The next in our series where Classic-Motorbikes.net looks back at the machines enjoyed by those of us now in our 50s. What made them memorable and why we loathed or lusted after them?
The 20th century saw many of the most profound moments in human history, moon landings, the 1929 Wall St crash and the final days of WW2 when Enola Gay flew its mission to Japan. The land of the Ninja would drop its own bomb on the motorcycle world in 1984 when the GPZ900R A1 was announced and Kawasaki raised the bar so high other manufactures could only concede or copy; at least for a few years. The phrase ‘broke the mould’ is often over used but not in this case; apart from the fact the 900R was visually perfect for the period its spec would stun riders that had enjoyed a diet of un-faired, air cooled heavy weights. Now they could feast on a fully enclosed, streamline, water cooled, 16-valve delicacy with 150+mph on tap. The menu had changed from a roadside bacon butty to mums full Sunday roast and the only challenge for the British biker was getting their signature on the order form.
Whilst Kawasaki’s earlier Z1 caused a tremor, the knowledge gained by the engineers would exceed the Richter Scale in late 1983 when the first sightings of the GPZ were offered to an expectant press pack. Maybe we remember through ‘rose tinted glasses’, as compared to modern machines the 900R was no ‘tinkerbell’ tipping the scales at over 546Lbs (that’s 247kg with half a tank of gas…the new ZX10 is 120lbs lighter) whilst producing 115 bhp but ‘in-period’ it really delivered. Many stories circulate about the original conception and design decisions taken by Kawasaki engineers, including the initial option of testing their 100bhp DOHC six-cylinder motor; evidently it was considered too smooth and I dare say too wide. They tested V4 configurations and even a V6 plus also looking at upgrading the air cooled Z1 type unit but being over a decade since development that choice wasn’t really going to advance the brand long-term; no, the answer came in the liquid cooled 16 valve unit. The decision to design a bespoke power plant for the 900R came in 1978; the resulting 908cc unit took on the rolling road in secret during 1982.
Compact and powerful utilising wet liners and a side operating cam chain, the slim in-line four would reflect on construction style and dimensions, as a stressed member of the all new diamond steel frame with aluminium rear section. In a time before computer testing, each element was assessed on road and track including the AVDS Automatic Variable Damping System (front) and Uni-track rear suspensions systems. Final testing took place in August 1983 by which time Kawasaki engineers had settled on their optimum package; the world’s first liquid cooled in-line 16 valve superbike was ready and the speed runs exceeded 153mph. The first sighting of the completed 900R in Europe was in late 1983 at the Paris Salon Show, whilst test session for journo’s and dealers took place at Laguna Seca just prior to Christmas. Dealer stock would start to arrive in January 1984 and Kawasaki immediately received ‘Bike of the Year’ award.
Kawasaki knew they had a winner on their hands and took full advantage by introducing the same format with the GPZ750 for the home market in early 1984. Stateside the name ‘Ninja’ was adopted for the first time, a suggestion from Kawasaki’s American Marketing Director Mike Vaughan back in 1979 when viewing the initial prototype versions. Another option was the title ‘Panther’ but history will show the correct decision was taken and ‘Ninja’ is now attached to many Kawasaki machines but the first was the American GPZ900R. Over in Europe the Production Class at the Isle of Man TT was re-introduced in 1984 with Roger Marshall on Honda’s VF1000 being offered up as the potential victor in the 750-1500cc category. Other big names included Steve Parrish (Yamaha) and Mick Grant aboard a Suzuki ensured it was perfect timing for the all new GPZ to star. Entered by GT Motorcycles in Plymouth a GPZ900R with Geoff Johnson piloting took overall 1st and averaging 105.28mph, closely followed by Howard Selby also on a Kawasaki 900R at 104.19mph.
The top two steps of the podium at the world’s toughest road race, the publicity couldn’t be better for the Kawasaki brand. The companies aim realised, a machine capable of outperforming the competition in the 1 litre class but enclosed within a 750cc size package; achieved mainly due to the width of their new engine. At 451mm wide, the 908cc unit was 20% narrower than all similar big fours that came before. Kawasaki themselves didn’t need to invest in too much launch advertising, the GPZ sold itself across Europe and especially ‘Stateside’ whilst the brochures extolled the ease of ownership; whether it be servicing or riding enjoyment. ‘Light compact chassis helps make the GPZ900R as agile as a 750’ was one of their favourites for rider confidence. ‘Ultra-precise electronic ignition that never requires maintenance’ or Light weight box section swing arm features exclusive eccentric adjusters that cut chain adjustment time in half’ explained how easy the 900R was to live with day to day.
