Back in the 1970s, Kawasaki contracted a guy named Jack Murphy to prep some of the bikes that were loaned to the magazines for road tests. I knew Jack personally, and I visited him a few times at his home in Azusa, CA, where he’d show me modified two-stroke cylinders (Mach III and IV) that he tinkered with; a hot-shot drag racer named Tony Nicosia campaigned Jack’s triples and set some blistering times in the process. I was roadracing two-stroke bikes back in those days and Jack knew I was interested in this kind of stuff. He was one gifted engine builder and tuner, and there had been suspicions among people in the industry that some of the parts that he put back into the testbikes’ engines were—shall we say—suspect. Looking back now, I wonder if ol’ Jack didn’t just tamper with those little baffles, and his welds couldn’t hold up to the beating that ol’ Daingerous Dain gave the bike. Then as now, I can only surmise that to be the case because I left the evidence sprinkled up and down Highway 395. Like I stated in the beginning, things were different back in my day.
And so, with the Kaw making a thunderous noise across the hot Mojave Desert, I forged onward, the exhaust sounding more like that of Yvon Duhamel’s winning bike than a stocker. Then the exhaust noise got quieter. In fact, it got half quieter because the engine was running on two cylinders. Faulty coils, perhaps? Didn’t matter, I was committed because, other than a bunch of lazy desert tortoises, scraggy sagebrush, and sun-bleached rocks, there was only two-lane blacktop between Kramer Junction and me.
Onward I rode, managing only about 55 mph according to the speedometer. I wondered if the bike would make it. As I crested the final hill overlooking Kramer Junction the engine quit firing altogether, and I coasted down as far as that big bike would roll under the power of gravity. I ended up pushing that big Kaw about a mile to the finish, where I parked it in front of the hamburger stand along the road. I called the guys at the office in Orange County (no cell phones back then, either, but I did have a telephone credit card that circumvented the need for a pocketful of coins) and one of them hopped in the company van to retrieve me.
I didn’t officially finish the lap around California, but those few days probably answered several questions about the Z-1’s reliability for Kawasaki’s engineers. No doubt, they focused on the bike’s electrical system and maybe the battery box. And chances are they taught ol’ Jack a thing or two about how to make better and stronger spot welds to mufflers.