The First Ninja — Bike #0001

Check out this profile on the classic 1983 Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle.

| July/August 2020

An action photo taken back in 1983 when the Ninja originally debuted.

By 1980 Yamaha Corporation made it clear that its Tuning Fork brand aspired to be the No. 1 motorcycle company in the world. Honda Motor Corp., ichiban since the 1960s, confidently accepted that challenge, and like a pair of heavyweight sumo wrestlers the two corporate giants locked arms, tussling to see who would be the world’s majordomo motorcycle company for the coming decades. As the wrestling match intensified, their respective model lineups bulged with new hardware. The fight was on.

Meanwhile, further south along Japan’s craggy eastern seaboard, Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ (KHI) motorcycle division, headquartered in the industrial city of Osaka, silently set about to build what would be a landmark heavyweight sport bike. And like a Ninja creeping silently in the night, Kawasaki’s small squadron of engineers quietly went about their task to produce a bike that would carry the designation GPz900R for the international market, while a new and exclusive name was chosen exclusively for America’s Kawasaki dealers. The name? Ninja!

Engine, Engine Number 9 … 08

Initially, the engineers considered several engine iterations for the new model, among them an air-cooled inline six-cylinder monster, a couple of tidy V configurations based on either four or six cylinders, and an updated air-cooled inline four. Ultimately, though, Kawasaki settled on what was to become the world’s first liquid-cooled, double-overhead cam, four-valve, inline four-cylinder, high-performance sport bike engine for its new GPz900R/Ninja. The new four displaced 908cc, only five cubic centimeters more than the fabled Z-1 of 1973, clearly a good omen.

Nobody doubted that Kawasaki had great expectations for the new engine, efficiently nestling it within an all-new lightweight frame that, in and of itself, boasted ground-breaking technology for the world’s motorcycling community. By late 1983 the bike was ready for its debut, and so KHI reserved Laguna Seca Raceway near California’s pastoral Monterey Peninsula to host 60 journalists from the leading motorcycle magazines around the world to ride and experience the new GPz900R — and Ninja. It’s at this point in the story that facts become a little muddied, though, because the Ninja name change occurred at the 11th hour during the bike’s development, creating a bit of confusion among the American journalists as to which model name to reference in their reports. In fact, Motorcyclist added their own twist in the April 1984 issue, referring to the bike as the ZX900 Ninja. Regardless, little did people realize, but on that day the motorcycle world shifted ever so slightly on its axis (see Ninja sidebar below).


6/4/2020 12:32:33 PM

That's the first bike (and last) that I ever got to 150mph! Started shimmying a little(tire balance?) but it was fun to crack through the parkways in Cleveland OH. Also, not knowing the bike that well, i'd roll the throttle on too much while still in a turn and was doing a bit of a drift (for a microsecond!) backed off, it came around and wham...away she flew! Fun bike. My wife asked me to sell it for the sake of the 3 young 1975 850 MK111 Commando has taken it's permanent place since then!

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