This year marks a marked a major landmark in the world of motorcycles: it's 50 years since the first Kawasaki motorcycle was produced. That 125cc B7, a two-stroke single, left the company's factory at Akashi, Japan in 1961, starting a line that has included great motorcycles from the mighty Z1 four to the latest ZX-10R and which has led to sporting success for countless machines with the famous lime green paintwork.
However, if you haven't heard of Kawasaki's plans to celebrate half-a-century of motorcycle production, you're not alone. The total number of 50th anniversary events, publicity stunts, limited-edition models, even special paint schemes, do not exist! Rarely can such a significant landmark for a major global company have passed so unheralded.
To be fair to Kawasaki, there are good reasons for this. For one things, the company's early history is complicated and not very clear. Although the B7 of 1961 is officially regarded as the first-ever Kawasaki motorcycle, even some of the company's own literature has accorded the honor to the following year's B8.
Kawasaki also built motorcycles earlier, under a different name. In fact, an almost identical 125cc single. Called the Meihatsu New Ace, was assembled in the same Akashi factory in 1960. Kawasaki's entry into the two-wheeled world was, therefore, very different from that of the other Japanese marques. That first Kawasaki wasn't built by a tiny, newly created company, but by a giant corporation that had taken over an established firm. Whereas Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha began with motorcycles as their major, if not only, product, Kawasaki also produced ships and airplanes. Kawasaki had built Japan's first steam locomotive in 1901 and traced its history back to 1878, when Shoju Kawasaki has founded a shipyard at Tsukiji, near Tokyo. The marque entered the motorcycle industry in 1949, when Kawasaki's aircraft division began building motorcycle engines, initially small units intended to be fitted to bicycles, to keep its factory busy following the end of WW II. Kawasaki's background in the airplane industry had given it links with BMW and the Japanese company's early engines included 125- and 250cc four-stroke developed in conjunction with the German marque, as well as a 60cc two-stroke.
It could be argued that Kawasaki motorcycle production began in 1954, because it was in that year that the Meihatsu company, a subsidiary of Kawasaki Aircraft firm, built its first complete motorcycle. These single-cylinder Meihatsus weren't a great success. And Meihatsu did no better when it started building scooters, which failed to compete with established rivals from Fuji and Mitsubishi.
However, Kawasaki's bosses wanted a motorcycle division to increase the giant corporation's profile and did not give up. They looked for a different route into the motorcycle business and settled on Meguro, an old marque that had fallen on hard times. Meguro had begun making gearboxes in the 1920s, had moved into complete machines in the 1930s, and had sold many motorcycles to the Japanese army.
Meguro's popular, Velocette-influenced 500cc Z97 single had been followed in 1959 by a 500cc twin called the K1, essentially a copy of the BSA A7.
Meguro had been Japan's second largest motorcycle manufacturer, but the early 1960s were difficult times. Many of the dozens of motorcycle companies that had been set up after WWII were going out of business and Meguro, too, was in serious financial trouble. Kawasaki's bosses saw an opportunity to make a rapid entry into the motorcycle market and entered into a technical agreement with Meguro.
Kawasaki production began with the small-capacity Meihatsus, which were re-branded as Kawasakis. The first Kawasaki-badged 125cc K7 rolled off the Akashi factory production line in January 1961. Its design, like that of Yamaha's YA-1 and BSA's Bantam, owed much to German firm DKW's RT125. The engine produced eight PS at 6,000rpm and was bolted into a steel spine frame that held telescopic forks and twin shocks.
Phase two of Kawasaki's plan was implemented in 1963 when the company took over Meguro, gaining a range of machines from 50cc scooters to 650cc four-stroke twins. Kawasaki instantly became a significant player in the motorcycle market, at least in Japan. Meguro had a 248cc single-cylinder model, the 250SG, with a reliable 18PS engine. It was re-branded as Kawasaki 250SG, essentially unchanged apart from some relatively minor engine updates.
Meguro's parallel twin was updated by Kawasaki's engineers to create the K2, then enlarged to 624cc and re-launched in 1965 as the Kawasaki W1. The roadster became popular in the domestic market, as did its twin-carburetor follow-up, the W2. Kawasaki also attempted to export the W2, notably yo the USA, where the company had established a subsidiary in Los Angeles. But neither the W2SS roadster not its dual-purpose relative, the W2TT Commander, matched the impact of rival Yamaha's XS650 twin.
Kawasaki's export division had more success with smaller two-strokes, notably in 1966 with the launch of the A1 Samurai, a sporty, 246cc twin, whose 32PS disc-valve unit gave lively acceleration and a claimed top speed of 160km/h. The Samurai sold well in the US and was followed by a racing A1R model and a 338cc roadster derivative, the A7 Avenger.
