By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
I have a garage full of naked Zeds — including a ’76 Kz900, which is essentially identical to the more famous Z1900 Kaw introduced in ’73 and which quickly became the dominant superbike of the early-mid-’70s. (Main differences between the two being mine doesn’t have reflectors built into the front fork lowers).
This one has a high compression/big bore kit and pods — and so probably is making close to 100 hp (vs. the 82 stock). But — and the big Zeds are famous for this — the bike is extremely tractable and civilized. Modern, even — other than the suspension, frame and of course, the brakes. You could ride it anywhere, anytime — and not be nervous about whether you’d make it home. Still can. I do. This bike will pull 120-plus, easily. It will go considerably faster than that — but I haven’t had the balls to find out how much faster because these bikes, though very modern feeling up to a point, begin to show their age after a certain point. That point being around 120…. and even that better be in a straight line — with plenty of time to bleed that speed if you need to. Don’t squeeze the front brake too hard — or that single caliper on the left side might pull you someplace you don’t want to be. Forget the back (drum) brake. The hub is pretty, though. This bike is exactly like an old muscle car: All engine, good looks — and better be careful with it.
For speed that doesn’t require Kamikaze courage, I have the Z1’s true linear descendant: A ZRX1200R. This bike is the modernized reincarnation of the old Kz1100 Eddie Lawson race bike (which was derived from the old Z1s) only now we’re talking 1200 CCs and water cooled, with a modern suspension and brakes. It stops as well as goes. Modded slightly (emissions delete, jetted and ignition optimized and Muzzy full exhaust) I’ve got 143 dyno’d rear wheel hp to play with. It’s no R1 but it’s got enough speed to please. Plus, it looks marvelous in Kaw racing green.
But, the old two stroke Kaws — long ago outlawed — have charms all their own: The danger — and the satisfaction — that comes from surviving the ride. Or even just making it home. Almost anyone can ride almost any four-stroke bike. Even the hypersports modern ones. They are much more forgiving of misjudgments and inexperience than a vicious little SOB of an air-cooled two-stroke that makes no power at all below 4,000 RPM — then snaps to life like an irritated copperhead right around 6,000 — with no warning at all and no time to think about how to deal with it. You either do — or you don’t.
All too many did not. This is why they nicknamed the H1 and H2 widowmakers.
It was an earned nickname.
Kaw could never get a bike like the H2 or H1 through the pipeline today. Or even the slightly more docile S Series triples like my S1. There would be holy hell to pay — literally. Might as well just pre-emptively give every ambulance chasing product liability shyster stock in the company.
Back in the day, triples were like M80s — explosive fun, disposable… and cheap. This made them accessible to the clientele most likely to appreciate them: Young guys with no sense of their own mortality.
They were not like today’s sport bikes, which though affordable relative to the performance they give ($12,000 or so will buy you a 9 second quarter-mile and 180-plus on top) are still beyond the greedy grasp of most teens and young 20s — unless someone else is paying the insurance. Back in the day, you didn’t have to buy insurance at all (or could easily get away with not having it) and a new two-stroke was cheap. Brand new in 1972, an H2 750 could be yours for just under $1,400 — about $7,700 in today’s Fed Funny Money. Today, $7k will just barely buy you something entry level, like a Suzuki SV650 — a good bike, but no hellraiser.
And you’ve still got to buy the insurance. Go see what it costs to insure something like an R1, CBR or ZX10…. if you’re under 40. And even then.
No such worries back in ’72. It was let the good times roll — and the chips fall where they may. It was more dangerous, certainly — but by god we were freer. Free to take risks — and risk the consequences. Life was more alive, even if it may have been shorter for some of us. The H2 could deliver you to 60 in 4 seconds and through the quarter mile in the low 12s — if you could hang onto it. Back in ’72, a 12 second quarter was untouchable. Even today, it’s still impressive — quicker than all but a small handful of the world’s highest-performing cars and more than quick enough to keep up with — and pass — most of today’s bikes.
And the best part was, you could be 20 and have access to that kind of speed.
Sic gloria transit mundi