Manufactured from 1974 to 1984, the Kawasaki KZ400 was the right bike for the right time - almost by accident!
The historical premise around this bike is a little odd because the KZ400 came at a time when tariffs were being imposed on the importation of foreign parts. In the political and economic realm, President Nixon had also done away with the gold standard, which prompted prices to start rising on a variety of commodities, including gas.
What better time for Kawasaki to start sending parts to an American factory to assemble a fuel-efficient motorcycle that could say “Built in the USA”? With Vietnam (still) in full swing, American motorcycle riders had a bit of an appetite for something made right here in the U.SA. with pride.
Let’s dive into more about what made the KZ400 unique.
Development and History
The Kawasaki KZ400 came about in motorcycle history as a cheap, fun ride. Many of the bikes made and developed at the same time were gradually becoming bigger and more powerful while also rising in price, but the KZ400 stayed away from this mantra.
KZ400’s marketing and advertising campaigns were aimed especially at commuters, stating “More fun than any car I ever owned.” Riders also believed the KZ400 to be a “starter bike” that you learn to ride on, maintain for cheap, then sell or trade-in once you “grew up” and wanted a bigger and more powerful motorcycle. The KZ400 would do well as an every day, non-intimidating bike that could readily get you to point A and point B without much need to show off some speed.
Their marketing thought process can be shown in the imagery from their ads, with a couple riding a motorcycle while passing a passenger bus packed full of people. it was for relatively young riders, who wanted freedom with the constraints of public transport. The Kawasaki competed directly with the Honda CB350, with about the same size engine and power. Cycle magazine even stated that the KZ400 was designed to do all the same things that the Honda CB350 did, only slightly better.
Given the economic developments at the time, including an oil embargo on Middle Eastern countries, a devaluing dollar, and tariffs; the KZ400 represented what Americans wanted and needed from a beginner motorcycle. It packed in better than average gas mileage in a cheap package with an American-made label.
Speaking of gas mileage and engine performance, let’s talk more about that.
A 399CC air-cooled, parallel-twin engine powered the KZ400. When compared to the Honda’s 180-degree crank, the KZ400 offered a 360-degree crank which smoothed out the vibrations normally caused by a V-twin.
The result? About 35 horsepower for a bike weighing under 400 pounds. The bike accelerated well from 2500 RPM all the way up to north of 9000 RPM. This bike could spin, and it sounded great!
The engine had minor reliability issues with oil leaks at top speed, prompting efforts for a redesign in the late 1970s, but extensive reviews proclaimed that the KZ400 could readily endure hard testing. This included being purposely revved all the way to redline in extreme heat with the only problem being discolored tailpipes and slightly higher than average oil consumption.
While Kawasaki did not intend the KZ400 as a performance bike, reviewers appreciated its acceleration as a result of the bike’s small weight. The weight also added one of the biggest benefits as oil and gas prices jumped by over 40%: it could achieve 60 miles per gallon, even when going fast.
Performance was solid, and the KZ400 could go 100 miles per hour, which was probably unusual for a new rider who normally drove a basic passenger vehicle before. This was how people got hooked on motorcycles for life!
The overall design of the KZ400 chassis resulted in some complaints. Many riders noted that it was easy to navigate around the city, and the skinny design allowed for easy turns and good commuter highway handling.
Some reviewers, including Cycle Magazine, complained that the suspension and brake system felt cheap. Their issues stemmed from the hard application of the brake causing the rear wheel to potentially hop. Kawasaki did work on fixing this issue, and another 1979 magazine review said Kawasaki had fixed most of the initial issues with control and brakes.
While the KZ400 made commuters happy, riders considering it for longer-term riding and touring were less than thrilled. The narrow seat couldn’t accommodate a rider's weight for hours while staying comfortable, but short rides through the city didn’t present any issues.
The double-cradle frame also helped commuters balance the bike easily, which was also perfect for beginners.
Impact on Motorcycle Culture
As a fun commuter bike, the KZ400 nameplate lasted almost a decade because of the problems it solved.
Beginner bikes were not always cheap and friendly, but the KZ400 had a basic, easy-to-use engine with an available electric starter. The price became a hit when compared to other bikes from other countries that were more deeply impacted by American tariffs. Kawasaki also seemed to know what they were doing when designing a well-priced bike compared to the already well-received Honda. They played the game quite well!
As news and worries about inflation and gas shortages spread, the KZ400 arrived on dealer showrooms as a good compromise between a comfortable road bike, and a great alternative to a small vehicle for when the weather was right. The advertising also made the bike look fun and unique, even though the Honda was very similar in performance.
The KZ400 competed with another Honda bike: the Honda CB400T Hawk. The Hawk used a single overhead cam fed by smaller 32 millimeter carburetors for the fuel conscience, while weighing just a bit less and costing $200 less. The Hawk offered less horsepower, with less than 40, and actually had slightly worse fuel mileage at 40-50. Not a great alternative, but it had its takers for sure.
While the KZ400 didn’t really intend to change the game beyond continuing to make smaller bikes more accessible to non-motorcycle riders, it made the largest impact on youngsters who were just out of college. While making their first real paychecks, the KZ400 was easy to justify affording, even with another car, and represented a more eco-friendly transportation source when gas prices were volatile.
The combination made it the right bike for the time period, and it enjoyed a fairly long life as the commuter fun bike.