First Ride – 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Kawasaki’s wide range of motorcycle offerings (there are 60 different options on their website right now) can mostly be broken down into 4 Families – KX, Ninja, Vulcan, and Z. The last letter of the alphabet represents Team Green’s brand of street motorcycles, for those of you that spend your time on surface streets and back roads instead of race tracks.
MAKING THE COMMUTE LOOK GOOD.
For 2018, the Z family gets a new member that’s just like baby Benjamin Button – it’s brand new but it looks old. That’s because it’s styled like the patriarch of the Z family, the 1973 Z1. That bike was an instant classic, and there’s a reason why we’ve featured so many for sale over the years. Back in 2014, I featured #151 for sale and it did not meet reserve, even though bidding got up to $61,100! When Kawasaki was developing the Z1, they used menu items for internal project names – as this bike would be the biggest and best, it was called “New York Steak.”
It had a rocky start – it was originally supposed to be a 750cc inline four, but Honda beat them to market with the CB750. Wisely, Kawasaki decided to hold off until they could shove an 81 horsepower, 903cc motor in instead. It’s considered by many to be the world’s first superbike, and Kawi helped that reputation along by taking a bike to Daytona and setting 46 different speed records, including the World 24-hour speed endurance title.
Long story short, it was great. But that’s enough about the past. What about the future (especially if you don’t have $60k lying around)?
Unfortunately, I was only able to ride the RS for about 60 miles, so please consider this a first date. I should be getting a test unit for a long-term relationship soon and I’ll be able to give you a better idea of what the RS would be like to live with. Until then, here are the basics:
Kawasaki proves that retro styling and modern performance can complement each other well, but a snatchy throttle gets in the way of perfection. Still, the RS is the best rebirth of the UJM yet and it’s an audiovisual delight thanks to a tuned intake and exhaust that ensure it sounds as good as it looks.
Unlike the Z1 of yesteryear, this is not your answer for all-out power. However, if you want a bike with modern performance that will take you back to a time when styling departments weren’t inspired by Michael Bay’s Transformer movies, the Z900RS is well worth a closer look.
The Z900RS is available in two paint schemes: Metallic Spark Black and Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange. The latter is obviously a tribute to the Candy Root Beer Brown and Orange livery of the Z1, and it’s particularly striking in sunlight.
THE METALLIC SPARK BLACK BIKE ALSO HAS COMPLETELY BLACK WHEELS. COMPARED TO THE OPTIONAL TWO-TONE SCHEME THAT COSTS AN ADDITIONAL $200, THE BLACK BIKE GETS A RESOUNDING “MEH.” STUDY THIS PICTURE CLOSELY – THIS WILL BE THE ONLY TIME I SHOW YOU THE BLACK OPTION.
When the Z900 was released earlier this year (click here to see my thoughts on that bike), Kawasaki used a slogan of “Refined Raw”. It’s a little hokey, but it is a fair way to describe a street bike that’s aggressive yet easy to ride. The RS puts an emphasis on refined, and Kawasaki’s reps said that this bike is focused on giving the rider a “stress-free” experience. That was evident from the moment I sat down. The rider triangle is much more neutral, and I found the ergonomics very comfortable, save for a longer-than-expected reach to the handlebar.
My speed date with the RS consisted of some surface streets in dense LA traffic as well as a loop of twisties in the Santa Monica mountains, many of the same roads I used to ride every weekend for fun. I did not get a chance to experience the bike on a highway, but if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll share that I spent some time above highway speeds on the straight portions of Mulholland.
WHO IS THIS FOR?
Kawasaki went on a market research blitz when they were considering the RS, and their findings were fairly straightforward. Their target for the RS is 35-55 year olds who think that “show” is just as important as “go”. This group thinks super nakeds are too extreme but they want something unique and consider motorcycling to be a strong part of their identity and lifestyle.
$11,199 WOULD ACTUALLY GET YOU A DECENT (BUT NOT AMAZING) EXAMPLE OF AN ORIGINAL Z1. WHAT WOULD YOU PICK?
More Than a Pretty Face.
It’d be easy to say that this is just a restyled Z900, but Kawasaki has made plenty of changes which result in a significantly different riding experience. I don’t want to make this review all about how the RS compares to the Z900, because that’s only helpful to people who have ridden the Z, but I do want to illustrate that Kawasaki has put in a lot of effort to make this bike unique, to the point that they might have made a mistake giving it a model name so similar to the Z900.
There are a lot of differences, and almost every single one of them is an improvement. The trade-off is that you have to pay to play. A Z900 with ABS costs $8,799. The Z900RS costs $10,999, but let’s be real, you’re going to spend another $200 to get the two-tone paint, so you’re actually going to be on the hook for $11,199. If you’re awful at math, that’s a $2,400 price difference. Let’s see what that extra money gets you.
