Flawed genius? That's a widely-held view of
the Kawasaki ZXR750. Who better then than ROB SMITH to give us all we need
to know to purchase the bike..?
If you'd regularly found yourself by the side of a twisty mountain road in
1989, chances are that at some stage you'd have been blown away by the sight
and sound of a howling lime green blur. Momentarily hovering low to the
ground, rasping and shrieking away into the distance leaving your senses
reeling with one question in your mind. "What the pharrrkWazat?
"Zat", was the Kawasaki ZXR750 H1.
Embodying outrageous ability with gorgeous styling, the ZXR is still a boss
motorcycle that, for its entire six year life in Australia, went as well as
it looked and provided Kawasaki race-rep fans with a class alternative to
the GSX-R or the pricey Honda RC30.
Back in 1988 the special K factory decided that the 16-valve, liquid-cooled,
in-line four residing in the dull, but far from pedestrian GPX750 would
realise far more of its potential slotted between a new twin-spar alloy
chassis with some trick suspenders, and a new sharper look. And so it was in
1989 the ZXR was born.
Having had a bit of judicious tuning, the 748cc ZXR, making about 95PS,
emerged blinking into the daylight wearing a bank of four 36mm Keihins fed
by a pair of trick looking inlets in the fairing.
Suspension was attended to by conventional forks adjustable for preload and
rebound at the front, and a Uni-Trak monoshock, adjustable for preload and
rebound damping at the rear. Wheelbase was a short 1410mm, with castor and
trail set at 24.5° and 100mm.
Clothed in green, white and blue or red and black it was a visual king hit.
1990 saw an H2 version with a swag of changes that included carb size
growing to 38mm. Wheelbase gained a significant 35mm, while inside the
engine there were longer conrods and shorter pistons to extract a bit more
power. The swingarm was changed and a new, more race style pipe added to the
Strangely, although the wheelbase was now longer, the swingarm struggled to
compress the rear suspension resulting in a rock hard ride.
1991 heralded the completely restyled J1 into the arena. Bore and stroke had
changed from the previous 68 x 51.5mm to 71 x 47.3mm to produce a capacity
of 749cc. USD forks were adjustable for rebound and ride height, the rear
shock remained uncompliant, and trail dimensions went down from 100mm to
95mm. Wheelbase shrank again to 1420mm.
Inside the engine, Kawasaki's engineers had hammered the overtime resulting
in a mass of changes that improved midrange, but perversely had cut actual
peak power. Did it matter? No not really, it was still a very fast machine.
1992 saw little actually change on the J2, other than an attempt at sorting
the utterly inappropriate rear shock with softer springing and damping.
1993 saw the much-improved L1 take up duties where the J2 left off. The big
news centred around the Ram -Air system, new pistons, cylinder head and cams
which boosted midrange and top-end power. Geometry changed yet again with
rake and trail now at 25° and 99mm, and the wheelbase measuring 1430mm. Rear
suspension, although marginally better, was still crap on anything that
didn't have the smoothness of a pool table.
1994 and '95 were years when the ZXR did very little other than change its
threads for variations in colours and graphics. Something big was obviously
coming from the factory, and 1996 saw the results of all the development
done over the ZXR's six years with the ZX-7R, an all new remake of a
fantastic bike that tends to get passed by in the search for the latest and
ON THE ROAD
Lets start with the H1. By today's standards the H1 is a bit of a porker
with a top heavy feel to it that makes you realise how far these sorts of
bike have come in the last 13 years.
Despite the suspension being hard and fairly unkind to the rider, the
chassis does it best to keep things stable right up to its top speed of
Steering is precise but requires more effort than you'd like to use at the
bars, around town this means stressed tendons and an almost psychopathic
desire to line up some country roads. Unfortunately just when the urban
sprawl ends and the ZXR should be in its element, the rear shock conspires
to upset things by refusing to compress enough to absorb anything bigger
than a an ant corpse. The result is that the ZXR leaps and hops around on
bumpy roads, intimidating rather than accommodating. Still, show the ZXR a
fast open sweeper with little for the suspension to do, and the rigid
chassis makes corner-carving an almost spiritual experience.
At last the opportunity to spank the motor hard reveals itself and
down-shifting for any corner just to hear the exhaust note at 10,000rpm
becomes the order of the day.
At a less frenetic pace and in newer company the early ZXR displays a
somewhat less than inspiring midrange. It's okay, but it never leaves you
thinking 'Heavens to Betsy, what's happened to my arms!'
Brakes are good, and offer reasonable power and feel, which is just as well
because the suspension certainly gives the tyre a good workout, especially
on the approach to downhill corners.
