Wednesday, 9 February 2011

1950s Vintage Japanese Motorcycles

Now, not many people realise that the Japanese motorcycle industry is actually over 100 years old. Technically, it can be traced back to the first powered bicycle that was imported into the county back in 1896, but within 10 years, there were a number of talented engineers building powered two-wheelers in backyard workshops, notbaly Shimazu Narazo, who had built his own chassis and engine in 1909. By the end of the 1930s, contrary to most motorcycle history books I have read, Japan actually had a thriving motorcycle culture with over 50 manufacturers producing everything from 20cc motorised bicycles to licensed Harley-Davidsons. There was a need for cheap, reliable transport outside of the cities, where the road infrastructure was poor at best. Within the cities, there was also a growing band of motorcycle hipsters who loved posing, touring (tonori) and racing and to satisfy demand from the Imperial army, Harley-Davidson had been exporting bikes to Japan since 1917! There was also a growing Motorcycle Riding Club scene, in fact there were over twenty active clubs by 1920 and at least three specialist motorcycle magazines. The Japanese had also witnessed motorcycle racing similar to the events being staged in Europe, America and Australasia - racing on horse tracks and cycle tracks, road racing on unmade roads and path racing around parks and lakes were all popular and there were also some purpose built stadiums like the Tamagawa Speedway. Motorcycles at the time were known as Tetsuba (Iron Horses) or Nirinsha (simply two-wheeled vehicles), A later slang term used to describe motorcycles was Tansha, derived from the word jidojitensha meaning powered bicycle.

The motorcycle scene virtually stopped as soon as Japan forced their way into World War 2, although one or two companies did continue to supply the military during the war. Unfortunately, one of them, Kuro Hagane, had their production plant in Hiroshima.

Following their surrender, Japan had to slowly rebuild itself. The occupying American forces began to entertain each other (and the locals) by staging amateur motorcycle races and a new motorised bicycle industry began to emerge as the nation started to mobilise itself once again. Some of the pre-war names like Meguro and Miyata returned to motorcycle manufacture and many new names joined the scene, some drawing inspiration from British and German designs, others, like Honda and Bridgestone, started slowly by buying up small capacity army surplus engines and fitting them to bicycles. By the end of the 1940s, Japan had entered its 2nd Transport Revolution, but this time, the only war on the horizon was a motorcycle war! - With over 100 manufacturers producing powered two-wheelers, there were bound to be a whole load of casualties, and as the history books have proved, less than a dozen companies survived the 1950s and of those, only the "big four" of Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha have survived to this day.
Motorcycle Racing at the Tamagawa Speedway, November 1949.
The following photographs are from the Asama Memorial Cottage, at the foot of Mt Asama, the home of the legendary dirt road races which were the Japanese version of the Isle Of Man TT. The bikes are all from the 1950s and were produced by companies that will be virtually unknown in the West, and as you can see, the Japanese were producing some tasty wheels at the time, so much for Edward Turner's famous gaffe - "We have nothing to fear from the Japanese".

ASAHI FA-II / 1954 - 250cc; 7.6bhp; 4200rpm.
The Asahi was manufactured by Miyata Seisakusho of Tokyo, who had been producing motorcycles since 1933.
The Asahi  AA of 1933 was the first mass produced motorcycle in Japan.
CABTON RBH / 1954 - 350cc; 16bhp; 5500rpm. 
COLLEDA ST5 / 1957 - 123cc; 7.5bhp; 5500rpm:
Colleda and SJK were both names used by the Suzuki Loom comapny, later to become Suzuki motorcycles.
HOSK DB / 1958 - 498cc parallel twin; 26bhp; 5200rpm:
The Hosk was very closely based on the German Horex 500 and was produced to very high standards.
LILAC LS18II / 1960 - 247cc V-Twin; 19.5bhp; 7800rpm:
Lilac produced some highly advanced v-twin machines and also produced the 500cc Marusho Magnum which was exported to the USA in the early 60s.
MEGURO Z7 / 1959 - 498cc; 20bhp; 4400rpm:
Meguro eventually became part of the Kawasaki empire and their designs were the basis of the first 4-stroke motorcycles produced by Kawasaki. Thev Meguro Z7 and Z97 were very popular because of their European styling and relatively high-performance.
RIKUO / 1958 - 750cc OHV V-Twin:
Harley-Davidson licenced Sankyo Nainenki  to produce HD Flathead VL models in Japan in the early 1930s in response to a request from the Imperial Army. By 1937 the company had been rebranded as Rikuo - (loosely translated as Road Kingor King of the Road). At the outbreak of WW2, the Americans were sent home and the Japanese continued to produce the VL as the Rikuo. Between 1937 and 1942 over 18000 Rikuo machines had been supplied to the army. Rikuo ceased production in 1958. 
TOHATSU PA55 / 1955 - 80cc; 3.5bhp; 4800rpm:
Tohatsu produced some very high spec, small capacity machines, including the famous Tohatsu Runpet racer.
Tohatsu are still producing engines today, mainly for agricultural use and  boats. 
YAMAHA YA1 / 1957 - 125cc; 5.6bhp; 5000rpm:
Yamaha are one of the "big four" companies to have survived Japan's "Motorcycle Wars".
This is their first attempt at a production off-road racer. The history books usually tell us that the DT1 was their first proper off-road bike, but this factory produced special known as Akatombo (Red Dragonfly) with modified head, telescopic forks and alloy guards was raced at Asama in the mid 1950s.


  1. Good article, nice and informative. where'd You get the info its quite obscure the Japanese history isnt it?

  2. Thanks MP - I used to write the mag for the Vintage Japanese MC and got to know a guy who works in Japan teaching English to the employees at Yamaha. He is married to a Japanese lady who also teaches English and they translated a lot of old magazine articles for me. It is still very obscure to us westerners though. There's a new book out called Japan's Motorcycle Wars which I've just ordered from the States.


  4. This is a fascinating article about the the origins and history of the Japanese motorcycle industry. Very informative.

  5. These motorcycles were on road and race field at the early era of Japanese motorcycle were spread around Thailand before Honda Yamaha Suzuki and Kawasaki later they are obsolete.

  6. PLEASE HELP need to find the asama racer that's pictured on here...8502849255 or


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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.