The four Japanese “fathers of motorcycles” began building their empires in the early 1900s.
But they all started with very different products: looms, ships, and musical instruments. The tragic moment that turned them into machines was World War II.
These are the pioneers Soichiro Honda, Michio Suzuki, Shozo Kawasaki, and Jinichi Kawakami.
Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha respectively lead strongly, as the companies with the largest mass production, but also with the largest profits in the engine sector at the international level.
According to 2022 figures, the global market size is $75.63 billion, and is expected to double by 2030.
Motorcycles, especially in developing countries, are very utilitarian because they are affordable and have much lower fuel consumption.
It is estimated that 58% of all motorcycles in the world are located in the regions of South and East Asia!
But why did this rapid development of the industry occur in Japan specifically, to the extent that today we can talk about a Japanese monopoly?
The oldest of the four. The company was founded in 1878 by Shozo Kawasaki, who was an experienced ship engineer in Nagasaki, many decades before the nuclear disaster.
In the early years, the company operated exclusively in the shipping industry. It gradually expanded into aviation, and during World War II, it was one of the most important manufacturers of warships and aircraft, contributing decisively to several decisive Japanese victories over the Americans.
The switch to two-wheeled bicycles came many decades after the death of Shozo Kawasaki. In 1953, a new division was established in the company specializing in the production of motorcycle engines.
Given their background in the Navy and Air Force, decision makers focused on the performance of the machines they would produce. Kawasaki quickly became known for its high-performance motorcycles and powerful engines.
It introduced advanced technologies, such as the first mass-produced turbofan engine, as well as the use of liquid-cooled engines in large displacement engines.
This fact, of course, attracted fans of speed and motor sports. Successes in this field have enhanced the company’s reputation around the world.
Thus, Kawasaki expanded its operations to all continents, establishing production plants in different countries, thus being able to reach multiple markets and significantly reduce production costs.
At the age of 21, Michio Suzuki founded Suzuki Loom Works in the small coastal village of Hamamatsu.
For its first 30 years, the company operated in Japan’s giant silk industry, specializing in loom manufacturing.
In fact, in 1929, Suzuki invented a new type of textile machine, which was exported abroad.
Despite the success of his looms, Suzuki wanted to innovate in other areas as well. Based on consumer demand at the time, he concluded that building a small car was likely to be the most profitable new venture.
Planning for the project began in 1937 and managed to bring a few small vehicles to the market before the outbreak of World War II. With the outbreak of war, production plans were halted as the government declared civilian passenger aircraft an “unnecessary commodity.”
After the war, Suzuki returned to the familiar and safe “bait”, the loom. But this time the cotton crisis forced him to look for new outlets again. So he turned to motorcycles.
The Japanese, still suffering from the effects of World War II, were in desperate need of reliable and affordable transportation. Some companies have begun offering gas engines that can be attached to a bike.
Following this model, Suzuki’s first two-wheeler was a simple bicycle with a motor and a double gear that allowed the rider to either pedal with or without mechanical assistance, or disengage the pedals entirely and ride using only engine power.
The success was unprecedented and the company officially changed its name to Suzuki Motor Company.
In the following years he focused on producing regular motorcycles.
Following a strategy similar to Kawasaki, the company gradually entered the field of motorsport, achieving great success in motocross and endurance racing. Its reputation soared and the brand became synonymous with the golden ratio: “the engine with the right price and performance.”
Contrary to the above, Soichiro Honda had a passion for cars and machines since he was young. He dropped out of school to work in a garage, and later tried drag racing.
In 1937, Honda founded Tōkai Seiki, a company that produced parts for Toyota. But during the war, the building was bombed and the business was completely destroyed.
In 1945, Honda sold the salvaged items to Toyota for 400,000 yen and used the proceeds to establish the Honda Technical Research Institute in October 1946.
Thanks to the experience he gained from his father’s bicycle workshop, as well as the knowledge he gained in the automotive field, he began producing motorcycles. The Japanese also recruited a friend, a former Toyota employee, to take over the company’s financial management.
Indeed, the model succeeded. In 1959, Honda Motorcycle Company opened its first dealership in the United States, and by the mid-1960s, it was internationally known.
From 1959 to today, it remains the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with an annual production of 400 million motorcycles.
Yamaha Motor Company began as a subsidiary of Yamaha Corporation, a giant musical instrument manufacturer.
The idea of expanding the company into machinery manufacturing was owned by the company’s then president, Jinichi Kawakami. In this case, the businessman was looking for an alternative way out, as musical instruments – as a luxury item – were going through a crisis in the first years after the war.
However, in this case, Kawakami set out to produce two-wheeled bicycles aimed directly at motorsport. It was not aimed at the general public.
The company’s first product achieved unprecedented success. In its first race, the YA-1 won not only the 125cc class at the Mount Fuji Climb, but also first, second and third place at the All Japan Autobike Endurance Road Race.
The following year, she also made her international debut, finishing sixth at the Catalina Grand Prix.
The brand was already known around the world – for its pianos – and has now successfully rebranded itself, promoting its name on motorcycles as well.
Today, the company’s machinery sales are the second highest in the world. Yamaha has now expanded into many motorized areas such as boats, karts, buggies and drones. In fact, it is the world leader in marine vehicle sales.
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