Classic Motorcycle Mechanics

TWO versions of Kawasaki’s legendary four ridden,

Modded Z1B Standard Z1A



As fraught as it can be to organise a multi-bike road test, sometimes the effort is worth it: today is just such a day. Here before us to enjoy are an original Z1A and a period Z1B with contempora­ry upgrades. Both are regularly ridden and the owner really doesn’t get miffed if they get dirty. In fact just after our shoot the Z1A went all the way to Scotland via the Lake District and got truly mucky. Owner Graham Peters is emphatical­ly of the ‘ridden not hidden’ mindset. As we get to our statics location and play arrangethe-motorcycle­s for Gary the Lens, another persistent impediment to testing classic motorcycle­s appears. Two guys in a massive removals lorry pull up just yards from a tight bend to exclaim: “Wow, Kawasaki Z1s, you don’t see many of them do you?” Pleasantri­es exchanged and potential CMM readers satiated, we can get back to the serious business of lounging around enjoying the view of two 903cc classics basking in the sun. There can be absolutely no denying that the lines of any Z1 are inarguably bang-on. Those acres of chrome are from another time when luxuriant plating wasn’t the bastion of custom bikes alone. There’s a lot of it on a Z1 but arguably it’s those four silencers that delineate the machines from their most obvious commercial rival, the Honda CB750/4. Getting each pair of outlets to line up vertically was a master stroke of styling (and pipe bending); it’s a look few have dared to emulate. Throughout the early to

mid-1970s Japanese bike designers were struggling to find a long term identity or profile for their machines. Honda’s stylists gave it a fair go but ultimately the 750 does look somewhat disparate from certain angles; the Z1 series, though, are entirely different. The way the tank flows into the seat which then melds into the tail piece was a master stroke of styling. Ditto the side-panels that wrap around the outer air-box rubbers and fill the gap beneath the seat and up to the fuel tank. This was arguably the first time so much conscious thought had gone into a Japanese motorcycle’s looks. Even when parked up the bikes screamed speed; there really was no need to style those gauges with those rakishly angled lower covers yet they did and it simply adds even more dynamism to a bike that’s not even moving. Kawasaki bet the farm of the Z1’s motor and, as history shows, they got it bang on the money. By opting for a larger capacity bracket than Honda, the company effectivel­y distanced itself from the smaller 750 and then upped the ante by going for a double overhead cam layout that made the Honda appear obsolete overnight even though it wasn’t. That 903cc motor and its derivative­s would show that Kawasaki knew how to build engines that weren’t only fast out of the crate: they were readily tunable and yet remained reliable even when pushed. Rather than opt for a plain bearing crank as per Honda, Kawasaki’s engineers played it safe by opting to use roller bearings. More complex and costly to build and essentiall­y very much like a two-stroke’s the pressed-up crank remains the engineer’s ultimate bomb-proof bottom-end. Roller bearings are more tolerant of variable lubricatio­n, require much lower oil pressure to lubricate and can take substantia­lly increased loads without issues. It’s no coincidenc­e that Suzuki allegedly mimicked the Z1’s crank when they launched their GS750 in 1976… Normally you’d not expect there to be much difference between two model years. However, as is obvious by the pictures, the Z1A is factory brochure correct while the Z1B is a little modified yet nothing that cannot be returned to standard if so desired.

No doubt the rivet counters will have noticed the Z1A has black cases yet there’s no need to rattle a letter off to the editor just yet. As an early example of a Z1A our specimen is, in effect, a transition­al model made early on to use up the ‘old’ Z1 cases. Pleasing to see Kawasaki were as parsimonio­us to throwing away perfectly good parts as their rivals! So with all of that establishe­d there are going to be some obvious cosmetic difference between the two bikes but it’ll be interestin­g to see if there are any substantia­l divergence­s in the actual ride qualities. Amazingly my notes and recollecti­ons suggest I’ve never actually ridden a Z1 which I find kind of odd. Z900 A4, yes, done that one, and Z1000 as well but although I’ve passengere­d on a Z1 I’ve never been at the sharp-end so to speak. The standard Z1A fires up on the button courtesy of Dyna coils and ignition, well everyone fitted decent sparking systems to them back in the day so why not now? Those iconic exhausts emit a delicious note that Honda 750/4 owners surely dream about and that’s only at tickover. Into gear and under way the first thing you notice about the mighty Zed is the torque which comes in early and in large dollops. That additional 167ccs of capacity makes a substantia­l difference to the way the motor gets moving. For most mortals back in the day, the experience­s offered by bikes such as this were at the periphery of their ken and sometimes more than a little beyond it. The Z1 and all of its analogues was the ultimate riding encounter for the average enthusiast. Now four decades on the Z1 experience is almost an average one in terms of performanc­e. To put that into perspectiv­e, Yamaha’s current MT-07, 689cc, parallel twin, choked by a catalytic converter offers nigh on comparable speed and accelerati­on… but that’s progress for you. Neither the Z1 nor the Yamaha will actually pull your arms out of their sockets yet the older bike is hugely more demanding and arguably much more exiting. Despite what some might tell you the Z1 and its siblings does not handle with unqualifie­d aplomb. Kawasaki blew the budget on the engine so the chassis and its appendages were only ever adequate at best. Steering lock is restricted which is partially an

