“I nearly filled my pants”: DriveTribe rides the iconic/terrifying Kawasaki Z1B
Chris is a freelance journalist who has been riding bikes and writing about them for over 30 years.
I can happily recall this ride any time I fancy. It might have occurred over ten years ago, and the day didn't turn out to be quite as magnificent as I'd hoped. Even so, my first jaunt on a 1975 Kawasaki Z1B will always stay with me. It readily triggers vivid thoughts of both that day, and loads more from my early 70's two-wheeled life. For me, the 900 superbike is a massively poignant motorcycle.
Back in '77 the only bike with my name on its logbook was an SS50 moped. Being just eighteen and so new to it all, I was highly impressionable. Just seeing any big Kawasaki was a huge deal to me. Clapping eyes on one made my heart race.
The Z1B made quite an impact on Mossy back in '77
When a workmate bought a Z1B and took me for a blat on the back, my world changed completely. I might've already had a run out on a few other 'proper' bikes, but none were anything like this. When the aforementioned owner told me to hang on tight, I suspected he needed to be taken seriously. And so it proved. Steering the Kawa onto the A19 in Peterlee and opening the slides of its four carbs brought emotions and physical strains I'd never thought possible. By the time we got up to 90mph, I thought if we continued to accelerate any harder I'd surely suffocate or meet some other unpleasant fate. I just couldn't believe it was possible for a human body to endure such savage speed gains. The ride didn't last long. My memories of it will last forever.
Fast forward more than forty years, and I got the chance to relive the experience. It’s a long story but a chance viewing of a Z1B, followed by a chat with its owner that I made persuasive enough to have him let me ride it, bordered on miraculous. Mind you, his stern advice “if you crash it, then just leave the country” helped me realise the gravity of it all.
Double overhead cams were a first on a large capacity Japanese bike
The idea was to take his Z1B for a run into the Peak District for what I anticipated would be an afternoon of deep joy. But it didn't begin that way. The very first opportunity to use the open road, and sample the Kawasaki to the full, only served to underline the vintage of the 900. I was reminded just how much things have moved on since my last experience on the Kawasaki. Thoughts of the life-changing spin on the back of my mate's bike suddenly seemed hard to fathom. The motor may have been torquey and flexible, and able to pull cleanly and keenly from low revs. But it couldn't compare with just how shockingly strong it felt back in '77.
It was so weedy, it seemed like someone had yanked a couple of plug leads off. More concerning was the feeble stopping power of the front brake. The first time I tried to use it in anger I nearly filled my pants. I would have been better off putting my feet down! After waiting for what seemed like an eternity to ride the 900, I wondered if my dreams were about to be shattered.
As you can imagine, rides don't get much more memorable than 90mph on the back of a Z1B
Luckily, when we stopped to do a bit of photography, a highly excited trucker pulled up and asked if he could record the occasion with his own lens. He was really chuffed to see the iconic bike. As he took pics he recalled his own 70s experiences in the same enthusiastic way I'd done so many times. His conversation put the modest and mildly disappointing performance of the bike into context perfectly. Suddenly, it just didn't matter that the Kawasaki was worrying me for very different reasons than it had done over four decades earlier.
This, as the Scania driver rightly reminded me, was a very, very special, hugely historic bike. Right there and then I was one of very few people lucky enough to get a chance to savour riding a 900. The exclusivity was something I very much needed to appreciate.
The four exhausts write cheques the Z1B's brakes can't cash
When I started the bike for the second time to continue with the ride, I bore that in mind.
The day then became brighter and my attitude distinctly more positive. With the change in mood, the bike strangely seemed to develop more engine and braking power. It generally felt it had more life and turned nicely through the Peak’s twists and turns. Though the suspension and tyres didn’t give me the sort of feedback needed to take it right to the edge, I still felt happy to ride in a spirited manner whenever the mood took me. Sure it's a weighty old bus, but the leverage of those big bars helps lessen the effect of the pounds, so bossing it about is easy enough. Then when I was sticking some fuel in it a bit later, more admirers came to view and chat.
The relevance of the bike was brought home to me once again. This wasn't a test, it was a major event. I began to pity anyone who couldn't relate to the bike's hugely iconic status. The fact is, the Z1B is a seminal motorcycle that stunned the biking world in its heyday, and still has a big influence decades later. Very few bikes can claim that.
Love your Kawasaki? Then show it with your key ring
Can't quite justify having a Z1B in your garage? Then why not be the envy of your friends and family with this Kawasexy key ring.
1975 Kawasaki Z1B
Type: 903cc, air-cooled, eight-valve, dohc, in-line four
Maximum power: 81bhp @ 8,500rpm
Maximum torque: 54lb/ft @ 8,500rpm
Final Drive: chain
Frame: steel tube twin cradle
Suspension: Front: 36mm telescopic forks, no adjustment
Rear: twin Koni shocks, adjustable preload and rebound damping
Brakes: Front: single 296mm disc with single-piston caliper
Rear: 200mm single leading shoe drum
Tyres: Front: 3.25-19
Seat height: 815mm
Claimed dry weight: 230kg
Fuel capacity: 18 litres