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).
In any case, the bike was an immediate hit with the journalists. Foremost, the bike’s overall styling was a knockout. A stylish fairing not only enhanced the bike’s sexy lines, it also helped cheat the wind at speed; during later high-speed testing various U.S. magazines clocked top-end runs in excess of 145mph. Styling-wise the fairing’s small chin-like protrusion beneath the recessed rectangular headlight seemed to accentuate the image of an attacking Ninja warrior, while the fairing’s abbreviated side skirts revealed enough of the new engine to show the world that Kawasaki was serious about this new liquid-cooled inline four.
But it was the engine’s internal makeup that especially caught the motor-press corps’ attention. In its usual thorough and exhaustive fashion regarding new models, Cycle magazine’s technical analysis of the 908cc engine in its March 1984 issue was to the point: “To maximize the benefits of four-valve technology, and to hold down engine height,” Cycle’s editors wrote, “the engineers produced a very over square (72.4 x 55mm) engine.” And to explain why Kawasaki chose internal counter balancers — another first for the fours — to negate vibration, they wrote: “Rubber-mounting [the engine] … would imply a full-cradle frame, forcing the engine up in order to maintain ground clearance. All wrong … Thus the balancer shaft begat the lightweight frame.”
Snooping deeper into the engine’s technical innovations, Cycle explained the uniqueness of its new semi-flat carburetors and straight-as-an-arrow intake tracts: “Jogs in the intake-runs of high-output engines with big carburetors can create unwanted turbulence and, by creating low-velocity areas, encourage fuel droplets to fall out of the fuel/air mixture,” stated Cycle’s editors, continuing, “The Ninja engine has its intake tracts run straight in as viewed from above, four tracks the same length.” Thus, no fuel droplets, resulting in a complete and efficient burn inside the new shallow combustion chambers.
Though it’s never been fired up, today the odometer reads some 10 miles just from moving it around.
Hollow camshafts (for reduced weight) were chain-driven on the engine’s left side, rather than at the sticks’ centers, helping keep the engine narrow, especially for an inline design. Further tricks to centralize mass and keep the inline four-cylinder engine narrow included mounting the alternator and electric starter motor behind the cylinders.
The sum total was an engine that produced a claimed 113 horsepower, packaged in a dedicated lightweight frame that redefined chassis rigidity for all street-going motorcycles. The key was to utilize the engine as a stressed member of the three-piece frame, and to keep the engine low (re: no rubber mounting), which also meant no front downtubes were necessary. The main frame was made of steel tubing, while the detachable rear subframes were constructed of aluminum, as were the two side plates that doubled as foot peg and muffler brackets.
“The swing arm is an aluminum extrusion,” wrote Cycle World, that “connected to the bottom of the single rear shock by an aluminum linkage system designed to make the suspension progressive; effective spring and damping rates rise as shock travel increases.” The rear shock, like the new front fork, was also air assisted.
The front fork introduced even more innovations to the budding sport bike community, including what Kawasaki termed AVDS, the acronym for Automatic Variable Damping System and market speak for a way to increase damping when fork travel and the speed of fork compression increased. There also was an anti-dive factor woven into the design, one that Cycle World felt was the best yet on the market.
But Cycle Guide’s editors felt differently about the Ninja’s anti-dive system, claiming in the May 1984 issue that it took a fist full of right-hand might to get it to work properly on the street: “The powerful, progressive binders have to be clamped on suddenly and firmly to make the anti-dive work.” Translation: It’s good under racing conditions, but not so much so during normal road-riding conditions.
Tacked on to the new front fork was a 16-inch-diameter wheel sporting twin disc brakes and wrapped with dedicated Dunlop rubber measuring 120/80V-16. Matched with rake and trail of 29 degrees and 4.5 inches respectively, the smaller front hoop was intended to help reduce turn-in effort when cornering, plus add a slightly larger rubber contact patch for braking. The payoff was obvious when strafing Laguna Seca’s nine turns (this was the track’s original layout before the 1988 USGP necessitated stretching the course length with two more turns), and as I wrote for Cycle Guide magazine following the Ninja’s reveal at Laguna Seca, “The Ninja won’t deviate from your chosen line or wobble when you start charging into corners. It’s easy to flick side-to-side, too, and the anti-dive setup assists in hard braking.”
Added Motorcyclist in its April 1984 issue: “The Ninja is the most neutral-steering 750cc or larger bike we have ridden since the Kawasaki KZ1000R Eddie Lawson Replica.”
There was a caveat to the Ninja’s road-holding handling, though, and its Achilles heel was found in those new Dunlop skins. “In fact,” I continued in the March 1984 issue of Cycle Guide, “the only performance-related shortcoming is the choice of tires. The Dunlop rubber sticks well during eight-tenths riding, but when you push the 900R closer to race speeds, the tires start to slip. For most street riding though, the Ninja’s tires should pose no handling problems.”
The full fairing and angled handlebars make for a comfortable sport riding position.
