The 1977 KR750 that dominated the TT
Kawasaki's gorgeous KR750 was the factory's first big-bore prototype racer and turned Mick Grant into an Isle of Man superstar
The Isle of Man is a green and pleasant island, and it’s probably never been as green as it was in June 1975, when Mick Grant won the Senior TT on a Kawasaki H1-RW and broke Mike Hailwood’s eight-year-old record aboard a KR750. Grant’s new lap record – 109.82mph against Mike the Bike’s astonishing 108.77mph achieved while duelling with Giacomo Agostini in the 1967 Senior – produced a famous response from Hailwood, who was sat in the press box when the commentator announced his record had been beaten. Hailwood turned to his manager Ted Macauley, grinned and said: “The bastard!”
Grant still loves Hailwood for his remark. “It was the best accolade I ever had,” he says.
The summer of 1975 was Grant’s first as a fully paidup factory rider. Twelve months earlier he had won his first TT – the production race on Triumph’s oily legend, Slippery Sam – so now it was time for him to really make his mark. Signing for Kawasaki seemed like a good idea at the time. The Green Meanies were still building up to speed, attempting to match the awesome achievements of Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. But their bikes didn’t have the best of reputations. The 750cc H2-R, based around the scary air-cooled H2 road bike, was fast but fragile, just like the air-cooled 500cc H1-R.
Grant hoped he had got his timing right. After all, Kawasaki had promised a water-cooled 500 for Grands Prix and a water-cooled 750 for F750 rounds. He would use both bikes on the Island – the 500 in the Senior and the 750 in the week-ending Classic.
‘IT WAS A CRACKING-LOOKING BIKE AND SO LIGHT, ONLY 130kg’
In fact the Yorkshireman had a whole load of horror coming his way: seized engines, broken gearboxes, snapped drive chains and 150mph tyre blowouts. Then again, these were only the same fears that haunted most racers’ nightmares during the 1970s.
Three months before the TT, Grant travelled to Florida for the Daytona 200, where he met his brandnew KR750 for the first time. “It was a cracking-looking bike,” he recalls. “And so light. The 750 was water cooled but it only weighed 130 kilos. I don’t know how much Barry Sheene’s three-cylinder Suzuki weighed, but it must’ve been about twice that.”
Kawasaki had been able to take a giant leap forward because the FIM had reduced F750 homologation requirements, from 200 bikes to 25, so Kawasaki parked the H2-R and started again from the ground up, building their first prototype 750. The all-new, fully square (68 x 68mm) engine was significantly narrower than the H2-R and made 120 horsepower.
But it wasn’t all hunky dory. “The 750 had chocolate gearboxes. The American Kawasaki team and our team never managed more than two or three laps of Daytona without a gearbox breaking. We could hardly start the race, because we had run out of everything.”
None of the KRS that started made it to the finish, even though Kawasaki had flown in modified transmission clusters. Not an auspicious beginning, especially since Yamaha TZ750S took the first 16 places. And most of these were over-the-counter Tee Zees, available to anyone with $4750 in their pockets.
Grant was delighted when Kawasaki said they’d fix the gearbox gremlins for the TT – the last thing you want while racing on Manx roads at mind-boggling speeds is a gearbox seizure. Instead it was the H1-RW’S engine that seized, just moments after the start of the Senior. More than anything, Kawasaki wanted to win the Senior, which is why they had sent over a watercooled version of their 500 triple. Ironically, its watercooling was very nearly the bike’s downfall. “The ACU made everyone stop engines 20 minutes before the start, which was no good for water-cooled engines, because you would start the race flat-out with a cold engine. I got to Quarter Bridge and as I knocked it off the engine locked solid. I sort of careered down there into the corner. My initial reaction was: ‘fuck it, I’m not walking back!’ So I dropped the clutch and it started again on two-and-a-half cylinders. It was a damp sort of a day, so I thought I might as well see if it’d go the whole way around. The engine was quite peaky, the power didn’t come in until 8000, but I was changing gear at 8500, just to be safe. I did a steady first lap and I was on the leader board, so I thought: ‘bloody hell, I better keep going’. It was bizarre. After I’d done five laps I thought: ‘it won’t seize now,’ so I gave it the licks on the last lap and won it.” Kawasaki had won their first Senior TT. Now for the KR750. Grant loved this motorcycle, once its gearbox had been sorted. The piston-ported engine gave a soft, friendly power delivery, which is just what’s needed on treacherous road circuits. “It was lovely to ride and always a good Isle of Man bike. It just had so much torque that you didn’t have to rev the thing.”
Grant’s mechanic Nigel Everett still has a soft spot for the big triple. “It’s one of my favourite bikes,” says
Everett, who later worked with Grant at Honda and Suzuki. “Kawasaki got everything right with it, the engine spec, everything. It was very, very light and very, very fast, plus it was easy to work on, quite rideable and pretty reliable. The KR750 was the first of the proper race bikes that Kawasaki turned out; most of the stuff prior to that was a bit thrown together.” The 750 worked so well around the TT that Grant broke Hailwood’s record on the second lap of the 1975 Classic and was happily climbing the mountain for the second time when the revs went skywards and all drive disappeared. The chain had snapped. This DNF cost Grant a lot of money and he wasn’t happy about it, for a moment at least. “The chain broke coming out of the Gooseneck. I was really pissed off. Then I looked back down the road and a spectator had jumped over the fence to pick up the chain for a souvenir. Of course it was red hot,” Grant stops talking and starts laughing, a lot. “That put a smile on my face.”