IS THIS FACELIFT WORTH $2,400?
The obvious change is the styling, which I think looks great in the retro paint livery. I asked Croft Long, Kawasaki’s product manager, what the predictions were for how they expected the different colors to sell and was surprised to hear that they thought 60% would be in brown/orange and the remaining 40% in black. I would have guessed it would be closer to 85%/15%! I felt slightly vindicated when he told me that the first round of orders from dealerships were approximately 70%/30%.
I also had a long conversation with multiple Kawasaki employees about the wheels, which were specifically built for the RS. They’re cast wheels designed to look like spokes, and part of me thinks they should actually be spokes. The counter-arguments I got were all valid – these require less maintenance, they’re cheaper, and they weigh less. Basically, “it’s a modern bike so it gets modern wheels.” I’m still on the fence. The draw here is the styling. If performance is a priority, you should be looking at the Z900 instead. It would have been nice for spokes to be an extra cost option, just like BMW offers with the RnineT Scrambler.
DO YOU LIKE THE MODERN TAKE ON SPOKE WHEELS? ON THE TWO-TONE BIKE, THE WHEELS ARE POLISHED SO THAT THE OUTER RIM AND OUTSIDE EDGES OF THE “SPOKES” ARE SILVER. AS YOU SAW ABOVE, THE BLACK BIKE IS EQUIPPED WITH ENTIRELY BLACK WHEELS.
If you go further than skin deep, you’ll see that the trellis frame has been redesigned to fit the teardrop fuel tank and the stance has been made more neutral by lowering the rear and raising the front. The seat height is .2″ taller (a 1″ thinner seat is available), the handlebars are 65mm higher and 35mm further back, and the footpegs are 20mm forward and 20mm lowers. All of that simply means that the rider triangle is more neutral and upright than the Z900. My one complaint is the seat, which felt great when I first sat down but after a few miles I felt pressure points all over the place. I think (but I need more time to confirm) that the seat is just a little too wide for me.
IT’S A COMFORTABLE RIDING POSITION, BUT THE SEAT DID NOT AGREE WITH MY BUTT. MAYBE I’M GETTING OLD.
From a 0’s and 1’s standpoint, the RS gains KTRC compared to the Z900. That stands for Kawasaki TRaction Control, which is better than regular Traction Control, I guess. (It’s definitely better than Honda’s name, “Honda Selectable Torque Control”). Ignoring the off-position, KTRC offers two levels of interference control. Mode 1 is the default, and it allows a little wheel slip before it reins you in. It’s also smart enough to differentiate between someone getting hard on the throttle and lofting the front wheel a few inches off the ground for a quarter mile versus someone who’s had a case of whiskey throttle and is about to loop it. Mode 2 is stricter, but I also noticed (thanks to feedback from Nic de Sena over at Ultimate Motorcycling) that it smooths out the throttle which I otherwise considered to be too abrupt. More on that later. If you turn KTRC off (which you can only do at a stop) and shut the bike off, the traction control will reset to Mode 1 the next time you turn the power on. Otherwise, if you leave it in Mode 1 or Mode 2, the traction control will remember your setting and keep it there the next time you start the RS up.
IF IT WASN’T OBVIOUS, THIS IS IN KILOMETERS, NOT MILES. I REALLY ENJOYED THE COMBINATION OF ANALOG/DIGITAL GAUGES. KTRC INDICATOR IS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DIGITAL DISPLAY, AND EVERYTHING IS EASY TO READ WHILE YOU’RE ON THE MOVE.
How a Retro Moves Forward.
Obviously, the RS motor shares a lot with the 948cc inline four from the Z900. Some of the basic numbers are shared (like a bore and stroke of 73.4 x 56.0 mm), but there have been plenty of modifications made to the drivetrain, in addition to the cosmetic changes highlighted above.
THE ENGINE HAS A FEW STYLING CUES THAT PAY HOMAGE TO THE Z1, LIKE THE BUMPS IN THE VALVE COVER AND THE FINS THAT HAVE BEEN CAST ONTO THE CYLINDER HEAD. IT’S A GOOD-LOOKING MOTOR, AND I PARTICULARLY LOVE THE HEADERS. UNFORTUNATELY, LIKE WITH MOST WATER-COOLED BIKES, THE RADIATOR AND ASSOCIATED PLUMBING DON’T LOOK GREAT.