Life’s a drag
Handling, schmandling — the major question that practically every red-blooded American motorcycle rider from that era wanted to know was: Waddle she do in the quarter-mile? For the answer, Kawasaki management arranged for some good ol’ ‘mercan-style drag racing at nearby Monterey Jet Center (local airport) where Kawasaki staff set up a makeshift quarter-mile drag strip, timing lights and all, for the journalists to have a shot at some quick and fast numbers. Of course, traction at Monetary Jet Center’s unseasoned tarmac didn’t compare to what awaited American journalists at their favorite quarter-mile test tracks in Southern California, but it made for a fun day for the Euro-based journalists who typically didn’t subject their test bikes to such brutal launches.
But since we’re on the subject of elapsed times and terminal speeds, here’s what the Ninja was capable of in the hands of the Yanks later on at their home turfs: Cycle World and Cycle Guide clocked in with identical ETs of 11.18 seconds, with respective terminal speeds of 121.65 and 123.62mph. Cycle checked in at 11.09/121.36mph, while Motorcyclist walked away as unofficial Top Eliminator, posting 10.96/122.30 numbers.
However, all that was moot compared to Kawasaki’s hired hand, Jay “Pee Wee” Gleason. As his southern-born nickname suggests, Gleason was a flea-weight rider with gunfighter reflexes equaled by deft clutch and throttle hands; it was common for motorcycle companies like Kawasaki to hire him to set the quarter-mile standard for new models such as the Ninja, and after the blue smoke settled at a private test session, Gleason topped the Chrondek clocks with a 10.599-second run. Not bad for a 9/10-liter motorcycle that had no traction control or other techno-gizmos found on today’s sport bikes.
If you’re not first, you’re last
The Ninja name has remained in Kawasaki’s arsenal ever since the first 1984 Ninja 900 rolled off the assembly line. The 900 was followed a year later by a 600cc model, and since that time Kawasaki has sent out Ninja warriors armed with all shapes and sizes of engines, from 250cc to open-class engines exceeding 1,300cc.
But what about the very first Ninja? Where is it today?
Well, you need look no further than the photos in this article to enjoy it. The accompanying static photos feature Ninja #0001, which resides at Kawasaki Motor Corporation (KMC) corporate headquarter’s in-house Heritage Hall museum in Foothill Ranch, California. The bike was purposely pulled from the initial production run of bikes so many years ago, to be preserved for future generations to enjoy. According to many insiders working at KMC today, engine #0001 has never been fired up; the 10-plus miles registered by the odometer represent slow rolls accumulated at bike shows, dealer shows and such. Sadly, there now are a few small — very small at that — dings and scratches here and there, caused by careless hands no doubt, but at the end of the day old #0001 remains as beautiful as when she first rolled into the light of day to found Ninja Nation in 1984.
You belong in Hollywood
Even the folks in Hollywood realized Kawasaki’s new Ninja for its glamour and as a game changer, enlisting one to co-star in a movie about a young rogue U.S. Navy jet fighter pilot, fittingly nicknamed Maverick. The movie Top Gun (released by Paramount Pictures in 1986) featured Maverick riding his new Ninja sport bike at speed on the airport runway, plus it appeared in a few other choice scenes that spotlighted the bike’s sexy lines. Those lines remain timeless, too, because the original Ninja appears again, this time in Top Gun’s 2020 sequel, due for release this winter.
But the Ninja was — and still is — more than just a pretty face on two wheels. Perhaps the late Charlie Everitt stated it best in his road test for Cycle Guide, writing, “The Ninja is nothing short of defiance on wheels: A full fairing and Firecracker Red paint defy the police to ignore it, while its scorching performance not only defies other motorcycles to keep up, but also defies riders to discover the limits of the bike’s potential.” MC
Ninja: More than just a name
So how, exactly, did Kawasaki Motor Corporation (KMC), U.S. distributor for Kawasaki motorcycles, settle on the name Ninja for GPz900Rs destined for these shores? According to in-house documents, KMC’s Vice President of Marketing in 1984, Mike Vaughn, is credited with the name selection. But it wasn’t the 1984 GPz900R that he wanted to give the name Ninja. He originally made the request in 1979 to KHI management to consider the new GPz line (550, 750 and 1100 models), set to bow in 1980, to carry the Ninja moniker.
Vaughn had owned a sportsman sailboat that he christened “Ninja,” a word describing sixth-century Japanese warriors who practiced Ninjitsu, the art of invisibility, making them the original stealth fighters. Ninja warriors were known for their deadly ability to spy and sabotage practically unnoticed by their enemies.
Vaughn’s proposal in late 1979 was quickly shot down. Later he said that Japanese management “viewed the name as demeaning,” figuring that it would probably cast a negative tone to potential customers. Vaughn persisted, though, explaining that perhaps Japanese customers might feel that way, but Americans were different and more open minded to the word’s connotation.
The 1984 GPz900R was the first of many Ninja models.
