The Old Kaw

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If you’re into naval history, you probably know the story – and the significance of – HMS Dreadnought. The first big gun battleship, launched in 1906. She mounted 12 inch guns in two main turrets – giving her massive firepower compared with her contemporaries, which were thus rendered immediately obsolete and thereafter referred to as “pre-dreadnoughts.” Dreadnought became synonymous with the big-gun battleships that came after her – all of which emulated her design.'73 Z1 pipes

Kawasaki’s Z1 900 likewise changed everything when it was launched in 1973. It was the first mass-market superbike. Its 903 cc dual overhead cam four outclassed everything else on the road. It ran a 12 second quarter mile – and topped out close to 140 MPH. Today, that may not sound all that impressive. But in the early ’70s, it made you King of the Road.

The big Zed also kept you on the road – in contrast to Kawasaki’s quick but temperamental (and outrageously thirsty) two-stroke triples. It was reliable, maintenance-light (no oil to add or mix, just one set of points for its four cylinders as opposed to three sets for the triples, one for each cylinder)  and it ran about twice as far on the same quantity of gas.

Here was a machine that could be ridden cross country – and which could (and did) run for 100,000 miles before teardown time. This was unheard of. But Kawasaki over-built the Z1, with a massive crankshaft riding on roller bearings that was hard to hurt; geared rather than chain-driven primary drive and direct-actuation of the valvetrain (rather than via rocker arms, as in the single overhead cam Honda CB750). The engine’s strength was such that chain technology of the era could not keep up. Kawasaki tried to crutch this with an automatic oiler that made a mess more than anything else; luckily, chain technology quickly improved and the automatic oiler was no longer necessary and, accordingly, dropped in ’76.

Speaking of which – my ’76.'75 Z1 pic

This year, the Z1900 became the Kz900 – but it’s the same bike where it counts. Same engine, same jaunty 4-4 pipes that play the “music” made by the big air-cooled four; at start-up, you can watch the individual exhaust pulses erupt in mechanical syncopation. The chief differences are plusses – a beefed-up frame, no more chain oiler. Revised front forks (the ’76 does not have reflectors built into the lowers, the Z1 does). Revised – slightly – side covers that sport more succinct “Kz900” badges rather than the “900 double overhead cams” of the ’73-’75.

Speaking of ’75.

My bike’s tank is painted in ’75 Z1900 colors – and stripes – which I prefer over the factory ’76 palette. Deep Kaw green with gold/white striping. The engine has been muscled up some, too. Big bore (and high-compression) pistons, so it’s now a 1015 cc’er. I nixed the stock air box – which in ’76 was made a bit more restrictive to stifle noise and placate the Feds – and fitted individual K&N pods to each of the carbs, which have also been jetted up to assure proper fuel flow to sate the increased appetite of the enlarged and toned-up engine. Now you can hear the thing breathe – as it ought to be.'73 Kaw ad

Otherwise, she’s stock – down to the NOS spoked rims, flat seat and single disc front/drum brake rear. It’s easy to update the latter with dual discs – a factory option in ’76 on the Kz900 LTD. Both fork lowers have mounting holes; it’s a 30 minute bolt-in job. But I like the uncluttered looks of the single disc set-up, even if the braking performance is both pitiful and uneven.

Well, by modern standards.

But otherwise, the old Zed feels remarkably modern for an almost 40-year-old machine. It starts easily and immediately – whether you use the electric starter or the kicker (these bikes have both). The engine idles smoothly and its power delivery is as smooth as Barry White. It’s as happy being short-shifted in traffic as it is being rung out to its 9,000-plus RPM redline on the open road. Quick and fast in stock trim, these bikes can be made very quick – and very fast – with a few modifications, as described above. But, be advised: The engine was far ahead of chassis (and brake) design, even in ’73. Wick it up to 120 or so hp – which is probably about what my bike’s engine now produces – and you can get in Too Deep  . . . Real Quick. You must constantly recite the mantra: This is a 40-year-old bike, sporting 40-year-old brakes and suspension technology… with an engine that pulls like current liter class bike’s.

Respect that – and you’ll be ok.

Sure, I could update the chassis. Some guys replace the stamped/tubular steel swing-arm with a modern aluminum unit from another (modern) sport bike – which lets you run a modern (wider) rim (and tire) among other advantages. And modern multi-piston calipers fore and aft. Good shocks (the stockers are crap) and modern (adjustable) forks.Kz900full 2

But, no. I won’t do that to my bike. Because this bike is my time machine. My antidote to an often-enervating modernity of implacable, incomprehensible computer-controlled everything. When I am riding the old Kaw, it is easy to feel the mid-’70s and not just reminisce about them. To get that vibe, to re-vivify that world and experience, once more, how good it was – despite the not-so-great brakes, et al.