So why would you buy one? Well, aside from the fact that it's a great
looking motorcycle, you don't need to do a great deal to fix the
suspension's shortcomings. Once that's taken care of it's gorgeous, and
represents a well-finished and affordable alternative to mega-buck new stuff
and rewards an expert rider who's prepared to take the time to get to know
what it can do.
Jump forward a mere four years from that early bike to the ZXR750-L1 and it
has developed into a completely different machine; but strangely the same.
Along the way Robbie Phillis has finished third in WSB in 1991, and Scott
Russell has taken the ZXR to victory at Daytona in '92, and WSC in 1993.
It's an animal.
Just about everything has changed and the Ram-Air now lends the already
compelling induction noise a hollow resonance that starts with a low begging
moan, and ends with a climactic shriek that begs you to give it all you can
The engine still lacks the bottom-end and mid range of the competition, but
the shrieking rush to the top-end as the power crawls out of the dip at
7-8000rpm is the reason why you buy a ZXR. That and the wonderfully balanced
feel the bike has.
At a track day you'd shake your head in amazement that a bike that's almost
10 years old can be this composed. Steering is now corner stabbing sharp,
and turning while hanging late on the four-piston Tokico brakes is the ZXR's
stiletto up the sleeve. Just about every journo has written superlatives
about the ZXR'S front-end control, and they're right, it's good.
The gearbox is a pretty clunky device but dependable, perfectly in keeping
with the rough-neck engine's riot-inciting behaviour. Sadly though, the
suspension, while better, is still too damned hard for back road giggles
and, in conjunction with the stretched-out riding position, will have you
squeaking your order at the bar and nervously checking the contents of your
Is it cheap on fuel? Chances are you won't care much, given the nature of
the bike, but like its predecessor it's okay. You can expect 200 kms to fill
up when you're right up it, and a bit more if you're not. Bottom line here
is that the ZXR is a brilliant bike to own and ride if you're a committed
sports bike rider who's prepared to sort the suspension, does a few track
days and rides well-surfaced roads. Oh yeah, and it looks the bollocks too.
IN THE WORKSHOP
The ZXR750 in all its guises is a tough bike that's quite well made and
mechanically resilient to the kind of abuse that it gets. (Anyone that says
they've never thrashed it should be eyed with a great deal of suspicion.)
Given that the engine is a tough unit with a good reputation, let's have
look at what you'll need to be aware of when buying one.
Because no-one buys a ZXR to just potter about, rev the bike at stationary
and look for smoke on the over-run, which'll be a sure sign that it's been
rung out from cold or with the front wheel higher than head height. Also the
gearbox - anyone can do a mono in first gear, but getting from there into
second and beyond can be a little more challenging. As a result second gear
can take a hammering, so be sure to load up at low revs and then rev it out
in second to make sure that it doesn't jump out of gear.
Check the steering head bearings for play from cack-handed mono landings,
and look for cracks in the fairing brackets from accident damage.
Make sure the rear shock hasn't been adjusted with tools other than with
proper C spanner and look for general signs of abuse and butchery all around
the bike. After that look at all the bits that touch down in a crash, as
these babies tend to get lobbed by those unable to control the wayward
behaviour of the rear shock on a bumpy road. As far as servicing goes there
are no nasty surprises.
Well it's got to be that shock hasn't it? The secret to eternal ZXR
happiness lies in that one change. See your local suspension expert for
advice. After that a pipe, jet kit and air filter will liberate a few
horses, but most importantly will sharpen throttle response. Personally I'd
leave the pipe unless I'd damaged the original and had to have an
aftermarket job, the standard noise is intoxicating and legal. You know it
The early ones were classically lovely, but for me it's got to be an
L1-L2-L3 in Kawasaki green.
have to admire Kawasaki's humility. They have what is probably
the second best bike in the world; they improve it considerably;
they modestly shy away from perfection by continuing to use the
most awkWard fuel tap known to man.
Everyone must be tired of hearing about the J's rear
suspension by now; the handling and ride position were superb;
its engine had an enormous midrange and an indifferent top end.
Most of that is changed. A new rocker linkage makes the ride
as smooth and slinky as something which I suspect I'm not
allowed to mention. Or even know about, come to that. The
steering and handling are still superb, the more so in the
knowledge that you are no longer likely to be kicked out of the
seat at a mere millisecond's notice. The midrange has been
traded for a powerful top end, leaving a fairly lumpy torque
curve in its place. The result is a top speed approaching 160mph
but standing starts which are worse than before, and everything
in between is in between.
