Kawasaki Ninja Motorcycle History: 1984 GPz900 to 1990 ZX-11 | Cycle World

30 Years of Ninjas: 1984 GPz900 Ninja to 1990 ZX-11!

Forget the <em>Pinta</em> and the <em>Santa Maria</em>: It was the Ninja that delivered us to the New World.

1984 Kawasaki Ninja 900 studio shot

1984 GPz900 Ninja

In our Feb. 2014 issue celebrating 30 years of Ninja, we exhumed an original 1984 GPz Ninja 900 from the Kawasaki Heritage Museum—mostly because it was the only decent original one we could find in a hurry. Ridden hard and put away not at all, Japanese bikes of the mid-’80s are far less common than they once were. Why that’s true is a topic for another day. But this was the first Kawasaki to be called Ninja, a name that’s been striking fear into mothers and glee into the hearts of insurance adjusters for 30 years now.

In 1984, the new GPz 900 Ninja was the cutting-edge of performance, with an all-new liquid-cooled four-cylinder driving its cams from the left side instead of the middle—the better to lean over farther in corners and produce top-end power that put the big air-cooled multis of the day to shame. Thirty years later, the old beast reminds us why Kawasakis used to be thought of as unbreakable but a bit crude: On serial #0001, black primer shows through the red paint on part of the fairing and many of the stickers are just that, stuck on. None of it mattered; in 1984, the median Baby Boomer was 29 years old and making decent bank working the second shift at the Budweiser plant in Van Nuys, California, cruising the boulevard after work in Oakley Blades with a mullet for a helmet.

We called the new Yamaha FJ1100 introduced the same year “the fastest, most competent all-around liter-class sportbike of them all.” But when it came time for “Ten Best” in 1984, the Kawasaki was it: “This isn’t your usual Japanese sportbike... this is a hard-core performance motorcycle aimed directly at the hard-core performance rider.”

Here’s the thing about the original Ninja, though: It was hard-core before the core became so hard. Never mind the period hyperbole, your Open-class streetbike of 1984 was also a pretty good daily ride/sport-tourer. The old hausfrau Ninja weighed 546 pounds with half a tank of fuel (2.9 gallons); the new ZX-10R that Tom Sykes’ World Superbike champion bike is based upon is nearly 120 pounds lighter. That’s an entire Dani Pedrosa.

|1984 GPz900 Ninja
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|113 hp @ 9500 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|62.9 lb.-ft. @ 8500 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|11.18 seconds @ 121.65 mph
TOP SPEED|145 mph (measured 1/2 mile)
40-60 MPH|4.1 sec.
60-80 MPH|4.3 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|529 lb.
1985 Kawasaki Ninja 600R studio shot

1985 Kawasaki Ninja 600R

Replacement for the delicious GPz550, Kawasaki’s first modern liquid-cooled middleweight continued to use the GPz four-cylinder’s bottom-end, but topped it with an all-new 16-valve head. The most significant thing about the first 600 Ninja was its use of Kawasaki’s first perimeter frame—a box-section steel one in this case, to give a hint of the aluminum exotica that was yet to come.

“When you get right down to it, the Ninja is so exotic that if you were to peel off its decals, construct the frame of aluminum rather than of silver-painted steel, and clean up its globby welds, the bike could just as easily have been hand-built at the Italian Bimota workshop instead of on the assembly line at Akashi.”

CW, March 1995

|1985 Kawasaki Ninja 600R
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|76 hp @ 10,500 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|38.3 lb.-ft. @ 9000 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|12.45 seconds @ 107.14 mph
TOP SPEED|122 mph (measured 1/2 mile)
40-60 MPH|5.5 sec.
60-80 MPH|6.5 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|452 lb.
1986 Kawasaki Ninja 600RX static view

1986 Ninja 600RX

And don’t forget the 600RX, the first Ninja to sport an aluminum perimeter frame. Thirteen pounds lighter, one degree of rake steeper and way rarer (only 1000 supposedly came to the U.S.), the RX is known by its Ebony and Cosmic Gray paint. MSRP $3999.

