Top 10 interesting Kawasakis you might not know about

In the midst of all the 2015 H2 hype, Visordown takes a look into Kawasaki's past models

TRAWLING through Kawasaki’s history turns up an interesting point – the firm’s back-catalogue is relatively short of notable flops or little-known rarities.

Instead it’s packed with machines that have enjoyed incredibly long production runs and often spark fervent support from fans.

But we’ve dug deep into the darkest nooks of Kawasaki’s history to turn up 10 machines that you might not be so familiar with. If you’ve got better suggestions, please add them in the comments below.

10. MT1 (1971-75) and KV75 (1976-80)

While the Honda Monkey has survived for decades and remains in production today, back in the 70s it was just one of many similar takes on the same theme – and this was Kawasaki’s version. As with most Monkey rivals, and unlike the Honda, it’s a two-stroke. At 73cc it’s bigger than most of its rivals, although 4.3bhp still isn’t much to write home about. Weighing under 60kg and with folding bars, it could be easily picked up and chucked in the back of a car. An interesting alternative to a Monkey if you’re looking for that sort of thing, they occasionally turn up for sale, often as imports from America.

9. AV50 (1983-90)

A mini-bike with a fat rear tyre, spindly front and chopper-inspired looks, the AV50 looks like a slice of the 1970s. Which makes it even odder that it wasn’t launched until 1983 and remained in production until 1990. With the rider’s seat directly over the rear wheel, we’d suspect the handling will be familiar to anyone who’s ridden a Raleigh Chopper. Even with just 5bhp, wheelies are probably on the agenda – perhaps involuntarily if you’re heading up a steep hill… Probably fun, provided you like being stared at and pointed at. And maybe laughed at, just a little.

8. Eliminator 900 (1985-86)

Recipe: Take one superbike engine. Insert it into cruiser/drag bike style machine. It’s worked remarkably well for Ducati with the Diavel over the last few years, but Kawasaki’s ZL900 Eliminator was much the same idea, way back in 1985. In fact, it was a response to the Yamaha V-Max, a bike that itself garnered an enthusiastic following, but while various other ‘Eliminator’ models followed, the Kawasaki never managed to quite hit that same vein of fandom. The original 900cc bike is arguably the purest of the breed. The 1000cc version that replaced it after just two years had softer stying, losing the exposed rear wheel and sissy-bar-mounted number plate in favour of a more sensible rear mudguard, and even later models transmuted into fairly straightforward cruisers, albeit inline-four-powered ones, rather than road-going drag bikes. With 105bhp from its GPz900-based engine, it was scorchingly fast for its day. In a straight line, of course.

7. Tengai (1989-91)

In this age when every other new bike is an ‘adventure’ or ‘dual-sport’ model (all too often meaning ‘sports tourer with a beak’ rather than anything that you’d really want to ride across a desert) the Tengai would look like a pretty attractive proposition. Basically, it’s a KLR650 with more bodywork and a few additional refinements to add some road-going comfort while retaining a fair bit of off-road ability. Looks good, too, but up against the likes of Honda’s Transalp and Yamaha’s Tenere, the Tengai somehow got largely ignored. Weird, really, given the fact that the KLR650 has been one of the longest-running models in Kawasaki’s history (and it’s had a lot of long-running models!) If you can find one these days, a Tengai will only cost a few hundred quid and would probably make a fantastic, and fashionable, winter hack.

6. GPz250R (1986-87)

Not to be confused with either the earlier, belt drive GPz250 or the long-running GPZ250R that followed it in 1988 and remained on sale until 2007, this is the bike that first introduced the parallel twin engine that’s the direct forerunner to today’s Ninja 300 motor. There’s something brilliantly mid-80s about the GPz250R’s styling, with that swept-up rear section and chiselled nose, even if the proportions look a little odd by today’s standards. Incredibly, according to official specs, the 1986 GPz made more power than the 2014 Ninja 300 (43bhp vs 39bhp) and weighed far less at 138kg (dry) compared to 164kg (dry). Progress?

5. Balius 250 (1989-2008)

Yep, it’s a bike that was in production for nearly 20 years but remains virtually unknown here in the UK thanks to never being officially sold over here. The Balius 250 was from that era when the Japanese were obsessed with tiny four-cylinder engines, and uses the same motor as used in the more familiar ZXR250 race-rep but fitted to a naked, steel-framed ‘standard’ bike. While the Balius is attractive in a rather bland way, the engine is, of course, the star here. With 40bhp at 15,000rpm, it wasn’t redlined until 19,000rpm. With no fairing, top speed was just 114mph, but they sound like they’re doing 200…

4. Z2 (1973-78)

The Kawasaki Z1 is one of the most famous motorcycles in history. But its little brother, the Z2, was barely ever seen outside Japan and is still relatively little-known. Officially called the 750RS, that name gives away the big difference between it and the better-known Z1 – it’s got a 746cc engine rather than the Z1’s 903cc four. That means you get 69bhp instead of 82, but that’s where the differences end. It’s reckoned that there are only a few hundred examples outside Japan.

3. ZX-4 (1988)

The ZX-4 is one of those odd bikes that somehow managed to be replaced almost before it had a chance to shine, so despite being a pretty decent proposition, there aren’t many about. On sale only in 1988, it was a stop-gap between the GPz400R and the ZXR400, both far more famous models. Despite being made for just one year, it had its own unique E-Box aluminium frame, a step forward from the old GPz’s and fairly similar to the ZXR400’s design (but not identical). But elsewhere the ZXR that appeared in 1989 was a big step forward, gaining far sportier styling (the ZX-4 was a dead ringer for the ZX-10 of the same era, and thus more like the later ZZ-R range than Kawasaki’s ZXR sports bikes) as well as kit like a braced swingarm, bigger brakes and upside-down forks. The ZX-4 is 10kg lighter than a ZXR400, though, at 152kg, and makes the same power at 59bhp.

2. KR250 Tandem Twin (1984-87)

While the Kawasaki KR-1 and KR-1S are lauded as fabulous, if temperamental, two-stroke sports bikes, their predecessor is virtually unknown over here. The KR250 wasn’t officially offered in the UK, which explains why there are so few of them here. It’s got a weird, 45bhp ‘tandem twin’ engine instead of the more familiar parallel twin of the bikes that replaced it – just imagine two 125cc singles mounted one behind another, with their crankshafts geared together so they rotate as one. That’s pretty much it. Like the later KR-1S, it was lauded in its day for being a mental race-rep, far closer to a real competition bike than some of its rivals. The later KR250S version even got a powervalve.

1. Xanthus 1992-1996

Kawasaki wasn’t alone with its obsession with four-cylinder 400cc machines in the 80s and 90s, but it did perhaps make more variations on the theme than its rivals – simultaneously counting the ZXR400, ZZR400, Zephyr 400 and Xanthus in its line up. If the ZXR was the sports bike, the ZZR the sports tourer and the Zephyr the retro naked bike, then the Xanthus filled a space of naked sports bike, complete with aluminium frame and ZXR-derived engine. It wasn’t a new idea – Kawasaki had previously made the FX400R as a naked version of the GPz400R – but the Xanthus was much more than just a ZXR with the fairing taken off. It had its own, unique chassis, its own swingarm, its own wheels, its own bodywork and clocks, even its own, 53bhp engine spec. While one might occasionally turn up in a crate from Japan, they’re like hen’s teeth over here.

Want more?

Top 10 interesting Yamahas you might not know about

Visordown readers' Top 10 Aprilias

Top 10 interesting Hondas you might not know about

Top 10 bikes that deserved better