Almost Perfect: 1976 Rickman Kawasaki CR

Mike Vandertie’s 1976 Rickman Kawasaki CR is a well-ridden machine.

1976 Rickman Kawasaki CR

1976 Rickman Kawasaki CR

Photo by Jeff Barger

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1976 Rickman Kawasaki CR
Claimed power: 83hp @ 8,000rpm (claimed)
Top speed: 130mph (period test)
Engine: 1,016cc air-cooled DOHC inline four, 70mm x 66mm bore and stroke, 8.7:1 compression ratio
Weight (wet/approx.): 479lb (217kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.8gal (18.2ltr)/35-50mpg
Price then/now: $1,335 (kit only)/$8,000-$18,000 (complete bike)

Nothing’s ever perfect, even though it sure might look cool. At least, that’s how Mike Vandertie feels about his 1976 Rickman Kawasaki CR.

Depending on what you read, the CR denotes either Competition Replica or Café Racer. Although most famous for their offroad Metisse scrambler, English duo Derek and Don Rickman of Rickman Bros. Ltd. also built special road-going frames for a series of engines, beginning with powerplants from Triumph and Royal Enfield. As the motorcycle market shifted to embrace inline 4-cylinder Japanese machines, the Rickmans turned to creating frames for Honda’s wildly successful CB750 and Kawasaki’s even bigger Z1 900. Their goal, ostensibly, was to improve the handling of a select few machines of the mid-1970s.

There is no question the Rickmans were successful in their bid to improve the handling characteristics of the big Japanese fours, but, as Mike explains, the end results might have been a little less than ideal. “It’s a motorcycle that’s comfortable to ride at speed on a smooth, twisty highway,” he says, adding, “but it’s a pain in the ass around town or in parking lot traffic. I’d wager anyone over 5-foot 8-inches isn’t going to enjoy a ride more than 100 miles long. The bike is just cramped.” But that doesn’t spoil the thrill for Mike, who’s quick to add: “That said, when the road is good, the machine makes you feel like you’re a café racer — and I’m not!”

It’s in the handling

In the mid-1960s, the Rickman brothers branched into the world of road racing, constructing frames for AJS 7R and Matchless G50 engines. Just as they were successful with dirt bikes (we covered the early days of Rickman Bros. Ltd. and their start in the offroad motorcycle business in the November/December 2014 issue), they repeated their winning ways with competition road frames and street-oriented specials.

By the mid-1970s, Honda and Kawasaki were building what were considered the two best inline 4-cylinder engines on the market. Superbly designed, they were strong, reliable, leak-free powerplants that could rack up the miles with ease and be hot-rodded fairly easily. But they didn’t always handle as well as they went, and many enthusiasts felt chassis development in the Japanese-built products was left wanting, a sentiment backed up in a July 1974 article in Cycle World magazine about Rickman, where the writer compared a Japanese-made frame to something that “wiggles like a wounded snake” when it’s flung into a corner.

The Rickmans weren’t alone in their endeavors. Other famous names in the custom frame industry include Harris Performance, Rob North, and Colin Seeley — all of them fabricated specialized platforms for riders looking for better performance, first mostly with British-built machines and later Japanese.

The Italian manufacturer Bimota got its start in 1973 in Rimini, Italy, building handcrafted, top-tier frames and wrapping them around Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki engines. In the mid-1970s, motorcycle luggage manufacturer Krauser began developing frames to fit BMW engines, and from 1980 to 1982 offered a complete motorcycle, the Krauser MKM1000, based on BMW R100RS components (see the March/April 2014 issue).

Yet while Bimota and Krauser constructed a limited number of machines, they didn’t offer their frames as kits, as did Rickman. Rickman did sell complete motorcycles, but most often they supplied a kit that included their trademark product; a bright, nickel-plated Reynolds 531 chrome-moly frame and swingarm.

Rickman frames weren’t ordinary, mass-produced frames. Each frame was built by hand, with every joint being paid special attention before it was brazed together. The Rickman chassis was sprung with British-made Girling shock absorbers, and a Borrani 18-inch alloy rim shod in a Dunlop TT100 tire brought up the rear. According to one reference, the Rickman’s used a Spanish Betor front fork. Another reference, however, leads one to surmise the Rickmans were building their own hydraulic fork — unfortunately, it’s not exactly clear. Regardless, another Borrani 18-inch rim — also wearing a Dunlop TT100 tire — was up front. British Lockheed disc brakes front and rear were included in the package, and the Rickman Kawasaki got a 4.8-gallon gas tank and distinctive fiberglass body panels, including a fairing and side covers, finished in a bright lime green gel coat.