But it was when the Kawasaki engineers added a third cylinder to create the 500cc H1, launched in 1969, that Kawasaki shot to prominence – in a high revving, fast-accelerating, ear-splitting, blue-smoke belching, wheelie-pulling frenzy of speed and excitement that rapidly created a cult following. The Kawasaki H1, also known as the Mach III, produced a claimed 61 PS, accelerated with startling rapidity to 200km/h, burned fuel at an astonishing rate and was the most aggressive, anti-social vehicle on the road. It became hugely popular, especially in the USA, whee its unbeatable acceleration was much prized. Kawasaki followed it in 1972 with the 750cc H2, or Mach IV, which was faster and nastier still, and even more of a weaving, wheelie-happy challenge to its similarly flimsy steel-framed chassis. A pair of similarly stylish and sporty smaller triples the 250cc S1 and 350cc S2, completed a family that firmly established Kawasaki's reputation for outrageous performance.
Kawasaki were on a roll and in 1973 unleashed their greatest mode of all: the Z1. The company's four-cylinder project had been delayed when, with a 750cc four almost ready, rival Honda had launched their CB750. Kawasaki engineers enlarged their DOHC engine to 903cc and returned with a magnificent, 83PS superbike whose searing acceleration to over 210km/h put it in a different league from every other motorcycle on the road. The Kawasaki Z1's power smoothness, tremendous strength and good looks made it a massive hit.
The Kawasaki Z1 and its descendants, the Z900 and Z1000, dominated the decade and earned Kawasaki a lasting reputation for four-cylinder performance. But the company failed to give the Zed a chassis of comparable quality, resulting in handling that was marginal at high speed. This triggered the generation of Kawasaki powered specials, including the Harris Magnum and Bimota Kbr, and also allowed Suzuki to gain an upper hand in 1978 with their more stable GS1000, whose engine design was very closely based on the Z1000's.
Kawasaki replied the following year with the Z1300, a six-cylinder, liquid-cooled, shaft-drive behemoth whose 121PS output made it by far the world's most powerful superbike. But this time Kawasaki had misjudged the mood. Although the Z1300 handled better and was more comfortable than an unfaired, 250kg-plus motorcycle had any right to, it came to be regarded as the final act of the 1970s decade of excess.
The traditional route, powerful fours, proved much more profitable. The early 1980s saw the air-cooled, two-valve-per-cylinder format refined with the bold red twin-shock GPz1100 of 1981, which was refined with half-fairing, monoshock rear end and more power two years later. The fast and stylish Z750 Turbo gave an alternative route to high performance, although it made no more impact than the other Japanese firms' turbo motorcycles.
Kawasaki's mid-1980s masterpiece was the GPZ900R Ninja, which heralded a new generation of superbike performance with its full fairing, more compact design and especially its 908cc, 114PS, liquid-cooled, 16-valve engine. The Ninja, as the GPZ was called in many countries, put Kawasaki at the forefront again and would remain a popular model well into the 1990s, outlasting its supposed replacement, the GPZ1000RX.
It was followed in 1985 with the similarly influential GPZ600R, a rev-happy, liquid-cooled four, whose success triggered the rise of the middleweight super-sport division. Kawasaki made less of an impact in the 750cc class, although the 1989-model ZXR750 combined striking looks with competitive price and enough performance to gain a strong following.
Kawasaki began the 1990s in top form with the launch of the ZZR1100. This 1052cc, 16-valve four's engine was boosted by the novel ram air system which pressured the airbox at speed to increase peak output to an unapproachable 146PS. The ZZR ripped to 280km/h, was bulletproof in the finest Kawasaki tradition and was stable and comfortable updated several times through the decade and would lead to the ZZR1200 and 1400 models with even more power and speed.
The new millennium saw Kawasaki launch the innovative, monocoque framed ZX-12R, an 1199cc, 179PS rocket-ship that became the first motorcycle restricted by the Japanese manufacturers' self-imposed top speed limit of 300km/h. The company also built successful commuter motorcycles, middleweights and cruisers, including the curious Indian-inspired VN1500 Drifter V-twin. The marque's history had inspired retro models too,. The Z1-style Zephyr 1100 and 750 fours were followed in 1999 by the W650, a softly tuned parallel twin, which, like the latest W800 was reminiscent of the old Kawasaki W1 from the 1960s.
However, Kawasaki's image had slipped somewhat, as was dramatically recognized at Munich's Intermot show in 2002 when president Shinichi Morita was breathtakingly frank in his assessment of the company's performance. 'We, at Kawasaki, are aware that over the past few years, our machines have not fully met the expectations of our customers,' he said, introducing the 2003 models to 'reconfirm Kawasaki's reputation as a builder of high-performance machines'.
Sure enough, that year's aggressive, new, naked Z1000 and racy ZX-6R marked Kawasaki's comeback as a builder of cutting-edge motorcycles. A year later, these were joined by the ZX-10R, a fierce 1000cc, super-sports challenger that made up in pure speed and aggression what it lacked in sophistication. Subsequent years have seen all three models being repeatedly updated and backed up by contrasting models, including the deservedly popular Versys twins.
As Kawasaki reach their 50th anniversary, the company's range is arguably as strong as it has ever been and the marque's reputation for high performance, while not approaching the glory of the early 1970s, has been restored with the help of the latest ZX-10R, Japan's fastest and most advanced superbike yet. To borrow an old advertising line, it looks as though the Good Times are set to roll many more years.