms of reliability, longevity, and various details (like the famous Japanese gearboxes that always work like a Swiss watch and never get stuck).

So, don’t be fooled by the lower prices compared to other niche brands: Japanese motorcycles are truly well-made products.

Let’s start with…

HONDA: THE HOUSE OF THE WING

HONDA Motor Co is a multinational company that produces motorcycles, automobiles, and is known for its research in robotics. It also deals with gardening products, marine engines, generators… many things! It is also involved in motorsports, including Formula 1, just to name one.

Its logo is a spread wing on a red background (the historical racing color of the brand, also found in motocross bikes).

As for many other large companies, there is often a visionary person behind it who made radical life choices. Let’s talk about the founder Soichiro Honda, who started working as a mechanic in his father’s workshop. In 1922, he moved to Tokyo and worked as an apprentice in a garage, and in 1937, he founded his first company that produced piston rings and supplied Toyota.

His brilliant intuition was to notice that, after World War II, with a shortage of gasoline, more efficient means of transportation were needed in Japan. He then converted his company to produce frames and engines for motorcycles. In 1948, he went all-in with his savings, investing everything to open a new company, Honda.

This courageous decision, like a true samurai, paid off and was hugely rewarded over time: the company landed in the United States in 1959 and sold 100,000 motorcycles in a year. In the 1970s, Honda became the world’s leading manufacturer, surpassing the then more prestigious British and Italian manufacturers, and has never lost that position since.

The racing department was created in 1954, and we all know about it: it’s the Honda Racing Corporation, better known as HRC. 

The debut of the House of the Wing in competitions took place in 1959 at the Tourist Trophy, and over a couple of years, they achieved their first victories in the 125 and 250 classes with Mike Hailwood, followed by the first victory in the premier class, the 500, in 1966.

To properly test the motorcycles (but also cars), Honda built one and then even two circuits, first Suzuka and then the more technologically advanced and safe Motegi Twin Ring. These are two facilities used for high-level motorcycle and car racing, from the Suzuka 8 Hours to Formula 1.

The historic roster of Honda riders is impressive: Mike Hailwood, Mick Doohan, Max Biaggi, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, Andrea Dovizioso, Casey Stoner, Johnny Rea, Jorge Lorenzo and a guy named Marc Márquez. And I’ve only mentioned those who won titles… not all of them, or I’d never finish!

It’s no coincidence that Honda is by far the most successful manufacturer in the history of MotoGP.

Let’s conclude with the iconic motorcycles that have been in dealerships: the historic 1968 CB 750 4-cylinder, the Africa Twin, and the Dominator for enduro, the NSR400 race replica, the CBR Fireblade. The list is long, but these are motorcycles that practically everyone knows, a sign of how important Honda is on the international scene.

By the way, what does the CBR acronym, adopted by all Honda supersport bikes, mean?

I found different schools of thought, but it seems to be an acronym for Cross Beam Racer, which indicates that the engine is mounted through the frame (“cross”) where the 4 cylinders are in line (“beam”) and specifies that it’s the racing version (as opposed to the CB versions). However, some say that the acronym simply stands for City Bike Racer… the doubt will remain!

KAWASAKI: NINJAS ON WHEELS

Apart from the reference to the famous spies with black balaclavas climbing on rooftops, however, this company has several lesser-known sides: Kawasaki Heavy Industries does produce motorcycles and engines, but it is also an aerospace company, producing civilian and military aircraft, rockets, ships including warships, all types of trains, industrial robots, and much more, as well as being involved in the construction industry.

The founder, Shozo Kawasaki, was born and lived in the 19th century. He was a maritime merchant and had his awakening through adversity, as often happens. His company failed when the ship he was trading on sank in a storm. It wasn’t the last time he faced such an incident! Surviving multiple sinkings, he refused to give up and turned his attention to Western ships, which were more spacious, stable, and faster than typical Japanese vessels of that era. He then dedicated his efforts to technological advancements in ships and transportation in general, eventually founding Kawasaki Heavy Industries in 1878.

The iconic super lime green motorcycles originally stem from an aviation company, Kawasaki Aircraft, which absorbed the financially struggling motorcycle company, Meguro, with whom they were partners. A curious fact is that the earliest motorcycles featured the “Kawasaki Aircraft” emblem on the fuel tank.

The Kawasaki Racing division emerged from this merger and began competing in the 1960s. Today, the motorcycles are tested in Japan at the Autopolis circuit, a wonderful facility but relatively unknown to most, acquired by the company in 2005.

Kawasaki achieved its first victory in the 125cc World Championship in 1969 with Dave Simmons. In the following years, Kawasaki made a contrasting choice for its time by using two-stroke engines (while the dominant solution was the four-stroke), effectively paving the way for technology that would dominate racing for the next three decades.

Although their successes continued in the smaller classes during the 1970s, they became less prominent in the MotoGP.

