Historic Motorcycle Brands
In 1878, Kawasaki Heavy Industries began building ships in Hyogo, Japan. By 1906, it was building locomotives and railroad cars. During World War II, Kawasaki Aircraft Co built planes for the Imperial Navy and, after the War, this diversified company began making scooters and motorcycles.
In 1950, Kawasaki opened its Steel Division that produced scooters for the Japanese market. By 1954, it was making small motorcycles, powered by Kawasaki’s own KE-1, air-cooled, 148cc, OHV four-stroke single.
In 1963, Kawasaki Aircraft merged with Meguro Motorcycles, to form Kawasaki Motorcycles, but still produced Meguro designs. In an effort break into the four-stroke heavyweight market, Kawasaki began producing the Meguro K1 as the Kawasaki W1.
The W1 was based on the BSA A7 OHV, 500cc, vertical-twin engine. BSA had already abandoned the design that did not initially do much better as a Kawasaki than it had done as a BSA.
Kawasaki W1SS – Chuck Schulz
While it continued to improve and produce four-stroke bikes, Kawasaki put its substantial engineering might into potential mass-market, two-stroke designs, with the emphasis being performance at a low price.
In 1955 the all-Kawasaki Meihatsu 125-500 was powered by an all-new KB-5, piston-ported, two-stroke engine. A year later, the Meihatsu 125 Deluxe, powered by an improved version of the KB-5 engine, set a top-speed record for its category. This Kawasaki also proved its reliability in a separate test when it ran for 50,000km without breaking down.
In 1957, an improved version of the popular KB-5 was produced, bearing the first-ever Kawasaki logo. It was upgraded again, as the 125 Ace, in 1960. That same year, a brand new factory dedicated exclusively to motorcycle production was completed.
In 1962, Kawasaki introduced the 125 B8, with its 125cc engine upgraded to produce 11bhp at 8000rpm. This bike used the most advanced materials available at the time and proved its durability.
The B8M was the first racing motorcycle by Kawasaki, created from the B8, solely to compete in the Japanese Motocross Championships. Kawasaki engineers took a stock B8 and modified it by changing the forks and seat; adding handlebars with a cross bar and a raised expansion chamber, and knobbly tyres.
Soon dubbed the ‘Red-Tank Furore’, it was powered by the two-stroke, 125cc Kawasaki engine, but with a rotary inlet valve instead of piston-porting. It was equipped with a four-speed transmission.
1963 Kawasaki 125 B8M – Rainmaker47
The B8M took the top six positions in the Hyogo Prefecture Motocross Tournament and soon dominated the Japanese motocross racing circuit.
The success of the B8M led to the development of rotary-valve two strokes across the Kawasaki range.
Kawasaki’s 650cc W1 was outclassed by the competition and even adding a second carbie to the W2 model took horsepower from 50bhp to only 53bhp. However, in the background, Kawasaki had been working on a lighter, faster replacement.
In 1967, the A1 Samurai was launched, with two-stroke power, via a twin-cylinder, twin-rotary-valve, twin-carburettor 250cc engine. Output was 31hp at 8000rpm.
1967 Kawasaki Avenger 350
The A1 was followed almost immediately by a larger bore, 350cc A7 Avenger that put out 42hp. Power on paper was down, compared with the W2, but the A7 was much lighter.
The successive A models didn’t really prepare the market for what happened next: the three-cylinder, triple-carbie, Kawasaki H1 Mach III. This 1969 release took road-bike performance – if not handling – to a completely new level.
Rumours had been circling about Honda and Triumph working on multi-cylinder four-stroke bikes, while Kawasaki had put all its R&D into two-strokes and the H1 Mach III was the result.
Kawasaki hoped its 60bhp, 500cc two-stroke triple would blow the competition into the weeds. And it did…in a straight line. With tested quarter-mile times of 13.2 seconds and terminal speeds around 120mph, the H1 was the quickest road bike in the world.
However, its handling and drum braking left much to be desired. Later models picked up a single front brake disc, but the chassis remained the same.
Kawasaki’s Lime green racing colour was developed in 1968 and was shown at the Daytona 200 in 1969.
H1R derivatives of the Mach III were raced by Ginger Molloy in Grands Prix, with his ‘Green Meanie’ finishing just behind Giacomo Agostini’s MV Agusta in the 1970 500cc World Championship and by UK riders Paul Smart and Cliff Carr in Europe and North America.