Like most other Kawasaki four-strokes, the ZXR is a bit
cold-blooded when it is first fired up. It races on choke and
the fast idle is not easy to control. Many riders complain about
this, but I would have thought that if the carburation was clean
and crisp when the motor was fully warmed, you'd expect it to be
obnoxious when it was stone cold, so in a way this might be a
For normal riding the motor is perfectly flexible, not as
strong in top gear as the Jl but not exactly limp wristed
either. Getting away briskly is no problem. Finding the absolute
best drive is. Give it too much and the short, light bike
wheelies. Give it less and it bogs down. Somewhere between the
two there is a perfect, clean launch but on an
unenthusiastically cold day at Bruntingthorpe the best I could
find was an 11.56-second standing quarter, a tenth of a second
worse than last year's J, all lost in the first fifty yards.
Later, I was surprised to find that the computer agreed, in fact
it thought the initial acceleration would be even worse. It
reckoned the 157mph top speed was about right.
They've made it as fast as the GSX-R and ironically they have
made it nearly as heavy, where once the ZXR had a 13kg
But the Suzuki, with less torque (and presumably lower
gearing) gets better drive, You'd only notice it at a drag
strip, though. Once moving, the ZXR feels stronger and longer
legged, happier to pull top gear for sudden overtaking, equally
happy to buzz down through the gears for serious acceleration.
Where the ZXR really scores, is still the same as the J: the
combination of riding position, steering and handling is
perfect. It is not only ideal for shifting your weight from
footrest to footrest when flicking through tight chicanes, it is
just right for finding maximum traction in fast corners, slow
corners and wet corners. It feels right in all conditions, it's
even comfortable on long motorway journeys.
Kawasaki say they have changed this aspect slightly.
Euro-spec bikes have fractionally slower geometry and a taller
seat height, but to be honest, I couldn't feel the difference.
Except over the office steps, which our J clears with inches to
spare and upon which the L scraped its bellypan. I suspect that
there are two reasons why the handling didn't seem noticeably
different. One, when the frame is stiff and the riding position
is good, small changes in geometry and suspension settings
aren't critical. Two, the bike was more limited by its tyres —
Sportmaxes — which are very stable and seem to wear quite well,
but are not as good in other respects as the Bridgestone,
Michelin and Metzeler alternatives, especially on cold, December
In the wet, the Dunlops gave a reassuringly steady feel and
the braking was nicely balanced for all conditions. On slippery
roads, the tiny rear brake has just enough bite to be useful
without being a liability. On dry roads the front has so much
power that it can lift the back of the bike, so the rear brake
Again, the riding position lets you make the most of whatever
grip is going. It is easy to shift weight quickly and it becomes
automatic to move around, feeling for maximum traction. It is
more than just the dimensions between footrest, seat and
handlebar, the shape of the seat and tank also contribute. There
are small changes here, too. The tank and under-seat layout are
different, to accommodate the new intake arrangement. There are
subtle changes to the bodywork, too, mostly making it easier to
remove and replace. Kawasaki say the aerodynamics are better,
which may be true because the flat-on-the-tank top speed was
8.5mph better than the J2 (May '92 issue) while the sitting-up
maximum was only 4.5mph better. So if 5mph is due to more power,
the remaining 3 or 4mph is probably due to a reduction in drag.
The snag is that in normal riding there seemed to be more wind
buffeting at shoulder height compared to the J.
Other real world performance includes 40 to 45mpg, which gave
a too-short 120-mile tank range before reserve and the useless,
bordering on dangerous, reserve tap. The only saving grace is
that you could usually feel the motor leaning off half a mile
before running on to reserve, but that didn't stop it happening
in the middle of a greasy roundabout or somewhere equally
A couple of other design errors appeared. The J would
cheerfully knock out the rear wheel cush drive between services
and the L was showing half an inch of play after 1000 miles. And
they may have found an extra 15mm of rear wheel travel but when
front and rear suspension bottoms, the bellypan now hits the
floor. Misjudging a hump-back bridge could become an expensive
mistake, as Simon has recently discovered.
I think they could afford to rectify a few of these
imperfections without offending too many gods, but at least they
have pitched the price in the right place. At £6300 it is level
with the GSX-R and well ahead of the CBR900 and the YZF — which
I see as its closest competitors. And for £6020 you can still
buy the J2, leaving enough change for a rear suspension rocker
and a very good
Another 8 or 9 horsepower and suspension that actually
works... just what the ZXR needed. And we can smugly point out
that KHI have done almost exactly what we did to our long-term
test J1 (as a matter of fact, ours is 3mph quicker and
has a fuel tap which works in a more ergonomic way). the engine
gets K cams and new pistons which take the compression up to
11.5:1 from the original 10.8. When we were playing with the J1
on TTS's dyno we found that we needed to get it burning properly
before it would respond fully to other steps like changing the
cams or the exhaust system. We did it by increasing the squish
band, raising the compression and advancing the ignition timing
by a fairly arbitrary 4°. The factory had rather more choice in
the matter and the new pistons are accompanied by a head
redesign which gives more compact chambers and more valve area.
