Class '74 - Original superbikes

It’s 1974. Honda rule the world with their CB750, the first modern-day superbike. It’s taken Kawasaki three years to respond but now they’ve done so in style with the Z900. This scrap could be the most signifi cant in motorcycling history...

Our American friends were treated to the ‘Dream Four’ one year before the Brits, but it was back in ’67 after a trip to Europe that Soichiro Honda returned home to advise his engineers of their biggest challenge yet. Concerned that we were developing a 3-cylinder monster, he assembled a 20-strong mob, ordered an extra cylinder and told them to get cracking on the CB750. Guidelines included a high cruising speed, low vibration, exceptional comfort, stability, good braking and, of course, reliability.

So serious was this project, Honda actually withdrew from the World Grand Prix Road Racing Series after a successful ’66 season to concentrate on it. Sales were dropping Stateside (their most important market) and the Yanks were hankering for more cubes to lure customers back to the showrooms and away from cult British bikes. The reasonably successful Dream CB450 from the mid-’60’s didn’t offer the torque that US riders demanded. As with their huge V8 powered cars, the Yanks liked a lump with a thump rather than a high-revving precision tool that required a lot of gear changing and attention.

Project leader Yoshirou Harada observed the capacity fascination during a US scouting mission and combined with the rumours of the impending Triumph 750 triple, confirmed that the motor would have to match its capacity and pip Harley’s current 66bhp power output in their XR750. The resulting CB750 was unveiled at the Tokyo show in late 1968 and the frenzy began. Dealers assembled in Las Vegas were so blown away that the original forecast of 1,500 annual units soon became double that per month. The CB was huge.

Green with envy, Kawasaki scrapped development of their own 750 four in favour of huge 2-stroke triples. They launched swiftly but were too specialist to be able to compete, and they soon succumbed and revived the big 4-stroke project. The pressure was on and it was massive. They simply had to nobble their rivals or become an overnight laughing stock. Project T103 looked at using a 1-litre motor, but it was considered to be potentially intimidating so they settled for a 900 and commenced an intensive testing program in America to evaluate the motor with the help of Gary Nixon and Paul Smart. It was during this period that it was re-named Project New York Steak before launching the Z900 to a stunned American public in ’72, again one year before us salivating Brits.

With just enough time for the dust to settle, for a looming oil crisis to become a worrying reality and in an arena devoid of any real competitors, we have assembled the two rivals for the dust-up of the century. Although the Z9001A (commonly known as the Z1) has been available for a year now, it has already established itself as the weapon of the brave. It’s big, bold, fast, expensive and not yet selling in any great numbers over here, but is starting to fly across the pond. So what’s the beef? Have we been dealt too much muscle as an alternative to the user-friendly Honda, or are we about to witness  the new King?

Sitting side by side, there is no mistaking the respective characters of these machines. Whilst the Honda is undoubtedly a state-of-the-art sports bike and positively futuristic compared to anything made in Britain, there is an approachable, non-threatening look about it. Conversely, the Kawasaki looks like it wants to kill and eat your children. It’s sleek, menacing and fast at a standstill – perhaps just a little too intimidating for some.

This view is reinforced from the saddle. The 750Four seems stubby and practical while the 900 feels as though it is preparing to launch you into next week the moment you turn the key. Both speedos are marked up to 140mph – enough to send many a schoolboy into a fit of excitement, and a prospect to get my own heart racing. The riding positions are similar though there seems to be more of the Z1 underneath – it is somehow sleek and hefty at the same time and we already know that it’s carrying 24 more pounds than the CB. But it’s also packing a much bigger punch, 90bhp compared to the Honda’s 65 horsepower.

It’s worth a moment to admire the sheer quality of both of these machines. Never before have we been spoilt with such incredibly high standards of machining, finish and fit. They look as though they have been built my robots, not bespectacled, pipe-smoking engineers in white coats. They absolutely scream quality and gleam silently, safe in the knowledge that no other country can currently produce anything to match them. Even the early ‘sand cast’ (permanent gravity mold cast actually) CB’s oozed more class than anything from Germany or Italy.

The CB is running but it’s hard to tell. The compact motor fires a split second after touching the starter button and settles into a quiet, sophisticated purring. Though God only knows why the Japanese decided to locate the ignition under the left side of the fuel tank. Mechanical noise is minimal and it retains its quiet dignity when taking the revs towards the 8,000 redline, though the exhaust note changes and takes on more of a howl.

Into first and away through the gears, it takes no time to acclimatise to the 750. The gear change is smooth and accurate, requiring little in the way of foot pressure. The power delivery is smooth and becomes stronger as the revs increase with a sweet spot between 6,500-7,500rpm. This engine is happy to be revved and downshifts at high revs are still fast and accurate. The rider is happy to oblige because it’s just so effortless to ride fast on the Honda.

