December 25, 2018

Kawasaki Green Machines: The "Eddy Lawson Replica" Motorcycles

A brief history of the Kawasaki Z series, from the Z1 through to the modern Z900RS.

Kawasaki Green Machines: The "Eddy Lawson Replica" Motorcycles

There are certain facts in life we accept as being true by virtue of themselves. Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world. Humans need oxygen to live. Kawasaki motorcycles are green.

Kawasaki motorcycles have been green for longer than I have been alive. Whether the association was an intentional branding decision against its major competitors — Honda's red, Yamaha's definitive blue and Suzuki's... also blue? — I don't know. But the association is strong, and it's most evident in one of Kawasaki's most well-known legacy of motorcycles: the Eddie Lawson Replicas.

The Eddie Lawson Replicas was a series of road racing motorcycles that Kawasaki made that defined their racing brand like no other motorcycle. This was the series modelled after the motorcycle that Kawasaki's in-house racer, Eddie Lawson, rode to superbike history in 1982: the KZ1000R. The KZ1000R itself came into existence in part thanks to the legacy left by the first great Kawasaki big four, the Z1. After Eddie Lawson rode to victory, first came the replica of his KZ1000R, then the ZRX1100 built in its image over a decade later, then the improved ZRX1200R, and finally the recent Z900RS.

Each of these "Eddie Lawson" motorcycles is stunning and a piece of history. Let's examine them one by one.

The Predecessor: The Kawasaki Z1

The original Awesome Four from Kawasaki.

The Kawasaki Z1 was where it all started for Kawasaki. It was the beginning of a new age.

The Z1 was commissioned by Green HQ as a 750cc in 1967. Then in 1968, Honda released the iconic CB750, changing history. A fast four! Upright! Decades later, the CB750 is still a favourite of motorcycle builders and collectors. The release of the CB750 sent Kawasaki into disarray. They couldn't release an identical bike! They went back and retooled to later release the Z1 in 1972.

In modern times, I'd have chastised them. There's nothing wrong with releasing a motorcycle just like a competitor. Product releases can't be delayed by years. In retrospect, I think they made the right decision. Kawasaki, by delaying release of the Z1, got to choose its own destiny and brand identity.

The Z1, when released, was a thing of beauty and entirely unique for its time, notably for using a double overhead cam shaft in a production motorcycle, the first to do this at reasonable cost (i.e. not an MV Augusta). Together with the CB750, it helped popularise inline-four motorcycles, paving the way for a slew of motorcycles becoming known as UJMs in the 80s.

If you're still looking for a Z1, good luck. Try some super fancy auction sites. Or you can buy a dodgy frame and engine and build it into something entirely custom, in which case: let me know if you need help because that sounds like a ton of fun.

The Original "Eddie Lawson Replica": The Kawasaki KZ1000R (1982-3)

Motorcycle racing rules changed in the early eighties, introducing the Superbike class. Basically, huge motorcycles. This created a sudden vacuum into which Kawasaki confidently strode with its KZ1000R, a huge 998cc four-cylinder motorcycle that was going to help redefine history.

Eddie Lawson, Kawasaki's in-house racer, rode a modified Kawasaki KZ1000R to Superbike victory in 1982, giving way to a legendary design that would bear his name for decades to come. It was a worthwhile name to bear: he was one of the greatest racers of all time. He won the 500cc World Championships four times in the 1980s. When he retired from Grand Prix racing he ranked third of all time with 31 victories.

The Eddie Lawson Replica ("ELR") Kawasaki KZ1000R was the same as the base model KZ1000R, but with a special Kerker exhaust, adjustable rear suspension and striking green paint job to replicate the one Eddie Lawson rode. The original KZ1000R was popular enough (it was even a police bike in some places!) but the green one was the truly beautiful one.

An article on the KZ1000R appearing in the 1983 edition of Sport Rider

The Eddie Lawson Replica model was made only in 1982 and 1983 and in limited quantities of 750 total. People around the internet often lament selling them because they've gone up in price quite a lot! Not matching inflation, but still, it's rare for a motorcycle's value to go anywhere but down.

The standard KZ1000R produced around 80hp at production, and the modified Eddie Lawson Replica turned that up to a more respectable 102hp. It's not much to carry around the 500lb+ wet weight, but who'd be riding around a collector like this, except to shows?

The KZ1000R Eddie Lawson Replica is now a collector's motorcycle and is effectively unavailable outside fancy vehicle auctions where it'll cost a lot more than its more capable successors.

Here it is again, the original Eddie Lawson Replica: The Kawasaki KZ1000R!