They did this by reducing the included angle between the
valves, down to 20°, which is the usual way to improve
combustion chambers. It makes an interesting comparison with the
YZF (see page 50) in which Yamaha say they've increased
the angle between the valves. I suspect that they had a
different motive — with the cams operating the valves directly
through buckets and shims, a steeper valve angle makes the
engine taller, which was the last thing Yamaha wanted to do.
Having tipped the cylinder block upwards to suit the shorter
frame, they needed to minimize height in order to keep the
bike's frontal area as low as possible.
Kawasaki operate their valves through a neat finger rocker
which slides to one side so that the adjusting shims can be
changed. It's a bit heavier, but it gives the designer more
freedom, it is easy to maintain and it's safe to 14,000.
The valves are 0.5mm bigger, the ports smoother but the carbs
stay the same at 38mm. A digital ignition system has a new
advance curve, going up to 50° at 7000rpm, compared to the old
one which gave 42.5° at 6200.
Air reaches the carbs by a new route, namely a huge, 12-litre
air box which is force fed from the large duct in the front of
the fairing. The pressure increase isn't as big as you might
think; two or three years ago I helped do some tests on racing
OW01 s and even at 170mph the pressure increase was only about
0.5psi. This agrees closely enough with theory and is worth a
few per cent more power. However, half a psi is more than enough
to seriously screw up the carburation, especially as the full
pressure will only be there in top gear; as road speeds drop,
the pressure will also drop. In first and second gears it will
Any gain is worth having and in this case it may prevent
losses. High speed air blasting past the sides of the bike
creates low pressure which will bleed air out from inside the
fairing, or under the tank and seat area, ie where the air box
(or open carbs) normally get their air from. So conventional
layouts may experience the opposite effect — decreasing intake
pressure as the bike speed goes up. This will reduce power
output slightly at high speed and will have just as many bad
effects on the carburation.
At least Kawasaki are putting the air exactly where it is
needed (helping to improve the aerodynamics generally and reduce
internal drag) and they have solved the speed-sensitivity
problem by venting the carb float bowls into a carefully chosen
part of the air box. The box has one chamber ahead of the frame,
a narrowed section where it goes through the frame member and
the main box itself. Where the air is travelling slowest — in
the biggest part of the box — its pressure will be highest. In
the narrow venturi section it will be travelling faster and
exerting less pressure. If the effect of increasing air pressure
at high speed is to make the carbs lean off, then venting them
to a high pressure region would make them richen up again. If
the increased air supply makes the mixture go rich, then the
vents need to get low pressure to weaken it off.
By far the nicest thing about this induction system is the
way it growls when the throttles are opened from the low
The overall result is 103bhp on the TTS Dynojet, compared to
95bhp for the standard J. It is quite a bumpy curve, suggesting
that the fuelling might wander about a bit or, more likely, that
the longer duration cams are more sensitive to intake and
exhaust resonances and they've deliberately created a mismatch
somewhere in order to prop up the midrange. Imagine if whatever
created that peak just above 8000 had done its particular
business to reinforce the other peak at 10,000: no midrange at
all and an immense rush of power that comes in with a smack at
9500. It will be interesting to see what the R version (with
39mm slide carbs) does between 8000 and l1000rpm.
The main change to the chassis is, not unnaturally, to the
rear suspension. After reducing the spring rate and the damping
force on the J2, they have modified the rocker arm for the L1,
in more or less the same proportions as NWS made their linkage
for the J. It gives 135mm of wheel travel instead of 120, using
the same shock unit. This not only gives some 12% better
leverage over the spring but reduces the damper speed by the
same amount and as the damper force is proportional to
speed-squared, bump damping will be reduced by about 22% for the
same amount of wheel travel. The result is a soft, compliant
ride that absolutely refuses to buck you out of the seat.
Other changes include reducing the fork diameter down from 43
to 41 mm (to save weight, which is otherwise 10kg up on the J);
the swing arm is stiffer and there are gussets on the main
frame, behind the headstock. In anticipation of the extra speed,
the castor is raked out by half a degree and there is 4mm more
trail and 10mm more wheelbase. This only applies to European
specs, so you'll need a rest of the world spec bike for racing.
Kawasaki already had the best riding position (see also the
YZF report) and they have made the wise move of raising the seat
height by 20mm they say, although it doesn't feel like it and
it is nowhere near as high tailed as our J1.
Finally, the exhaust. Still stainless where it emerges from
the fairing, still rusty underneath the fairing and the silencer
is anodised aluminium coated with a carbon fibre look. Next
year: brick pattern wallpaper.