Road Testers View
No doubt the excitement was fever pitch when the first magazines received their launch test invites and many UK dealers still remember the orders rolling in, as one claimed ‘We couldn’t open the crates fast enough’ … In America, one of the first tests exclaimed ‘the GPZ could make a highway saint into the happiest, hardest road criminal around’ and many offered comparisons to the ‘game changing’ arrival of the Z1 a decade earlier. Several magazines explained the engine cooling allowed for a compression ratio of 11.0 : 1 whilst fuelling with unleaded and the CVK carbs were similar to the units on Kawasaki’s superbike race machine; looking back few new bikes were scrutinised to such lengths. All the technical data came forth in every publication, but potential buyers were really interested in the road testers impressions.
It wasn’t all good news, with the specific 50mph roll-on test finding Suzuki’s GS1150 significantly quicker but in the real world the GPZ was more than a match. When handling and brakes were assessed one tester explained ‘the forks work well all the way though to full compression’ whilst another found to his surprise ‘the anti-dive system works and at the right time’. All agreed the front wheel was glued to the ground. Most found fault with the mirrors, indicator and horn and all praised the machines abilities through the ‘twisties’ which was summed up by one rider who confirmed he found himself approaching a familiar corner 20% hotter than normal and 10% more relaxed about it!
Looking Back – Riders View
70s tearaway Gary James, bike shop worker in-period, either owned, borrowed or blagged all of the era’s two wheelers…He always shares an opinion, whether we like it or not! He thinks… The ultimate, this machine offered every aspect of performance that was actually too fast for most riders. The GPZ9 did everything better than the competition and was undoubted the machine in its day… quite simply the best of the Pre-pensioner selection.
The GPZ 900R took much longer to leave the showroom display than any other sports bike; largely unchanged over 13 years with 70,000 examples produced worldwide. From the first A1 in 1984 through each year with little alteration apart from the model code A2, A3 etc up to A10; UK supplies declined through 93 although imports continued for a few more years. No doubt when actress Kelly McGillis hankered after a bit of Mavericks piloting skills in the 1986 Top Gun story, the star of the film (GPZ) re-energised showroom traffic at many local Kwaka dealerships; another opportunity for this model to take riders breath away. The GPZ1000RX was the direct replacement in 86 and maybe those big screen moments saved the model short term, but just two years later when the ZX10 arrived, surely its days were numbered. Still the 900R remained available and even when the ZZR1100 took over the mantle as Kawasaki’s flagship model and the term ‘hyperbike’ was first uttered ‘old faithful’ got some upgrades to wheels, brakes and forks before re-joining the sales battle. In Europe, the relationship concluded in 1993 but the Americans continued under the ‘Ninja’ banner for an additional three years. The Japanese were still supplying the home market as late as 2003, albeit in very small numbers. On the track the 900R enjoyed a brief period in the lime-light after its glory at the Isle of Man, including attracting the eras big names in period; images can still be found of Wes Cooley, Rainey and Lawson aboard all-green entries at Stateside circuits. The 900R was too good and too fast for ‘old father time’ to catch up with it, they tried to supersede, and they looked to phase out but in reality, Kawasaki got it right first time with this model; its longevity was just part of the legacy.
Personally speaking, the GPZ was burned into the memory with my first ton-plus excursion through the wilds of Somerset; and I was just the passenger! I failed to purchase one of the final examples in the late 80s and that was a mistake, then I owned a ZX10, which was certainly awesome but never possessed the credentials of the 900R. If ever a bike could be considered a pioneer this model was the one, changing the rules and presenting the future; ‘a ballsy move’. A film star before it became a cult classic whilst remaining instantly recognisable 34 years after launch; a bike universally talked about today, still with admiration… the GPZ900R certainly left its mark.
Grant Ford for classic-motorbikes.net
Tech Spec – Kawasaki GPZ900R A1 1984-85
Wheel Base: 56.1in
Seat Height: 29.9in
Dry Weight: 502lbs
Brakes Front: 2 x 280mm disc
Rear Brakes: 1 x 270mm disc
Fuel Capacity: 22 litres
Type: Liquid cooled DOHC
Cylinders: In line four – 16 valve
Compression Ratio: 11.0 – 1
Carbs: 4 x 34mm Keihin CVK34
Max Power: 115bhp @ 9500rpm
Torque: 63 lbs @ 8500rpm
Clutch: Wet multi-plate type
Transmission: 6 speed constant mesh
Starting System: Electric motor
Battery: 12 Volt
Top speed: 154mph
Standing ¼ in the 10.9sec
Fuel Consumption: 40.8mpg
GPZ 900R Promotional film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Li63nwVD_oE