Noguchi’s unicorn racers of the 1970s

Noguchi’s unicorn racers of the 1970s were hopped-up Yamaha dirt bikes with a twist.

Photo by John L. Stein

Some of the greatest motorcycle companies started with a simple dream.

Soichiro Honda began making piston rings after World War II. The Ducati brothers offered an auxiliary engine, the Cucciolo, to power bicycles. And William Harley and the Davidson brothers developed a single-cylinder motorbike in a wooden shed. While these companies flourished to become global leaders, far more made a similar start, found a toehold for a while, and then misstepped, ran short of ideas, capital or leverage, and faded away. This latter scenario describes Noguchi, a Japanese company that made racing parts for various Yamahas during the 1970s.

Credit company founder Taneharu Noguchi, Yamaha’s first factory rider and later team manager, with great timing in building go-fast parts for the company’s growing lineup of dirt bikes. Using chrome-plated aluminum cylinders — together with revised port shapes, oversize reed valves and carburetors, and bespoke racing expansion chambers — Noguchi turned production bikes into raging racers. Models ranged from 80cc and 90cc tiddlers through 100cc, 125cc, 175cc and eventually 250cc machines. Later on, Noguchi even produced a liquid-cooled cylinder head kit that further evolved production bikes into works-type replicas.

A page from a Noguchi catalog featuring parts for 125cc Yamahas.
Photo by John L. Stein

Not exactly “factory”

The term “replica” should be emphasized here, as Noguchi was neither Yamaha’s racing department nor Yamaha’s own Genuine Yamaha Technology (GYT) division. It was a standalone company that developed, produced and distributed unique parts dedicated to the Tuning Fork bikes. Along the way, confident advertising from its U.S. sales agent, an Atlanta company called Dirty Distributing, arguably blurred the lines between Noguchi parts and prototype race-shop parts. This was largely done through using the term “factory works” in its literature. As any aware racer knows, “factory” and “works” specifically means the race department of a motorcycle manufacturer, not an aftermarket company.

A period Noguchi ad
Photo by John L. Stein

Nonetheless, the selling proposition for Noguchi was solid. During an incredible decade of performance advances for dirt bikes, the company offered a good range of items necessary to turn up the wick on commonly available Yamahas, including the GT80, MX100, MX125, YZ125, MX175 and similar. Its advertising was emphatic about what customers would get. “Go all the way,” the literature read. Touting power gains was key, for instance that a kit for a MX125 would increase horsepower from 22 to 30 — a 36-percent gain. Similarly, the boost for a kitted MX175 was from 24 to 33 horsepower — a 38-percent boost. You get the idea. Kits cost from $97 to $300, based on period documents.

Speed costs money

Logically, even in the early 1970s, performance cost money. Yamahas were good enough bikes, but they weren’t expensive “exotics” like Maico, Husqvarna or CZ. And so, the people who bought them were likely drawn to the “bang for the buck” that bolt-on Noguchi kits promised.

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