Motorcycle Restoration Projects
Kawasaki’s New York Steak
History tells us that, in 1967, Kawasaki instructed a team of engineers led by Gyoichi ‘Ben’ Inamura to produce a large capacity, four-cylinder, four-stroke, across-the-frame motorcycle with a capacity of 750cc. Kawasaki was very keen to be the first Japanese company to bring such a motorcycle to market.
Codenamed N600, this brief was issued following studies of the North American motorcycle market and was labelled New York Steak.
The Tokyo Motorcycle Show on 25th October, 1968 was the venue for Honda’s release of its CB750, hued in candy blue with gold stripes. It had a four-cylinder, four-stroke, across-the-frame OHC engine, which sent the red-faced Kawasaki crew into complete shock. They had been beaten to the post by one of their fiercest competitors.
The launch of the CB750 was a landmark occasion for the Japanese motorcycle industry, with its superior specification (five-speed gearbox, disc brakes, electric starter and overhead camshaft).
This prompted its Japanese contemporaries to follow quickly in its wheel-tracks. This was a major turning point, that during the following decade established the Land of the Risen Sun as the global motorcycle capital.
This quantum leap in motorcycle specification effectively gave the Japanese an entrée into the USA – the world’s largest single market – and was instrumental in the decline of the British two-wheel manufacturing industry.
Birth of the Z900
A new brief was immediately issued at Kawasaki, calling for its ‘3S’ styling policy to be adhered to – Slim, Sleek and Sexy.
The New York Steak project’s engine capacity was to increase to 900cc, along with a corresponding increase in horsepower over the Honda. Production was planned to start in 1972, to allow its current H2 750 Mach III and IV models to establish sales volume, before the release of its new ‘Super Four’.
In the middle of 1970, a project team of engine and chassis specialists was formed, beside the N600 crew that had already completed much of the work on the engine.
Work on the 903cc prototype progressed quickly and the first ‘V1’ was run at Fuji Speedway and then at Yatabe High-Speed test circuit, in 1971. These bikes called ‘V1’, because their engine and frame numbers started with a ‘V1’ prefix, rather than the ‘Z1’ of the later production bikes.
Engineers were encouraged by 95hp from one of the V1s and a recorded top speed of 140mph.
It was the first large-capacity, Japanese four-cylinder, production motorcycle to use a double-overhead-camshaft system. When it was introduced, only Italy’s MV Agusta 750 used a DOHC system.
As the USA was to be the major market for the ‘Super Four’, Kawasaki decided to run the two bikes on American roads and see what broke. However, the engineers didn’t want the press or anyone else to know these were Kawasakis, so they painted them in Honda colours and stuck Honda badges on the tanks.
Based in Los Angeles, the two bikes clocked up lots of hard miles at high speeds, including a trip to Daytona and back, with side-trips to various race tracks including Talladega. Joining two test riders in America was Japanese test rider Kiyohara-san.
After the early-1972 testing, the V1 bikes were returned to Japan, where they were stripped and examined carefully. The only problem area identified was excessive chain wear, so an automatic chain oiler was either added or modified at this point.
The paint design changed from the V1 when it became a Z1 and the final decision on colour scheme was made. The much-loved Candy Brown and Orange – better known as the ‘Jaffa’ in Australia – was one colour option and the other was Candy Yellow and Green.
Also receiving a final switch was Kawasaki branding from the points cover, replaced by the DOHC logo that was moved from the clutch cover.
The official world launch was in September 1972 at the Cologne Motorcycle Show in Germany. The first shipment of Z1s hit Australia in early October ahead of the 1972 Castrol Six-Hour on October 15. One demo Zi did laps of Amaroo Park during the Six-Hour, ridden by the travelling marshals. Mike Steel and Dave Burgess won the race aboard a Kawasaki H2 750, the last win by a two-stroke in that race.
The following year in the 1973 Castrol Six-Hour, Ken Blake rode to an easy solo win in a new Kawasaki Z1. Blake teamed with Len Atlee for another win in 1974. Gregg Hansford and Murray Sayle shared the ride and the win in 1975. Kawasaki Z1 domination continued in 1976 when Jim Budd and Roger Hayes won. Four on the trot certainly didn’t harm its legendary status.
