Liberty Yamaha – The Australian Yamaha

Bike Profile

How many Yamaha Liberty Ranch bikes were built is not known as production lasted less than two years and all records have been destroyed but at least twelve motorcycles and a number of engines and frames still exist.

Designed in Australia and built in Japan. This is how the press cuttings of 1960 described the Liberty Yamaha Ranch model which was derived from the 1959 Yamaha YDS1 250cc sports motorcycle. Designed and manufactured exclusively for the South Australian importer, Liberty Motor Co Ltd, the Ranch model was arguably Yamaha’s first purpose built off-road motor-cycle. It has now become the rarest of the registrable Yamaha series production bikes.

The story begins with a visionary South Australian named Frank Johns who was involved in the livestock industry on out-back stations in the 1930s. Preferring motorcycles to horses, he saw a need for the ideal off-road motor-cycle but could never find a suitable machine. Frank considered market research as the key for success and so he set out to find out what the “man on the land” thought was necessary. As the Liberty advertising for the model says, “As far back as 1938, the idea of a perfectly designed motor cycle suitable for terrific endurance and hard going, as required in the primary industry and out back country, was thought of.”

Magazine advert for the Yamaha Liberty Ranch Model.

At the time and even in the 1950s and ‘60s, motorcycles for agricultural use were usually a “dealer’s special” having little or no factory involvement, and models and modifications differed between dealers and states. Frank realised that these conversions had very limited distribution and marketing potential and set a main criteria for his motorcycle to be a factory production series bike that was standardised and could be marketed in any state or country with a factory-backed spare parts network. Frank wanted to be a global importer/distributor and not just another motorcycle shop owner.

Before Frank could explore his options with potential manufacturers, WW2 started. Motorcycle despatch riders needed to be trained and who better to do this than an experienced all terrain rider – so Frank was seconded into training despatch riders for the war’s duration. During the war, motorcycles were being used in all theatres of conflict from dense mountainous jungles to dry and very sandy deserts throughout the world, so this was the perfect opportunity for Frank to talk with returning riders and solicit their input to further specify the ideal off-road motorcycle.

In the late 1940’s and with specifications in hand, Frank started to approach various motor-cycle manufacturers around the world. The proposal was simple but a big ask, as he wanted them to manufacture a motorcycle to his criteria and for him exclusively with the bikes rebadged to his business name, Liberty. Both the European and British motorcycle industries showed no interest in the proposal.

When Frank approached the Japanese motor-cycle manufacturers in the mid 1950’s a booming industry was well underway. Even in 1959 Japan still had 145 motorcycle manufacturers and in 1955 Tohatsu sold more units than any other manufacturer, including Honda. It was into this environment that the Liberty off-road motorcycle proposal was pitched but with little success at first. Nippon Gakki Co Ltd, a musical instrument manufacturer, had in 1955 founded the Yamaha Motor Company with modern manufacturing facilities. Further expansion occurred due to the exceptional growth in the home market from two new models, the SC-1 scooter and the MF-1 step-through. The home market was becoming saturated so Yamaha was vigorously looking at the Australian and USA markets. At this time Frank approached Nippon Gakki, who still handled the commercial aspects for Yamaha, and they agreed to have the Yamaha engineers explore the proposal to see if a motorcycle could be built to Frank’s specifications. Yamaha possibly had other markets in mind hence the name “Ranch Model”.

Mick Bulman’s Liberty Yamaha Ranch Model.

Liberty Motor Co Ltd was located at 65-71 Grote Street, Adelaide being established by Frank who had negotiated an exclusive contract for the Yamaha range in South Australia. In 1959 Liberty began importing the Adler-copy YD2 250cc model to be followed by the sports YDS1 250cc version, both re-badged as Liberty Yamaha. This was with Yamaha’s blessing who agreed that Frank could use a modified 1955 YA1 badge which was a red circle bounded by a white border with gold tuning forks with black lettered “Liberty Yamaha” inserted in the red circle. When the motorcycles sold by the Liberty Motor Co were registered, the official make was “Liberty” with no reference to Yamaha, a practice that remained even with the 1962 YDS2 model.

By the time discussions had started in earnest in 1960, Yamaha had two 250cc twin cylinder models; the 54×54 engine, pressed steel frame, 4 speed, 16” wheel model YD2, and the new sports version designed by Yamaha, the 56×50 engine, tube frame, 5 speed, 18” wheel YDS1. The YD2 was neither suitable nor acceptable and the YDS1 was a sports road bike that that did not meet the specifications but had potential. So the Yamaha engineers went away to see what was possible given the limited market and the modest funds available for tooling up to produce this bike.

At the final design meeting in August 1960 the engineers presented the new model that incorporated 93 different parts.

As extra ground clearance was a requirement, a set of model-specific upswept exhaust pipes was designed with additional baffles to reduce noise so they could be used around livestock. These were complete with leg heat shields and finished in the obligatory chrome. For better control, wide upswept handle bars were essential as was increased clearance between the front wheel and mudguard so the engineers used the handlebars and mudguard from the YDS1 “Scrambler” kit. A single seat and rear carrier, necessary for the “man on the land”, were sourced from the “home” model as the carrying of a pillion was illegal in many areas of Japan, although manufactures fitted grab rails to rear carriers in the knowledge that most riders did not obey this rule. The carrier grab rail is fitted to the Liberty Ranch bike but a pillion would have suffered very burnt legs from the exhaust pipes. The standard tank was modified to incorporate a model-specific tank rack. Looking as though fabricated in the blacksmith’s shop, model-specific raised foot pegs and a one-eighth inch (3 mm) thick engine protection plate were added.

Power output was generally not quoted but would have been significantly less the YDS1.

