A Love Letter to The Zeds
By Buzz Nichols

In 1983, as a red-blooded eleven-year-old American kid, I loved to visit the kids whose parents had disposable income. Those kids had the coolest stuff. One such kid lived in a household with a Betamax—promising technology at the time—and a few movies on tape. One spring day, we sat down tailor-fashion on the living room carpet and watched a strange, low-budget Australian action film called Mad Max.

This movie told the story of a highway cop in a dystopian near future where the simple, hot rod loving citizenry were tormented by a nomadic motorcycle gang. Being American, I knew (with a certainty exclusive to children) what members of motorcycle gangs rode: two wheeled tractors, steel behemoths that intimidated strictly with the noise they made, rather than with speed or agility. Imagine my surprise at seeing these ruffians from down under, on four-cylinder monsters that were sleek, nimble, and above all fast. The movie, as I would later discover, had had fourteen KZ1000s donated by a Kawasaki dealership, ridden (including some fantastic stunts) mostly by members of a real Victoria motorcycle club, The Vigilantes. Most of the bad guys, and the one good guy on two wheels, were doing burnouts, popping wheelies, flying through the air, and crashing on Kawasaki’s “Big Zeds.” 

These captivatingly powerful machines seemed to offer everything; whether they were naked, faired, or dressed to the nines (all of which are represented in the movie), I just couldn’t take my eyes off of them. It was Faye Dunnaway all over again.

Clearly, I had to learn more.

The King of motorcycles

1976 Kawasaki Z900

In 1968, the engineering team at Kawasaki was preparing to introduce a new flagship motorcycle, a 750cc inline four cylinder. Just months before they did, though, Honda christened its first run of the CB750. Honda’s new machine, with its 749cc inline four-cylinder engine with a single overhead cam, was greeted with acclaim and raised the bar for motorcycle manufacturers the world over.

This was great news for the motorcycling world for at least two reasons. First, because the Honda CB750 was a fine machine, and would continue to be through multiple iterations for decades to come. Second, it was great news because it sent Kawasaki back to the drawing board. 

Unwilling to be seen as arriving late to the 750cc inline four party, Team Green beefed up their engine to 903 cc’s and fitted it with dual overhead cams. This configuration delivered 82 horsepower to the back wheel; an outrageous figure for the year of its introduction, 1972. For the next four years, this generation of the bike would remain essentially unchanged. Then, in 1977, the cylinders were expanded from 66mm to 70mm, increasing the displacement to 1015 cc’s, and the new generation was dubbed the KZ1000. Although the increased displacement bought the bike one extra pony (for a stated 83 hp), Kawasaki astutely kept the appearance of the machine—the beautiful ovoid tank, swooping tailpiece, and even the externals of the engine with its iconic round valve cover end caps—unchanged.

In 1978, Kawasaki introduced a new submodel: the Z1R. Noting the modifications many riders were making to their bikes, they decided to introduce a “factory cafe racer.” Although this concept is fairly ubiquitous now, it was relatively groundbreaking back then. Available in black or “dolphin blue,” the Z1R eschewed the 4-into-4 exhaust for a 4-into-1 that gave it a boost in midrange power. It had a coffin-shaped fuel tank, a squared-off tailpiece, and a novel jagged shape for its side covers. Between the new exhaust system and a rack of 28mm carburetors, it turned out a noteworthy 94 hp. (Spoiler alert:  We’ve got one!)

The importance of these machines in motorcycling history cannot be overstated. When the Z1 was introduced in 1972, the team at Kawasaki knew they had created something special, and were eager to demonstrate that fact. They brought three of their new bikes to the Daytona speedway and, in front of an audience of motorsports press, broke no fewer than 52 records, effectively ushering in the era of superbikes.