The new bike was known variously as the ‘Z1’, ‘Z1-900’ and ‘Z900’, depending o the market.
The Z1 race performances certainly impressed Z900 groupie, Gary Whitwell, who’s owned three of these legendary 900cc firecrackers, from the Land of the Risen Sun.
Gary in 1980 with his green Kwaka
This Z900 is Gary’s third and was assembled with Japanese archetypical dedication at Kawasaki’s Akashi factory in December 1975. It arrived in Australia in January the following year and was compliance plated ‘Jan 1976′.
Gary bought his first Z900 new in November 1975 for $2495 and it was the same Diamond Brown as his current one.
“Unfortunately due to financial pressures I had to move it on two years later,” said Gary. “Then, in 1980, I bought a second-hand green one that I had for five years.”
Gary bought number three in September 2017. It was somebody’s half-finished project, which the owner had started to modify.
“I checked all its numbers to confirm its authenticity, “ Gary said. “It was genuine and although he had started some mods, the original fuel tank and duck-tail were both in excellent condition.
“The paintwork showed a minuscule amount of wear – just the patina of time.”
Because all the bones were there, Gary bought it, but when he got it home and started to pull it apart he realised he should never have bought a half-finished project.
“I took the tank, duck-tail and the two air-cleaner covers to Dutchy’s Motorcycle Spaypainting in Wollongong, “ said Gary. “ I had him paint the air-cleaner covers to match the tank’s and duck-tail’s original Diamond Brown.
“Also, as the tank was rusty inside, he cleaned the rust out and fibre-glassed the inside.”
Gary discovered that the previous owner had bored the engine to 1015cc and fitted reground cams, matched with smooth-bore carburettors.
“I’ve had it dyno tuned and it runs really well,” Gary happily reported. “ it’s been faultless and has been so over the past two years.
“My previous two Z900s had a good spread of power through the entire rev range, but the cams in this one make it a little slow at first, but then gets a real burst of power and does it get up and go!”
The original spec’ sheet says 81hp at 8500rpm, but obviously Gary’s bike has more grunt.
“The brakes were originally two discs and callipers,” said Gary. “But the owner had removed one, leaving only one disc.
“So, I then had to track down a pair, which was almost impossible to find.
“I finally found a guy in Newcastle who was fitting later equipment to his 900, but I had to pay dearly to get them – but I needed to stop the beast.”
Gary says he’s owned several different makes beside the Kawasaki trio, including Honda, Suzuki and Triumph.
“In fact, my wife Diana was a real trooper as a pillion passenger, on the Triumph Thunderbird that I bought in 2000,” said Gary. “She did some 50,000km on the back, which included a Tasmania trip.
“I sold it in 2015 and bought a later model Bonneville, which I still own and Diana still jumps on the back when we go for a coffee, but only locally these days.”
Gary’s grandfather rode at the speedway in Newcastle and possibly the man whose genes Gary inherited, with his love of motorcycles.
Kawaski’s racing success
The smallest of the ‘Big Four’ manufacturers has always steered its own path and has rarely strayed from the tried and true formula of picking the battles that it knows it is best equipped to win.
In the mid-1970’s, Kawasaki’s road racing division was flying high.
Using local distributors to manage the road racing efforts meant that the factory could be less hands-on and its local agents got the spin-off in terms of kudos and on-going sales.
It was here that much of the in-house development took place while the ‘satellite’ teams were also encouraged to do their own R&D as well.
Of all of the satellite teams, Team Kawasaki Aust. was the best managed and achieved the greatest success. The inscrutable Neville Doyle after dominating with his two-bike team here – first with Toombs and Hansford and then with Hansford and Sayle, he moved the effort off-shore and added a world championship effort to the CV.
The overseas Kawasaki teams were stunned that a little-known effort from “Down-under” could actually have bikes that were more powerful, handled better and were more reliable than theirs, which were usually far better funded. As well, they sat up and took notice of just how good the Australian riders were and they were encouraged to lift their game in the face of the newcomers.
In 1977 and 1978 TKA committed Hansford to a full-time tilt at the 250cc and 350cc world titles. Riding the iconic tandem-twin bikes in both classes, Gregg proved to be more than the equal of the ‘works’ rider, South Africa’s Kork Ballington and the little TKA effort went close to lifting a couple of titles.