However, let’s talk about the two most well-known aspects, starting with the color. In the 1970s, lime green was considered a lucky color in the racing world, and no other company had chosen it. Breaking this taboo to stand out from competitors, Kawasaki started fielding motorcycles in light green (lime green), and ever since, that has remained the iconic color of the brand, a choice that has been greatly rewarded in terms of image (and, although relatively fewer compared to other Eastern brands, in terms of racing results too).

Now, let’s delve into the evocative name “Ninja,” a true symbol of the brand, a name that even those who know nothing about motorcycles cannot be unaware of. In Japanese, the term means “superhuman,” and the first bike to bear this name was the historic motorcycle ridden by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, the GPZ900R from 1984 (ironically, it wasn’t green but red and black).

Since then, all the sportbikes from the company have been released under the “Ninja” name, and the most famous livery has been the lime green. Both are absolute symbols of motorcycling. A fun fact is that the Ninja logo has remained unchanged from 1984 to today! Isn’t that still cool? It’s impressive to think that it’s been forty years, but it still looks so clean and appealing.

Wait, does that mean I’m also forty years old?? That’s quite anxiety-inducing. Anyway, let me continue…

Let’s return to the races because it’s not in the MotoGP but in recent years in Superbike where Kawasaki has truly shined. Aside from an isolated but valuable rider’s title in 1993 with Scott Russel, in 2013, Kawasaki won with Tom Sykes, and then with his teammate Jonathan Rea. The two formed a formidable pair, dominating the championship for years, during which Kawasaki finally won the Constructors’ Championship several times as well.

Kawasaki’s motorcycles are also surprising from a technological standpoint. In 2015, they released the first mass-produced motorcycle with a centrifugal supercharger, the Ninja H2, which boasted an impressive maximum power of 220 horsepower, while the track-only version, the H2R, reached an incredible round figure of 300. Nowadays, in recent years, the power of 1000cc Supersport motorcycles from several manufacturers has reached 220 horsepower, especially in the most performant versions, but just a few years ago, that was a crazy figure. It’s worth mentioning, though, that in the 1980s, Japanese manufacturers had attempted to build turbocharged motorcycles, but the timing wasn’t right. Who knows, perhaps now we’ll witness an evolution and a new era of forced induction motorcycles, similar to what’s happening in the automotive world.

The magical letter for Kawasaki is “Z” (the last letter of the alphabet), dating back to the Z1-900 from 1972, which gave rise to various versions of the Z, one of the most iconic naked motorcycles.

On the other hand, the designation “ZX” is meant for Supersport motorcycles like the Ninja ZX-10R, and it stands for “super sport” or “absolute sport,” followed by the displacement divided by 100 (e.g., 6 for the 600cc versions, 10 for the 1000cc, and so on).

I’ll add one last personal note: my first motorcycle was a lime green 2004 Ninja 636, a fantastic, agile, and still beautiful bike. My second one was a super fast black 2005 Ninja 1000, which I named “Sephiroth” after the villain from Final Fantasy 7. Needless to say, for me, Kawasaki holds a special place in my heart!

YAMAHA: THREE CROSSED TUNING FORKS

This is the logo of YAMAHA Motor Co, a manufacturer of motorized vehicles, motorcycles, and marine engines. It was established in 1955 as a spin-off from another company, Nippon Gakki, which was founded in 1897 and manufactured organs and pianos. That’s why we still see many musical instruments bearing the Yamaha brand! Additionally, Yamaha supplied engines for automobile racing, including Formula 1.

It is the second-largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world after its compatriot Honda.

Its traditional racing color is blue.

Since its founding year, Yamaha has been participating in competitions, and in 1961, it made its debut in the Motorcycle World Championship. The first 250cc title came in 1964 with Phil Read, and since then, it has won numerous world championships. In the premier class, the 500cc, Yamaha has won a remarkable 10 world titles with legendary riders such as Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, and Wayne Rainey.

As for MotoGP, what can be said? In the early 2000s, their flagship rider was Valentino Rossi, who won four world titles, followed by Jorge Lorenzo adding three more.

In Superbike, they have won two titles, one in 2009 with Ben Spies (though I was personally rooting for Nori Haga, but he had terrible luck that year) and one in 2021 with Toprak Razgatlıoğlu.

Overall, Yamaha is the second most successful team in history.

Two of their most famous motorcycles come to mind, both exuding high performance and incredible beauty, which caused a sensation upon their release.

I’m talking about the YZF-R1, better known as the R1, Yamaha’s first 1000cc sportbike. The first version with the “red seat” from 1998 is still stunning and remains the dream (very much attainable) of many motorcyclists. Its carbureted engine produced 150 horsepower, which might seem modest nowadays, but at the time, it made the bike a rocket and, thanks to the carbureted power delivery, definitely not a bike for everyone.

The second bike is the YZF-R6, equally famous! Born in 1999, it was gorgeous, sharp, and practically designed for track use due to its extreme riding position and high-revving engine producing a powerful 120 horsepower from 10,000 rpm onwards. To achieve this power, it utilized an innovative front air intake that pressurized the air into the airbox, a solution later adopted by other manufacturers as well. The R6 is the only 600cc 4-cylinder sportbike still in production, as the Euro4 regulations severely impacted the category.