To me, the most significant tweak is a 12% increase in mass of the crankshaft flywheel, which dramatically tones down the aggressive nature of the Z900. Complementing that is a lower compression ratio (11.8:1 to 10.8:1), shorter intake (270° to 248°) and exhaust (256° to 244°) durations in the cam profile, and ~20% narrower headers – changes made to improve low and mid-range performance for the RS. Note that Kawaski built an outer shell around the headers so that they still look thick and purposeful, and there’s a side benefit that they won’t turn blue over time.
THE HEADERS, PRE-CHAMBER, AND SILENCER ARE STAINLESS STEEL AND ARE GIVEN A BUFFED FINISH. DOUBLE WALLS IN THE HEADER SHOULD HELP THEM AGE MORE GRACEFULLY THAN THE RIDER WILL.
All those changes should yield a much more relaxed riding experience to back up Kawasaki’s “stress-free” claim, but it’s nearly impossible to operate the throttle smoothly when it’s just cracked open. If the throttle is closed and you open it up (whether you’re leaving a stop or accelerating out of a corner), you’ll get jerked around.
This is especially annoying in slow speed curves. Mode 2 of KTRC helps smooth this out a bit, but that shouldn’t be necessary. However you control the power, there’s going to be less of it. As the priority in the powerband has been shifted lower, peak horsepower is down to 111 from 125. You shouldn’t care – it’s still fast enough.
IF 14 HORSEPOWER IS A DEAL BREAKER FOR YOU, YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE WRONG BIKE. 111 IS STILL MORE THAN ENOUGH TO GET IN TROUBLE WITH.
Those 111 horses now get sent through a revised transmission. First gear is shorter for better acceleration from a stop, and top (6th) gear is taller, for a smoother ride and better gas mileage on the highway. The final gear ratio is increased as well. The assist + slipper clutch from the Z900 is retained, and just like before, it requires very little effort to operate. Ignoring the snatchy throttle, all the controls are light and easy to use. The fuel tank holds 4.5 gallons, and I averaged 38 mpg on a trip that consisted of lots of stop-and-go portions for photography.
With the newest wave of Z bikes like the 650 and the 900, Kawasaki has dedicated the resources of a “Sound Research” department to specifically design airboxes based on results from acoustic testing in a sound room. The intake funnels are of varying length to make the sound more interesting. Based on my experiences with those bikes, I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The RS benefits from the same design, but this is the first bike Kawasaki has built with research into the exhaust note as well. At low RPMs, the exhaust gases are routed through a straight line. As the revs get higher, an additional passage route is incorporated. In layman’s terms, this thing sounds absolutely fantastic between 4k-7k when you’ve got the throttle pinned.
Stopping and Turning.
The specs here are just about identical to the Z900, so I’ll keep it short. Up front, you get dual semi-floating 300mm petal-style rotors with radially mounted monobloc dual-piston calipers. The rear has a single piston caliper clamping down on a 250mm petal disc. They work great, though I occasionally wanted a little more feel from the rear brake pedal. ABS is handled by Nissin and that also works well. There is no switch to turn it off, and I think that’s fine in this case.
THE RS USES THE SAME SUSPENSION COMPONENTS AS THE Z900, BUT IT’S ADJUSTED FOR COMFORT. STILL, IF YOU WANT TO GET AGGRESSIVE IN THE TWISTIES, THE KYB SUSPENSION WILL KEEP UP WITH NO PROBLEMS.
The same goes for the suspension – it’s identical to what you’ll find in the Z900. Both ends are adjustable KYB units, and they are well suited for the style of riding Kawasaki expects consumers to put the RS through. I initially felt the front suspension was a little too adept at transferring impact forces to the handlebar, but a quick couple of adjustments to soften the front and rear made everything better. Suspension travel is 120mm up front and 140mm in the back.
Make It Yours.
As you’d probably guess, Kawasaki expects riders to customize the RS in a variety of ways. There’s some comfort-oriented options, like a shorter seat ($399.95), heated grips ($329.95), and a smoked short windshield ($349.95). There’s also cosmetic options meant to evoke the Z1, like a passenger grab bar ($179.95), side grips ($149.95), or my favorite option of them all – tank emblems in the ’70s font ($89.95). If I was putting one in my garage, it would be the brown/orange version and I would order the center stand ($399.95), heated grips, and the retro tank badges.
