Posted On 26 Mar 2024
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This entry is part 18 of 26 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#26


Have you ever wondered who first thought of ag bikes? I hadn’t either until I heard of a man named Frank Johns.

Frank Johns just happens to be the late father of a friend of mine. Strange as it may seem, but true, his first name is the same as mine: Phil. There the similarity ends dear reader, because Phil, not this Phil, the other Phil, did not follow in his father’s wheel tracks; he is not a motor cyclist. His passion is Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Corvettes, and he has several in his most gloriously laid out garage.

I had on loan from Phil Johns a very large book compiled by his father containing almost two hundred and fifty newspaper cuttings relating to Frank’s motor cycle businesses in and around Adelaide, Port Lincoln and Port Augusta. Those paper cuttings tell the very interesting story of the progress made in the world of motor cycling, in South Australia at least, in the years after World War 2 until 1964, when Frank closed his business.

Frank began trading in 1948, naming his business Liberty Motors and beginning with the marketing of Austrian, Italian, Czechoslovakian and German made machines including BMW, Bergmeister, Vespa, Moto Guzzi, Jawa, CZ, Horex, Victoria, NSU and Daimler-Steyr-Puch, later handling Vincent HRD, BSA, Norton, Matchless, EMC and Sunbeam motor cycles along with New Hudson Auto Cycles and then in 1958 moving into the sale of cars from the German NSU factory as an additional income stream.

Frank was also a distinguished campaigner in motor cycle sport riding both a Vincent ‘B’ series Rapide and a BSA Bantam in the late 1940s, and through the 1950s.

This is where the motor cycle side of the Yamaha story begins to unfold.

Torakusu Yamaha, a builder of pianos, named his company Nippon Gakki and had it incorporated in 1897. In 1958, some years after that turbulent time of the 1940s, Nippon Gakki put its expertise to good use, moving into manufacturing a small motor cycle. It was the same design as that copied by BSA for the Bantam and Harley- Davidson for the Hummer: the well-known German DKW. With the success of this 125cc two stroke motor cycle the Yamaha Motor Co. was born in 1959. Yamaha was chosen as the name of the company to honour the founder.

That year, Frank Johns travelled to Japan to attend meetings with the management of Nippon Gakki Co. Hamamatsu, to present an idea he had been working on for some time. Frank had approached several other motor cycle companies both in England and Europe with his plans, to no avail. None were interested in tooling up for a new and untried segment of motor cycling.

The Japanese were more receptive to Frank’s idea of an “off road” type of bike to be used in the pastoral industry for herding sheep and cattle, instead of relying on one horse power and a saddle. The fi rst of those off road bikes built in Japan went on sale at Liberty Motors in 1961 with the name Liberty Yamaha Ranch. A fitting name, you might think, but the word “liberty” was not derived from Frank Johns’ Liberty motor cycle business.

The use of “liberty” in both Frank’s business and the name of Yamaha’s new motor cycle is just a coincidence.

I was interested to read in one of the newspaper cuttings that the use of the word stems from postwar American capital interests in Nippon Gakki Co.

Without American capital, it seems, Yamaha might never have existed as we know it today. Therefore, could one presume to think that Yamaha is part American, with an Australian connection?

Thanks to Frank’s idea of a purpose built off road bike for pastoral use, as reported in one of the newspapers, similar models were sent around the world for evaluation in such countries as Africa, Canada, India, Pakistan, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and both Texas and California in America We are ever thankful to Frank Johns for his foresight and persistence and to Yamaha for giving us off road bikes that not only benefitted the man (and woman) on the land but created a whole new type of sport, that of trail riding, which has developed into the adventure bikes of today.

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