As if the H1 didn’t make enough of a statement for Kawasaki, the 1971 H2 did it emphatically, with a better chassis and 74hp from its 748cc, two-stroke triple. It was the H1 on steroids.
However, while the two-stroke triples – 350, 500 and 750 – certainly put Kawasaki on the performance-bike grid and gave further pain to the established British brands, the company knew that fuel economy demands in the post-Oil-Shock world and emissions issues would soon sound the death knell for the large, road-going two-stroke.
Behind the scenes, Kawasaki had been working on its own SOHC four-cylinder, four-stroke bike – code named ‘New York Steak’ – but when Honda beat it to the punch with the game-changing 750 Four in 1969, it was back to the drawing board at Kawasaki.
The original four-cylinder, four-stroke design was beefed up to 903cc and the SOHC was replaced with a DOHC set up. The result was the air-cooled, 1972 Kawasaki Z1, with 82bhp and a top speed of 130mph that rewrote the sports-bike criteria.
Kawasaki Z1000 – Steve Glover
The Z1 set the world FIM and AMA record for 24-hour endurance on the banked Daytona racetrack in 1972, recording 2631 miles at an average speed of 109.64mph.
Kawasaki’s motocross racing history began in 1973, with the KX125 and KX250 models.
Kawasaki added a second front disc brake to the Z1 in 1976, before boring out the cylinders, raising capacity to 1000cc for the Z1R in 1978, in the face of competition from Honda’s CBX, the Yamaha XS1100 and Suzuki’s GS1000.
1978-1982 KR250 and KR350 – GP successes
In response to criticism of the Z1R’s handling, Kawasaki released the heavily revised Z1R-II for the 1980 model year, with a stiffer frame using double-walled down-tubes from the 1979 KZ100, along with a 19-inch front wheel, larger fuel tank, four-into-two exhaust and a new crankshaft to reduce engine vibration.
Kawasaki Z1300 – Rikita
In 1980 Kawasaki released the GPZ1100, with an oil cooler and fuel injection. Also, for 1980, Kawasaki released the Z1300 Voyager: a fully-equipped tourer that featured a liquid-cooled, DOHC, in-line six with DFI, shaft-drive, full fairing and many long-distance features.
A year later, Kawasaki won the manufacturer’s title in the 150cc class FIM World Road Racing Championship, for the fourth straight year.
Kawasaki captured the AMA Superbike series in 1981 and 1982, with Rob Muzzy’s tuning and ‘Steady Eddie Lawson’s riding skills. At the same time, the Endurance World Championship was dominated by the KR1000 that dominated the scene from 1981 until 1983, and took 1-2-3 honours at the Le Mans 24-hour.
Kawasaki GPZ900R Ninja – Reg McKenna
For 1984 the Kawasaki Ninja 900 was released and was soon named bike of the year. The GPZ900R was equipped with Kawasaki’s first liquid-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine and a compact chassis.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 – Arthur RH
In 1985, Kawasaki released the Vulcan/Eliminator Cruiser series, with power from the Ninja 900 engine and shaft drive. The GPZ600R made its entrance as an alternative to larger-displacement bikes.
Kawasaki ZX10 – Reg McKenna
Kawasaki released the fully-faired super sport GPX750R, touring Voyager XII and 1000GTR in 1986 and followed them up with the Ninja ZX750F and Tomcat ZX-10 the following year.
In 1990 came the Kawasaki’s ZZ-R1100 (Ninja ZX-11), with the first Ram Air System in the market.
In 1995, Stefan Everts won the World Motocross Championship on a KX250.
1995 World Motocross Title bike
Sebastien Tortelli took the 1996 World motocross Championship on a KX125, moving up to the KX250 in 1998 and taking that title as well.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Kawasaki released a bewildering number of new models and it’s not clear which ones will be considered classics in the years to come.
Here’s the lineup: Estrella, Versys, Z150-400, ZRX models and W650/800 in naked and adventure touring bikes; Ninja 250-1400 models in sports bikes; ZZR 1000-1400 in sports-touring and Vulcans up to two litres in the cruiser market.
In the mid-2010s Kawasaki dominated WSBK racing