An Akrapovic slip on will also be available, but Kawasaki did not have pricing information for us just yet. From an aftermarket standpoint, I’d snag a Power Commander to deal with the throttle (but it’s silly that I’d have to do so) and hope that someone develops a 4-2-4 exhaust. Yes, I know it weighs more, and no, I don’t care. A side benefit is that the exhaust would get rid of that tumor underneath that Kawasaki calls a pre-chamber. I can’t blame them for having it – it’s a byproduct of Euro 4 regulations. I just want to get rid of it. I AM AN IDIOT WHO FORGOT TO GET A PHOTO OF THE RETRO TANK BADGES KAWASAKI SLAPPED ON A BIKE IN THE PRESENTATION, SO THE TOP RIGHT OF THIS IMAGE IS THE BEST I CAN DO. SORRY!
Should You Test Ride One?
Yes, absolutely (and your local dealer should already have one!). Here’s the thing – in many objective performance categories, the $2,400-cheaper Z900 is a better motorcycle. Plus, the RS has a couple of annoying niggles that the aftermarket will rectify – the throttle issue is pretty stupid, if I’m being blunt.
But you know what? I don’t care, because the Z900RS makes me feel good, and that’s what I want in a motorcycle. It looks amazing, the ergos are excellent, the components are well-suited for the build, and it’s the best modern UJM I’ve ridden in recent memory. Have I mentioned that it looks amazing? Every time I park the RS, I can’t help but look back at it. It tugs at my heart in a way that the Z900 never did, and I’m hoping it’ll inspire the same feeling in you as well.
SOMEHOW, IT LOOKS BETTER IN PERSON.
Officially, “RS” doesn’t stand for anything, though a couple of Kawasaki employees told me that they consider it “Retro Sport”. Croft Long told me, “It stands for whatever you want”, and right now I’m thinking it stands for “Rather Special“.
Kawasaki’s 900 Super Four Z1 did more than blow past Honda’s CB750 in terms of performance, refinement and all-around ability.
It was the world’s first superbike.
"A velvet blunderbuss, and every inch a King."—Cycle, November 1972
For just a moment, imagine you're Kawasaki's Sam Tanegashima in the fall of 1968. As a project leader you've been slaving night and day for the better part of two years on what was then internally known as N600. It is going to be a groundbreaking road-burner that will become the most important motorcycle in the world, with a contemporary mass-production first of an air-cooled, DOHC, 750cc inline-four. Testing is all but complete and has gone swimmingly—your finger is metaphorically poised to push the button to begin production early next year. You might even allow yourself to think life is going to be very, very good.
And then you get the phone call from the 1968 Tokyo Motor Show. It seems competitor Honda had the same idea—only a bit sooner—and has knocked motorcycling on its ear with the revolutionary CB750 Four. Suddenly there is indeed a new most important motorcycle in the world—but it ain't yours. Shame and frustration taste more acrid than bile. One remembers it with startling clarity.
So it was for Kawasaki's N600 project team as they returned to Akashi to lick their wounds—and vowed to kick Honda's ass from Tokyo to Tucumcari to Turin and back by building something bigger, faster and even more sophisticated—a true King of Motorcycling. It would take the better part of four years, an eternity compared with current two-year product cycles for today's 600cc and 1000cc sportbikes. But Kawasaki was determined to get it right.
At the time Kawasaki was in the midst of changing its entire approach to building motorcycles. As Tanegashima says in Micky Hesse's book Z1 Kawasaki, "One motto [we had] for developing the Z1 was to create one piece of motorcycle. Before the Z1, Kawasaki had developed several very fast motorcycles like the A7, H1 and H2. It was not sure if we were selling engine/horsepower or motorcycle.
"From the very beginning of Z1 development," he says, "we made sure to develop one piece of motorcycle, not independent engine or chassis or designing."
Tanegashima added that the Japanese were well known for their me-too approach—going along to get along, so to speak. "Our people tend to like to do the same thing as [their] neighbor. In product development, this tendency leads to [copying] some competitors or leaders. However, [our] motto in developing the Z1 was to make it completely different from Honda's CB750. This [is] a very rare case in Japanese society."
Equally interesting is a passage from Kawasaki's museum Web site (www.khi.co.jp/mcycle/museum/index_e): "[With the Z1] Kawasaki changed their engine design policy so that the powerband was not set near the engine's [rev] limit, thereby pursuing elegance and smooth engine performance." At its heart, that change stemmed from Kawasaki's decision to substitute four-stroke powerplants for two-strokes in making top-of-the-line models. After all, Kawasaki had in 1963 absorbed Meguro, one of Japan's oldest motorcycle manufacturers and known for its four-strokes, so Kawasaki had four-stroke engineering expertise. (To this day, the firm still uses Meguro's logo on packaging and signage.) Indeed, Kawasaki's talented engineer Ben Inamura had already developed the firm's previous foray into four-strokes, the BSA-like 650cc W1, from a Meguro 500cc K2 vertical twin. And it was Inamura who would become the project leader for Kawasaki's N600 750cc engine and then for the Z1's 903cc powerplant. Still, the question came up at the Z1's model-introduction press conference in the fall of 1972: Why was Kawasaki seemingly abandoning its two-stroke heritage to create this four-stroke? In Cycle magazine's road test of the Z1 in the November 1972 issue, Kawasaki's Motorcycle Division General Manager T. Yamada's response was cited: "Lots of reasons, he said. Kawasaki wanted to build, in their words, the King Motorcycle, a bike beside which the finest motorcycles in the world would shrivel in comparison . . . a bike that would leave a hot and smoking scar across the face of the sport . . . And you just can't do it, Yamada was saying, with a two-stroke engine . . . In the first place, Yamada said, the King Motorcycle must have an engine that sounds right.