CW, October 1986

1986 Kawasaki Ninja 1000R studio 3/4 view

1986 Ninja 1000R

Displacement is up to 997cc, horsepower is up to 125 (says Kawasaki)—and our speed gun says 159, making this Ninja the fastest bike we’ve ever pointed it at. Faired-in turn signals, a crude ram-air system and 7.5-percent-taller gearing than the original 900 Ninja are the first clues that the inmates are taking over the asylum back at Kawasaki HQ. Unfortunately, a 30-pound weight gain and a lack of traction from the rear 16-inch Bridgestone got the 1000R a less-than-glowing review.

CW, January, 1986

|1986 Ninja 1000R
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|125 hp @ 9500 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|73.1 lb.-ft. @ 8500 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|11.20 seconds @ 122.28 mph
TOP SPEED|159 mph (measured 1/2 mile)
40-60 MPH|4.2 sec.
60-80 MPH|3.6 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|558 lb.
1986 Kawasaki Ninja 250 static view

1986 Ninja 250

It’s the best 250 sportbike sold in the U.S., bar none, because it’s the only 250 sportbike.

“... for the present, the rules for 250cc sportbikes are whatever Kawasaki says they are. If the little Kawasaki has a high price, a hard seat and harsh suspension, then that’s the way 250cc sportbikes are. Likewise, since the Ninja has outrageously good handling, an exceptionally wide powerband and racer-like styling, 250cc sportbikes in the future will be measured by those standards, too. … only time will tell if the 250 Ninja will fade into obscurity, or if it will spur the industry to offer more sporting 250s.”

CW, June 1986

As it turns out, the little Ninja did inspire a slew of small competitors. It just took 30 years longer than we thought it would.

|1986 Ninja 250
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|38 hp @ 11,000 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|18 lb.-ft. @ 10,000 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|15.40 seconds @ 83.09 mph
TOP SPEED|94 mph
40-60 MPH|7.4 sec.
60-80 MPH|9.5 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|334 lb.
1987 Kawasaki Ninja 750R action shot

1987 Ninja 750R

Suzuki had its crazy-racy GSX-R750, Yamaha had the five-valve FZ750 and Honda had its new VFR750, so Kawasaki needed something! And what it came up with was actually pretty damn good even it if wasn’t as radical as the other stuff. What Kawasaki came up with was a really compact 750 four, supposedly shorter and narrower than the Ninja 600 engine. Kawasaki said Suzuki could have the racer-replica market; who wants to ride around all hot and doubled-up anyway? They put the powerful new four in a round-tube steel frame not far removed from the Norton Featherbed (save its aluminum swingarm), and it was good.

In a comparison test with other 750s in the same issue, the Ninja was let down by its clutch at the dragstrip under PeeWee Gleason, but it finished second to the VFR around Willow Springs—and wound up tied with the VFR for the overall win. A great do-it-all bulletproof machine.

CW, November 1986

|1987 Ninja 750R
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|106 hp @ 10,500 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|56 lb.-ft. @ 8,500 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|11.68 seconds @ 117.09 mph
TOP SPEED|150 mph
40-60 MPH|4.8 sec.
60-80 MPH|4.7 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|465 lb.
1988 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10 studio 3/4 view

1988 ZX-10

“A motorcycle visually, mechanically and functionally awash in velocity, it is the new Sultan of Speed, a sportbike insuperable…. Nothing else mass-produced on two wheels even comes close.”

Now we have entered the Starship Enterprise era: “So radical is the engine’s intake-port angle that the tops of its canted Keihin carbs actually sit higher than the uppermost part of the cylinder head…” That engine’s now confined inside Kawasaki’s first aluminum perimeter frame, proclaimed “e-box” on the fairing because of “its egg-like oval shape when viewed from above.” Radial tires—17 inch front, 18 rear—and twin-piston brakes let the big Ninja stop in 107 feet from 60 mph, the shortest we’d ever recorded.

