What if you held a retro party… and nobody came? In 2019, that’s very close to being a ridiculous question. Right now, the retro party is in full swing and everybody from BMW to Yamaha has slipped a ’70s-style dress over their modern-as-tomorrow underwear.
Twenty-two years ago, however, the notion of deliberately evoking the past in a big-bore sportbike seemed just a little… strange. It was the era of the mighty ZX-11, ram-air GSX-R750, and ethereally gorgeous Ducati 916. Why look back, when the present itself was bright enough to require sunglasses?
Ah, but there was something missing in that lineup of fantastic plastic road rockets. A little bit of comfort, perhaps. Around-town usability, for sure. Most critically, however, the Class of 1997 suffered from a bit of an image problem with the well-heeled, late-middle-aged riders who represented the choicest cut of bike-buying demographics. Those folks wanted serious power in an unashamedly street-focused package.
Which must have gotten the Kawasakidesigners thinking: It’s great to have a hundred-plus horsepower in a sportbike, but why not present it in a way that presses all the right Baby Boomer buttons? And while we’re at it, could we come up with something just a little bit more… insurable?
Enter the ZRX1100. Built around a thoroughly “retuned” (meaning “detuned”) variant of the ZX-11’s water-cooled inline-four, the ZRX exchanged the sophisticated aluminum frame and wind-tunnel aero of its donor bike for a traditional steel double-cradle frame and, in U.S.-bound variants, a small headlight fairing meant to evoke the company’s well-regarded Eddie Lawson KZ1000R of 1982. Although it was offered in several color schemes throughout its model run, the obvious and perennial choice was the green/blue/white striped livery that unashamedly aped both Lawson’s race bike and the street-going tribute model. “A replica of a replica,” we noted, but it did not stop us from selecting the ZRX1100 as a Best Used Bike of 2010.
And rightly so. If the idea behind Kawasaki’s replica-replica was not entirely compelling, the same could not be said for the execution. In May of 1999 we pitted the ZRX1100 against the Suzuki Bandit 1200S in what amounted to a truly schizophrenic comparison test: a water-cooled bike pretending to be an old UJM against an air-cooled UJM in sportbike-lite duds. Surprisingly, the two contenders performed almost identically in all respects, but we awarded the win to the big green machine on looks alone: “Kawasaki has built the best standard bike since standard bikes were standard.”
Yet the casual observer could be forgiven for wondering why the ZRX1100 couldn’t put clear air between itself and the decidedly prehistoric Bandit, a question that became more pointed when the saurian Suzuki got an update the following year. Kawasaki had an answer ready in the 2002 ZRX1200. Boasting 112cc more displacement, wider running gear, a redesigned swingarm, and various detail improvements to the drivetrain, this extra-strength take on the retro formula promised to erase all doubts about the model’s viability.
The 1164cc ZRX1200R was faster than its predecessor, turning a 10.85 at 125.72 mph in our testing. Alluding to the original Lawson Replica, we stated that “The real thing never worked half as well as this modern equivalent… slick execution slid under a resonant appearance… it carries one of the Great Motorcycle Engines.”
There was just one little problem, however: Brilliant though it might be, the ZRX1200R had arrived in the market at the same time as Yamaha’s game-changing FZ1. Everything the Kawasaki could do, the “supernaked” could do just a little better, whether the criterion in question was quarter-mile time or long-haul comfort.
Worse than that, the clean and modern styling of the FZ1 made the Green Machine look a little… well, goofy, particularly to younger riders who couldn’t tell the difference between Eddie Lawson and Eddie Felson. Brilliant though the revised ZRX was, it could not best the sleek Yamaha in showrooms. Kawasaki discontinued the model for the United States market in 2005. Three years later, it was still possible to find brand-new examples in showrooms. The retro party was, for all intents and purposes, over.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that the ZRX was born to the situation described by Dr. John in his biggest hit: “I was in the right place, but it musta been the wrong time.” Never forsaken by its active and involved owner community, the bike remains a thrilling and affordable ride today. This is particularly true of the ZRX1200R, which in stock form offers no measurable drawbacks compared to its predecessor and plenty of tangible benefits. The ZRX1100 is, however, the tuner’s choice, offering conventional cylinder liners and easy parts interchange with the ZX-11 superbike.
Kawasaki’s introduction of the Z900RS has some ZRX loyalists feeling a bit grouchy, and with good reason. The new bike isn’t as fast as a ZRX1200R, nor does it offer quite the same amount of stretch-out room. And the Z900RS Cafe has the nerve to claim descent from the Lawson replica — but it clearly abandons the squared-off’80s-style fairing of the KZ1000R for a feel-good take on’70s design that is more reminiscent of Portland’s “The One Show” than it is of anything Eddie Lawson raced in the ’80s. Is this really a retro Kawasaki, or is it simply a heads-up competitor to the Yamaha XSR900, more retro-generic than replica-specific?
It doesn’t really matter. The ZRX1100 remains a superb standalone sporting proposition. There are surprise-and-delight features hidden from stem to stern: the gold badges, the subtle-by-today’s-standards faux-ribbing on the engine, a tank and fairing with surprisingly subtle and deft contouring that makes the old Lawson bikes look like pinewood derby cars in comparison. Neither ZRX variant need offer any apologies when it comes to straight-line performance. And both have proven in practice to be utterly reliable, even in the ham-fisted hands of second and third owners.
The irony of the ZRX Kawasakis and their far-too-early arrival to the retro party is this: There is already a generation of riders out there that knows nothing about 1982 and therefore sees these bikes as simply part of the landscape. To them, the ZRX1100 and ZRX1200R are simply kick-ass UJMs with a vibe and style that sets them far apart from the run-of-the-mill, half-faired superbikes from Yamaha, Ducati, and everyone else. What do you call a “replica” bike that ends up having a significant modern-day impact on its own?
What do you call a “tribute” bike when people are buying it for its modern merits? When Jimi Hendrix took Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” and turned it into a psychedelic-pop anthem, Dylan did the obvious and intelligent thing by adapting the arrangement for his own future performances of the song.
At what point will we all admit that the ZRX might rate a retro replica of its own?