The Kawasaki Ninja series of motorcycles is 30 years old this year. That’s an incredibly long time, longer than even some of our readers would have been alive. And while perhaps the brand doesn’t have the allure that it once did of being at the forefront of the motorcycling world (though bikes like the current ZX-14R and Ninja 300 are still top of their class), it has an incredibly rich history and some motorcycles that bared its name were in fact quite revolutionary. Even timeless.
So let’s wind the clock back to 1984 and look at the first Kawasaki that featured the name Ninja, the GPZ900R.
Kawasaki Ninja GPZ900R
This was the first bike to be called the Ninja (initially in the United States before the name became used worldwide) and its perhaps still the most radical and acclaimed of all the Ninjas, even 30 years on.
It used the world’s first 16-valve, liquid-cooled inline four motorcycle engine, years before Kawasaki’s rivals did the same. It produced 115 bhp from its 908 cc capacity, delivering a top speed of 151 mph. This actually made it the first stock, road legal motorcycle to exceed the 150 mph mark and in turn, made it the fastest production bike in the world at the time. It recorded a quarter mile time of 10.976 seconds.
Another technically advanced feature was that it used the engine as a stressed member, resulting in improved handling and reduced weight. But this wasn’t just a straight line weapon. Suspension was such that the bike was still more than usable in the urban environment, plus its crankshaft counter-balancer helped to dramatically reduce secondary vibration.
While one could today argue that the bike looks awkward and outdated, at the time its styling was deemed cutting edge, with the bike being narrower in profile compared to other contemporary motorcycles due to the compact engine design.
The bike was even featured in Top Gun, being ridden by Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (aka Tom Cruise), forever immortalizing it film.
Kawasaki Ninja 600 (GPZ600R)
Despite critical acclaim for the GPZ900R, Kawasaki didn’t rest on its laurels. The following year, the GPZ600R, or Ninja 600 was released and arguably began the 600 super sport category that is so important (and popular) today. In fact, many would argue that the 600R is in fact a more important motorcycle than the GPZ900R, given that the super sports category really came from this motorcycle.
Yes, the GPX600R was released just a year later and is probably better known than its younger brother, but the GPZ600R started it all. The Ninja 600, despite its name, featured a 592 cc capacity (550 cc was the general capacity for middleweights at the time), 16 valve inline four cylinder engine.
Seeing the potential, Honda released the CBR600F in 1986, followed by every other motorcycle manufacturer over time. That same year, Kawasaki released the GPX600R, which was the first Ninja to feature an aluminium perimeter frame. That saved 13 pounds of weight, a not insignificant amount given that the GPZ600R weighed 429 lb already (by comparison, the 2013 ZX-6R has a wet weight of 421 lb).