The engine was where the real changes occurred: forced by some of Frank’s criteria that the bike must be capable of travelling at 5 mph all day, have excellent fuel efficiency and be able to climb steep slopes. The YDS1 sports bike was fitted with twin 20mm carburettors for speed regardless of fuel economy. After much thought the engineers decided the only solution was to replace them with a single 20mm carburettor and reduce the compression ratio from 8:1 to 5:1. The single carburettor from the YD2 was used but the YD2 had the inlet port stubs as part of the cylinder casting, angled towards the centre and connected via a rubber “Y” piece. However, on the YDS1 the inlet ports faced directly to the rear and had no stubs with the carburettors bolting directly onto the cylinders. An easy fix was to manufacture cast aluminium inlet stubs that were bolted to the cylinders and angled towards the centre thus allowing the “Y” connecter to join the carburettor to the cylinders. It was found that on the YD2 motor, the rubber “Y” inlet tube was not of sufficient strength to support the carburettor so the carburettor body casting had a lug added each side to firmly bolt the unit to the crank-case. The YDS1 crank cases did not have any suitable mounting points so special crank-case castings were made having raised spigots as part of the castings which allowed the carburettor to be firmly attached. For off-road use the air cleaner had to be mounted higher being located under the seat, so a small vented unit was sourced from another model with a rubber “L” tube for a connection. A 75-miles per gallon fuel economy was claimed. Power output was generally not quoted but would have been significantly less the YDS1.

A new wiring harness was designed and manufactured and to reduce costs some YDS1 features were omitted such as the night light in the speedometer. Revised switches were also used.

As Frank had found batteries unreliable in the past, he specified a magneto ignition and lighting be used and the battery eliminated. This created a major problem as the YDS1 and YD2 used a dynamo/ battery ignition and lighting system, as did the kit to convert the bike to a Scrambler. The Road Race kit (YDS1R) had a magneto but this only provided spark so Yamaha had to design and fit a model-specific magneto which was supplied by Mitsubishi. A new wiring harness was designed and manufactured and to reduce costs some YDS1 features were omitted such as the night light in the speedometer. Revised switches were also used.

As rough terrain riding would be encountered, the front forks and rear suspension units were redesigned having stronger springs and different shock dampening, and the frame was reinforced. Rim widths and Fujikura “Ground Grip” tyres were wider with tyre security bolts fitted to the rear rim to allow decreased tyre pressure necessary in sandy terrain. Fitted with a 5 speed gear-box and a huge 55 tooth rear sprocket the bike could “crawl along behind a flock of sheep at 2 miles per hour” and was capable of climbing a 1-in-3 slope. A number of smaller modifications were made including different chain guards and the associated swing arm brackets, redesigned kick-start lever, different gear change and foot brake levers, and toolbox.

Rudimentary chain guards would have copped a hiding.

In November 1960 two prototypes were imported into Adelaide for evaluation purposes and performed exceptionally well so production was scheduled with the first delivery arriving in April 1961. Frank was pleased so he applied for a world-wide patent and commissioned a large “Liberty” tank transfer. Yamaha included the new parts in their parts list book titled “Liberty Yamaha Ranch Model” along with stock numbers starting 08. Stock numbers 01 to 05 refer to the standard YDS1 with 06 being the racing kit YDS1R and 07 being the scrambler kit.

Priced at £206/19/6 to primary producers, Liberty sales were good in South Australia, south west Queensland and western NSW.

The siamesed inlet port to take the single 20 mm carburettor.

The Liberty Motor Co also established an agreement with Dalgety and Company Ltd in Adelaide as the Australian rural distributor. However other Yamaha dealers were reluctant to sell the Ranch model because Liberty Motor Co retained the rights to it and insisted that it be called a Liberty. Frank tried to sell the Ranch Model to the Army but they preferred their BSAs. Potential customers were conservative especially to Japanese products.

Changes happening within Yamaha in the short time between 1959 and 1962 heralded the end of the Ranch model. The YDS1 was replaced with the up-dated and more powerful YDS2. Yamaha wanted to start its own distribution network and end exclusivity contracts in the USA and Australia. Models that had brought Yamaha their success in their home market in the late 1950s, the SC-1 and MF-1, became huge financial liabilities due to warranty claims in the early 1960s.

Technically the YDS2 was very similar to the YDS1 and could have been easily converted to a Ranch model using the existing parts, but it suited Yamaha to cease production of the Ranch Model as it was not financially viable, and the company was in financial difficulties. The Yamaha name could be established and the Liberty name associated with the exclusivity contract could be eliminated. Yamaha had made the decision that their model range would all be called Yamaha and there was no room for the Liberty. Frank’s decision to call the bike a Liberty had created confusion as to whom the maker was and Liberty literature of the time quoted incorrect technical specifications (bore and stroke) creating further confusion and harming sales.

Liberty Motor Co continued to sell the YDS2 as a Liberty although no Liberty badges or transfers were applied but ceased trading with the Yamaha distribution in South Australia being taken over by Yamaha Pitmans.

How many Ranch bikes were built is not known as production lasted less than two years and all records have been destroyed but at least twelve motorcycles and a number of engines and frames still exist.

Frank brought to fruition the machine of his dreams during in a once in a life-time period of an inexperienced fledgling motorcycle manufacturer and created Yamaha’s first production off road motorcycle, the Liberty Yamaha Ranch Model. The machine featured here is owned by Mick Bulman.

Liberty Yamaha – Specifications

Type: Twin Cylinder Two stroke
Bore x Stroke (mm): 56 x 50
Pre mix: 20 : 1
Transmission: 5 speed
Ground Clearance: 230 mm
Fuel Range: 480 Kms
Top Speed: 95 kph
Weight: 142 kilo

Words and photos Geoffrey Ellis

OBA Issue 26
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.26