45 years ago, Richard Jones couldn’t afford a Big Zed and these days he can’t justify the five-figure cost of a 1970’s Z900. Conveniently, Kawasaki offer a modern alternative. But can it possibly capture the charisma of the original machine?
I still remember, as a callow youth, the excitement of reading MCN’s road test of the Kawasaki Z1 in 1973 when it passed through the speed trap at 134mph, albeit with something of a high speed weave. Now the marque seeks to bring back those glory days and appeal to the retro market with the Z900RS. How does it compare with that motorcycle I read about all those years ago?
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At last winter’s bike show, Kawasaki had obligingly displayed Glyn Fisher’s 1972 Z1 in close proximity to the modern offering which provided the casual onlooker to compare the two machines. The original was powered by that four-cylinder, dohc, air-cooled gem which contributed so much to the machine’s appeal in terms of speed and appearance. There were four Mikuni carburettors, five gears, four sexy exhaust pipes, a single disc at the front, a drum brake at the rear, all attached to the tubular steel double-cradle frame.
Power output was said to be 82bhp, which is very relevant to our discussion, as I hope you will see. Cycle Guide stated that they were most impressed by the Z1’s ‘straight-line stability at very high speeds.’ How it performed around corners or came to a halt with such a powerful engine between the steering head and swinging arm is perhaps more questionable… but those were different days.
At 948cc the new Z900RS is 45cc bigger than the original and, as you would expect, is a dohc, liquid-cooled engine, now with 16 valves rather than eight. It’s fuel injected and drives through a six-speed gearbox. In contrast with the original, the frame is now of a high tensile trellis type and the suspension at both ends is capable of all sorts of adjustments, whereas the Z1 only had 5-way pre-load adjustment at the rear. There are also two mighty 300mm discs at the front and a single unit at the rear, all of which are pretty much essential as the engine output is rated at 82kW, around 110bhp, at 8500rpm, and an entire 37% greater than the 1970s version. The new bike also churns out more torque, 98Nm rather than 75, but more importantly it delivers the goods 500rpm lower down the rev range.
No doubt the RS will be able to comfortably exceed the Z1’s 134mph in the appropriate setting, still have straight line stability at high speed but also go around corners and stop sometime before Christmas. All well and good: some technological development in four decades should produce a bike which goes, stops and steers better than the original.
But how does this newcomer look in comparison to its ancestor? Let’s face it, that’s a big part of what the retro scene is about. Well, the tank, seat and the duck tail all look very much in keeping, especially in the Candytone Brown / Candytone Orange finish which, at £10,199, is £300 more than your basic Metallic Spark Black. The modern engine is, of course, not as handsome in some eyes as the air-cooled Z1 but all the gubbins are the price that must be paid for liquid cooling and Euro 4.
Hold on – there is a distinct lack of symmetry on either side of the machine. Where are all those shiny bits that used to emerge from the engine? Yes – the elephant in the room is the exhaust / silencer system. In my personal opinion, the modern’s bikes exhaust system is another ‘monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend’. I know Messrs Akrapovic make some of the best systems available, so why couldn’t Kawasaki have chosen something rather more conventional? Honda have managed a 4-into-2 system on the CB1100 so it’s technically feasible. That being said, I am sure there are many who will see it as the bee’s knees. For those who don’t, I’m sure the aftermarket suppliers will spring into action.
In the end, however, the new Kawasaki didn’t inspire me to cough up the cash.it might be half the price of what you’ll pay for its ground-breaking ancestor, but I’d be surprised if it’s still worth £10k in ten years’ time…
If money was no object, which Big Zed would you rather own? Or is there a Bog Zed in your shed already? If so, which one? Comment below, or hop over to our Facebook page…
Words and photos by Richard Jones
Richard maintains and adds to a simply gigantic online archive of vintage vehicle photos: visitors are welcome to drop by and admire other classic bikes he’s discovered on his travels