Retrospective: Kawasaki 1973 Jet Ski

The development of the Personal Watercraft market

Originally billed as "an entirely new sensation in the water sport world,” in 1973 the Jet Ski watercraft soon proved to be exactly that. Offering dirt bike-like performance and excitement on the water, the original Jet Ski stand-up watercraft could run with traditional ski boats, while turning circles around them in handling—and wave-jumping too. So fun was the little 6-foot 10-inch, 220-pound Jet Ski stand-up watercraft that it provided the backbone for Kawasaki’s development of the Personal Watercraft (PWC) market.

Getting the Jet Ski stand-up watercraft to market was among the first projects of the new R&D department of Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. (KMC) in Santa Ana, California. After creating several prototypes, the 1973 WSAA (flat hull) and WSAB (V-hull) stand-up models were carefully launched on a trial basis, starting with a 1973 test program in Dallas, Texas. Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp., U.S.A. in Lincoln, Nebraska later started full production of the Jet Ski watercraft in 1975 with lighter, stronger Sheet Molded Compound (SMC) replacing the hand-laid fiberglass of the early hulls.

Kawasaki, Jet Ski, watersports, racing
And so began the watersport craze with the Jet Ski.Photo Courtesy of Kawasaki

In concept, the Jet Ski stand-up watercraft was deceptively simple and ingenious, with a compact fiberglass hull carrying an amidships-mounted 400cc two-stroke tandem twin and driving a high-output water pump with a steerable jet nozzle. A multi-position handlebar allowed the rider to kneel or stand according to preference. Designed with no external moving parts, the Jet Ski watercraft soon became a favorite with water-sports enthusiasts as well as rental outfits, which blossomed as the units became widely available.

Naturally racing followed, with Kawasaki helping to form an independent race-promotion and sanctioning body called the United States Jet Ski Boating Association (USJSBA). In 1981 the USJSBA held a national event in Lincoln, Nebraska offering an impressive $25,000 in prize money, and drawing 10,000 spectators and coverage by three TV network affiliates. Global interest in racing Jet Ski watercraft drove a name change to the International Jet Sports Boating Association (IJSBA) the next year.

Kawasaki, Jet Ski, Racing
The Jet Ski led into racing and drew 10,000 spectators eager to watch the new watersport.Photo Courtesy of Kawasaki

The original stand-up Jet Ski watercraft enjoyed a tremendously long life, from Kawasaki’s initial 1973 models all the way to the final radical 800cc SX-R Limited Edition of 2012. And of course, multi-passenger Jet Ski watercraft grew even bigger over the same period, leading to today’s range-topping supercharged Jet Ski Ultra 310LX. Long live Jet Ski!