The meaning of the YZF acronym is Y-Yamaha, Z-Racing (yes, Z stands for Racing – don’t ask), F- Four Stroke.

Other renowned motorcycles from Yamaha include the RD500LC from 1984 (one of the “street-legal GPs” released in those years), as well as the incredible V-Max from 1985, practically a street dragster with too much power for its frame.

We continue off-road with the famous Super Ténéré from 1989 and conclude with the MT-09, a clever solution during a crisis in the motorcycle industry, giving birth to the MT series, competitive naked bikes with attractive prices.

SUZUKI: BANDITS AND PEREGRINE FALCONS

SUZUKI Motor Corporation is the fourth Japanese powerhouse in this tale. It was founded in 1909 and produces automobiles, motorcycles, and marine engines. After World War II, Suzuki began motorcycle production during a period similarly to other manufacturers. Initially, they produced simple engines to be mounted on bicycles, but the true motorcycle production grew rapidly, reaching 6,000 units per month in a short time. Initially, all the engines were two-strokes until the first series of four-stroke models known as GS, and here, some may have already guessed where we are heading… no, hold on, not that GS!

Here, we are talking about four-cylinder inline sport motorcycles, designed to go fast rather than cover long distances. The flagship model of Suzuki’s sport lineup is the GSX-R (Grand Sport eXperimental Racing), known as “Gixxer” to friends.

You’ll always find an abbreviation indicating the production year; for example, I had a GSX-R 750 K3 (from 2003) track-only version, which I affectionately named “Funky Shit” after the eponymous Prodigy song. If, for instance, we saw L4, the production year would be 2014.

Speaking of 750… the Gixxers were the only four-cylinder sportbikes that consistently had an intermediate displacement between 600 and 1000, and for many motorcyclists, the GSX-R 750 was the ideal choice. It was light, almost like a 600, yet with plenty of horsepower and more manageable than a 1000. All I know is that I had a lot of fun with it, and the bike could keep up even with much more recent missiles!

Continuing with iconic models, how can we not mention the insane, adorable, and peculiar GSX 1300 R, better known as the Hayabusa? This motorcycle took its name from the peregrine falcon, a charming raptor and the fastest bird in the world, reaching speeds of (hold on tight) 385 km/h!!

Now, the Hayabusa could “only” reach 312 km/h, but it sparked a debate among Japanese manufacturers about whether producing motorcycles with such high speeds made sense. As a result, with a gentlemen’s agreement among the four companies, it was decided that the maximum speed for road-legal motorcycles should be limited to… 299 kilometers per hour. What a cruel punishment for the ‘Busa, losing 13 km/h of its top speed and never being the same again.

Jokes aside, this motorcycle is the most extensively modified by tuning experts, with extended swingarms and turbos, pushing it beyond the 500 km/h barrier! Not even the peregrine falcon can keep up with it anymore.

Another top-selling bike from Suzuki is the Bandit, a naked bike born during the same period as the Ducati Monster, offering good performance at an affordable cost and maintenance. Alongside the Bandit, Suzuki had the SV (650 and 1000), a sportier naked bike with a V-twin engine that made many people happy, as it only needed its sharp chassis and abundant torque to enjoy twisty roads.

Another historical motorcycle is the RG 500 Gamma, an 80s race replica two-stroke that was practically a racing bike with a license plate. To this day, it’s still highly sought after.

Regarding Suzuki’s motocross bikes, they have always been widely used and successful, featuring the distinctive yellow livery, the traditional racing color of the company.

Now, let’s talk about racing. How have these motorcycles performed in history? Suzuki Racing debuted at the Tourist Trophy in 1960 and won the riders’ and manufacturers’ championships in the newly established 50cc class of the Motorcycle World Championship in 1962, claiming its first world titles. After a few years without significant results and even a break from competitions, the company officially withdrew from racing but continued supplying bikes to various racing teams.

In 1970, Dieter Braun won the first 500cc world title, followed by the famous Barry Sheene, who added two more. Other riders claimed the premier class title in the years that followed: Marco Lucchinelli, Franco Uncini, Kevin Schwantz, and Kenny Roberts Jr.

As for MotoGP, the fortunes have not been as bright, but in 2020, Suzuki managed to win its first and only title in the premier class with Joan Mir.

In total, Suzuki is the fourth most successful motorcycle manufacturer of all time.

Making this journey through the history of Japanese motorcycles has been truly interesting and exciting! And I hope you enjoyed the narrative.

Now, I would like to hear from you, MissBiker community! How many of you own a Japanese motorcycle and how have you felt about these machines? Share your experiences and the emotions you’ve had while riding these “jappo” bikes! Are you satisfied with their performance, reliability, or design? Have you had any memorable adventures? Let’s share our stories and passion for Japanese motorcycles!

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