First Ride on the 1973 Kawasaki Z-1 | The Way We Weren’t

By Dain Gingerelli, Photography by Dain Gingerelli

Now that I’m as old as my father was when I used to think that he was old, I’m even beginning to sound like him. So what do I have to say to young motorcyclists today? “Things were a lot different when I was your age.”

I was recently reminded of that while sifting through my photo archives. Among the dog-eared manila envelopes were some long-lost black-and-white negatives of a motorcycle trip I took in July 1973 aboard Kawasaki’s then-new Z-1. This might have been the first long-distance ride on a Z-1 by somebody other than a Big K employee, making it somewhat of a milestone adventure.

I chronicled my epic ride using my trusty Canon FTb, shooting Tri-X 35mm film to document places that the Kaw and I had been. We didn’t have digital cameras in those days, and in fact, the word digital was rather foreign to young bucks like me. Occasionally old men used digital in conversation, most commonly as, “Well, sonny, I had my 50th birthday physical today and the doc gave me a digital rectal exam.” But as a 24-year-old with other matters on my mind, I just couldn’t put my finger on what they were talking about…

But back in ’73 I was a hot-shot motorcycle magazine editor in the thick of motorcycling. So I had my finger on the pulse of the industry, and I can tell you that our touring gear didn’t compare to what we have today. We didn’t have the fancy multicompartment tail and tank bags, high-output audio systems, flashy waterproof riding gear, and flow-through ventilated jackets and helmets that we enjoy today. No GPS, either. We used folding paper road maps that the gasoline companies handed out for free to find our way to becoming lost over the horizon. Even the nomenclature for bikes was different back then. Sport-touring bikes, adventure-tourers, trackday bikes and naked bikes had yet to be developed; they were as distant to us as the words Internet, Facebook and reality TV.

My Z-1 tour actually had its origins two years before Kawasaki launched its landmark model. It began in June of ’71, to be precise. That’s when, fresh out of college, I was hired on as Hot Bike magazine’s tech editor. The publisher worked our small staff like rented mules, and within 2 years I had been promoted (if you can call it that) to the editor’s desk at Hot Bike’s sister publication, Street Chopper. That meant even more work for me. I was in need of a vacation, so I borrowed one of the new four-cylinder 900s from Kawasaki’s press pool to ride north to watch the second-annual AMA National Roadrace at Laguna Seca raceway. Dark and early Friday morning I met my friend Tyson and his girlfriend, Kathy, and another couple for the ride to Monterey, CA. Tyson and his friend rode Honda 750s, so they were naturally curious about the Z-1. I gave them a few minutes to examine the bike before we saddled up.

Packing for rides was easy back then. I simply rolled a spare pair of jeans and some T-shirts into my sleeping bag, stuffed that into an old raincoat to help keep it dry if I encountered rain, and then bungeed the lot onto the passenger seat. I strapped my camera bag directly behind me, so it doubled as a backrest. To help protect my camera from dishonest Charlies’ sticky fingers when I stopped for food and such during the day, I strategically placed my skivvies and socks inside the bag directly over the coveted camera. We lacked sophisticated antitheft devices back in the day, so I figured if somebody really wanted to steal my camera, they’d have to deal with my BVDs first!

Our pilgrimage to Laguna Seca followed the sacred path of Highway 1 north, a road I had traversed several times before on my 1970 Honda CB350, so I was rather familiar with its curves. I wish I could report that I rode the Z-1 at a sedate and friendly speed but I can’t, and I dispatched more than a few bikes during the ride. Among them were a small pack of BMW/5s that had been given the café-racer treatment, several Honda 750s and Kawasaki Mach III super-wobblers, and a Norton Commando.

The Z-1 impressed me with how nimble it was for such a big bike. If I maintained a steady cornering speed I could use the bike’s superior acceleration after standing it up on the exit to pass the bike in front of me. Even so, I managed to scrape quite a bit of the Z-1’s hardware through the turns that morning.

Years later, while researching a story about early Superbike racing, I interviewed two-time champ Wes Cooley, who began his career riding Pops Yoshimura-prepared Kawasakis. Cooley told me, “You come into the turn, square the corner, then accelerate out—hard.” And should you miss the turn’s apex on the big and fast Z-1? Simple: “You make up for it just by gassing it,” Cooley explained coolly. Those early inline-fours were that powerful compared to the BMW and Ducati twins that also populated the AMA Superbike Production grids.