After a few miles it becomes irresistible to up the pace to the point where deficiencies become apparent. The single front disc isn’t spectacular but is more than adequate and only begins to tire of its duties (admittedly by a mere fraction) after a prolonged spell of relentless hard braking and cornering. Perhaps Honda will consider upgrading the rear drum in due course, or even add a second disc at the front for fade-free performance braking.

As the straights on our test route shorten and the corners become more frequent, it gives time to focus on the handling. Overall, the Honda can cope with whatever is thrown its way. Our road surface is consistent and generally smooth so the bike only has to deal with braking and carving through corners at various speeds and cambers. The front end is quite soft for a sportsbike but composed and not easily unsettled, though there’s a weakness at the rear that seems to be down to the swing arm rather than the shocks. It’s possible the swingarm is flexing, although it’s difficult to tell. The harder the bike has to work, the more the rear seems to wallow and struggle to cope as the throttle is fully opened on corner exits.

Once the adrenalin has subsided and the pace levels off to a fast cruise, it becomes apparent you can make bloody good progress on the Honda without all the revving and gear changing. Swapping only between 4th and 5th and using the available torque is fun and relaxing without ever becoming tedious. The seat is as comfortable as you could wish for and there is so little vibration through the handlebars and footpegs that it would be possible to cover hundreds of miles in a day with the minimum of rider fatigue. This is a truly sophisticated machine that offers plenty of accessible performance without rider exertion.

The Kawasaki waits its turn and looks classy and confident as it burbles into life, it’s truly beautiful and certainly more desirable than the 750K in the looks department, thanks not only to its teardrop tank, but also the colour-matched rear tail unit. I already know which one I would want to turn up at the local pub on, and which one the ladies would want to be taken home on. Good looks alone are not enough though, but the Z1 actually sounds smoother and sexier than the CB before we even set off.

The first shock is how incredibly smooth it is. Not only is the gearbox a gem – silky, slick and deadly accurate – there seems to be absolutely no need to use the clutch once on the move. Even changing down without a clutch is easier than with a clutch on any Ducati I’ve ever ridden. That’s not something I expected with a cold motor. Open the throttle slightly at low revs and there’s an instant warning of what lurks underneath. As the revs pick up it loses some of its Japanese politeness, growls and takes off at a rate that is almost alarming after the smaller 750.

Rather than becoming accustomed to the 82bhp over the next few miles, I can’t resist it. I snap the throttle open in second and hang on for dear life, and hang on you must for with the high set handlebars it becomes harder and harder on the neck muscles as another gear is grabbed at the redline and fuel is forced through the system. Let’s be clear about this: the Z1 is a very fast bike indeed. The ton arrives in an instant and progress doesn’t ease off until the 120mph mark where it’s very necessary to get down and out of the windblast. It’s so exhilarating that I’m laughing in my lid. Kawasaki were right not to produce a 1,000cc Z1. That would have been beyond irresponsible.

Time to calm down and start again, as this is not a drag strip. In these cool, dry conditions the Zed glides nicely along and I’m thankful that it’s not wet and bumpy because I think you’d see a slightly different beast. It’s more important to ride smoothly and prepare for the corners, though, as Kawasaki don’t appear to have given enough consideration to the chassis. Both the frame and forks could be beefed up to cope better with the extra stresses incurred, as the bike shows a tendency to wallow when asked to change direction through sweeping left to right corners at speed. The Z1 is also under-braked. Feel and progression is absolutely spot-on but there isn’t enough power to haul its bulk down from high speeds.

Yes the Z1 is a beast, but it is equally happy (like the Honda) just cruising effortlessly along at low revs. It can do everything that the 750 can but is far more of a man’s bike, or a lunatic’s, depending on your viewpoint. But whichever you want to do, the Z1 will happily oblige.

The Kawasaki is offering a lot more than the Honda in style, attitude and performance, but at a much higher price. The engine is faultlessly smooth and powerful and will have your arms leaving their sockets in a traffic light Grand Prix. There is a chance it will frighten more customers than it will attract and Honda has found the most harmonious balance, but that’s not our concern. We need a winner and the Kawasaki is clearly that, and top marks to them for having the balls to make such a missile when politicians are crying over the cost of fuel. The Z1 is King and I expect it will be quite some time before there is another pretender for the throne.


Honda CB750 Specs

Price now: £5,500
736cc Air-cooled, in-line 4 cylinder SOHC 4-stroke
Power: 67bhp @ 8,000rpm
Top Speed: 125mph
Weight: 218kg
Seat Height: 800mm 

Kawasaki Z9001A Specs

Price now: £8,000
Engine: 903cc Air-cooled, in-line 4 cylinder DOHC 4-stroke
Power: 82bhp @ 8,500rpm
Top Speed: 135mph
Weight: 232kg
Seat Height: 810mm