The second Eddie Lawson Replica: The ZRX1100 (1997-2001)

In the late nineties, naked motorcycles started becoming popular, on the back of the success of the Ducati Monster slightly redefining the UJM "standard" theme. How were nakeds different to the standards of the eighties? The handlebars were lower, engines were more powerful, suspension more firm and they were overall slightly faster. Anyway, the ZRX1100 was built in the homage of the Eddie Lawson Replica. Yes, it was also sold in black and other colours, but who cares!

The ZRX1100 was made from 1997-2001, and sold in the US only from 1999. The US has long been a tough market for big-bore Japanese bikes.

The 1052cc engine of the ZRX1100 cranked out 96hp (72kw) and 69 ft-lb (94 Nm), which was fine, but really isn't that much considering the heavy steel frame and engine put this motorcycle over 250kg wet. The engine came from sportsbikes (the ZX-11), but was retuned for more mid-range. Nobody is going to throw these around at the 200+ km/h that they can do. So the torque comes on low, reaching near peak around 3,500 RPM and staying there until close to the redline. Opening up the exhaust and intake and retuning it does wonders — I've read reports of horsepower and torque numbers being sent up by 25% without much difficulty.

You can still easily buy a Kawsaki ZRX1100 on Craigslist in the USA.

The Third Eddie Lawson Replica: The ZRX1200R (2001-2007)

The ZRX1200R built on the success of the ZRX1100 and made some huge improvements to make it really sing. It was sold in Japan from 2001-2007, but in the US it was only sold until 2005.

The engine was increased to 1,164cc... not even a full litre! Power was increased to 122 hp (91kW) with 81 ft-lbs (109Nm) of torque. Again, torque comes on early, and this can easily pull in sixth gear from around 50km/h (30mph). Fuel is delivered by four carburettors — unlike its contemporary competitors, this motorcycle was never fuel injected.

And unlike most sportsbikes, it retains handlebars. This is no cafe racer with clip-ons. The position is lower than most "standards", though.

ZRX1200Rs received huge critical acclaim, and not just because of the way they look. They were often the favourite when compared to similar motorcycles of the era — mostly not available in the US. The only criticism was soft suspension (a criticism I read of nearly every motorcycle, honestly, possibly indicating a disjuncture between journalists and everyday riders), which is easily rectified with a few simple modifications, including better springs, gold valve emulators and heavier oil, and just a better pair of rear shocks.

Like many motorcycles, the ZRX1200R sounds like a lawnmower stock, so I wouldn't buy one unless it had an exhaust fitted. The Kerker is a favourite balance of performance and sound.

Another pic of the Kawasaki ZRX1200R

You can still get the ZRX1200R in the USA. There are usually a few hanging around on Craigslist in the major cities. Unfortunately, most of them are relatively high mileage (50K miles is quite common), and green is rare and will cost you an extra $1000 or more. I saw one go in San Francisco for $4,000 in 2018, and it sold within hours of being listed. They're special.

The Japan-only ZRX1200 DAEG (2008-2016)

The Japan-only Kawasaki ZRX1200 DAEG

In 2008, the ZRX1200 was updated with fuel injection. Kawasaki also decided to stop exporting them outside Japan for some economic reason that makes me really mad.

The ZRX had significant changes that, in US trim, would have provided an increase in performance not only from the engine, but from the braking system and the chassis. The new bike finally got fuel injection, along with porting and valve work in the engine department, a new exhaust system and a six-speed transmission (the old bike was a five-speed). They added new Tokico four-piston brakes squeezing a pair of petal-shaped front rotors measuring 310mm and a single piston/250mm rotor combo in back. They also improved the steering geometry, suspension and swingarm. Damn! I have half a mind to import one.

The ZRX1200 DAEG ended production in 2016, with tightening global emissions standards killing it off.

The Japan-only ZRX1200 DAEG. It even looks good in non-green colours.

The Modern Bruiser Eddie Lawson Replica: The Z900RS (2018-present)

The Kawasaki Z900RS in 2019 "cafe racer" styling.

In 2017, Kawasaki released its most modern incarnation of Kawasaki four-cylinder: the Z900RS.

And what a reception this received. Apart from being beautiful to look at, the Z900RS is, by all accounts, amazing to ride. So much so that if i had to buy a new motorcycle this would be one of the leading contenders. Bikesales in Australia called it the "motorcycle of the year". Cycle World in the US called it the best looking motorcycle of the year. High praise.

The 948cc engine throws down 110 hp (82 kW), with 73 ft-lbs (98 Nm) of torque maxing out at a relatively high 7700 rpm. They actually took the motor from the relatively similar Z900, another standard/naked, but de-tuned the delivery further for more low-end grunt. This cost top-end horsepower, but again, why would you take this anywhere near its theoretical top speed? Unless you're as aerodynamic as a supercar it'd be fairly pointless.

Here's the 2019 Z900RS Cafe Racer again.