To turn a Rickman kit into a complete bike the owner needed a donor motorcycle to supply an engine and ancillary components such as carburetors and exhaust, handlebar controls, speedometer and tachometer. Because of this, the Rickman machines are essentially customs, each hand built by its owner. That means it’s very unlikely that any two Rickman motorcycles will ever be identical, as numerous differences naturally pop up in the details.

Interestingly, although the rolling chassis kits were successful, Rickman went on to build fairings and luggage for Honda U.K., which were branded Hondastyle. According to writer Ian Falloon, Rickman eventually quit production of its café racer-inspired kits in 1982. However, Falloon also notes that the brothers continued to build chassis kits to fit 1,000cc Kawasaki engines up to 1984. Called the Predator, the kit was more sport touring in nature than café racer. Another source suggests the Predator frame was also built to accept Honda 900cc and Suzuki 1,000cc engines.

Mike Vandertie’s Rickman

Let’s properly introduce the characters populating the story about our featured Rickman Kawasaki. First is the current owner of the Rickman — Mike. Now 54, he comes from a family of older brothers who were motorcyclists. Mike was eight years old when brother Mark bought a 250 Ducati, and then a 350.

“He let me wash it, and he’d take me for rides,” Mike recalls. Then, Mark bought his little brother a mini-bike with a 3.5 horsepower Tecumseh engine. Another brother, Lee, later bought a Norton Commando, and then sold Mike his Kawasaki KZ400. “I bought the KZ400 when I turned 16,” Mike says, “And my interest has never waned.” Besides the Rickman, Mike currently has a 1975 Triumph Trident he bought brand new in 1982, a 1983 Honda CB1100F he bought brand new and a 1979 Yamaha XS750 café project. His long distance bike is a 2005 Yamaha FJR1300.

The next two players in this story are Erik Femal, the original owner of the Rickman Kawasaki, and Tom Pirie. All three — Mike, Erik and Tom — have known each other for years, but it was Erik who first bought the Rickman, which was built at Kin Kai Suzuki in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Paperwork shows that on March 20, 1976, a wrecked Kawasaki Z1 900 with 8,810 miles on the clock was traded at the dealership. Designer Craig Vetter, famous for the Triumph X75 Hurricane, was the distributor for Rickman products in the U.S. in the mid-1970s, and in 1976 Kin Kai Suzuki purchased a Rickman kit from Vetter for $1,335.

With that Z1 powerplant, the Rickman became a complete and running motorcycle, and after its construction, it saw extensive use. “I knew of Erik, and I knew Tom at the time this was all happening, but I just had my little KZ400 and I was going off to college,” Mike says. “I know Erik rode the Rickman west twice, if not at least three times.”

Eventually, in 1980 or 1981, Erik sold the Rickman to our final player, Todd Lamensky. Todd and Mike had also been friends since childhood, but by 1984 Todd had moved to Texas with the Rickman. “I’d known Todd forever, and he called me to ask if I wanted to buy the Rickman,” Mike says. “I couldn’t really afford it, but we worked out a deal where I paid him so much a month. Finally, in 1986, we met in Blackwell, Oklahoma, traded the bike over, drank a beer and ate pizza. I’ve owned the Rickman ever since.”

And ever since, the Rickman has been something of a work in progress. The original Z1 900 engine got weak at 50,000 miles, and second gear went bad and finally failed in 1991. That’s when Mike sourced another donor Kawasaki, this one a 1978 KZ1000. His friend Tom pulled the engine from it and placed it in the Rickman chassis, while the 900cc engine was sold as a core for rebuilding.

Erik had tired of the lime green color, and painted the bodywork red. Meanwhile, Todd opted to spray the parts a slightly darker green than the original eye-popping lime, and this is the hue Mike has kept on the Rickman over the ensuing years, even after replacing the original fiberglass gas tank that had begun to crack and weaken with age.

“This was all before the Internet, and finding parts meant a lot of long-distance  calls,” Mike says. “I got the replacement tank out of California, from a place called Target Motorsports. I think he was the last guy in the U.S. with Rickman parts.”

He’s also changed the sprockets and chain, and replaced the cables and tires. When Erik owned the machine he moved the front brake, which is usually on the right-hand side of the fork, to the left. The rear shocks were replaced with Marzocchi units. For the most part it’s just an honest, well-cared-for motorcycle.

“I’m 6-foot 2-inches and 210 pounds, and I enjoy riding the Rickman on shorter trips,” Mike explains. “I rode it quite a bit when I first got it, but it still does see a few hundred miles each year. When I do ride it, it gets ridden fairly hard — that’s what makes the bike fun to ride. The handling is fantastic if you don’t have to suffer bumpy roads and you actually get it up to speed.”

It may not be perfect, but in the Vandertie family the Rickman Kawasaki is a much-loved machine. In fact, Mike says his two sons, Thad and Trent, continually joke about who will be left the machine so they can continue the legacy. MC