Exactly 40 years ago, in September 1972, Kawasaki played its muscular hand and stunned the world with the launch of its four-cylinder Z1 motorcycle. For long known as the maker of some of the craziest and ultra-powerful two-stroke triples (in 500cc and 750cc displacements), Kawasaki had been doing their research which clearly indicated that the reign of the two-strokes was coming to an end and quickly at that.
Legislation in the US, the company’s biggest market was overwhelmingly stacked against the two-stroke so its engineers had got down to developing a motorcycle of 750cc capacity with enough tech to blow every ones’ socks off, including Honda’s!
Unfortunately for Kawasaki, old man Soichiro Honda was also contemplating on similar lines and was ahead by a couple of years when in 1969 the Big H unleashed the CB750 four-cylinder sohc motorcycle which was the first to offer so much tech in a road-going machine. This motorcycle sounded the death knell of the British motorcycle industry and it immediately catapulted Honda into the top shelf of performance motorcycling.
Kawasaki’s project team for their own four-cylinder machine revised its targets for their own motorcycle and they knew that it had to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than anything on the market then. The project code-named ‘New York Steak’ came up with the Z1 in 1972 and immediately it rocketed to the top of the heap on so many fronts. Unlike the Honda CB750, which featured a single overhead camshaft, the Kawasaki Z1 had Grand Prix lineage with double overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder.
If that was not all, the all-square cylinder dimensions of 66mm x 66mm meant that the bike displaced 903cc, put out a genuine 82bhp and rocketed to a 210km/h top speed, the first time a series production machine had cracked the proverbial double ton!
It immediately caught the fancy of so many tuners and racers and the bike did fantastically well all over the world. Key to this was the fact that the design engineers had endowed the Z1’s engine with a very robust bottom end, a detail that was to stand Kawasaki in good stead using just minor alterations to keep it at the head of the pack. Nothing illustrates this better than the 1982 GPz1100 having the same bottom end, an extra 200cc but now packing in 30 per cent more power!
The impact of the Z1 was near nuclear in biking circles the world over and it was only the Japanese firm’s strict adherence to quality control that deliveries were slow in coming after it debuted at the Cologne motorcycle show in September 1972. The Z1, more than the Honda CB750, completely went on to redefine the world of high performance motorcycling and its model designation indicated that, in typicallyl understated but just as forceful as the Japanese could get! Z was chosen as the last and final word not just of the alphabet but also for performance.
It represented the most extreme step ever taken by a bike maker in that era to deliver such a high performance series production motorcycle and the 1 stood for number one in the motorcycle world. As to the project being labeled ‘New York Steak’, it had all to do with the meaty delicacy that the Kawasaki Japanese adored whenever in New York (“it was the best meal on the menu in America,” and as we were setting out to do the best bike in the world, this was an apt fit,” said Yoji Hamawaki, former president of Kawasaki Motors, USA).
Yoji Hamawaki, part of the team that did the Z1 and at that point in time Kawasaki was only aspiring to stay in touch with the other Japanese trio of Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. As such they knew that they were trying to punch above their weight but they knew that it was then or never! There was a big debate within the company as to whether they should go for the four valve top end or stay with two valves per cylinder as Honda had done with the CB750. The onus to make a statement and an emphatic one at that meant that they opted for a 16-valve top end with double overhead camshafts and the rest as they say is legend.
In fact, there was also a mighty big debate on putting the DOHC moniker on the engine cases as well but Hamawaki’s team carried the day. Sam Tanegashima who was project chief for the Z1 and Sadaichi Saito, former head of Kawasaki R&D impressed upon everyone to understand the significance of telling the world how advanced the Z1 was and from there on there was no looking back.
It was the fastest production motorcycle of its era and it took many years and a load of effort from rivals to catch up. Not only did it go on to be a stunning sales success all over the world but its strong build and reliability made it one of the most successful production racers’ ever! Based on the reputation established by the Z1, Kawasaki concentrated on delivering mega performance in its fabled Z-line and some of the more successful Z models thereafter have included the Z1-R from 1977, the Z1300 from 1978 and the 1982 Z1000R.
This incredible Z lineage continues strong to this day and the latest Z1000 packing in a 1043cc four with a punchy bottom end and an explosive mid range continues the performance theme that commenced 40 years ago. And if you ever find a Z1 anywhere in any condition, hang on to it because it was the first real modern performance motorcycle in the world.
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