Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 31st October 2014

European and North American motorcycles have always been popular, both with racing enthusiasts and pleasure riders. Ducati, BMW, and Harley Davidson models do well internationally, each with their own niche market. But, in terms of numbers sold, the undisputed leaders are the four Japanese giants: Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki. Honda, in fact, has destroyed the competition with around 16 million units sold worldwide, compared to its next closest competitor, Yamaha, at roughly 8 million. By comparison, Harley Davidson has sold around 260,000 motorcycles, and Ducati just over 44,000.

Surprisingly, despite their modern-day dominance, the Japanese were relative latecomers to the ‘battle of the bike’. In the early 1920s, Harley Davidson was by far the largest and most successful manufacturer; Harley Davidson is directly responsible for the birth of the bike industry in Japan, with a boost from the British government. The unusual combination of circumstances that brought mass production technology to Japan nearly destroyed the British and American motorcycle market.

The Birth of the Big Four

Yamaha Scrambler

<Yamaha Scrambler image via Flickr by WorldWideMotorcycles>

In the 1920s, Harley Davidson had mastered the art of mass-producing outstanding motorbikes. Australia, Japan, and England were the three top importers of Harley bikes. The British government, realising that Harley Davidson could easily destroy England’s motorcycle industry, imposed huge tariffs that effectively blocked American imports from the British Empire, shutting down two of Harley’s most lucrative markets.

Around the same time, America’s Great Depression was crushing the industry and, in a desperate attempt to raise money, Harley Davidson sold the rights to an obsolete motorcycle model to a Japanese company, Rikuo. The sale gave Japan, for the first time, access to advanced mass production techniques, knowledge of tooling and metal work, metallurgical insights, and a complete understanding of inventory, parts, marketing, and sales strategies. The Rikuo factory became a learning laboratory for every Japanese company wanting to manufacture motorcycles, and ultimately led to the birth of Japan’s Big Four.

Aftermath of World War II

Keith Huewen
<Keith Huewen image via Flickr by Gunner111>

At the end of the war, Japan’s infrastructure was gone, its industries ruined, and its railways obliterated. It was immediately apparent that the country needed a quick and economical method of transportation to get the economy working again, and motorcycles were an ideal solution.
On the plus side, Japan had a surplus of outstanding engineering talent from the aerospace industry that could now turn their attention to motorcycles. In addition, there were stockpiles of materials that were no longer needed for war-making. The stage was set for explosive growth and innovation. From over 140 small motorcycle manufacturers in the immediate post-war period, only the Big Four thrived.

Another consequence of the war also had a profound effect on Japan’s burgeoning motorcycle industry. After the war, a German rocket scientist named Walter Kaaden, who had been working on the Nazis’ missile program, was charged with overseeing the East German Grand Prix team, and the DKW brand. Kaaden developed a revolutionary two-stroke engine capable of producing an astonishing, at that time, 200 bhp per litre. His engine revolutionised the sport, and Japan desperately wanted it so they could be competitive in the global motorcycle market.

In a stunning act of espionage, Suzuki arranged the defection of Ernst Degner, Kaaden’s protégé and a champion Grand Prix racer, with all of Kaaden’s designs for the two-stroke engine. Planning a James Bond-worthy escape, Degner, his wife and children, and a suitcase full of engine parts and samples, were smuggled past the Iron Curtain in the boot of a Lincoln luxury sedan. That act of industrial espionage led to decades of Japanese dominance in the global motorcycle market. Suzuki secured its success for the equivalent of 200,000 pounds.

The Universal Japanese Motorcycle

In the November 1976 issue of Cycle magazine, a reviewer referred to the new Kawasaki KZ650 as another example of the “Universal Japanese Motorcycle.” While the phrase caused a bit of a flap at the time, it contains more than a kernel of truth. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Japan’s Big Four made bikes that were striking in their similarity:

Honda CB750

Honda CB750

<Image via Flickr by WorldWideMotorcycles>

Styled after the racing bikes of the 60s, Honda’s iconic CB750 was an instant sensation. The CB750 had an inline overhead cam engine with four carburetors and five-speed gearbox, considered one of the best motorcycle engines ever built. Today, these classics are still in demand, and can fetch over £12,000.
Suzuki GS750

This replaced the brand’s water-cooled two-stroke 750s with a DOHC two-valve per cylinder configuration and five-speed gearbox, the first four-stroke after 20 years of two-stroke models. Today, the GS750 is a budget classic; enthusiasts can nab one for less than £3,000.

Kawasaki KZ650

Kawasaki KZ650

<Image via Flickr by gb_packards>

The DOHC four-stroke, four-cylinder engine matched with high-tech suspension was a huge hit, and the most powerful bike on the road at the time of its release. The bike was five years in development, launched with Kawasaki’s catchy marketing campaign: “Kawasaki lets the good times roll”. Today, it remains a cult classic.

Yamaha XS Eleven

Yamaha’s dual overhead cams came with an innovative twist in the XS1100: Four Mikuni 34 mm constant velocity carburetors. Industry insiders were expecting something bigger (1,000 cc) to compete with the other UJMs, but the XS Eleven was a pleasant size surprise.
Cruisers and Touring Bikes

Cruisers and Touring Bikes

Cruiser bike

<Image via Flickr by JPC24M>

The Japanese giants are facing increased competition from the BMW and Triumph touring and sport bikes in the UK, and they have developed new models to compete in the European market. Honda continues to do well, winning first place in Motorcycle News annual awards in the Best Retro Bike and Best Sub-500 categories, and runner-up in the Best Cruiser category, while Yamaha won as Best Cruiser and Best Custom bike. Yamaha took runner-up positions in two categories, and Suzuki in one. Japanese bike sales were down over 6% in 2012, while sales of BMW motorcycles have steadily increased since 2010.

Japan’s Big Four continue to innovate and compete in the global market, although they no longer have the global dominance they enjoyed in the late 20th century. Don’t count them out; these giants will evolve and adapt to keep hold of their market share.

Image via Flickr by gb_packards