Kawasaki Motorcycle History

Kawasaki emerged out of the ashes of the second World War to become one of the big players from Japan. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Kawasaki built a reputation for some of the most powerful engines on two wheels, spawning legendary sportbikes like the Ninja series and a line of championship-winning off-road bikes.
  • 1896 The company is founded by Shozo Kawasaki. His firm will come to be known as Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Over time, the company’s principal areas of activity will be shipbuilding, railroad rolling stock, and electrical generating plants. Motorcycles will become a small part of this diversified industrial conglomerate.
     
  • 1960 Kawasaki signs agreement to take over Meguro motorcycles, a major player in the nascent Japanese motorcycle manufacturing business. Meguro is one of the only Japanese companies making a 500cc bike. In England and the UK, Meguro’s 500 – which bears a strong resemblance to the BSA A7 – is derided as a cheap copy. But in fact, it is a pretty high-quality bike.
     
  • 1961 Kawasaki produces its first complete motorcycle – the B8 125cc two-stroke.
     
  • 1962 A series of the two-stroke models from 50-250cc is released. The 250cc disc-valve ‘Samurai’ attracts notice in the U.S.
     
  • 1966 The 650W1 is released and is the biggest bike made in Japan at the time. It’s inspired by the BSA A10. Over the next few years it will get twin carbs, and high pipes for a ‘scrambler’ version.
     
  • 1969 Dave Simmonds gives Kawasaki its first World Championship, in the 125cc class

    The striking Kawasaki H1 (aka Mach III) a 500cc three-cylinder two-stroke is released. Although its handling leaves something to be desired, the motor is very powerful for the day. It’s one of the quickest production bikes in the quarter-mile. The Mach III establishes Kawasaki’s reputation in the U.S. (In particular, it establishes a reputation for powerful and somewhat antisocial motorcycles!) A wonderful H1R production racer is also released – a 500cc racing bike.

    Over the next few years, larger and smaller versions of the H1, including the S1 (250cc) S2 (350cc) and H2 (750cc) will be released. They’re successful in the marketplace, and the H2R 750cc production racer is also successful on the race track, but Kawasaki knows that the days of the two-stroke streetbike are coming to an end.

    The company plans to release a four-stroke, but is shocked by the arrival of the Honda 750-Four. Kawasaki goes back to the drawing board.

     
  • 1973 The first new four-stroke since the W1 is released. It’s worth the wait. The 900cc Z1 goes one up on the Honda 750 with more power and double overhead cams. Over the next few years, its capacity will increase slightly and it will be rebadged the Z-1000.
     
  • 1978 Kork Ballington wins the 250cc and 350cc World Championships with fore-and-aft parallel-Twin racers (Rotax also built racing motors in this configuration. Ballington will repeat the feat in ’79. In 1980 he will finish second in the premier 500cc class. Anton Mang takes over racing duties in the 250 and 350 classes, and he will win four more titles over the next three years. This is the most successful period for Kawasaki in the World Championship.

    Kawasaki’s big-bore KZ1300 is released. Honda and Benelli have already released six-cylinder bikes by this time, but Kawasaki’s specification includes water cooling and shaft drive. To underline the efficiency of the cooling system, its launch is held in Death Valley. Despite its substantial weight, journalists are impressed.

    Over the next few years, the KZ1300 will get digital fuel injection and a full-dress touring version will be sold as the ‘Voyager.’ This model is marketed as “a car without doors”!

     
  • 1981 Eddie Lawson wins the AMA Superbike championship for Kawasaki after an epic battle with Honda’s Freddie Spencer. He will repeat as champion the following year.

    Kawasaki releases the GPz550. It’s air-cooled and has only two valves per cylinder, but its performance threatens the 750cc machines of rival manufacturers. This is the bike that launches the 600 class.

     
  • 1983 The liquid-cooled four-valve GPz900R ‘Ninja’ is shown to the motorcycle press for the first time at Laguna Seca. They’re stunned.
     
  • 1985 James “Bubba” Stewart, Jr. is born. Kawasaki supplies his family with Team Green diapers.
     
  • 1989 The first ‘ZXR’-designated bikes reach the market. They are 750cc and 400cc race replicas.
     
  • 1990 The ZX-11 is launched and features a 1052cc engine. It is the first production motorcycle with ram-air induction and the fastest production bike on the market.
     
  • 1991 The ZXR750R begins a four year run as the top bike in the FIM Endurance World Championship.
     
  • 1993 Scott Russell wins the World Superbike Championship, much to Carl Fogarty’s dismay.
     
  • 2000 The ZX-12R is released – the new flagship of the ZX series.
     
  • 2002 Bubba Stewart wins AMA 125 MX championship.
     
  • 2003 Stewart is AMA 125 West SX champ. “What the heck is he doing on the jumps?” people wonder. It’s the “Bubba Scrub.”

    In a daring move that acknowledges that only a small percentage of supersports motorcycles are ever actually raced, Kawasaki ups the capacity of the ZX-6R to 636cc. Ordinary riders welcome a noticeable increase in mid-range power, and the bike is the king of the ‘real world’ middleweights.

     
  • 2004 Stewart wins the AMA 125 East SX title, and the 125cc outdoor championship. There are only one or two riders on 250s who lap any faster than he does on the little bikes.

    Just when we thought motorcycles couldn’t get any crazier, the ZX-10R is released. OMG, the power!

     
  • 2007 Although his transition to the big bikes hasn’t been as smooth as many expected it to be, Stewart wins the 2007 AMA SX championship.
     
  • 2008 Kawasaki gives the Concours a much-needed revamp in the Concours 14. Sharing the 1352cc engine from the ZX-14, it’s touted as the ultimate sport touring motorcycle.

    While they’re at it, Kawasaki also decides to give the Ninja 250 and KLR 650 major updates, after years of inactivity.

     
  Prepared with historical input by Mark Gardiner and other sources.
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