Last Updated on 18/02/2021
In 1972 the Kawasaki Z1 900 was a motorcycle born out of a necessity for the survival of the company in an increasingly tough industry.
It was a bold, clever, brave, move that catapulted Kawasaki to the leagues of fast, aggressive, power players in the motorcycle world, where they remain to this day.
Let’s take a look at the ‘New York Steak’ starting with its roots.
The Kawasaki Z1 900 History
To truly understand the Kawasaki Z1 900 we have to look at the market at the time and what it was following on from.
Before we do that let’s answer the intriguing question of why the Z1 was code-named ‘New York Steak’.
Kawasaki had been studying the American market for a while, in particular American engineering and it was known that New York Steak was considered to be the best meal on the menu at fancy restaurants.
Kawasaki deemed that this new project was going to be the best motorcycle on the market and therefore deserved the relevant title.
Now let’s review where the industry was at and the birth of the iconic Kawasaki Z1 900.
The motorcycle market had been dominated by British parallel-twins from Triumph, BSA and Norton all of which had 750cc varieties and the Harley Sportster was still going strong with its 1000cc V-Twin.
The Japanese manufacturers however were on the takeover and since the release of the Honda CB750 consumers couldn’t get enough of the bikes, known for their speed, reliability, excellent handling and attractive price point.
The Brit’s were struggling to contend and a perpetual habit of recycling parts from other models instead of concentrating on research and development, meant the tech in their bikes was a far cry from the Japanese models.
The Japanese also had the banks and government on side who supported the innovation; the main thing was companies were willing to forgo immediate profit over and above long-term investment.
Kawasaki at the time was still a relatively small company and were in business by producing smaller displacement, two-stroke, machines at an affordable price, they were flying under the radar of the European and American counterparts by doing this.
It couldn’t be ignored that in order to survive, the demand for larger displacement bikes was an absolute necessary demand to meet and so a brave decision was made to enter the world of big bikes and big competition.
1968 saw Kawasaki unveil the Mach III – a powerful two-stroke, three-cylinder capable of 125mph which delivered 60HP. The bike’s handling and brakes were far from exceptional in the early models, but the Mach III fulfilled its purpose of creating the reputation for Kawasaki that they were creators of aggressive and fast machines. They had carved out their niche and made a name for themselves.
Kawasaki engineers had already began working on a big four-stroke engine, one other reason for this was that environmental regulations were coming into place and it was getting difficult to build two-stroke engines to meet the lower emission requirements.
The Z1 started life out as a 750cc four-stroke that was very nearly released. However, word got out that Honda had completed the CB750 and were working on something new.
Kawasaki knew that they needed to skip the 750cc and enter the market with something bigger in order to get the jump on their biggest competitor.
Therefore, the 750 was delegated to being a base for the soon to be 903cc design.
After developing the new four-stroke on the back of the 750 project; the end result was an air-cooled engine, double over-head cams, with four compact cylinders, that had exactly square, bore and stroke at 66mm x 66mm. The bike had a displacement of 903cc.
82HP was claimed and top speed was estimated to be 133mph with max torque of 54.2 ft.-lbs at 8,500rpm. Exceeding its closest competitors making it very desirable.
The Z1 900 was actually the first production motorcycle to have a higher top speed than the long since retired Vincent Black Shadow (125mph straight out of the factory).
Kawasaki’s development team lead by their American senior test rider, Bryon Farnsworth and their race team, took the early version 1 bikes to Talladega Speed Bowl and essentially attempted to break it/ find its flaws.
One poignant test was to run the bike for a full tank of fuel, at full-power, reaching speeds of 130mph. The engine was bomb-proof and passed the testing will flying colours.
Kawasaki were so keen to keep the project under wraps until its release that during testing in the States; they painted the prototypes in Honda colours and stuck Honda badges on the tanks so as throw off any press that may be intrigued in the new bikes.
The Z1 was introduced in 1972 and marketed as a Grand Prix tourer, a fast machine with brilliant handling and reliability. It was ahead of its time with emission reducing pipes and even with the fast speeds, it ran on regular fuel.
Many motorcycle historians claim the Z1 as the world’s second superbike coming in second only to the previously mentioned and very worthy Vincent Black Shadow.
The 1973 Z1 900 was introduced to the U.S market for $1,895 which was far more affordable in comparison to the Harley Sportster and especially the MV Augusta 750cc, four-cylinder, which was priced at an eye watering $5,000.
The Z1 remained unchanged with exception of small aesthetic differences until 1975 when the next generation Z1-B was introduced, with increased power output, a better suspension system, stiffer frame, better brakes, and removal of the automatic chain oiler.
1976 saw the end of the original Z1 900 with the introduction of the Z900 or KZ900 in the US. By 1977 the Z1000 (KZ1000) was introduced and the Z1 900 reign of supreme superbike was officially over.
