The Old Kaw

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Back in 1976 if you wanted to go fast, you had three choices: Buy a car made before 1976 (long before 1976), buy an exotic car (if you could afford it) . . . or buy a Kawasaki Kz900, aka The King.

Nothing on two wheels was quicker – few on four were faster.

We are talking 12 second quarter miles – top speeds approaching 140 MPH.

A stone stock Kaw could murder a ’74 454 Corvette; walk away from a ’73 SD 455 Trans-Am – and those were fast cars back in the day. Just about the fastest you could get, in fact.

And bikes?

Honda’s CB750 was – very briefly – the hottest tamale when it made its debut in 1969. It made short work of Triumphs and BSAs – and ate Harleys for an after-dinner snack. But the CB750’s reign would be very short lived. Kawasaki engineers had something in the works that was in concept a lot like the Yamato-class battleships of World War II. Being competitive with the CB750 was not the goal. Dominating its environment was the goal. A goal that was achieved.

Three years after the CB750 hit the streets, the Z1 900 appeared. Dual overhead cams instead of singles; 900 CCs – and a claimed output of 82 hp vs. the CB’s 67, which gave the big Kaw the brute power it needed to linebacker its way past 120 MPH (the CB750’s top speed) to 134-plus – provided your arms were strong enough to hold you onto the thing. Ride one today – with the stock seat – and you will see what I mean. Modern sport bikes do wheelies. On the Z, you do slideys. As the bike surges forward, your body will slide backwards – and off the bike, if you’re not white knuckling it and got your knees pressed hard into the tank. It’s all part of the ride!

It was also a much prettier bike – without ugly black rubber gaiters on the fork tubes like the CB, a waspier tank profile and and slim side covers as a counterpoint to the CB’s granny panty-looking units. Four-into-four pipes, so you could hear each cylinder fire in its turn.

The Honda was a nice bike. The Z was a killer bike.

Today, with 630 hp ZR-1 Corvettes on the prowl and 400 hp Mustang GTs almost as common as desperate-looking (and performing) in-line-six Nova IIs were back in ’76, the old Kaw’s performance is no longer as startlingly domineering as it once was.

But it can still take most comers on four wheels – and its speed is still enough, even after almost 40 years, to beat probably 60-70 percent of the New Stuff on two wheels.

It also feels modern, despite its age – which shows you just how advanced it was when it was new. The big four is smooth and reliable in addition to being powerful. Ask anyone who knows Japanese bikes of this era and they’ll tell you stories of engineering overkill. About bottom ends designed to take Abu Ghraib levels of abuse and smile and ask for more. Or ask a cop. Though Kawasaki stopped selling civilian versions of the z1/Kz900/Kz1000 in the early ’80s, cop versions of the 1000 – the CHiPs bikes – were still being made into the 1990s. Many are still in service today. The sturdy DOHC air-cooled four is also popular with drag racers. And street racers know the potential, too. I did a very mild hop-up job on my ’76 Kz900 (pictured here). Just a basic rebuild with the major deviations from stock being domed higher compression (10.75:1) pistons, individual pod air cleaners, jetted carbs and a wicked-up ignition system. These mods should have pushed the power up to almost 100; maybe a little more than that. It will do 120 easily – and maybe one day I will be brave enough to go Mad Max and see what she’ll really do.

In fact, the only reason I haven’t done that is because of the areas where the Old Kaw does show its age – and its beauty, too. I located a set of “correct” NOS rims and spokes during the restoration. These are beautiful but almost impossible to balance perfectly and if you don’t balance them perfectly, you’ll discover a wicked head shake coming on right around 120.

At which point you will likely wish to slow down – which is when another aspect of age manifests itself: The bike’s single (left side) disc brake up front … and useless drum brake behind you. In ’76, this was still more than most anyone or anything else had. But the brakes are not up to the engine’s capabilities – and if you forget this, you’ll get a reminder the unpleasant way.

But damn, it looked good.

Which is why I chose to stick with stock and not update the bike with mags or dual discs – even though the latter was an available over-the-counter dealer upgrade (and later offered standard on Limited and Kz1000 models).

My bike’s also painted ’75 Z1 colors, dark green with yellow accent stripes. And I added the early (Z1 style) rear shocks with integrated reflectors. But otherwise, it’s been recreated much as it left the factory 35 years ago.

I’ve owned this bike for going on ten years and decided it’s a Keeper. One of those bikes I won’t part with until I part with this life. I get too much satisfaction out of looking at it, out of kicking that hairy DOHC four to life. (It starts on the first try, even after long periods of sitting; and yes, it has an electric starter – but what’s the fun in that?)

But the main reason she’s a Keeper is she’s a rider. There are legions of cool-looking, even downright gorgeous old bikes that I love to ogle at places like the Barber Motorsports musem (a place every true biker must visit at least once, just as every true Elvis fan is duty-bound to make the pilgrimage to Graceland). Most of these I would I never take farther than around the block. Some are unreliable. Others impossible to find parts for. The Kaw is as reliable as a ’38 Special wheelgun – and if (if) you ever need anything, most parts are both readily available and reasonably priced.

I’ve ridden my Old Kaw thousands of miles; I’d take it anywhere… and know I’d get there.

Looking good, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Beads in the wheels for balance, it dynamically balances them, whatever the speed! Have fun. The manufacturer that sells them to the folks that repackage them for resale will sell you a quart of them which is about five pounds for $70 plus shipping. Works for me, and my customers can now get it for less. Google foo will find you all the rest of the info you need.

  2. Ah a fun subject, old kawasakis. Going back a few years who could forget the 750cc triple cylinder 2 stroker? absolute master of the stoplight drag scene! And the 500cc and 350’s were nothing to be sneezed at either! I recall riding a friends 350 triple and being amazed at getting the front wheel up in 3rd gear!
    K-

    • Love the two-stroke triples! True Outlaws. I’d like to add one to my collection one day… just need two things: More money and more garage space!

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