Think of the best names that conjure up something special…something with a bit of star quality and you’ll soon realise that a name is vitally important.
It’s why Marion Morrison became John Wayne, why Maurice Micklewhite became Michael Caine, why Reg Dwight became Elton John, why the Supermarine Shrew became the Spitfire and why Shirley Crabtree became, well, he became Big Daddy. Shirley just isn’t much of a wrestling name, is it?
Names are vital for bikes, too… So, while we aspired to have a FireBlade, or lusted after a Desmosedici, we would also giggle at the Invader, Intruder, Thundercat and Thunderace. With this in mind, Kawasaki hit the nail on the head with ‘Ninja’ and the name has covered a wide-range of machines over the decades.
Clearly, being a Japanese factory you’d think they’d embrace all the rich history of their home islands: Suzuki had already shown the way in 1980 with the name ‘Katana’ for that year’s GSX1100S model (it’s a Japanese sword) but how did Kawasaki get to adopt the Ninja name, which now covers many models and has done so for the last 35 years.
Let’s go back to 1984, which was a landmark year for Kawasaki. Back then the Ninja 900R – known as GPZ900R in Europe – marked the start of the Ninja family and a legend was born.
But that legend could so easily have been called the ‘Panther’. Former Kawasaki Motors Corporation Marketing Director in the US, Mike Vaughan recalls: “I had named all the snowmobiles in the snowmobile division. When I came to the motorcycle side we decided to look at names as alternatives to just letters and numbers to describe a product. I was given the responsibility for naming along with taking suggestions from an agency we worked with. They actually suggested Panther but nobody at Kawasaki – including me – liked or understood the rationale for that!”
His time in Japan convinced Vaughan that something directly ‘Japanese’ would and could work so much better. He says: “I had stumbled across the name ‘Ninja’ while I was stationed in Japan. I’d been a history/journalism major in college, and had a love of such history. I knew virtually nothing of Japanese history before this, so I thought – while stationed there – I may as well learn something about these warriors and how they got to be who they are. I stumbled over the Ninja name somewhere around then, and thought that these are pretty interesting characters. In 1974 I bought a sailboat and christened it Ninja, with the name both in Japanese and English. I thought it was cool. It was unique, and I felt the spirit of the Ninja was well represented by the boat, stealthy and quiet. The name stayed with me until the 900R project was reaching the end of it development.”
So what was a ‘ninja’? Well, they appeared from around the 12th-15th centuries in feudal Japan and – in comparison to the honourable samurai – were instead masters of deception, often using covert methods or disguises with which to spy for information of the enemy or assassinate their leaders. The name ‘Ninja’ was cool, cunning and ultimately deadly…
So, Vaughan liked the name, but he then had to persuade his American colleagues and then the Japanese management that the mysterious oriental myth of the Ninja warrior would suit this new sport bike line-up which was coming ready for the mid-1980s.
Vaughan says: “The American management accepted and endorsed the name, but the factory in Japan took some persuading. I guess it would be like naming an Italian bike the ‘Mafia’ in their minds. The naming push was both formal and informal. I wrote a paper outlining why this would be a good name. At every meeting we had, the name was brought up. We worked mostly through the Japanese staff at Kawasaki in the US, but whenever we were in Japan we’d lobby face-to-face. Finally they cautiously agreed and we prepared to roll out the product name and the 900R. By chance the Richard Chamberlain TV series Shogun was airing about the same time we launched the Ninja brand and the idea was pretty much embraced universally by the motorcycle establishment from then on.”
Of course, over here in the UK we didn’t get any of this. The Kawasaki GPz900R (the bike moved to a ‘big Z’ some years later) achieved most of its fame through being the new fastest production bike in the world – capable of more than 150mph. And over ‘ere we were less impressed with some American drag racer called Jay ‘Pee Wee’ Gleeson getting a 10.55 quarter mile time or what the bike handled like at Laguna Seca on the bike’s launch. More important for us Brits was the fact that – at the 1984 Isle of Man TT – the GT Motorcycles GPz900R with Geoff Johnson aboard won the Production TT with GPzs taking second and third (although the bike in third was removed from the results due to a technical infringement.)
We had to wait a further 12 months for our first Ninja – the GPZ600R – one of the real breakthrough bikes of 1985, even if it was in the shadow of the likes of Suzuki’s RG500 and GSX-R750 and Yamaha’s FZ750. The 600R was the bedrock upon which Kawasaki built its successful middleweight sportsbikes, many of which have or still carry the Ninja name to this day.
Since the mid-1980s many famous sporting Kawasakis have since bore the Ninja name, many of which were called ‘Ninja’ in their own markets, but often not in Europe or the UK. While we had four-cylinder machines such as the ZX-6R and ZX-7R Ninja, the ZZ-R family was also called Ninja in the USA, while ‘our’ ZX-10 Tomcat, was a Ninja over in the USA. It’s the same for the twin-cylinder machines which we enjoyed as the GPX250 and GPZ500S, but were coolly christened ‘Ninja’ in other parts of the world. Today, even learners can get some kudos by riding a pukka single-cylinder ‘Ninja’ such as the 250SL.