Soichiro Ishibashi set up what we now know as the Bridgestone Tire Company in 1933. The literal translation of 'Ishibashi' from Japanese into English gives 'stone bridge'. Perhaps marketing considerations even then led to the words being swapped around so that the company appeared before its rivals in alphabetical listings. Who knows?
Literally thousands of businesses sprang up in teh devastation of post-war Japan to satisfy the pressing need for transportation. Already in the tyre business, Bridgestone quickly added bicycle manufacture as a profitable side-line. From there it was an obvious step to add a clip-on motor in the same way that many of their contemporaries were doing.
The first engine units were in fact brought in from Fuji Precision Engineering, a company better known today as Nissan. Initially of 32cc, the BS21 "Bambi" of 1952 progressed by stages to a full 50cc unit churning out a heady 1.3hp at 4000rpm. By then known as the BS41, it was this motor that was fitted to the first 'proper' Bridgestone motorcycle in 1958.
Bankruptcy and mergers over the next few years whittled the number of motorcycle manufacturers down to a handful. With export markets opening up, the big three family firms of Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha were concerned at the threat posed by the much smaller (in terms of motorcycle sales) Bridgestone and Kawasaki.
Bridgestone was capitalising on its 'non-Japanese' name in the States by being marketed as "Bridgestone by Rockford" - a leading US aerospace company. Kawasaki Heavy Industries was much too big a conglomerate to take on, but Bridgestone was a different matter. Its main income came from supplying tyres to its rival motorcycle makers, so when they decided Bridgestone was getting too big for its boots, a little subtle pressure was applied and motorcycle production ceased.
As far as this country [England] is concerned, Bridgestones first became available towards the end of 1967 when a Chester dealer, Bill Smith, took on the franchise.
He brought in a five-bike range for the next two years - two 90s, two 175s and the GTR350 - before relinquishing the concession in 1969. Always expensive - the GTR350 was UKP350 when a BSA 650 Thunderbolt could be had for UKP326 - threatened price rises would have made the bikes totally uneconomic to import.
Dave has had the low-piped 350GTR since 1984. The American import bike has done less than 1700 miles since new in 1967 and is an unrestored, original example - original apart from the period AVON SM tyres, that is! With a frame number indicating it to be the 128th built, this is probably the earliest Bridgestone in the country. Looking at the deep gloss on the Candy Red paintwork it is easy to see why Bridgestone were so proud of their paint process - parts were bathed in rust preventer, dried and sanded down before having the first colour coat sprayed by hand. This was then oven-dried before having the top coat applied by electrostatic attraction. Apart from a couple of chips on the Jet-Lube oil tank the machine looks as if it has just come from the showroom.
Backing that impression up is the styling - still bang up to date after 25 years, the GTR looks as sharp as any retro-bike. No badge spoils the smooth flow of the 3.3-gallon tank. Shaped like an arrow head when viewed from the normal riding position and commendably narrow at the rubber knee-grips, its reversed teardrop side view lends the bike an air of speed even when stationary.
Brand identification is taken care of by the logo on the seat sides. The suede-effect vinyl seat is amply long for two, and is flipped up at the rear in the modern idiom. This last is, according to the sales literature, required to stop you sliding backwards off the saddle during 14-second quarter-mile drag starts. A negative feature these days, I suppose, as it would stop you sliding about to get your knee down...
Mind you, you would need long legs or a lot of bottle to do that on the GTR, even though there is nothing wrong with the handling. The Bridgestone - with 19-inch rims front and rear - is a tall bike. It dwarfs equivalent 350s of the day from rival manufacturers, which tended to be overbored 250s. Built more on the scale of British 500s, the Bridgestone borrows a couple of their points. Rear dampers are adjustable by moving the top mountings a la Velocette, while the separate clocks and chrome headlamp evoke shades of Triumph. To put the machine in conext, it was essentially the first 'big' bike from Japan - large enough for American riders not to feel silly on.
