Kawasaki Z1-R: Into the R Zone

The Kawasaki Z1-R carried on the Superbike standard set by the earlier Z1: blazing performance, skittish handling.

| November/December 2009

Kawasaki Z1-R
Years produced:
 1978 and 1980
Claimed power: 90hp @ 8,000rpm
Top speed: 132mph (period test)
Engine type: 1,016cc air-cooled DOHC inline four
Weight (dry): 245kg (541lb) (563lb w/half full tank)
Price then: $3,695
Price now: $2,000-$5,000
MPG: 45 (avg.)

The 1970s produced the most dramatic transformation the motorcycle industry has seen before or since. The Kawasaki Z1-R proves the point.

In 1969, all street bikes were standards. Fairings were for race bikes. Twins dominated the big bike market. And “big” meant either a 650cc British bike or an overweight, underpowered 1,200cc V-twin from Milwaukee. Bikes leaked oil and were started with a kick; most small bikes were smoky 2-strokes and many needed pre-mix; wheels were wired, brakes were drums; and the “ton” (100mph) was a magic figure, often approached but rarely bettered.

A decade later, four Japanese manufacturers had a stranglehold on the industry, and their internecine competition (which to the public looked like sheer exuberance) had given the world fast, powerful motorcycles with three, four and even six cylinders, alloy wheels and triple disc brakes. They made close to 100hp/liter, and were capable of more than 130mph. You could park them in your living room without staining the carpet, and a simple push of a button spun the engine to smooth, purring life. The Superbike era was well and truly upon us.

But within a few short years, those easily jaded motorcycle journalists, instead of being astonished by these engineering marvels, casually grouped all Japanese bikes together with the prosaic abbreviation “UJM,” for Universal Japanese Motorcycle.

“King of the Road”

In the late Sixties, Japanese motorcycles were mostly small 2-stroke twins and singles or small 4-stroke twins from suck-squeeze-bang-blow devotee Honda. The first intimation that things were about to change came in late 1968 with the announcement of the Honda CB750 Four. At first, the competition stuck with their 2-strokes with the Kawasaki H1 and Kawasaki H2 triples, and Suzuki with the Suzuki Titan and Suzuki GT750, while Yamaha seemed to take more of a wait and see approach — though the Yamaha XS650 did give it a toehold in the big bike 4-stroke market.

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