Kawasaki

Z1 The orig­i­nal ‘real’ su­per­bike is still a con­vinc­ing state­ment of power, per­for­mance and style

Practical Sportsbikes (UK) - - Special Brew - WORDS MARK GRA­HAM PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BAUER ARCHIVE

THE MA­CHINE THAT ce­mented Kawasaki’s rep­u­ta­tion as the ‘horse­power fac­tory’ was un­veiled at the Cologne bike show in 1972. Yes, that’s 46 years ago, and still this mo­tor­cy­cle’s rep­u­ta­tion as the first proper, OMG su­per­bike re­mains undimmed.

Beaten to the punch by Honda launch­ing the CB750 at the Tokyo show in 1968 when Kawasaki were al­ready in the late stages of de­vel­op­ing their own 750cc four, Heavy In­dus­tries shelved their ef­fort. Hard to imag­ine how in­fu­ri­at­ing that must have been. Un­de­terred, they waited, worked, tested, waited some more, tested some more, and then – sure they had a prod­uct su­pe­rior in ev­ery way – dropped the 903cc Zed into the pub­lic do­main to huge ef­fect.

With their wild H1 500 triple and H2 750 two-strokes al­ready on the mar­ket, Kawasaki was al­most a by­word for un­fet­tered lu­nacy. The Z1 would be dif­fer­ent. Fast, yes, 12 sec­ond stand­ing start quar­ter miles and a 150.8mph top whack (at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Race­way), and yet civilised too.

The de­sign and build team, headed by Gy­oichi ‘Ben’ Ina­mura had it in their heads to pro­duce, as they put it, ‘one piece of mo­tor­cy­cle’, mean­ing they knew how to do power (H1 and 2 as ex­hibits A and B), yet aimed to make the Z1 a com­plete pack­age that ac­tu­ally han­dled ac­cept­ably well for the time and made silky but sub­stan­tial power off the bot­tom, through the midrange and at the top-end too. And it had to look like noth­ing else.

They ab­so­lutely nailed it on all counts. But hey, some­thing that still looks this good to­day can be ex­cused han­dling that has not im­proved with time – the H1 and 2 weren’t ex­actly won­der­ful in the chas­sis de­part­ment ei­ther, but most peo­ple to­day are quite pre­pared to over­look this mi­nor de­fi­ciency.

So ter­ri­fied of the Zed be­ing per­ceived as in any way un­der­engi­neered, Kawasaki made the en­gine as tough as an anvil. Their two-stroke ex­pe­ri­ence led them to­ward a nine-piece, pressed-up roller bear­ing crank that de­fied de­struc­tion. Straight cut pri­maries fed drive into a sub­stan­tial five-speed ’box and the dou­ble over­head cam sys­tem with (best prac­tice for the time – and still to­day) bucket and shim valve ac­tu­a­tion. In ’72 this was al­most space age.

They were also com­mend­ably ob­sessed with mak­ing this com­plex de­vice as easy as pos­si­ble to main­tain; cylin­der head and block are re­mov­able with en­gine in situ. The Zed en­gine is still a paragon of de­pend­abil­ity and one of the most hand­some air-cooled pow­er­plants ever pro­duced (espe­cially in the orig­i­nal black).

The es­sen­tial en­gine ar­chi­tec­ture lasted un­til 2000 when the Ze­phyr 1100, born of the GPZ1100, it­self a child of the orig­i­nal Z1, fi­nally shuf­fled away. That’s a 28-year stint. Not bad go­ing. The 903cc en­gine be­came a 1015cc unit for the Z1000 in 1977 with the bore taken out from 66 to 70mm (the orig­i­nal bore and stroke di­men­sions were square at 66 x 66mm). This guide deals only with the 903cc ma­chines: the 1973 Z1, the 1974 Z1A, 1975 Z1B and the 1976 Z900 – the ear­lier and purest ver­sions.

Un­sur­pris­ingly these are the most sought af­ter (and con­se­quently the most ex­pen­sive) of the big Zeds with the bet­ter orig­i­nal ex­am­ples chang­ing hands for up to £17,000, tat­tier ma­chines for around £10,000. Tam­pered with, barely orig­i­nal bikes are still fetch­ing thou­sands, and even rot­ting bas­ket jobs are now more than just a cou­ple of grand. If noth­ing else prices speak vol­umes about just what a bench­mark su­per­bike the Z1 was. The only con­so­la­tion if you lust af­ter a Zed, but fall short in the cash de­part­ment, is this: they’re a lot bet­ter to look at than to ride.

Both looks and en­gi­neer­ing have stood the test of time

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