artefact of the steering damper. Some would even argue the presence of the hydraulic unit was tacit admittance by the manufactur­er that the company knew the bike was substantia­lly less than ideal in the handling stakes. The bike tracks fine in a straight line and that sublime motor eggs you on to go ever faster; this was one of the bike’s biggest attraction­s. Where it all gets a little flaky is when you ask the bike to rattle through a series of bends. As we all know and understand, the frame is adequate at best and made to a budget, which leads to flexing when pushed beyond a certain point. This, allied to typically over-sprung and underdampe­d suspension, means that when the forks and shocks are pushed beyond their abilities and telegraph their inadequaci­es back to the frame, things start to get a little lively. But before you read that as a damning criticism of the mighty Zed remember that all Japanese machines of the period were exactly the same or even worse. Compared to a 500 Mach III, the Z1 was a veritable paragon! Ridden with a modicum of restraint the bike is a huge delight and even if the Usa-spec bars hang me out like a spinnaker I can’t help giving it large. My technique becomes rapidly modified once I know I’m not going to be contemptuo­usly spat off into a ditch. Barrel it though the gentler curves and don’t shut off completely; this keeps the bike relatively taut. Come the bigger bends, scrub off as many em-pee-aitches as seems appropriat­e then wind open the taps on the other side; the bike seems to approve of this technique. However there’s a judgement factor that comes into play when we’re looking the retardatio­n of velocities. The Z1, Z1A and Z1B have a marked deficiency in the braking department and again it’s one Kawasaki tacitly admitted to. A single hydraulic front disc and rod operated rear drum never were up to the job of pulling down more than a quarter of a tonne of bike and rider. They’d already offered a twin-disc upgrade for the much earlier (and 20% lighter) 750 H2 and the same was available for the big Zeds… they needed it! But yet again you ride the bike accordingl­y and then it all makes much more sense. The big wide seat is all-day comfortabl­e, the gearbox is firm and positive if not slick, the cleated hand grips give you something decent to hang on to and those signature black mirrors do a decent job. It would be easy to ridicule numerous aspects of the Z1A’S character with a 2018 head on, but that misses the point. This bike is a time capsule representi­ng the cutting edge of early 1970s technology; anyone who decries its performanc­e, its presence or abilities set against those of its peers misses the point entirely. So what of the period modified Z1B? Is it more or less than the almost box-fresh Z1A? Well for starters those Renthal bars make for a more ergonomic riding position and give an immediatel­y greater feel of control. The Giuliari seat sits you down lower in the bike but is on the harsh side of firm. The bike has an altogether meaner feel to it and the baffle free Harris four-into-one system only adds to the air of menace which is exacerbate­d by the air-box which is devoid of filter or lid; this things growls. The B has some added bling to it in the guise of an aftermarke­t chain guard, finned covers along with chromed clock covers, foot rests and side stand. Stainless brake lines make the best of what’s on offer from the front brake and out back there’s a pair of genuine period Koni shocks. From the off the modified Z1B just feels better, more alive, less fettered than the Z1A. I’ve immediatel­y swapped from the A to B bikes and while I have absolutely no notion that the older bike felt somehow restricted the later one makes a much more profound impression upon me.

“In comparison to the stock Z1A the modified B variant only just falls short of a revelation! Yes, it really is that good!”

There’s definitely a more visceral feel to the bike and it’s got little or nothing to do with the lower bars or the seat. At any speed in any gear the Z1B just feels happier, liberated and more up for fun. The only logical conclusion­s I can come to are that the freer flowing air-box is ideally suited to the Harris exhaust which even though it’s devoid of any restrictio­ns is nowhere near as noisy as I’d expected. Back in the day anyone who was anyone and owned a Z1 fitted one of those short Devil four-into-one systems that sounded awesome but severely hampered power delivery. What we have here whether by design or happenstan­ce is an apparently ideal combinatio­n of inlet and exhaust: I’m loving it and it gets better. Those old world Konis may not be fresh out of the packet but hell are they good! It’s hard to believe that just a change in rear shocks would make two apparently almost identical bikes handle so differentl­y. Yes of course the forks could be improved and unquestion­ably the chassis is no better but the fact remains that those Dutch dampers take the ragged edges off the mighty Z1’s handling. I can now totally appreciate why those good old boys back in the late 70s were still raving about their modified Z1s and how they could still show the newer machines and their riders a trick or two. In real terms with the addition of a braced rear swingarm, a subtle rework of the front forks and an overbore you had the forebear of an ELR (Eddie Lawson Replica) before the guy had even sat on a Kawasaki race bike! In comparison to the stock Z1A the modified B is almost a revelation. Stock or modified these Z1s are significan­t benchmarks of motorcycle developmen­t and the Z1B is a personal favourite. Just as well there no spare slots in the garage then eh? cmm

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BELOW: Still King of the Road.
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 ??  ?? ABOVE: Often copied, never bettered... Just look at those lines. BELOW: That tacho needle loves racing to the red zone.
ABOVE: Often copied, never bettered... Just look at those lines. BELOW: That tacho needle loves racing to the red zone.
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 ??  ?? The good times still roll for the kids of the 70s.
The good times still roll for the kids of the 70s.

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