Jimmy Carter’s benign ineptitude. Worship of the army (no “troops” back then) considered weird. Helmets – if you wanted ’em. Police in blue shirts with six-shooters, as opposed to black-clad goons packing Glocks and Sigs. Sure, the speed limit was 55 – but they didn’t put you in the ground for trivia such as “speeding.” You could get away with things. Not the Big Things (no one should favor that). I mean the petty – silly – technicalities. The stuff they crucify you for today.

I often miss ’76.

Luckily, I can go for a ride down memory lane pretty much anytime.

I recommend it.

Throw it in the Woods? 

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Jentry,
    I have sold many bikes over the years and all of the street bikes had titles. Older dirt bikes only had bills of sale in some states. Try asking your state MVD if they could track the title number from the previous title transfers. This might help you because the title before the one with a model number would probably have the vin on it.
    Good Luck

  2. I’ve been looking for my dad’s 1978 KZ1000 on and off for a few years. In a moment of inspiration I realized I could look up the current owner via CarFax since my dad said he still had some of his old paperwork. Unfortunately, in place of the VIN, someone had entered just the model number, so the search continues. One new bike that might spark your interest is the BMW R Nine T. Thanks for posting photos and videos of your old Kawasaki.

    • Hi Jentry,

      Welcome!

      On the Kaw:

      In some states in prior years, bikes were titled differently than cars. Sometimes, only a bill of sale was involved to transfer ownership.

      Also, it is fairly common for old bikes to no longer have their original engines – or their frames. Let’s say a guy wrecked and bent the frame – but the engine was still good, etc. He might swap everything over to a different frame.

      I hope you find your dad’s bike!

    • I do like the looks of the BMW – just not its price!

      Or its (to me) over-teched electronics suit.

      One of the qualities of bikes – old bikes – that I like is their minimalism relative to cars. Especially with regard to “safety” crap.

      I don’t want ABS or traction (or launch) control.

      I’m also not interested in a computer, O2 sensors and catalytic converters.

      I don’t even want fuel injection. I like carbs. There is something wonderfully mechanical about them. FI is anodyne. It is – for me – like having sex with a mannequin. It might be “cleaner” and “more efficient.” But it’s just not the same.

      I doubt I will ever buy a new bike again.

      Because they have become very much like new cars.

  3. I also used to sell Jap bikes and there are millions of them laying around when they quit running. Most of the bikes need carbs cleaned first and check the brakes and other major components. It just takes time looking around for them. We have a huge motorcycle junkyard in Phoenix called Bob’s Motorcycles on Elwood St that has every kind of Jap bike and many others available. Don’t be afraid of salvage titles because Insurance Companies salvage out good running bikes and try to rob the owners like they did to me. I hammered them for months until they paid me a reasonable price for my cosmetically salvaged bike. They offered me $1000 and I finally settled for $1700 and kept the bike. There was nothing wrong with the riding capability of the bike although the fairing was junk and it was scraped up on the edges where it slid. So, I have a running $300 bike to work with. I can turn it into a cafe racer if I want or put a full fairing back on and turn it back into a touring bike or sell a 93 BMW K1100 for $2000 as is. NEVER TRUST INSURANCE COMPANIES: They are all criminals since they paid off are crooked politicians to pass mandatory insurance laws.

    • Ditto on insurance companies, Dr. Jett – they’re a mafia, nothing less.

      PS: Next time I’m in Phoenix (my folks live in Scottsdale) I will stop by Bob’s….

      • Eric,
        Let me know when you are coming to town and I’ll introduce you to some other interesting MC shops like Bob’s Cycle Supply on University Ave in Phoenix. People get confused since the names are similar. This one has antique American and European bikes and works primarily on Harleys. I probably have one of the largest collections of vintage BMW’s although I know other BMW affecionados who have many bikes too.

  4. There is no reason to ride any of the old bikes that had bad frames or brakes. There are numerous Jap bikes made from 1977 to present that are fun to ride. I have 15 BMW 800 cc to 1100cc boxers and KBikes that I could sell to you for a reasonable price and they are easy to restore and find parts for in the USA or I could have them completed for you for a reasonable price. I’ve been doing that since I bought my first BMW in 1978. NONE of them would cost more than $4000 to have a nice bike unless they have engine rebuilds or major work. I know many of the resources to save money on BMW’s.

    • My ’76 Kz900 is lots of fun to ride! In part because it is so reliable. I’ve owned it for 20 years and so far no mechanical breakdowns or major issues. The one thing it does every once in a blue moon – about once every four years – is blow the main fuse. Bikes dies; I roll to a stop. Pop in a fresh fuse – I keep them in the tool kit for just-in-case” – and good to go until the next time! I’ve never figured out why this happens.

