THE announcement of the Honda CB750 Four in 1969 came as a big blow to Kawasaki. The big K was working secretly on its own 750cc four-stroke inline-four cylinder motorcycle, codenamed “New York Steak”, when the announcement was made.
Before the iconic CB750, almost all Japanese motorcycles were two strokes, such as the Kawasaki H1 and Kawasaki H2 triples and the Suzuki Titan 500 and Suzuki GT750, while the exception was the Yamaha XS650, a four-stroke twin.
Honda’s long love affair with the four strokes had been limited to the CB450 Black Bomber.
Kawasaki was thus forced to alter the design brief to add an extra camshaft and another 150cc of capacity, lengthening the gestation process.
The launch of the 903cc Kawasaki Z1 in 1972 was just as anticipated as the CB750, as the Big K promised around 82hp while the Honda made around 60hp. The Z1 ushered in a new age of 210kph performance and easily became the fastest bike ever.
That original Z1 had a mild steel double cradle frame that lacked rigidity and was fitted with spindly 36mm forks. The rear suspension was oversprung and under-damped while the sharp 26-degree steering rake induced speed wobbles and weaves. The single disc up front with a drum brake on the rear wasn’t really up to stopping 240kg of motorcycle, not from 210kph.
Kawasaki added a second disc in 1976 and stretched the capacity to 1016 and strengthened the frame in 1977.
Despite the updates, the Z1-R was up against stiff competition. The Suzuki GS750 had arrived and the Yamaha XS1100, Suzuki GS1000 and Honda CBX had also joined the party.
Being the smallest of the big four Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, development was slower than the others and the big K chose to emphasise styling while creating the Kawasaki Z1-R.
Kawasaki’s handlebar-mounted fairing on the Z1-R was the first on a mass-market Japanese bike. And the sharp angular lines of the fairing was echoed throughout the bike, from the 12.9-litre “coffin” fuel tank to the triangular side panels and swooping tailpiece, and all coated in shocking ice-blue metallic paint.
Inside the fairing was a traditional instrument panel with tachometer and speedometer, plus a fuel gauge and ammeter. The Z1-R also introduced self-cancelling turn signals, working on both a time and distance delay. The KZ1000 engine was fitted with 28mm carbs (up from 25mm previously) and spent exhaust gases sped through a racy four-into-one exhaust.
Claimed horsepower was up to 90 measured at the crankshaft. New cast alloy wheels were 18-inch front and rear, fitted with triple drilled discs. Weight was up to 246kg.
The Z1-R’s scant development period and emphasis on styling showed. The new 18-inch front alloy wheel made the Z1-R even more susceptible to wobbles despite the stiffening gussets in the frame.
The Z1-R returned in 1980 with significant revisions. Gone was the metallic silver-blue paint (replaced with black!) and the four-into-one exhaust system, and the frame now had double-walled down tubes shared with the 1979 KZ1000 Mk.II.
The new frame, together with a 19-inch front wheel and reduced offset in the triple clamps, tamed the wayward handling somewhat. A more practical 16.66-litre fuel tank and a more comfortable seat watered down the styling but added practicality.
Other changes included high-speed V-rated tyres and two teeth more on the rear sprocket for more acceleration. The curious cable-operated remote master cylinder remained, although it gave an indirect feel to the lever.
The bike here is an original first generation Z1-R with the 12.87-litre fuel tank. Very much original except for the tyres, it is extremely rare in this part of the world.
While testing this beast, we kept its unruly reputation (and unobtanium price) firmly in mind and, therefore, experienced no surprises in the handling. It tracks sweetly and feels fairly modern, except for the quality of the damping.
The engine (treated to a recent refresh) was fairly smooth, although age has added some measure of hesitation to the carburetion, especially accelerating from a constant speed.
The brakes were also refreshed for this brief test ride and show their age and the technology available at the time. They definitely needed a firm squeeze to detect any reduction in speed! Luckily the rear brake was fairly powerful.
This particular unit is not Malaysian registered, although the earlier versions of the Z1 exist here. Perhaps being in production for just two years has something to do with it.
This is one to keep and gaze at with rose-tinted spectacles and to ride only occasionally. The owner, Garry from Singapore, is a really lucky guy to have scored this piece of Kawasaki history.