When it comes to classic Japanese motorcycles, you can't get more iconic than the Kawasaki Z1. This boisterous bike kick-started the concept of a “superbike” thanks to its ridiculously powerful four-cylinder inline engine. When it was released in 1972, the Z1 instantly became the world's fastest production motorcycle.
What is perhaps even more legendary is that the Z1 might not have been the success it was if Kawasaki had followed their original plans. In the late 1960s, the Japanese firm began developing a four-cylinder bike after so much success with two-cylinder motorcycles. But cross-country rivals Honda beat them to it with the CB750.
Kawasaki quickly scrapped their original plans and focused on making something even more powerful. Designed as a beefier bike than the Honda, the Z1 project was even codenamed “New York Steak”. The result quickly became a legendary machine.
Even today, the Kawasaki Z1 is an incredibly coveted model, sought out by collectors all around the world. In this piece, we'll chart the development of the Z1, paying special attention to its iconic engine. We'll also examine the Z1's impact on motorcycle culture to figure out why this bike is one of the most legendary motorcycles of all time.
Development & History
The origins of the legendary Kawasaki Z1 were a bit different than the finished product. Kawasaki already had a legacy as a brilliant manufacturer of two-cylinder motorcycles. But to tackle global markets, especially the United States, Kawasaki wasn't content to stick with this philosophy. They wanted to build a bike with more power, and that meant turning to a four-cylinder engine.
Plans were drawn up for a 750 cc bike during the mid-1960s. But Honda – one of Kawasaki's main rivals – were already creating their own four-cylinder machine. Honda released the CB750 in 1968, arguably the world's first superbike, forcing a rethink at Kawasaki. They didn't want to create something on par with the Honda. They wanted to surpass it.
The project was postponed until Kawasaki could produce a more powerful four-cylinder. This became the incredible 903 cc engine that powered the Z1 into the history books. The Kawasaki Z1 hit the road in 1972, four years after the CB750.
Thanks to its powerful motor, the Z1 instantly became the most powerful Japanese production bike the world had ever seen. Kawasaki wrestled ownership of the new “superbike” class away from Honda. This classification would eventually include any production motorcycle that produced 1000 cc and became known as the “liter-class”.
An instant hit, the Z1 was named the MCN (Motorcycle News) Machine of the Year for four consecutive years from 1973 to 1976. As if that wasn't enough, the Z1 was the world's fastest motorcycle in 1973, surpassing a record that had stood since 1948 thanks to its 130 mph top speed.
The Kawasaki Z1 remained in production from 1972 up until 1976. By this time, Kawasaki and other manufacturers were constantly competing to create even faster bikes. But it was the Z1 who was the original superbike, the King of the motorcycle mountain.
The initial design proved so popular that Kawasaki didn't make any major changes until 1975. The model evolved into the Z1-B as Kawasaki's engineers coaxed more power from the 903 cc engine. To compensate, the bike's suspension, brakes, and frame stiffness were improved before the Z1 was discontinued in 1976.
It was the engine that powered the success of the Kawasaki Z1. Originally designed to be a 750 cc four-cylinder, the plan was changed after the release of Honda's CB750. Kawasaki's engineers went back to the drawing board, attempting to produce an engine with a higher displacement and more power to set the Z1 apart.
They succeeded. When it was released in 1972, the Z1 was powered by a huge 903 cc four-cylinder inline engine. The motor was designed to be air-cooled and featured a double-overhead camshaft (DOHC) for better fuel flow within the engine. On its release, the Z1 boasted 167 more ccs than the Honda CB750. The Honda also lacked a DOHC engine until 1979.
Kawasaki's desire to create a more powerful motorbike than its rival helped give birth to the “superbike” category that we know and love today. For decades, these manufacturers would compete to outdo each other to create faster and faster bikes. But it all started with that Kawasaki Z1 engine.
When it was released, the Z1 produced 82 horsepower, 54 lbs-ft of torque, and achieved a top speed of 130 mph. Not bad for a motorbike that weighed in at 230 kg. This engine quickly became one of the most iconic motors of all time, earning instant praise from industry pundits. The speeds that the Z1 was capable of made it the world's fastest production motorbike in 1973, eclipsing a record that was set in 1948 by the Vincent Black Shadow.