      The brakes are not great, but they’re adequate for normal riding. The handling is better than several new bikes (i.e., huge/heavy Harleys).

      And it just feels (and looks) great.

      I convinced Dom to acquire one, by the way….

  5. Eric,
    I too fondly remember riding like the wind in the 70’s; still do when I can except I don’t have a bright yellow 72 Norton Combat Commando cafe racer. I’m restoring a 99 BMW K1200RS and can’t stand the baby shit yellow paint with the gray trim and racing flags. Unfortunately I’m afraid to paint it like my old Norton. The Gestapo might remember me from some excessive speed incident or lane splitting or other illegal activity in Camera controlled America.
    I rode a 93 Kawi my friend owned for 20 minutes while he rode my 77 GS750. I couldn’t wait to park the Kawi and get back on my bike. My impression: “What a piece of ill-handling junk although it did go fast in a straight line.” I was in a hospital with a guy who rode his 900 Kawi on a twisting road straight into oncoming traffic because he didn’t keep yanking on it to keep it on his side of the road. Riding that Kawi was like wrestling bears when you had to go throught curves. My Norton was much more fun, although I went to MC mechanics school so that I learned how to make it stay together which is why I ended up buying the Suzi. I sold Kawasaki’s in 1978 and appreciated how the company had improved the looks, braking and handling. I discovered the same thing when I started riding BMW’s: the dual front discs on the R90S spoiled me. I was desperately grabbing the single front disc of an R90/6 and standing on the rear brake because it took so much more time to stop after getting used to riding the R90S.

    • Owwww a 72 Norton Combat Commando! Didn’t Nancy Sinatra pose for one of their promo ads? Or was it another good looking blond?

    • @Dr Jett0 – I had an H1 for about two months and twice that number of near death experiences. Sold that rocket without stabilizers quick too.

      From Wikipedia:
      Handling characteristics were not favorable according to many sources. “Viewed logically, the Kawasaki H1 had many flaws. The gearbox was odd, with neutral below first, the brakes very questionable and the handling decidedly marginal in every situation – except when the bike was stopped with the engine switched off. Not for nothing was the H1 known as, “The triple with the ripple”.

      Motobase posted an opinion: “[…] the engine was too quick for the handling… Sports riders back then were possibly more forgiving, perhaps, or maybe its outrageous performance simply muffled any criticisms that should have been directed at the chassis and suspension? Whatever riders may have thought, having sampled an H1, or to whichever degree they had frightened themselves, the majority would usually smile, and say something like, That’s some rocket-ship, man! Kawasaki had created their first cult machine!”

      • Garysco – The “features” you detailed above about the H1 (and the H2) were why I settled on a Yamaha RD 350. It had the frame geometry of the Yamaha TZ race bikes. Oh, the H1 could get away from me in a straight line no doubt, but put a few twisties in the mix and I’d hand them their ass every time. I sure do miss that little oil burner. BTW, the H2 750 Kaw which handled every bit as poorly as the H1 and went even faster was known as “The Widow Maker.” Gee, I wonder why…

        • @Boothe – I haven’t (and probably never will) ridden a new ZX14, GSX-R or BMW to compare, but the H1 from 4000 RPM to red line ( 9 or 10K as I recall ) feels like a carrier launched F16 looks on the Discovery HD channel. Even worse is the next up shift at red line puts you right back at 4000. Just don’t try to stop or turn at speed, because it won’t.

        • I took a H-1 in trade on my last Norton. It seized up on the freeway as I was riding it to sell it. I had no desire to ride it further because I didn’t want to find out what else might happen. I’m lucky that I just pulled in the clutch and released it and continued on my way.

          • Dr Jett – Deja Vu. Mine did that three times when it was summer hot outside. After fixing it twice the third seize was on a “road trip” 300 miles from home. At the ripe age of 17 back then I had no clue it wasn’t a touring bike 🙂 . After the third seize I let it cool off and rode home. It made a horrible banging soup-can sound but never seized again. Turns out it was because the oil injectors are tiny and any amount of dirt etc. will clog the injector just enough.

            • Oh yeah!

              And – triple cranks (and blocks and jugs) are expensive today.

              I do not run my S1 on really hot days. And I always run pre-mix!

          • @Eric – I sat on the new Yamaha single 400 retro bike yesterday. Nice little toy bike. Pretty comfortable for its size and cute as can be. But @ $6,000.00 show room price in CA! I could do one hellava a restore job for that kind of money.