Performance and Win’s
The New York Steak did what it set out to do and sent Kawasaki into the stratosphere of motorcycle fame and success.
It sold like hot cakes, attracting owners by its speed, reliability, great handling, good brakes, modern styling, and affordability.
Other manufacturers had similar traits but not the whole package like the Z1 900 and that is why it did so well.
Kawasaki’s marketing strategy was also brilliant as they proved their new bikes worth by taking pretty much stock bikes (different clubman style bars and good-year tires), to Daytona in the Spring of 1973.
The general consensus in the industry at the time was if you want to sell bikes you need to win races. They claimed a 24-hour record of 109.641mph. A one-off Z1 tuned up was also to set a one-lap record of 160.288mph during that same time at Daytona.
Durability was proved by this staggering endurance record and performance; it only bolstered the Z1 900 as the best bike of the time.
The Z1 900 went on to win 4 years in a row in Australia’s Castrol 6 hour endurance race starting its win in October 1973.
In the Motorcycle News the Kawasaki Z1 900 was voted the Machine of the Year by their readers from 1973-1976.
On reflection now many owners of the original Z1 900 would argue the handling was poor and performance wasn’t quite what was being marketed, but it still exceeded the competition and for the money it more than held its own.
Let’s have a look at buying an original today, what to look for, and is restoring one a good idea?
Buying an Original Z1 900
Prices significantly vary from $10,000 for restoration models with one bike up for sale at Car and Classic for £10,950 with a non-original paint job and 636 modern forks. All the way up to $17,999 and beyond for a more authentic original version.
Bring a Trailer sold a stunning one owner 1973 Z1 for $21,863 in July 2020. The beauty of a bike having had only one owner usually means that it has been looked after for the duration of its lifetime.
As is the case with classics the bike will be in one of two conditions:
1. It will be a very used, high mileage, repaired and patched up bike, that has been used for the lifetime of its owner, with each patch another story the owner has to tell.
2. It will have been used on purchase, and may well have racked up the miles initially for a few years but then was tucked away carefully and kept as a showpiece, occasionally brought out to polish before a quick blast up the road for old times’ sake.
The second type is the one a collector will want to find as the bike will be as close to original as possible and likely be un-molested and revelling in being the classic it is. They don’t come up often but when they do, they are worth every penny.
Car and Classic have a 1973 Z1 for sale as of 14th Feb 2021 for £22,000 and has had some improvements made, over and above a full restoration. As you can see below, it is a very good example of the bike.
When purchasing an original Z1 900, it is important to know the model year you are going after and that you know the slight differences that were introduced over the years.
Other things to keep an eye out for are:
- Oil leaks from the engine, this was addressed in the later editions so this is particularly relevant for the 1973 models
- Look for pitting and flakes on the chrome
- Check seals on the forks
- Check the electrics over and that everything is in working order
What happens if you have found a near perfect Kawasaki Z1 900 but it needs a few things doing to do it? Let’s take a look at the price of parts for a simple fix or full restoration.
Kawasaki Z1 900 Restoration
It is possible to pick up a Z1 900 for around $7,000 in the US, which isn’t particularly cheap for a restoration project but it is almost guaranteed that the engine will be in very good condition. The engines really were that good.
The average costs of parts are pretty much the same as any other Japanese model from the era and on par with British Bonnie’s etc. The good news is parts aren’t hard to find, so it shouldn’t be too much of a struggle to complete your project.
Some examples for parts as found on eBay are:
- $225 for Speedo and Tach
- $77 for battery
- $975 restored Carburettor
There are also some good quality replica parts around such as a complete muffler exhaust kit but that will set you back $1,499.
It would be very easy to spend up to $15,000 and beyond on completing your project so, the real question is whether you want to get to work and build your bike or buy an original ready to roll?
Does The Kawasaki Z1 900 Make a Good Investment?
The original Z1 seems to remain pretty steady in terms of holding its value. Sitting at around $20,000-$25,000, that seems to be the top end.
Prices aren’t expected to sky rocket, but as with many classics an investment into an immaculate original bike is far from a bad decision; as the longer time goes on, the less mint condition models survive and therefore value increases.
The Kawasaki Z1 900 will continue to be coveted as a classic, sitting up there with the best of them.
The New York Steak was the bike that beat the odds.
If not for the bravery of Kawasaki’s management wanting to develop the brand and beat off the competition it would never have come to be and Kawasaki certainly wouldn’t be the powerhouse it is today.
It has stood the test of time and is revered the world over as an awesome bike. It was also ahead of its time in power and performance, it could hold its own in a line-up today especially on an endurance level.
The Kawasaki Z900rs was released in 2017 and is selling well, a new modern retro bike based very much on the Z1 900 design. When I first saw that orange tank and the throwback pipes, a smile hit my face, here was Kawasaki proving that the Z1 is still king and the best prime steak on the menu.