Welcome to the future: Pee Wee Gleason & the birth of the Ninja legend

Published: 19 September 2015

This is the moment motorcycling entered the modern age.

t’s December 1983. The venue is Laguna Seca, California, USA. The event: the world press launch of the new Kawasaki GPz900R. But that’s no journo in the saddle, it’s Jay ‘Pee Wee’ Gleason, legendary drag racer, about to demo the new superbike in public for the first time.

In the '80s Jay (he’s since dropped the PW moniker) was THE man to hire if you were a factory wanting to know just how fast your bike was in the quarter mile. In truth, the new 900R (the Ninja name wasn’t adopted until 1984) was so phenomenal, Pee Wee Herman could have been the rider. The 900R’s template-setting, liquid-cooled, 16v four was good for 150mph and low 11sec quarters. The world would never be the same again.

Not for nothing is Kawasaki known as perhaps the most emotive of the four Japanese bike manufacturers, and few model lines have captured the imagination quite like the Ninja series. Even non-motorcyclists understand what a Ninja is. These are 21 of the most important bikes from thirty years of the Ninja – here’s hoping for another 30…

GPZ900R

Year: 1984

908cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 115bhp, 155mph

This is where it all started – the first Ninja. Only branded ‘Ninja’ in the USA, the GPZ was the fastest bike in the world, debuted the liquid-cooled inline-four engine yet managed to stop and turn corners properly. It laid the basic principles for today’s sportsbike.

GPZ600R Year: 1985

592cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 75bhp, 140mph

One year after the 900R defined the modern superbike, the GPZ600R created the supersport 600 class. Light weight, sharp handling and a screaming engine set a template for the class still used today.

GPZ1000RX Year: 1986

997cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 125bhp, 160mph

The GPZ1000RX used an enlarged version of the 900R engine for more power, but the ponderous chassis let it down. The older 900R was provided on the launch for back-to-back testing, but journalists shunned the new bike. The 900 stayed in production well after the 1000 was deleted.

ZX-10 Year: 1988

999cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 137bhp, 165mph

The ZX-10 was a precursor to the world-beating ZZ-R1100, and shared many of it’s attributes. Big and comfy, the ZX-10 wasn’t a supersports machine, but chomped miles at high speed. The engine owed a lot to the earlier GPZs, but with design improvements for yet more power.

ZXR750 H1 Year: 1989

749cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 107bhp, 160mph

While the sexy Honda RC30 wooed wealthy 750cc buyers, the head-banger ZXR and its World Endurance styling lured the rest of us. Hard suspension, an uncompromising riding position, a revvy motor (from the GPX750) and amazing front-end feel morphed the Ninja philosophy closer to the bikes we have today. Scott Russell won the WSB title on a later model.

ZZ-R1100 C1 Year: 1990

1052cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 138bhp (full power), 172bhp

Meddling politicians were trying to bring in a 100bhp limit, so Kawasaki restricted the ZZ-R to 125bhp out of the showroom. But the cure was simple – ZXR750 carb tops gave the slides full range of movement, and the record breaking power and speed was unleashed. Later, re-styled D-models came without the castration, plus some extra power to boot.

ZXR400 L1 Year: 1991

398cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 65bhp, 141mph

Ten years before 600 supersport bikes became true race bikes on the road, the ZXR400 was already doing. Uncompromising in its attitude, the howling 400 was one of the best sports bike you could buy if you were in the mood to ride it hard and well capable of leaving more powerful bikes behind on road and track.

ZXR750R Year: 1991

749cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 120bhp, 162mph

In a bid to match the limited-run, race-special Honda RC30 and Yamaha OW01 in racing, Kawasaki released a second ZXR750 model with a close-ratio gearbox, flatslide carbs, an aluminium fuel tank and better suspension to provide a better basis to build a race bike. Only a single-seat marked the bikes out externally. Cheap to buy now, expect a cult following to develop.

ZX-9R B1 Year: 1994

899cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 139bhp, 170mph

Kawasaki, like the rest of the world, was caught out by Honda’s lithe but powerful FireBlade. Its range had sharp 750s, fast but heavy ZZ-Rs, but nothing to compete directly with the Blade. The ZX-9R was supposed to be the answer – the motor was good , but the chassis couldn’t match the Blade. Later models redressed the balance – but then the Yamaha R1 arrived.