            • Yeah, that’s the rub…

              $6k is considered “affordable” for a new bike. But, one could easily buy a viable Kz900, S3400 (or similar) for $1,500 or so and restore it to damn nice condition for about the same or less money… and have a classic bike that will hold its value vs. a new one whose value will plummet like Enron stock the moment it rolls out of the dealer’s showroom…

              Plus – and this is big consideration in certain areas – the property tax on an “old bike” will be much lower. And insurance, too.

              I pay about $70 a year for a minimum/liability-only policy on the ’76 Kz900.

              The new 400 – with less than half the power (and performance) of my Kz900 – probably would cost 3-4 times as much to “cover.”

      • Hi Gary,

        I own an S1 – the smallest triple – and have ridden an S3 (400) and desperately want a (preferably purple) H2 750.

        These bikes are feral, vicious little sons of bitches – M80s with the fuse cut down to a quarter inch. Dare you to light one!

        But that’s what makes them such a hoot. You want a ride to remember? This’ll do ya!

        Even my little S1 (250) comes alive like a pissed off hornet at 6,000 RPM – and jumps forward suddenly and dangerously, if you’re not ready for it.

        Imagine an H2 with reed valves and Denco cobra pipes….

        • @Eic – Get one at your own peril. 🙂 Right after I bought it (before I knew what would happen) I was on the freeway at 65MPH, downshifted and cranked the throttle to pass a car. Next thing I knew I ripped by the car with the front wheel wayyyyy up in the air.

          (Note to self: learn how to ride this bull before you die).

      • There was a solution. I think Rickman made a frame available for that bike. Rickman frames were beautiful in their engineering and welding. Pricey though.

  6. The 70’s. When regular people were worried about small terrorist groups like the SLA, Black Panthers, UC Berkley hard left wing radicals and the president making war in foreireign places. When an Easy Rider trip across the country was every bikers dream ride.

    Now left wing radicals are in political power and regular people are worried about people owning guns, right wing terrorists and the president making war in foreign places. And an Easy Rider trip requres a passport & will cost a lot more in inspections, fuel and traffic tickets.

      • Get one, Eight!

        They’re still very affordable. I suspect not for long.

        You probably remember (I sure do) when one could pick up a working H1 or H2 triple for a few hundred bucks. Check out the prices of these bikes today. It’s hard to find a parts bike/restoration project for less than $3,000!

        True, they built the Zeds in larger numbers – but there is a finite number of them. Attrition has taken a toll.

        Get one while you still can!

  7. except…

    The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. ~ milan kundera, “ignorance”

    Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were. ~ marcel proust

    It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. ~ w. somerset maugham

    etc…

    i was there, too, surfing the pubertal hormone surge. endogenous hopiates. powerful stuff. overpowering even. can melt synapses into parrot-place.

    ever see this flick? “…yucatan, ’72…” a few lines of truth…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RRWcCzpsjU

  8. Nice one, Eric! I miss the seventies a lot, sometimes. No doubt, even with all the bad stuff, we were much more free. While Reagan brought more libertarian ideas than Carter, he also brought the war on (some) drugs, and helped pave the way for the totalitarian society we have become post-911.

    A simpler time – we always look back nostalgically and pine for it, don’t we?

    • Thanks, DR!

      Compared with the situation today, ’70s America was a Libertarian paradise. One could say, “it’s a free country” – without being ironic.

      It’s awful what it’s come to.

  9. Eric – I remember 1976 very well. I was16, it was the Bicentennial and I graduated H.S. that year. I got my driver’s license, my first car and my first “real” job. America was still recovering from Vietnam and gas was still well under a dollar a gallon. “Mind your own business” was still pretty much the order of the day, not “If you see something, say something.” And unless you were a Renegade, a Pagan or a Confederate Angel, running from the law on a bike (and getting caught) probably wouldn’t get you a “wood shampoo.” Just a reckless ticket and maybe a night in the pokey. I had a Portsmouth, Va. cop at a sea wall art show tell me all about a guy on a Z1 cat and mousing him all over town; letting him catch up on his Hawg just so he could blow him away on the Kaw one more time. Finally the guy pulled over and let him write the ticket, telling the cop “I’ve got plenty of money. I just wanted to see what that old Harley could do.” The cop thought it was funny, even if it was a stupid thing to do and didn’t beat the dude’s head in. There were a lot less cops, a lot less laws and a lot more freedom. I miss it just like you. I was able to go back a few decades my moving to rural Missouri, but it’s still not the same. I don’t think there’s anywhere left to run to anymore.

    • Great stuff, Boothe… I miss it, too.

      At least we got to experience a semi-free society.

      If I could turn back time . . .

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