Quality touches abount - stainless steel front guard, lubrication points on all the cables, and a neat little clip to keep brake and clutch cables away from the clocks. The only questionable cycle part is the front brake, borrowed directly from Bridgestone's 175 and not really up to the job.
Aimed at converting traditional British bikers to the fold, the double-cradle frame comes provided with fittings to mount the rear brake pedal on the left side if so required, complemented by a gearchange shaft protruding through both sides of the engine.
If the cycle parts were "far out, man!", the power unit also contains technology that was decidedly leading edge in the 1960s. Immediately obvious is what you can't see - carburetors. The Bridgestone range featured the disc-valve induction that was otherwise restricted to the race track and Kawasaki 'A' series owners at the time. Polished side covers hide 26mm Mikuni carbs, while other less obvious features borrowed from the track are chrome plated alloy barrels and a dry clutch. Sitting atop the six-speed gearbox in the position usually occupied by the carburetors in lesser breeds are the generator and, directly behind the cylinders, the air cleaner.
The element inside the beautifully-cast and -polished cover was supported by a wire gauze plate. This could - and frequently did - break up, shedding particles that did no good at all to the rapidly-rotating discs and the four-bearing crank! With early machines also suffering from self-destructive outer oil seals, mortality rate for these engines was high.
Dave's second Bridgestone, the 'street scrambler' GTO, falls right at the other end of the production cycle, being one of the last built in March 1971. THis one has had a much harder life than the GTR, having now racked up all of 1997 miles! A frame number of 9668 gives an idea of how rare a machine thse 350 Bridgestones are: total production never reached five figures. Only around 35 GTRs were brought into the country by Bill Smith, and a couple of GTOs have subsequently come in. Dave's GTO started life in Indiana and turned up, totally unexpectedly at a Runcorn auction some time ago.
Seemingly original when he got it, Bridgestone nuts say it shows signs of having been put together from the dregs of the parts bins, incorporating a hotch-potch of minor changes that occurred throughout the production cycle. What is 'wrong' on this bike is the fuel tank. Says Dave: "I just didn't like the cheap look of the factory's choice of all-white with two black flashes. It needed a re-spray, anyway, and as it's the same pressing as the red bike I had it chromed to match."
Differences between the two bikes are minimal, and point up that the GTO is very much a conversion of the GTR. The main viusal change centres on the high pipes, of course. Because of them, the option ot move the shockers is lost, as the silencers only feature a cutaway to match the forward position. The oil tank becomes a plastic bottle in the middle of the frame, stealing the position of the toolkit, which moves to a box clipped to the seat grab rail. The rear heat shield is lifted from the 175 "Hurricane" scrambler and comes in stainless, whereas the front shield is unique to the GTO and wears a chrome finish. More annoyingly, the battery becomes marooned behind the two cheap-looking tin sidecovers, forcing removal of an exhaust before the acid level can be checked or toped up - and no jellied batteries in those days! Otherwise, adding bracing to the bars, a different front guard and sump plate completes the conversion. This was the first GTO I had seen, so I was keen to see how it matched up to previous experience of riding GTRs.
That it is very much the same bike became clear immediately - the kickstart is mounted high up on the left, and makes balancing to start the machine difficult. Once it fires, the rotary valves and dry clutch combine to produce a 'whoppa whoppa' akin to a low-flying helicopter - this is not a quiet motorcycle! The clutch seems fine to me, with no sign of the snatch that period road tests mention. What always catches me out is the gearchange pattern - all down - which leads to inadvertent changes in to neutral by a foot instinctively programmed to move up from first to second.
Once underway, the engine's rubber mounting allows the ample torque to be enjoyed in comfort, without the hard edge to the power delivery that is felt on other strokers of the period.
If you fancy throwing a leg over a Bridgestone then a suitably inflated figure might persuade Dave to part with one of his timeless classics, though somehow I think your best bet would be to order one of the carbon-fibre framed bicycles that the company makes today. Who knows, with 'green' issues increasingly to the fore we may yet see Bridgestone coming up with ceramic-pistoned clip-on motors for them...