Throughout the 1970s, the roll call of “Big Zed” aficionados is a veritable rogues’ gallery of two-wheel legends. Pops Yoshimura built and tuned the Z1 that Wes Cooley rode in the 1976 AMA. In 1979, Yoshimura’s son-in-law Mamoru Moriwaki built an equally legendary Zed that was ridden to Formula One victory by Graeme Crosby. In 1980, motorcycle bodywork legend Craig Vetter used ten KZ1000s as the canvases for his most iconic flight of fancy: the “Mystery Ship.”

For a solid decade, the Z1 and its offspring dominated every drag strip and stop light.

But let's hit the brakes and go back to '76.

Picture this: bustling streets, the scent of laksa in the air, and the Kawasaki Z900 rolling in, making waves like a rockstar.

With its 903cc engine, the Z900 bursts onto the scene in Singapore, turning heads and stealing hearts. This bad boy wasn't just a bike; it was a declaration of independence on two wheels. Muscular frame, bold design – it was like the cool rebel in town, cruising through neighborhoods like it owned the streets. You could almost feel the pavement shaking. Truly the king of motorcycles of its generation.

So grab a seat, and let's unfold the tales that make the Z900 a true blue legend in Singapore.

at its core

Engineering Brilliance

Now, let us get all techy on you. Underneath that slick exterior, the Z900 wasn't just a looker; it was a beast on the road. The 4-cylinder engine wasn't playing around, giving riders a power-packed experience that could rival any blockbuster. Navigating the urban maze of Singapore? The Z900 handled it like a champ. The engineering brilliance of this classic wasn't just about raw power; it was about finesse and control – a symphony of metal and asphalt.

Too much charisma

Killer Looks

Now, let's dissect this beauty. The Z900 wasn't just designed; it was sculpted. The sleek, angular tank exuded power and style, a nod to the era's obsession with bold, geometric shapes. The dual exhaust pipes, like the horns of a rebellious beast, not only delivered a distinctive growl but also added a symmetrical allure to the rear. And those cast wheels, a perfect blend of form and function, not only enhanced the bike's performance but also contributed to its overall aesthetic appeal.

Moving to the front, the Z900's headlight wasn't just a light source; it was a statement. The circular, classic design harked back to the roots of motorcycling, giving the Z900 a timeless look that defied the trends of the '70s. The handlebars and controls were more than functional; they were ergonomic pieces of art, ensuring that every ride was not just smooth but stylish.

not so quick fact

Record-breaking Powerhouse

Revving onto the scene in the '70s, the 1976 Kawasaki Z900 didn't just turn heads; it set records on fire. This beastly bike held the title for the fastest production motorcycle of its time. With a robust 903cc inline-four engine delivering a whopping 81 horsepower, the Z900 wasn't just a bike; it was a speed demon.

In an era where horsepower was king, the Z900 wore the crown proudly. Its top speed surpassed the competition, making it the go-to choice for thrill-seekers and speed enthusiasts. Whether tearing through city streets or conquering open highways, the Z900 left its rivals in the dust.

What's even more fascinating is that this record-breaking performance wasn't just a marketing gimmick. Riders of the Z900 could genuinely experience the adrenaline rush of pushing the boundaries of speed. The Z900's legacy as a speed king is etched in motorcycle history, and even today, it stands as a testament to an era when motorcycles weren't just transportation; they were expressions of raw power and speed.

So, the next time you see a Z900, remember that it's not just a classic cruiser; it's a speed icon that once ruled the roads as the fastest in the pack. The Z900's record-breaking prowess remains a thrilling chapter in the story of legendary motorcycles.

Leaving a Legacy

Fast forward to today, and the Z900 isn't just a relic; it's a living, breathing story. Singapore's bike enthusiasts are on a mission, not just to revive the engine but to bring back that retro-chic style. The Z900 at the Singapore Bike Show isn't just a classic; it's a fashion statement, a nod to an era when bikes weren't just machines; they were expressions of personality. Collecting these bikes isn't just about mechanics; it's about preserving a piece of design history, letting it roar on the streets and show the new kids what real legends look like.