The Bike That Got Away: 1984 Kawasaki Ninja 900

Jim Bell's Ninja 900 was always there and always ready whether he wanted to get groceries or do a 200-mile day.

1984 Kawasaki Ninja 900 sportbike
Jim Bell and his 1984 Kawasaki Ninja 900©Motorcyclist

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Why I Bought It: In the beginning (1979), there was the Kawasaki KZ400 Ltd. This was the bike that infected me, the bike that I slept outside with the first night I had it so that I could see it as soon as I woke up. I still remember the incredible rush when I first learned to ride around the parking lot. When I bought it, I didn't know how to ride. I ended up putting about 35,000 miles on this thing, riding year round.

In 1984, I upped the game on a large scale by jumping from a relatively obsolete bike to the then cutting edge of its time, the Kawasaki Ninja 900, a move that I'm still surprised that didn't kill me in the process. My Ninja is firmly entrenched in heart, mind and memories, and I'll always think of this as my coming of age bike. The performance difference was staggering, to say the least. I routinely wound this bike up to 140 mph plus on I-280 when returning from late nights in S.F. and was always struck at the composure of the ride. I rode to Laguna Seca every year. (The photo was from the days when you could camp on the infield and watch burnout contests all night.) It was more stable at those speeds than the KZ400 was at 85, and was pretty comfy.

There was a rush to early 80s bikes that was just intense: like a 100 watt tube amp at high volume, it was something better experienced than explained. Peak horsepower was like cookies in a jar that that was hard to reach, but when it came on the cams, things got moving. Over the time of ownership, I went with a stage three jet kit, ignition advance, and Supertrapp slip-ons, and the back to a Stage 1 kit to get the airbox back after installing a set of cams from a 1000 Concourse. That was probably the most useful engine mod, with a much more tractable powerband stemming from these efforts. I also scored a set of Daytona cast iron floating rotors, along with stainless lines; a significant improvement. Of the many bikes I've had, this is the one I would most like to have back. In my mind it is always emblematic of a special period of my life.

Why I Sold It: After five years, I was becoming bored with the competence of the Ninja and had been following Joe Minton's article on the new 883 Sportster engine builds that were being done. I bought an 883 in 1989 from Dudley-Perkins, and within a few months, my Sportster motor had components all around the country: heads in Cali, barrels in Washington, various pieces back east, and so on. The bike was astonishingly gutless in stock form: if memory serves correctly, a California-spec 883 would put down around 28 hp at the rear wheel. The 1200 conversion was a fun bike to ride, roll ons were tremendous as I could run away from pretty much anything up till about 90-100 mph. I spent very little time on my Ninja, and when my boss expressed interest in it, I went ahead and sold it without thinking things through as well as I should have.

Why I Wish I Hadn't Sold It: The Sporty was a very glamorous toy. I enjoyed it very much and spent a lot more money than I ever thought I would. But in the end, it was a narrow focus bike. Cleaning took many hours; I would find myself steering around puddles and riding on the opposite side of the street to avoid mist from sprinklers. There was also the inevitable baggage that comes with H-D ownership, something that could be fun or infuriating in equal measure. My Ninja was always there and always ready, if I wanted to get groceries or do a 200 mile day. We become blasé about many of our possessions, the acquisition sometimes as exciting as ownership. If you have a bike you are happy with, it's okay to keep it; once it's gone, it's likely to stay gone. I rarely see any of the 900s on the road these days, but they always make me smile when I do.

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