"No less important, said Yamada, is the way the engine looks. Who could imagine a King Motorcycle with an engine that looked like a two-stroke engine looks, all crankcases and cooling fins? The King . . . has to have an engine that looks impressive. And only a big four-stroke is right."
Another important consideration at the time was the greening of America—in the face of rising vehicle emissions. Even in 1972 it was obvious that stinkwheel-powered motorcycles were living on borrowed time. Besides this, Kawasaki had already done massive amounts of focus-group research that clearly indicated a big, four-stroke-powered road burner was absolutely right for the intended audience—primarily U.S. riders—and for the times.
Nonetheless, it's vitally important to remember Kawasaki developed the two-stroke 500 Mach III concurrently with the stillborn 750. That gave the company an exceedingly high-performance motorcycle to sell as it tested, retested and refined the Z1, which had its code name changed to T103 in 1968, then changed again later to 0030; final prototypes were designated 9057. Perhaps the most famous code name/internal reference was New York Steak, although one wonders, given Kawasaki's desire to create the ultimate King of Motorcycles, that someone didn't dub it Filet Mignon or even Châteaubriand.
Even if it were to be known as Montmorency, Kawasaki was taking no chances whatsoever with the Z1's program of testing and refinement. For example, a gaggle of 9057s were shipped to the U.S. in February 1972, where two teams flogged the horns off the poor, unsuspecting prototypes. Bryon Farnsworth,
Kawasaki America's senior test rider, was joined at Willow Springs and at Talladega Superspeedway by the company's race team, including Gary Nixon, Paul Smart and Hurley Wilvert, who cheerfully abused the remarkably stoic motorcycles. On Talladega's 2.66-mile tri-oval course, they ran the bikes WFO for the time it took to drain the 4.7-gallon fuel tanks. Testers also ran some 5000 miles on real roads in this country, going coast-to-coast-to-coast, Los Angeles to Daytona Beach and back. After so much development on dynos, roads and racetracks, the only even slightly unseemly trait the Z1 demonstrated was an apparent appetite for rear tires and final-drive chains, consuming the former in about 6000 miles, the latter in roughly half that distance. Farnsworth had been working for Cycle magazine when he was approached by Kawasaki to take on the role of senior U.S. test rider, specifically for Z1 development. "I was the first round-eye to ride the Z1," Farnsworth says, "and I was the only American to go over to Japan to test the bike." So in 1971 Farnsworth was sent to Japan. Initial plans called for riding the bike around the vast, 3.4-mile banked oval of the MITA test track, but those plans fell through. Kawasaki then found a parking lot and threw out some cones to create an impromptu "handling circuit."
Farnsworth, who figured he was being paid to tell his employers the truth with no sugarcoating whatsoever, did so. "The bike immediately started dragging its mufflers around corners," he says. "I told them it was a rakuta, or water buffalo in Japanese." Eventually the testing team made it to a real track, Tsukuba circuit, but even that was short—just over a mile long—and not really suited for wringing out the King of Motorcycles.
See, at this point in the Z1's development, Kawasaki was deeply concerned about the bike's durability and reliability, and rightfully so. Such problems could have not only scuttled the Z1 in the marketplace, but they could have sunk Kawasaki's reputation as well. Of course Farnsworth knew just where to go—Talladega Superspeedway. So in late 1972 the entire Kawasaki Z1–testing entourage descended on Talladega, which they'd rented for 30 days.
"They were holding it wide open for an entire tank of gas," Farnsworth says, "doing about 140 miles per hour." Nothing of consequence broke, but this was back in the day, before manufacturers learned something about shock damping and frame stiffness. "It was a wiggler at the time," he says, "but only if you let off. If you had the balls and held it wide open, it was OK.
"It took about 10 years for them [Kawasaki, and other manufacturers] to figure out the steering head was connected to the swingarm pivot and that you can't put an engine in there that's going to try to twist the frame apart!"