ZX-6R F1 Year: 1995

599cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 105bhp, 160mph

Honda had set the supersport 600 standard for fast, able but slightly rounded machines. Kawasaki were the first to introduce a harder edge to the middleweight class with the ZX-6R, which had a screaming top-end, minimal midrange and typical Kawasaki hard suspension.

ZX-7R P1 Year: 1996

748cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 126bhp, 165mph

The ZX-7R was dynamically behind rival 750s, but we loved it anyway. The styling and stark simple paint schemes grabbed your attention, the front end feel is legendary and although it was a bit heavy, it rode well on the road. It lasted until 2002 unchanged before emissions killed it off.

ZX-7RR Year: 1996

748cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 126bhp, 165mph

WSB was at it’s height in the 1990s – Kawasaki wanted to win. The ZX-7RR had flatslide carbs, a close-ratio gearbox, an adjustable swingarm pivot, different suspension, better brakes and a stiffer frame. It never won a title, but it took race wins and Chris Walker narrowly missed the British Superbike title in 1999.

ZX-12R A1

1199cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 185bhp, 186mph

Kawasaki lost its world’s fastest bike title in the 1990s, and the ZX-12R was built to win it back. A powerful motor and aerodynamic bodywork was the key – everything down to the wing mirrors and tyre valves was built for speed. Most speed tests put Suzuki’s Hayabusa ahead of the Kwak, and a year later the Japanese manufacturers agreed to limit bikes to 186mph to avoid politicians imposing more draconian limits.

ZZ-R1200 C1H Year: 2002

1164cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 160bhp, 175mph

The ZX-12R took the ZZ-R’s place as a flagship bike, allowing the ZZ-R to assume a more natural role as a fast, torquey mile-muncher. It was good, but never recaptured the success of the 1100.

ZX-6R A1P Year: 2002

636cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 116bhp, 165mph

What to do when your 600 is lagging behind in sales? Kawasaki’s answer was to cheat – adding an extra 37bhp gave a power increase across the rev range without adding any extra mass, or price. The ZX-6R was a well-rounded bike already – the extra grunt made it even better.

ZX-6R B1H Year: 2003

636cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 125bhp, 167mph

After years of lagging behind rivals with overweight, slightly soft sportsbike, Kawasaki hired Mazda MX-5 designer Shunji Tanaka to revamp the brand – the 2003 ZX-6R instantly returned Kawasaki to building fast, light, sharp and utterly bonkers sportsbikes.

ZX-10R C1H Year: 2004

998cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 175bhp, 184mph

Following from the revamped ZX-6R, the ZX-10R used the same formula but with the frightening speed a litre bike brings. The ZX-10R is a focussed machine that wheelies of it’s own accord at any point up to 140mph or lay arcs of tyre rubber out of corners at will. Since then, it’s evolved to become even madder.

ZZ-R1400 Year: 2006

1352cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 187bhp, 186mph

The ZX-12R never captured the imagination like the ZZ-R1100, and the later ZZ-R1200 couldn’t either. Kawasaki reinstated the ZZ-R’s flagship position with the ZZ-R1400, giving it the same qualities of huge power, turbine-smooth delivery and plenty of comfort. It can be a wheel spinning monster, but it’s happy to tour more sedately too.

ZX-6R P9F: 2009

599cc liquid-cooled inline-four, 134bhp, 170mph

 The B1H ZX-6R put Kawasaki back in contention in the supersport class, but development lagged behind rivals. More midrange, Big Piston forks with better control and feel and a better overall package means Kawasaki was once again competing with the best in the supersport class it invented a generation before.

 

Ninja H2R: 2015

998cc liquid-cooled supercharged inline-four, 310bhp, 205mph

Kawasaki had to go to extraordinary lengths to make the H2R match the impact of the early bikes of the Ninja dynasty, and we still can’t quite believe they did it. But with their virtually hand-built hot-rod there’s no question they’ve re-energised the Ninja brand for another nutter-loving generation to come.