Birth of the BW’s

Words: John Bayliss. Pics: Yamaha.

Before focusing on the development of new 2012 BW’s (pronounced Bee Wees), let’s take a quick look back at the history of Canada’s most popular scooter.



The year was 1989 when Yamaha Motor Canada (YMCA) first introduced the all new “Zuma” scooter (named after Zuma Beach in Malibu, California), the predecessor to the BW’s.

This original model was built in Japan, featured an air-cooled, reed-valve  two-stroke powerplant and had a bold, funky style that incorporated big fat tires, a single seat and a cool body design that shattered the traditional scooter mold. It was considered cool to ride a Zuma scooter and it became an instant hit.

It was revised just a year later and became a two-up scooter, with a longer seat and passenger footpegs. Production moved from Japan to the Yamaha-owned MBK factory (formerly Motobecane) in northern France.

It was also the beginning of a major problem for Yamaha Motor Canada. The Zuma was hugely popular in Europe, so much so that MBK could not keep up with demand. The company decided to eliminate North American Zuma production at the end of 1990 in order to satisfy European demand.

Alas, after two short years Canada became Zumaless — until 1995 when it came back as an early-release 1996 model. This time around it brandished a new name: BW’s. Although the new name came from the European model, it was also a cost-saving measure, as the U.S. did not pick up the machine again until 1997 and it was deemed too costly to re-badge the price-sensitive model for Canada alone.


The European BW’s has been very popular, but without the bug eyes.

This time the BW’s was here to stay, though that curious apostrophe has come and gone over the years.


In 2002 production once again shifted, this time from France to Yamaha Taiwan, which offered a larger, more modern facility with greater production capacity.

Since its reintroduction, the BW’s 50 has been a perennial best seller in Canada. Some readers may not be aware that there are three provinces where it is legal to ride a scooter from the age of 14. One of those is Quebec, and the youth there took to the BW’s like a fish to water.

During peak scooter years, Yamaha Canada was selling almost 4,000 units annually, and I have seen numerous two-year-old BW’s scooters in Quebec with over 20,000 km on the odometer. Let me tell you, these kids ride! So when the time came to start developing the next generation BW’s, Yamaha Canada had a rare voice in the planning process.


Does this MBK Booster look familiar? The BW’s was produced at the French MBK factory for more than a decade.

Product planners from Japan, Taiwan and the U.S. began a series of customer focus groups in Los Angeles, New York City and Montreal.

Now in most cases, U.S. and Canadian planners share a lot of same planning direction, but with the BW’s there were some issues; most of the U.S. scooter customers are commuter-oriented middle-age adults. In Quebec, a hotbed of scooter sales in Canada, BW’s owners are 14- to 17-year-old kids — and they have a completely different set of priorities!

Interviews were held with about 30 VIP customers in Quebec. They were first asked about their level of satisfaction with their current scooter, and then they were shown a series of image sketches and asked to rank them from worst to best. The sketches ranged from body design, to handlebars, headlights and storage capacity. Needless to say, the not-unexpected variation between Canadian and U.S. customer comments complicated BW’s planning efforts.

A few weeks after the interviews were completed, the product-planning department in Japan assigned “T81” as the official development code for the next generation BW’s and it was game on.



A prototype differs from a concept vehicle in that the prototype is the first step towards production, whereas the concept is just a styling exercise that may never be made. This BW’s concept was shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2007.

A joint team of engineers from Japan and Taiwan began piecing together a running prototype for testing purposes. At this stage engineers will “graph” the various pieces together and produce a very rough Zero Stage prototype.


Engineers squeezed a liquid-cooled four-stroke into an existing chassis.

In this instance, they took the new four-stroke engine and fitted it into a modified BW’s chassis to get a sense of how the unit would perform.

Once the prototype was complete, a testing group became involved with the project and spent many hours on the specially designed test course, riding the unit in wet and dry conditions, and on smooth and rough pavement.

At this point in development the test unit would be very rough and unfinished, with loads of data acquisition equipment strapped to it.

The testers then fed back their findings to the engineering group, who then made the appropriate modifications. If the Zero Stage unit passed this level of testing, then the engineers would begin work on the Stage 1 prototype.


Artists use a full-size clay model to create the shape that will eventually become the finished product.

If the Zero Stage prototype was not acceptable, then meetings would be held to determine the next course of action, up to and including cancellation of the project. As each stage advanced, the prototype got closer to the final spec, using the actual parts that would eventually comprise the unit.

After the prototype passed the initial stages of testing the project was handed over to the styling department, where a clay model was produced in a special studio that resembles an artist’s workshop. The clay model gives the designers the freedom to make changes in a short time by adding or removing clay and reshaping it.

These “artists” manipulated the clay model until the final design was achieved. The final clay model was then scanned by a high-tech computer, which records an incredible number of data, which would then be used to produce the dies for moulding the actual body parts.



The BW’s looks quite different when stripped of its bodywork. Even with the added complexity of a liquid-cooled four-stroke engine, the 2012 model weighs one kilo less than the two-stroke.

After two years of internal development and testing (not to mention the hundreds of emails back and fourth), I got the call in November 2010 inviting YMCA to test and evaluate the “final spec” BW’s. So with snow on the ground in Ontario I was off to California!

I have been lucky enough to be involved in a few test sessions down
south and it always amazes me that it is usually done in full view of
the public. I think the philosophy is if you try to hide it, it will be


Those bug-eye headlights bugged Quebecois riders but the larger U.S. market prevailed; they remain.


So we hopped aboard the test units (there were five in total),
headed out the back gate of Yamaha Motor USA (YMUS) and turned south
toward Laguna Hills and on through Anaheim, Tustin and Newport Beach.

The testing manager at YMUS was born and raised in California and his route was spectacular, with a mix of winding roads and incredible views of greater L.A. from the top of the foothills. The return trip took us up the Pacific Coast Highway (minimum speed limit be damned) and back to home base. These are the days that make a product manger’s job special.

Wrap-up meetings were held and serious discussions and negotiations ensued. The most significant bending point was the large dual headlights, which are an integral part of the BW’s styling image and the U.S. wanted to keep them. On the flip side, many young Quebec riders had requested a new headlight design.

It is always a game of give and take during these meetings, but unfortunately, it invariably comes down to numbers and YMUS still purchases about twice as many BW’s as does Canada, so you can guess who lost the struggle. My apologies to Quebec’s scooter-riding youth.



Popularity of the BW’s 50 spun off the larger BW’s 125 model – see the similarities to the concept above?

As you read this, production of the newest BW’s has already started in Taiwan, with the new 2012 BW’s 50 set to arrive in Canada by the end of July.

The most significant change is to the engine, which is now a 49 cc, fuel injected, three-valve, four-stroke offering improved fuel economy, and most importantly, reduced emissions. Styling wise, the new BW’s still maintains the fun-loving, “tough and sporty” rally image, but the cockpit and floorboards offer a roomier ride.

As gas prices still hover around the $1.30 mark here in Ontario (more in other provinces), scooters really do make good sense – according to the info we have received, the newest BW’s gets close to 55 kilometres per litre of fuel.

That being said, despite the reasonable purchase price, great fuel economy and reduced operating expenses (all of which are excellent reasons to buy a scooter), one message that comes through loud and clear from our customers: Scooters are fun to ride!


  1. Outstanding article. The research and history here is awesome.

    It’s a bummer to see the cheaky plastic bug-eye headlights remain on what is otherwise an outstanding model. On my BWs 125 I replaced them with the vertical headlight setup from the Asian market. Hopefully something similar is possible with the new BWs 50.


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