This speed was replicated on the track as well, with modified versions of the Z1 capturing average speed records around the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Over a single lap, a tuned Z1 reached an average speed of 160 mph.
The Z1's impressive engine was great for everyday owners as well. Famed for its smooth power delivery, the Z1 quickly became popular with American gear heads. The straight-line speed was clear to see, but the Z1 also included convenient features such as an electric start. In 1975, the Z1 received a modified engine with slightly more power before production finished in 1976.
The engine of the Kawasaki Z1 was so powerful that the chassis had trouble keeping up. Despite this, the Z1 still handled well enough to become a legendary motorcycle. On the road, this created a bike with plenty of grunt and the handling to be accessible to most riders.
Although they bolted a modern, high-performance engine onto the Z1, Kawasaki built the chassis in a traditional way. The bike used rolling-element bearings to rotate the crankshaft. The chassis and full-duplex cradle frame itself were constructed from steel tubes that struggled to perform at the level of the engine at full throttle.
Like the Honda CB750, the Z1 introduced front disc brakes for the flagship Kawasaki model. This allowed riders plenty of stopping power despite the immense performance of the engine. This was especially useful considering that the Z1 weighed 510 lbs (230 kg). By contrast, the CB750 weighed 480 lbs (218 kg), offering better handling.
The Z1's wheelbase contributed to its impressive straight-line performance, measuring 59 inches (1490 mm) long compared to the Honda's 57.3 inches (1460 mm). All in all, the Kawasaki Z1 provided handling that was good enough for most everyday riders.
However, owners in America noticed a tendency for the rear tire and shocks to quickly get worn out. Kawasaki tried to fix these problems throughout the Z1's production, but owners quickly pushed the envelope of any improvements they made.
Modifications were also necessary when taking the Z1 onto the racetrack. Most teams modified their Z1's with welding reinforcement to keep the frame intact at high speeds. The swing-arms were braced and the suspension tuned up or completely replaced. The alterations paid off as the Z1 captured both single-lap and 24-hour endurance average speed records at the prestigious Daytona Speedway.
In 1975, Kawasaki's engineers attempted to address some of the Z1's chassis shortcomings in 1975 with the only major alteration during the bike's production lifespan. The suspension was updated and the frame was stiffened, while improved brakes were also added. These changes remained until the Z1 bowed out in 1976.
Impact On Motorcycle Culture
The Kawasaki Z1's impact on motorcycle culture is still being felt in the industry today. Combined with its rival, the Honda CB750, the Z1 represented the dawn of a new age in the motorcycle industry – the age of the superbike. Both the Z1 and the CB750 represented a huge leap for production bikes, delivering race-worthy performance to riders on regular roads.
Before the release of these two bikes, the top tier of motorcycle racing all used 500 cc machines. Now, with the Kawasaki Z1 and Honda's CB750, everyday riders could buy a reasonably-priced motorcycle that had a higher displacement than the top-level racing machines. It wasn't long before major motorcycle championships introduced a 750 cc class.
While the CB750 may have been the traditional superbike pioneer, it was the Z1 that really took the emerging class to new heights. Producing virtually 1000 cc, the release of the Z1 sparked a motorcycle arms race for the next few decades. Japanese manufacturers in particular battled each other to produce bikes that were more powerful and handled better than their rivals.
Modern superbikes are typically classed as machines that produce around 1000 cc, and this distinction wouldn't have been possible without the Kawasaki Z1. In short, this bike changed the motorcycle industry forever.
Kawasaki Z1's are still one of the Holy Grails for classic motorcycle enthusiasts. These iconic Japanese bikes are highly sought-after on the collectors market, especially original 1972 examples that are still unmodified. These models can fetch almost $30,000 if they're still in a good condition.
Despite the quality of modern motorcycles, many enthusiasts still dream of feeling the sudden acceleration of a legendary Kawasaki Z1. The white-knuckle ride of the Z1 has made it more desirable than its old rival, the CB750. It's this continued popularity that makes the Kawasaki Z1 so legendary.