As a side note, Farnsworth mentions that the Japanese engineers tended to hang out together—especially at the hotel at night, after testing was done. No big deal, right? Except that they were squatting down in a big circle drinking beer outside a hotel—in the South. Alabama, to be precise. So of course the Heat swooped in and carted them all off to jail, and Farnsworth had to bail them out. But that's not all. From March 13 through 15, 1973 (after the Daytona 200 had run), Farnsworth brought a full-factory assault team to beat Suzuki's record set in 1968 of running 90.11 mph for 2172 miles. Included were Kawasaki's American roadrace team riders of the day—Yvon Duhamel, Art Baumann and Gary Nixon, among others—and several U.S. moto-magazine editors, including Cook Neilson of Cycle and Motorcyclist's own Art Friedman. Ultimately they slaughtered Suzuki's record, posting a new one of 109.641 mph for 2631 miles. A special one-off Z1 tuned by Yoshimura and ridden by Yvon Duhamel set a new record of 160.288 for one lap.
So what was this King of Motorcycles? How was it configured? What was it really like?
From the beginning, the Z was always all about its overachieving powerplant. Kawasaki claimed 80 horsepower for the air-cooled, transverse inline-four—handily about 15 bhp more than Honda's CB750. Cycle's test described it this way: "Horsepower flows . . . like water from an Artesian well. It simply never stops."
To further distance the Z1 from the CB750, the Z utilized square bore x stroke dimensions of 66 x 66mm, rather than the Honda's old-school long-stroke numbers, to get 903cc of displacement. When asked why, Kawasaki answered with a shrug, saying, "That's all it needs." This was a very early indication that the Japanese manufacturers were no longer interested in archaic, rigid and limiting class displacements. A sophisticated DOHC induction system (still rare on mass-production bikes, if not on Euro performance cars) was fed by a bank of four 28mm carbs.
Down in the crankcases lived a nine-piece, pressed-up, roller-bearing crank, with caged needle-rollers for each con rod to ride on —evidence enough of Kawasaki's massive two-stroke design background. Sufficiently impressive, apparently, for Cycle to write, "The lower end looks like it came out of a Porsche Carrera." Power then transferred to a massive, wet, multiplate clutch and to an equally overbuilt five-speed transmission. This strength would serve the bike well on the streets, racetracks and dragstrips of the world for many, many years.
Although the DOHC system with its shim adjusters was slightly more complex than the screw-and-locknut adjusters of most other bikes, Kawasaki tried to make amends by keeping other maintenance procedures as simple as possible. As a result, any major top-end wrenching that might be required could be done with the engine still in the frame. Where Kawasaki really made a breakthrough, however, was in emissions control. For instance, sintered valve seats made them impervious to unleaded fuel, while a low, 8.5:1 compression ratio ensured the Z's mega-motor could run on the wateriest swill pumped anywhere in the U.S. More important, though, was the crankcase fumes rebreather. A canister on top of the cases and behind the cylinders separated oil from blow-by, then routed the fumes to the airbox. Absurdly simple, but a scheme claimed to reduce hydrocarbon emissions a full 40 percent.
By comparison, much of the rest of the motorcycle seemed, well, conventional. Yes, the stylists managed to make the big Zed appear slimmer and more lithe than Honda's four-cylinder, but to quote Cycle once more: "The bike's styling is conservative by normal standards, and positively funereal by Kawasaki's, the company that gave the sport laser stripes and lollipop paint jobs!"
Others, though, felt the Zed was eminently more lustworthy than the CB750—or any other motorcycle, for that matter. Such considerations, along with the Kawasaki's crushing performance advantage, made the bike a smash hit with a bullet when it hit U.S. dealers' floors in November 1972. Likewise, the press was just as bowled over.
"The thing that impresses you about the 900 is its great straight-line stability at very high speeds. We could cruise at 120 mph sitting bolt upright." —Cycle Guide, October 1972
"The Kawasaki 903 Z1 is the most modern motorcycle in the world. It is also the fastest. It is above all the first of a new generation of bikes, a generation which will run quietly on the streets of America, a generation which will attempt to solve motorcycles' tiny contribution to the world's dirty air; it is the first of a generation of motorcycles which will come close to being within reason all things to all people, capable of nattering down quiet country roads packing double one minute and rotating the Earth with incomprehensible acceleration the next."
