Ping Cars Vol.4: Bridgestone’s Katakana Motorbike

When I told PingMag’s editor-in-chief Tom Vincent about a certain vintage car racing event a reply soon came back: “Now that’s a cool motorbike!” What had astonished the British editor? Not the historical car designs. No, on the cowl on the bike in question it said “Bridgestone”. But it wasn’t written in the customarily Roman alphabet — it was in Japanese katakana script. The company name is derived from a direct translation of founder Shojiro Ishibashi’s surname which literally becomes “Stone Bridge”. The wordplay didn’t seem quite right so they reversed it. At the time the naming recalled industry leader Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, but now the Japanese maker has gone on to claim the top global share of the industry.

Well, in the midst of Japan’s Sixties economic Blitzkrieg this mega corporation also created its own motorbikes. After Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki came Bridgestone’s bikes, and its sales were said to be on the up. But then in 1967 it announced sales in Japan of its motorcycles would stop! And so suddenly Bridgestone left the motorbike manufacturing business, its vehicles like cherry blossoms in bloom for a fleeting moment and then fluttering away in the breeze. Why?! To solve this mystery we spoke to the number one guy in Bridgestone motorcycle research, Kotaro Furuta.

bridgestone_motorcycle01Kotaro Furuta, talking to us while holding the BS90′s rotary valve.

Furuta is the owner of Jungle Scooters, a vintage Italian scooter shop in Tokyo. When a student he was a big Mod fan and this led him to start up his business. Soon after opening up shop he was impressed by a motorbike he saw at the Tsukuba Circuit — a striking, fast Bridgestone motorcycle with an innovative design. From then on he spent his days gathering information on the motorbikes, so now, on top of selling them, he also even contributes to motorbike magazines on the subject. He’s famed as the expert on Bridgestone in the vintage motorcycle world in Japan.

Let’s start by looking at the history.

The roots of Bridgestone’s motorbikes go back to the BS Motor, a Fifties model that was not so much a motorcycle than a regular bike with a small engine attached to the back wheel. Not only Bridgestone bicycles, it could also be attached to bikes made by other companies too, and with the advertising slogan “Now even ladies can ride easily” it became a big hit. In the blink of an eye the BS Motor name became known all over Japan.

bridgestone_motorcycle02The BS Motor is even now a real collectors’ item and can fetch high prices.

Next up was the 2nd Generation, the Champion Series, which appeared in the late Fifties.

bridgestone_motorcycle03

This series was made at Bridgestone Cycle’s new plant at Ageo in Saitama Prefecture. It was a sturdy and practical vehicle, but people also found it rather refined as motorbikes go, so it was not a success. Bridgestone was saddled with an unexpected stockpile of bikes.

The third generation was the BS90, which was released in 1964, the same year as the first Tokyo Summer Olympics.

bridgestone_motorcycle04

Redeeming the failure of the previous Champion Series was the BS90, which proved an unprecedented smash hit. With its superb customization and many supplementary kit parts you could buy, it snared the hearts of youngsters at the time, igniting the creativity of Showa era motorbike youth. Utilizing a rotary valve for tuning the hi-tech engine, you could perfect the DIY-like, pioneering bike how you wanted.

bridgestone_motorcycle05The picture above is a page from a pamphlet for the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show. At the time, it was trendy to customize the BS90 for motocross, so it then got released as a commercial racing bike the following year. It became a textbook for customization.

The spin-offs, the BS50 and the Homer (a rival to the Honda Cub), appeared. Overseas exports were also on the up and the vehicles were doing well on the racing circuits. And it’s around this time that we see the model with the katakana script design that so impressed our editor. The 350 GTR, an export model with the then very innovative 6-speed technology and which was never sold in Japan, continued to be made for the American market until 1971, even after sales in Japan had ended.

bridgestone_motorcycle06“Bridgestone A Go Go” — an advertisement placed in an American motorbike magazine. Even right before production was about to stop, Bridgestone was splashing out on expensive advertising like this pull-out. And that in just ten years the graphic design had reached this level shows how sophisticated the motorbikes had become.

bridgestone_motorcycle07One of the things that Kotaro Furuta showed us was this graph with export figures up until right before production ceased. Look closely and you can see that 1965 was three times as much as 1963!

So why did Bridgestone pull out of the motorcycle business then?! Motorbike magazine writers at the time wrote many articles lamenting the surprising decision. Well, only Bridgestone founder Shojiro Ishibashi knows the real reason but Furuta has weighed it up over many years of research.

bridgestone_motorcycle08The BS90 Sports (right) takes the BS90 engine and added some sport touches, while the BS90 Scrambler (left) was released as a racing bike for the commercial market. Both were exported to America.

Bridgestone’s corporate identity is “Serving Society with Superior Quality”; its mission is to be the number one manufacturer in the market. The BS90 was its greatest hit, a motorbike with epoch-making technology and design, and which made a big impact on the market. However, as a tire maker, Honda and Yamaha, its competitors in the motorbike field, were first and foremost Bridgestone’s major clients. And on the other hand, the Ministry of Transport at the time was also instructing car and motorbike manufacturers to combine in order to enhance their export capabilities. (In fact, Prince Motor Company, then an affiliate of Bridgestone, would later merge with Nissan.)

And if we take a look at things at an even more elementary level, Bridgestone’s new motorbikes were actually being sold at bicycle shops that handled Bridgestone products. As the line-up of export models to America increased, the displacement on the engines gradually got bigger and bigger. This augured higher levels of maintenance for the motorbikes and the existing dealership network had reached its limit for delivering after-sales service. An upgrade of the retailers was urgently needed.

All told, we can glimpse what the state of affairs was like. Perhaps Bridgestone felt that ultimately it should rather focus on taking the lead in the global tire manufacturing industry, and thus pulled out of the motorcycle business.

While doing our interview for this article we borrowed several motorbikes from Kotaro Furuta. Even now the design hasn’t lost its hue. Take a look!

bridgestone_motorcycle09The BS200 M2 SS (right), the North America export model from Bridgestone Motorcycle’s twilight days, and the BS200RS (left), a revamped commercial racing bike based on the BS200.

What if Bridgestone was to revive its motorbikes? We asked our expert which model it should choose…

“The electric BS Motor!”

Well, there you have it — learning the lessons of the past.

Thank you, Kotaro Furuta!

Special Thanks: Masataka Sasada (BS90 Motocrosser, BS200RS Roadracer)