But the 750 had more surprises in store. In October Grant took part in a big international at California’s Ontario Motor Speedway, a banked oval like Daytona.
“It was the second or third lap and I was flat-out in fifth, cracking on, when I heard this bang. I thought the crank had gone, so I pulled in the clutch but the bike kept on sliding... oh no, it’s the gearbox. Everything happened in slow motion. I remember going through the air, thinking: ‘oh shit, this is me gone’.”
Grant had suffered the same fate that befell Sheene at Daytona seven months earlier – his rear tyre had delaminated. A huge chunk of wayward tread embedded itself like an axe in the KR’S seat unit. There was only one difference between the Sheene and Grant prangs – Grant walked (or at least hobbled) away. The KR750 was kinder on the British mainland. Grant won the 1975 MCN Superbike crown and hoped better was to come as Kawasaki withdrew to their humble race department for the winter.
“When I rode for Honda a few years later I visited Honda R&D and it was a massive complex. Kawasaki had a wooden hut, out of which came the 750s, the 500s, the motocross bikes, everything.”
Back on the Island in June 1976, Grant and his new, milder-tuned KR750 were 17 seconds faster than
‘THE POTENTIAL OF THE 750 WAS ENORMOUS. IT WAS BLOODY QUICK’
everyone else in practice. “I’m not being big-headed, but that year it wasn’t a matter of whether I’d win the Classic, but by how much. The most bulletproof thing about the KR750 was the clutch. So I set off at the start and the clutch was slipping before I go to Bray Hill.
“The potential of the 750 was enormous. It was bloody quick and would rev to 11,500, but that could give us problems. Some F750 races were 100 miles long and the crank would sometimes only last 90 miles, even though they ran oil pump and premix. That’s why they changed things for 1976 – different porting and different pipes brought the revs down to 9500 and there was power from nothing. Fantastic.
“We had three stages of tune. For British races and the TT I ran the middle spec. We only used the top spec once, at Mettet in Belgium – although it made the bike unbelievably quick, the thing was impossible to ride. And we only ran the basic set-up once, at Mallory. I beat Sheene with that and he was convinced we were running an oversize engine. That spec was great, like a tractor, so long as there were no straights.” In 1977 Grant and the KR750 finally got it right at the TT. They won the Classic at record pace and by three-and-ahalf minutes. But the race was a near-run thing. Once again the weak link was the final drive chain, which stretched badly, forcing Grant to ease off in the final miles. This was after he’d been timed at 191mph on the downhill run from Creg ny Baa to Brandish. Many think the figure was pure fantasy, but not Everett. “We worked out the gearing and it was right,” he says.
The KR was fast, but the competition was also gathering speed. Suzuki RG500S and cantilever-framed TZ750S were filling grids. For 1978, Grant’s main aim was to exorcise the chain problems that always threatened on the Island, which had become a mammoth payday – Grant’s 1977 Classic win had made him £6000 richer (that’s £35,000 today).
“We always had massive chain problems. I thought it was the rubber-mounted engine, causing too much twist. Nigel had to adjust the chain every time I came in for fuel. For 1978 I got [legendary chassis genius] Ron Williams involved on the quiet. He removed the bushes on my bike and made the engine mountings metal-to-metal.”
This time it was engine vibration that nearly robbed him of Classic victory. The vibes were so bad they fractured the KR’S rear-brake mount. No rear brake was one problem, running out of fuel was another. Grant had earlier run dry in the Junior race, so his crew told him to stop for a splash-and-dash before the Classic’s last lap. But if he pitted, a scrutineer would spot the problem and stop him continuing, so he gambled on staying out. At the finish he had a litre of fuel to spare.
The 1978 Classic was one of Grant’s greatest TT rides and raised the lap record to 114.333mph, thanks to the KR’S easy-going character. “I remember going around Ginger Hall and over the top, three gears higher than I should’ve been, still accelerating and flattening out the bumps. It was such a lovely bit of kit.”
And that was the end of the road for Grant’s KR750. “By this time the engineers in the little wooden shed were spending all their time on the KR250 and 350. And anyway, the RGS were out and Yamaha had got the job sorted, so we were knackered.”
ABOVE: In nicely colour co-ordinated 1975 Senior winner’s sash BELOW: Grant loved the KR750 once the gearbox was sorted
1 1 Granty leads Peter Williams and the John Player Norton 2 Mick flanked by Chas Mortimer (left on a Sarome Yamaha) and John Williams on another TZ in 1975 3 Pulling a wheelie powering uphill on the KR750 4 Landing the 500cc Kawasaki H1-RW at Ballaugh on the way to winning the ’75 Senior 2 3 4
ABOVE: Hurtling down Bray Hill on the KR750 in 1977, about to bottom out the expansion chambers