"The Z1 is one of those shockingly understated GT machines, the kind on which you can look down at the speedometer and discover, 'My God, I'm doing 90, I'd better shut down.'" —Cycle World, March 1973
"A Z1 is the only bike left to which those famous lines from a mid-'60s road test on a Harley Sportster still apply: 'It will make hair grow on your chest, and if you've already got it, it will part it down the middle.' "
". . . the first 903 Z1 four-cylinder had velveteen refinement and enough performance to place the most refined gentleman in a state of serious sweat." —Cycle, May 1987
" . . . Kawasaki, like a black-sheep uncle, has never failed to pat us bad-boyishly on the head, give us a surreptitious snort from a hidden flask, and affirm our suspicion that life without suspense is no life at all."
In short, Kawasaki's 900 Super Four Z1, as it finally came to be known, was a revelation, a motorcycle that pointed the way to the future for virtually every other manufacturer on the globe. The direction was definitely toward performance, but it wasn't the harsh, demanding type that characterized Kawasaki two-strokes such as the Mach III and Avenger. Instead, it was a kinder, more civilized performance—but at an even higher level—and as inviting and inclusive as the two-strokes felt hostile and divisive to some.
Even so, the Z1 didn't quite generate the all-inclusive, big-tent appeal of Honda's CB750. There was still just a bit of an edge, a subtle feeling of Us versus Them. Where the CB750 had this wonderful malleable quality that allowed it to accommodate whatever role the owner had in mind, the Z1 wasn't quite as obsequious. It's not that the bike wasn't capable of such shape-shifting; it's just that the Z1's performance (especially the engine's) was so inviting and user-friendly. Such qualities guaranteed Kawasaki's Z1 would be remembered as the motorcycle that ushered in the Superbike era—and cemented its place in history.
"Kawasaki were as much surprised - and annoyed - by Honda's unveiling of the CB750 as everyone else. Determined not to be outdone, the design team went back to the drawing board and came up with a 900cc machine in a bid to make a bigger and better machine than the CB. The design brief included the order that there were to be 'no defects.'
The Z1 was undoubtedly superior to the Honda in that it had more bhp and a higher top speed. But it wasn't without its flaws, particularly in the braking and handling department and it wasn't as innovative as the Honda had been when it was launched.
Kawasaki copied the single disc front brake but with 82bhp on tap at 8,500rpm and a top speed of 130mph, the brake simply wasn't up to the job of pulling the Z1 to a halt. The bike was also heavier than the Honda at 229.5 kilos (506lbs).
And the notorious flex in the frame set the precedent of Kawasaki engines being too strong for their frames right up until the late 1980s.
Nevertheless, the Z1 became the new superbike king, it's 903cc, DOHC four cylinder engine being good enough to take the bike to no less than 45 American and world speed and acceleration records at Daytona in March of 1973. There had simply never been a production motorcycle as powerful as this.
Like the Honda, the £1088 Z1 featured a five speed gearbox, electric starter, the disc brake and four similar chromed exhausts.
The Z1 itself endured a four year production run in its original form but derivatives of the basic design can still be traced in the 'Z' Kawasakis of today. The Z motors found their way into race chassis such as the classic P&M but also they grew into true superbikes such as the American market KZ1000R as used by pre-GP stars Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey and later the and GPz1100.
Ironically, Kawasaki helped to kill off the trend for making big bore, two stroke multis which they themselves were so good at. The world had gone four stroke crazy thanks to the CB and the Z1."-15 September 2001
by Stuart Barker
"Introduced in 1971, Kawasaki's classic 903cc four-cylinder Z1 was originally planned as a 750cc bike with a launch set for 1970.But with Honda's surprise intro of the CB750 in 1968, the story goes, Kawasaki postponed the Z1's release, in the course upping the bike's displacement in response to Honda's 750cc four. What's been missing — until now — are actual photos of the aborted 750cc Z1. Enter Jeff Krause.
Jeff grew up a coporate kid of American Kawasaki; his dad was involved in starting and managing several of Kawasaki's divisions in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. By pure coincidence, in 1989, Jeff's first job as an industrial designer brought him to a little design firm in Santa Barbara called Bartlett Design Associates, which had previously been called McFarlane Design.
Soon after being hired, Jeff was given a 35mm slide of an appearance prototype (a mockup) that McFarlane had done for American Kawasaki in 1969. The image speaks a thousand words to any Z1/KZ fan, and is the only picture of the aborted Kawasaki 750cc superbike we've ever seen. This is not Kawasaki's Z2 750cc bike sold much later in Japan, but the 750cc Z1 that Kawasaki was working on releasing by 1970, as evidenced by the license plate (curiously, the chrome license holder has the Triumph logo on it).