CW, April 1988

I’d just moved to California, a much more seismically active place than where I grew up, and still needed to pinch myself to believe anybody would let me loose on such a vehicle. I saw 140-something my first time on Lockwood Valley Road just before the DIP sign, just before the bottom dropped out of my world... Oh, my… WHOMP! said the ZX-10 as it bottomed out in the dry wash. And then we shot up the other side and got more air on the exit. That’ll learn me. Wow. One good way to appreciate ludicrous speed is to have somebody pull the road out from under you really quickly.

|1988 ZX-10
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|135 hp @ 10,000 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|74.8 lb.-ft. @ 9000 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|10.76 seconds @ 127.54 mph
TOP SPEED|165 mph
40-60 MPH|4.1 sec.
60-80 MPH|3.8 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|541 lb.
1989 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-7 studio view

1989 ZX-7

Okay, maybe we were wrong when we said nobody wants to ride around doubled up with their hair on fire, said Kawasaki. Turns out everybody cool did, and when World Superbike got rolling in 1988, Kawasaki had to build the ZX-7. It was bright lime green (or black), stiff as a board and perfect for riding around in your pink and chartreuse leather jumpsuit terrorizing the citizenry with your loud Muzzy exhaust and your vacuum cleaner hoses sucking fresh air into the airbox. It was also the first Kawasaki with four-piston brakes and wide wheels (3.5-in. front, 5.5-in. rear) to accommodate racy rubber, along with many other tidbits to make it semi-competition-ready.

Doug Chandler rode a Muzzy ZX-7 to AMA victory in 1990; Scott Russell did the AMA deed in ’92 before going on the grand tour and winning the ’93 World Superbike title. The Superbike wars had begun, times were flush, and nobody trained on a bicycle.

CW, July 1989

|1989 ZX-7
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|107 @ 10,500 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|56.4 lb.-ft. @ 9500 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|11.20 seconds @ 121.95 mph
TOP SPEED|148 mph
40-60 MPH|4.4 sec.
60-80 MPH|3.9 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|489 lb.
1990 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-11 studio view

1990 ZX-11

“... as if someone had carved an old ZX-10 from an immense block of soap and then run hot water over it. The front turnsignals amplify just how serious Kawasaki was about streamlining. Faired into the bodywork, the radiused lenses of the signals almost apologize to the atmosphere for trying to do something as rude as split its molecules.”

At this point it became obvious that somebody from Kawasaki’s aircraft division had infiltrated the motorcycle department. Set into the curvaceous façade, the bike’s gaping maw didn’t just provide fresh air; it was actually sealed to the airbox to shove pressurized air into the 1052cc engine (complete with a smaller-tube subsystem to blow through the float bowls). Now we’ve got the latest 17-inch Dunlop SportMax radials on both ends, and the result is “a bike that gets more power the faster it goes, and more traction the farther it’s leaned.”

CW, April 1990

|1990 ZX-11
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER|145 @ 10,500 rpm (crankshaft)
CLAIMED TORQUE|80 ft.-lb. @ 8000 rpm (crankshaft)
1/4-MILE|10.46 seconds @ 135.54 mph
TOP SPEED|176 mph
40-60 MPH|4.1 sec.
60-80 MPH|4.3 sec.
DRY WEIGHT|549 lb.

1984 Kawasaki Ninja 900 - studio front 3/4 right-side view

1985 Kawasaki Ninja 600R - studio left-side view

1985 Kawasaki Ninja 600R - studio rear 3/4 right-side view

1986 Kawasaki Ninja 1000R - studio right-side view

1986 Kawasaki Ninja 1000R - studio front 3/4 left-side view

1986 Kawasaki Ninja 600RX - static right-side view

1986 Kawasaki Ninja 250 - static right-side view

1987 Kawasaki Ninja 750R - on-road action shot

1987 Kawasaki Ninja 750R - studio left-side view

1987 Kawasaki Ninja 750R - static right-side view

1989 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-7 - studio right-side view

1990 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-11 - static rear 3/4 left-side view

1990 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-11 - studio front 3/4 left-side view