So I continued gassing the Z-1’s powerful engine out of Highway 1’s many turns until we arrived at the track before lunch, in time to watch a Yoshimura Kawasaki Z-1. We observed most of the racing from the hill overlooking what was Turn 7 (now Rainey’s Corner, Turn 9) while we basked under the soft sunshine. Pops’ rider was Yvon Duhamel, who was pops to future roadracing legend Miguel Duhamel.

There were no camping facilities at the track in ’73, but management reserved the infield for tents and campers. Tyson and his posse pitched camp there, but I met some of my friends from the AFM on Laureles Grade Road just outside the track. And while we discussed where in the heck we were going to make camp for the night, my friend Fred Walti, who was perhaps the fastest of the bunch on a racetrack, asked to ride the Z-1. (Fast Fred was the person who gave me my Daingerous Dain moniker, but that’s a story for another time.) The ride was Fred’s first experience on the new bike, and within a year he was racing a Z-1 prepared by Ron Scrima in the Superbike Production class. They competed under the Exhibition Engineering banner and, as I recall, they enjoyed a podium finish or two.

After Gary Nixon won the Formula 1 main event on Sunday, I rode solo to San Francisco where I’d bunk at my old college buddy Ian’s apartment. But before I even made it out of the racetrack’s congested parking lot, a guy and his girlfriend on a Honda 750 pulled me aside for a closer look. She was a rather cute blonde so I didn’t mind, and soon enough they invited me to dinner at their apartment somewhere near Hollister. After dinner I carried on to Ian’s place, and the next morning he snapped a few riding shots of me in the city before I headed east on Interstate 80 to visit the famous Harrah’s Auto Collection near Reno, NV.

The ride was tediously boring until the multilane interstate began its climb into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Long sweepers suited the big Z-1, and again the engine’s power kept me ahead of any traffic. I stopped for a photo op at Donner Pass, and curiously at about that same time hunger pangs gripped me. Later I ate at a roadside joint that’s probably no longer there, saw way more cars than I cared to see in the Harrah’s collection, and rode back up the mountain to Lake Tahoe where I snuck into a closed campground for the night. I made a mattress of pine needles, crawled into my sleeping bag and gazed at the stars overhead. Moments like that help you appreciate who our Creator is, and soon enough I was out like a light.

I’ve always been a fan of the Old West, so a visit to Virginia City, NV, was next on my mini-bucket list. The Cartwright family’s old haunt in the television show “Bonanza” turned out to be a major tourist attraction, and no doubt Ben, Adam (no relation to Adam the First), Hoss, and Little Joe would be disappointed, as was I, so I didn’t stay long, hitting the road south taking Highway 395 home. The ride from Carson City, NV, to Mammoth Lakes, CA, included some interesting curves, allowing me to swoop left and right aboard the big, 545-pound bike. Seven years later I’d take this same route home aboard a 1980 Suzuki GS1100E, when I missed by inches hitting a coyote that had sprinted in front of me just north of Bridgeport, CA.

By now I was adjusting the big Kawasaki’s drive chain every day. O-ring chain technology was still in its infancy in 1973, and despite the 640 chain’s massive links, the four-cylinder engine continued to stretch it after only three or four hundred miles of riding. The routine was to adjust the chain and lubricate it at the end of each day, and that’s what I did in the motel parking lot in Bishop, CA, when I noticed a peculiar odor. I passed it off as something from the locals, but next morning it returned after the Z-1’s engine reached operating temperature. Was it a cracked battery? Anxious to get home, I didn’t stop to investigate, and charged out of Bishop. Ah, the folly of youth.

About 10 miles out of town I heard a loud pop, almost like an explosion, and the exhaust noise grew more intense. This happened three more times, and it was on the second pop that I stopped to examine the pipes. The baffles had blown out of two mufflers, and within a few more miles all four pipes were breathing freely. The baffles’ spot welds had come loose.

Let me sidebar here for a moment: Initially I figured the welds were simply inferior and that Kawasaki engineers would improve their production procedure—end of story. For years I lived with that scenario, but only when I began writing this article did I arrive at another possible explanation, one that could have involved some engine tampering by someone at Kawasaki.

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.

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By Dain Gingerelli
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What a great story.. the Z-1 Parked on the Bixby Bridge brought back great Memories of "then came Bronson" . Bronson is what made me take my first cross country trip from Virginia to California on my 1977 KZ-1000.. The only troubles I had with that bike were ones that I inflicted on it. I have ridden Coast to Coast several times. I attribute Bronson to solidifying my desires to ride this great country. I was 14 years old when it was on TV and had a 1964 Honda 90.. and I was Bronson.. Such a shame that we don't have Television like that now.
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