Aside from the photo's rarity, of interest is the fact that this appearance prototype obviously influenced the styling of Kawasaki's two-stroke triples of the mid-Seventies. Jeff says, "I take the image as evidence that the styling of Kawasaki's whole street lineup through the 1970s was actually developed right here in the good-old USA, not Japan. And that the Z1 was always intended to be a DOHC, even in 1968 or 1969 when this photo was taken, presumably at the design studio in Santa Barbara." McFarlane specialized in "Human Factors" and vehicular design, and designed the styling of Universal Studios' first tram buses, among many other equally significant credits."
In 1968 Kawasaki was far along in developing a 750cc in-line four cylinder to take the motorcycle world by storm when word got out of Honda's CB 750 Four.
Realizing 750cc’s would no longer cut it, and trying to get a jump on everyone else again, Kawasaki started testing 903cc prototypes in 1971. Disguised as CB570s ironically, by 72 the Kawasaki Z1s were ready for production. The project, originally dubbed "New York Steak" by Kawasaki was intended to be named the Super 4, but at some point was changed simply to the Z1. And thus a legend was born.
Where the Honda 750 was fast, reliable and cheap, it was also accused of being somewhat boring because it did everything so well but nothing in spectacular fashion. The same couldn’t be said of the Kawasaki Z1. It was blindingly fast, looked like a beast and captured the imagination of testers and the public the world over. With a quarter-mile time of 12.5 seconds and about a 135 mile an hour top speed right out of the box, the Z1 was a classic in the making.
Handling issues were to dog the Kawasaki Z line all through its production but complaints were few when this classic first came on the scene. In fact, later versions largely resolved the high speed weaves. And though outright performance never really improved over its many iterations, the Kawasaki Z1, KZ900 and KZ1000 would henceforth be known collectively and simply as “THE KING”!
Many different versions of the KZ series were manufactured in its long run, including cruiser models like the LTDs, and super-sports such as the Kawasaki Z1R.
The "J" models saw great racing success in superbike and endurance series the world over with the J in particular getting special attention from Kawasaki engineers. This fearsome unit got the benefit of a very rare eight spark-plug head design used only in factory racers. Named the "S1", these cylinder heads are much sought after among Kawasaki collectors.
Among deserving recipients of Kawasakis' largess were the legendary Eddie Lawson and Canadian multiple champion Lang Hindle among a few fortunate other racers.
Such was Lawsons' success that in 1983 Kawasaki produced the Eddie Lawson Replica, a relatively faithful copy of Lawsons' championship-winning mount.
Unfortunately it's not an eight-plug head as in the original racers, such as Hindles' bike below.
This bike is now in Canadian Bar Hodgsons' collection, subsequently re-united with it's eight-plugger after having been ridden on the street for many years by Robert McLea, an ex-pro racer who ran a four-plug head and socking away the precious part in a milk crate on his garage floor and charging Hodgson an arm and a leg for it.
As Kawasaki wrapped up the KZ900 models in 1976 in favour of the new KZ1000 lineup that replaced it world-wide for 1977, there were somewhere near 5000 units still to be assembled and rolled out from the Lincoln, Nebraska facility and they were designated the Z900 A5.
The '77 KZ900 was almost the exact same as the 76 KZ900 in style. Actually few wanted the KZ900 in 1977 when the KZ1000 was released, but Kawasaki had to get them out the door.
The only differences were the flasher circuit that used a solid-state relay and some front end pieces sourced from the new Z1000, according to info I scoffed from the KZRider website forum.
The bike is an odd-ball in that it got it's own model designation but that was not an uncommon occurrence among the various manufacturers of the day.
Try these links for more info; www.zedder.com, and www.kzrider.com.
The vid is entitled :1973 Z1 DAYTONA RECORDS VIDEO. "SO FAR SO FAST" It's a real period piece, with classic 70's vibe and a scratchy sepia-toned look. It's a half an hour long so grab a beer and get comfortable for a trip down memory lane. In the fast lane!
Michael Hall from the States sent these photos and a few words about his Kawasaki Z1, just to make us all wish we had the foresight to keep our classic bikes and not sell them off, only to pine for them later...
"This is a 100% original 1973 Kawasaki Z1. It is unrestored with 4922 miles, still on the original tires, with original air! The bike is fully documented as the original owner (now deceased) kept a journal of all his rides until he froze it in time for nearly 30 years.
The Zed when ridden (1979) was equipped with every Vetter accessory available at the time, hence it suffered very little if any normal wear and tear on the road. Many Zedheads, myself included, have through the years used my photo documentation of the bike as a guide book for their restorations. It is “Mint” in every way.
I currently have five 1973 Z1's. Two originals and three restored. The Z1 ,at least in my humble opinion, has a timeless beauty unsurpassed even today. It truly is “the King”.