From Noob to Ninja: Kawasaki’s 50th Anniversary

Team Green celebrates the golden milestone.

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The 1966 A1 Samurai: 247cc of rotary valve, two-stroke fury that started it all for Kawasaki.©Motorcyclist

When you think about it, 50 years in the past isn't that long ago. In the grand scheme of things, from humans figuring out irrigation and weapons and gunpowder and, eventually, machines—it's one generation past, that's all. Kawasaki has been peppering us with press releases recently about the company celebrating 50 years in America and we, being the jaded bunch of journalists we are, mostly thought it was marketing mumbo jumbo. But then we thought about about what the words "Kawasaki" or "Ninja" means to the motorcycle world and it's kind of amazing to think that it all began just 50 years ago.

It was the mid-'60s and Kawasaki was setting up shop in the United States, knowing that the bikes they had created need to be bigger and faster for American roads and tastes. So, the 247cc rotary valve, two-stroke twin, A1 Samurai was born. In February of 1966, Kawasaki Heavy Industries sent an engineer and a Samurai prototype to the US, signed on American racer Larry Beall as a test rider, and set off across the American west to see if the bike would hold up. They rode from Oklahoma City to New Mexico on a budget of $2,000 and at the end declared the bike ready for market.

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An advertisement for Kawasaki, pulled from the Motorcyclist archives, showing the firm's success at Bonneville, and showing the A1 Samurai's big brother, the 350cc A7 Avenger.©Motorcyclist

The Samurai proved its reliability on the road, and then the A1R production racer went on to prove its performance on the track. Kawasaki eventually won races at Willow Springs, set records at Bonneville, and backed the products with warranties and guaranties of happy ownership. Kawasaki would stand toe to toe with the biggest names in the industry soon after, with the H1 and H2 two-stroke triples and the 903cc inline-four Z1.

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Kawasaki’s A1R racer (without fairing) ready to do roadracing battle. Note the clip-ons and massive front brake.©Motorcyclist

And this is where we stand back amazed at the rapid growth of motorcycling in the past 50 years. It's pretty incredible to think that Kawasaki came to the US with a skeleton team of people and a prototype 250 street bike in 1966, and only 20 years later would be arguably the most iconic motorcycle around. After all, is there a more dramatic way to seal a company into the history of American culture than Tom Cruise riding a Ninja 900 in Top Gun? Happy Anniversary, Kawasaki.

Learn more about Kawasaki's stunning 1973 Z1