Sunday, January 06, 2013


Forty years of the Z bike

In this day and age, the word "classic" tends to get thrown around way too much in our various and sundry descriptions of modern popular culture. Much the same as equally misused and superfluously uttered terms such as "awesome", "genius", "amazing", and "unique", the word "classic" no longer strikes the imagination with any significant impact or meaning when heard or read by the average person. Like the rest of the overused descriptors in our modern, dumbed down lexicon, it has become little more than a kind of happy linguistic horse shit; what people say over and over again because they're too stupid to use a wider vocabulary.

That's a shame for many reasons. I could, for example, go on a thousand-word rant at this point about how the American public school system should be abolished and no echelon of government ever again allowed to educate the citizens of our once great country. Yes, I could do that, but I won't. This article, after all, is about motorcycles. Well, it's about one in particular; the Kawasaki Z, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and is -- in the proper spirit and usage of the word -- a truly classic motorcycle. So please allow me an attempt (in the following Z bike-related paragraphs), no matter how futile, to bring some emotional and intellectual content back to the word in question.

I had my first ride on a Z around 1979, some six years after its epic debut into the world motorcycle market. I was a snot-nosed eight-year old who loved bikes, and had managed to incessantly pester my older cousin into taking me for a little spin on the back of his 1974 Z1 900. This glorious personal victory for me was achieved despite my mother's explicit instructions to my cousin that I should not be allowed onto the bike under any circumstances short of a Russian ICBM launch. (Yes, I do realize that humorous references to the cold war era in my writings are completely lost on anyone under 30. Thanks again, public schools.)

I wasn't old enough to realize at the time just what a game changer the Kawasaki Z actually was. To me, it was just a shiny, fast, fire-breathing rocket ship that scared the crap out of me -- in a good way -- whenever my cousin would press its starter button. But the reality was that the Z1, like Honda's CB750 a few years before, had turned the motorcycle world upside down. It's power, speed, looks, displacement, and handling would shape the landscape of performance motorcycling's terra for decades to come. It would push Suzuki to develop the GSXR750, which in turn would proliferate race replica superbikes for the street and change motorcycle culture itself. It would establish a reliability, performance, and functionality standard for law enforcement that would last far beyond the final iteration of KZ1000 police bikes, which were taken out of service around 2010 or so. But perhaps most significantly, it would simply endure. The Z bikes produced between 1973 and 2006 remain among the most popular vintage motorcycles on the street today. Entire cottage industries catering to Z bike maintenance and restoration thrive across the globe from Hamburg to Houston. To this day, the Kawasaki Z is still a force of nature.

On the day of my initiation into Z bike fandom, I remember my cousin strapping a cartoonishly oversized motorcycle helmet onto my head, giving me some partially informed warnings and instructions concerning hanging on, hot exhaust pipes, leaning with the bike, etc., and then telling me to get on. The next thing I remember was flying down a rural stretch of road at well over 100 miles per hour. I think my cousin may've been trying to scare me into never asking for a ride again, but the opposite affect was achieved. I was hooked, and in his irresponsible twisting of the throttle, he turned me into a lifelong motorcyclist and still occasional speed junky. I'll never forget the first thing he said when we pulled into the driveway and dismounted: "Don't you dare tell your mom about this. She'll kill me and I won't be around to take you for another ride."

These days, I get to relive those memories in the most special of ways. I am beyond blest to have my own vintage Z, which I enjoy on a regular basis. My stable just wouldn't be complete without my riding resto 1978 KZ1000LTD with various Z1 bits bolted on:

For the serious rider, life is just a series or collection of motorcycles, and the Z bike was -- and continues to be -- a huge part of mine.

Afterword: Those of you who are longtime readers of the Superbike Blog may remember this article I wrote reviewing a 2003 German documentary film commemorating the Kawasaki Z's 30th anniversary. According to this website, a 40th anniversary sequel is currently in post-production. I look forward to the opportunity to watch and review this film, and will most certainly keep my eyes peeled for its release.