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Kawasaki Z1-R

Time Travel

(MT#348, August 2020)

by Guy 'Guido' Allen

We're suffering from a severe case of the seventies

Dammit. I thought I was over this stuff. Back in 1979 muggins happened to be living in a share house in Canberra when one of the residents came home with his latest acquisition: a shiny new Kawasaki Z1-R. To say it was impressive would be understatement of the year.

The dramatic look really was an eyeful – and this is the seventies we’re talking of, an era that is hardly renowned for its subtle approach to style. Big, big sidecovers shaped like something you might use as a weapon, sharp angles everywhere and a smart bikini fairing with a smoked screen. Plus, drumroll please, twin drilled front discs. This was heady stuff.

There’s a fair chance I literally turned green for a week or so, given the level of jealousy at the time. It somehow made my pedestrian Z400 twin look very ordinary indeed. Kind of like having a rat at a greyhound meeting. But no matter how green I turned, there was no way the budget would stretch to such a rocketship.

In some ways the Z1-R was a great example of how an old toy dressed in new clothes was enough to keep the punters distracted for a while. The old saying used to be ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. You see Kawasaki had a new line of 1100s coming and this was really a stop-gap measure to keep the range fresh. To give you some idea of how old the underlying engine was, it was still running contact breaker points instead of solid state ignition.

There were some nice touches on board, such as the remote location of the brake master cylinder to clean up the look of the handlebars, or the inclusion of an ammeter and fuel gauge in the fairing. Really, that was big news back then as it was the first time Kawasaki had fitted fairing instruments on anything.

Brand K reckoned it had more power than a stock KZ, up from 83 horses to an even 90 (or 67kW) at 8000rpm, thanks to the fitment of bigger 28mm carburettors and a four-into-one exhaust. The road testers of the day reckoned the ‘jump’ was more like two horses. Whatever…

Meanwhile the suspension had been stiffened up a little and some extra gusseting added to the base of the steering head.

One of the contemporary road tests was clearly written by someone who had no illusions when it came to the big K’s handling: “The firm rear suspension may have improved the bike’s smooth-turn handling, but it has done very little to generate more control on bumpy surfaces. Whisking around a turn cursed with pavement patches, expansion breaks or just a ripply, uneven surface causes the R to react more unstably than the average big bike. The Kawasaki may react by wiggling a little, it may just sort of bob around in the turn, and it usually wanders off its intended course.”

Well, that’s reassuring. We also know it’s capable of a solid 135mph (220km/h), so things won’t be dull as it wobbles off into the middle distance.

But really it’s the style penned by Chris Kurashima that has my attention. You can see a trend with this and the Suzuki Katana penned a year or two later by Hans Muth at Target Design. In fact, now I think of it, they’d be a pretty good pair to have in the shed together. I had a Kat in the past and sold it, though I do have my eye on another that may require some reassembly.

The 1100 Katana ran a far more advanced powerplant – the 16-valve unit that debuted in the naked GSX1100E – and it’s been argued that Kawasaki too should have held on to the new look represented by the Z1-R until its new-gen 1100s were available.

Who knows? Maybe the gamble to use the styling to tart up the old tech worked. Though my recollection is Kawasaki wasn’t over-run for orders on this or the Z1-R MkII in black.

Getting the Zed and the Kat together is an appealing thought. Think of it as a cheap form of time travel…


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