Vaughn continued lobbying for the Ninja moniker, telling his Japanese counterparts that “Ninja might not be appropriate in Japan, [but] there was a huge difference between what was appropriate and cool in Japan,” as opposed to that in America. Finally, during one of his trips to KHI in Japan he cited some Japanese home-market motorcycle model names adopted by various brands for Japan’s home market as names that most certainly wouldn’t have found favor in America.
“Names like Gorilla, Carrot and Kitty,” recited Vaughn, needing no further explanation to make his point. But he did anyway: Later he showed Kawasaki staff members a Japanese magazine with a cover picture showing five youths in beach attire “giving the finger to the camera.” Vaughn then explained that such gestures — at least in America — weren’t appropriate and cool for marketing purposes. His point that Japanese and American cultures differed in many ways was finally reaching KHI management.
“The final decision whether to name the bike or not [Ninja],” wrote Vaughn in his memo, “rested in the hands of KMC President, Ted Tazaki.” Later, KMC’s VP of Sales, Jet Johnson, made a final pitch on Vaughn’s behalf to Mr. Tazaki, urging him to use the Ninja name for the new GPz900R. Johnson succeeded and the name Ninja has been associated with Kawasaki sport models ever since. — Dain Gingerelli
Ninja attack! On track with the new Kawis
We were like crazed carefree children on Christmas morning, sampling one motorcycle, and then another and another, oblivious to the abuse we inflicted on the bikes during countless hot laps around Laguna Seca Raceway. After all, we were motorcycle journalists, 60 by count, from around the world, dispatched to Monterey, California, to … work. Yeah, that was it, we were working, sampling — no, testing — what certainly was to become a landmark motorcycle for its time. Yeah, that’s the ticket, we were working and testing.
The landmark model happened to be Kawasaki’s new Ninja (GPz900R for the international market), accompanied by a cadre of GPz1100 and GPz750 models for us to ride for comparison purposes, sort of a new versus old. Moreover, none of our hosts from Kawasaki Heavy Industries were cautioning us to slow down or go easy on the equipment. So we didn’t, and the on-track session turned into a free for all of sorts.
This particular track day — well, actually track days, because, after an all-day tech briefing about the new Ninja we spent the next two days on the racetrack during that chilly mid-December gathering in 1983 — was important to Kawasaki. So important that KHI’s president, Dr. Hiroshi Ohba, and recently crowned AMA Superbike Champion, Team Kawasaki’s Wayne Rainey (GPz750), were among corporate dignitaries greeting us for the Ninja’s debut.
My initial on-track observation focused on the Ninja’s character when negotiating Laguna Seca’s nine turns. Compared to the heavier GPz1100, the 501-pound Ninja felt deft and nimble, like a race bike. “Perhaps more than anything else, however, it’s the Ninja’s ergonomics that make you feel like you are racing even though you aren’t,” I wrote in my report for Cycle Guide magazine. “The contoured seat suits hanging-off, while the slightly rearset footpegs and angled handlebars make it easy to tuck in behind the full fairing. It’s a comfortable sport-riding position, and the only time you might want to come up for air is to see the road more clearly; the GPz900R’s plexiglass windscreen has minor distortion.”
And it was about the time that I came up for air while braking for Laguna’s infamous Corkscrew turn that a fellow moto-journalist from France quickly overtook me on the inside. His sudden move fired me up. The race was on! I regrouped, catching him through the steep downhill stretch leading into Turn 7, my Ninja’s tires breaking loose every so slightly on that sweeping, slightly off-camber turn.
Dain Gingerelli aboard a Ninja at Laguna Seca in 1983.
Then common sense (huh?) prevailed. A few months prior a good friend of mine, while researching a story about Formula Ford racing for an automotive magazine, had crashed one of those nimble little rear-engine racers in Turn 2. The car crumbled on impact, its engine slamming into Michael’s head, causing severe, but not life-threatening, nerve damage. The scene of my friend recovering in that hospital bed played in my head; I gingerly rolled back the Ninja’s throttle before sheepishly pulling into the pits.
Indeed, we had three crashes that day, none of which were serious, and all on GPz samplers. One of those endo’s happened to be by one of the faster and more experienced racers among us, Cycle magazine’s Mark Homchick, whose racing resume included joining Team USA during the annual Transatlantic Trophy Match Races that pitted America’s best against members of the Queen’s elite in England.
“I was chasing Wayne (Rainey) around the course,” recalls Homchick. “We were both on GPz750s.” Then, when exiting Turn 7 only Rainey was still aboard and upright GPz750; Homchick found himself tumbling alongside his bike, sliding to a halt unhurt. “It was the only road test bike I ever crashed!” He points out today, showing no remorse for the trashed 750 that he left trackside in a heap. Journalists!
But then, nobody expected any apologies from us during those two wild and woolly days. After all, we were among the top moto-journalists of the day, on assignment to fill in our bylines. We were “working.” — Dain Gingerelli