Japan’s motorcycle companies have a long history of revolutionizing the powersports market, from motorcycles boat motors. Of the Japanese Big Four, however, only Yamaha has seen any success in snowmobiles. Not only that, but Yamaha managed to keep its highly accomplished run going for longer than any of its hometown rivals, 55 years to be exact. Soon, though, that will come to an end, as Yamaha announced yesterday that it will pull out of the snowmobile market in 2025.
Yamaha began developing snowmobiles in 1965 to deal with the wintry terrain of northern Japan. The snowmobiling publication SnowGoer toured Yamaha’s factory in 2009 and learned that Yamaha began by sending its engineers to study different types of snow. The company had already began building motorcycles and outboard motors, but the Yamaha philosophy was that you can’t just clone the same engine for different applications. Few snowmobile manufacturers were building their own engines at the time, but Yamaha believed that an engine in a machine for traversing snow should be designed to do so from the outset.
Yamaha developed its first snowmobile prototype, the YX15 (lead photo), in 1965 and conducted tests near Nagano, future site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. During summer months the Nakatajima Sand Dunes stood in for snow. But like many early Japanese efforts, Yamaha’s snowmobiles weren’t an immediate triumph. Yamaha sent a team to Canada for three weeks to test the prototype, but it slammed so hard by locals that Yamaha ended up scrapping the whole thing.
In 1968 Yamaha’s first snowmobile, the SL350 (above), entered production. Unfortunately, despite starting from a clean slate the new machine still flopped in North America. As SnowGoer put it, not one of the 10 types of Japanese snow was found in North America. Furthermore, whereas in Japan snowmobiles were primarily used to traverse terrain where wheeled vehicles couldn’t go, in North America snowmobilers used them as recreational vehicles, racing and jumping them for fun.
Yamaha revamped their designs once again. In the following decades, Yamaha would introduce a slew of unprecedented technologies to the snowmobiling industry — heavy use of aluminum, its TSS telescopic strut suspension, and oil injection two-strokes gleaned from its motorcycle know-how.
In the 1980s Yamaha rocketed away from the competition with models like the 1981 SRX 440. Yamaha called it the Black Bullet, but its customers quickly bestowed it with the nickname Darth Vader, for its resemblance to the futuristic menacing villain of The Empire Strikes Back. It was not only fast, but agile, a race-bred performance sled.
By this point Yamaha’s sales were really taking off. Its technology and performance were second to none. The introduction of the lightweight 1984 Phazer ensured Yamaha could not be caught by the competition. The Phazer quickly became the best-selling snowmobile on the planet. As a result, it helped crown Yamaha the number one snowmobile maker in the world.
Because of the different types of snow found between Japan and North America, Yamaha even built a temperature-controlled testing facility that can dial the mercury down to -40°F below or as high as 120°F. A separate room can vary air pressure to simulate different elevations. All of that is presumably going to be repurposed for other activities soon. A video by SnowTrax (bel0w) does a fairly good job at summarizing the first 50 years of Yamaha’s snowmobile development.
Despite its successes, Yamaha says that moving forward it’ll be increasingly difficult to keep the snowmobile side of its business going in the face of environmental concerns. Sales will end in Japan in 2022, and in Europe in 2024. North Americans will be the final ones to receive Yamaha snowmobiles through the 2025 model year. After that, Yamaha sleds will be no more but the company says it will continue to supply parts and customer service.
Japan’s motorcycle companies dabbled in similar markets, but only Yamaha managed to break through. Honda, for example, only made a few sporadic snow-going models between 1972 and 1992, and most were unconventional oddballs that never found mass appeal. Suzuki’s snowmobile production lasted just a few years, from 1971 to 1976, though it did supply engines to Arctic Cat until 2013. Kawasaki’s stint was equally short, from 1977 to 1982. With Yamaha’s announcement, Japan will no longer be in the snowmobile business as another chapter in the country’s industrial revolution comes to a close.