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1976 Kawasaki KZ900 LTD

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  • 1976 Kawasaki KZ900 LTD

    Interesting article on the KZ900 which of course is pre-Vulcan age, but interesting none the less.
    1976 Kawasaki KZ900 LTD

    ROOTS – Kawasaki’s ’76 KZ900 LTD is Japan Inc.’s very first factory custom, and the bike that launched an industry.

    By Mitch Boehm Photos: Motorcyclist Archives November 23, 2016




    Julia LaPalme

    1976 Kawasaki KZ900 LTD




    Given the ubiquitous nature of the “factory custom” motorcycle today, whether a V-twin, triple, four, or six, it’s interesting to consider the roots of the machines and the category itself.
    For an American company like Harley-Davidson, of course, many of the shapes and much of the emotional aesthetic of Milwaukee’s desirable motorcycles are pulled from bikes built many, many decades ago.

    But what of the Japanese makers? Say what you will about the copycat nature of Japan’s emergence from the ashes of WWII during the late ’40s and ’50s; the fact remains that the metric cruiser has played a massive and significant part in the current market—and motorcycling in general—during the past 40 years. Japanese customs aren’t just a significant portion of the streetbike population today; they have boosted and supported the market at crucial times, especially during the early 1980s, a time of economic and motorcycle-industry hardship, and a time when H-D and parent company AMF were smoothing the sheets of Milwaukee’s deathbed.
    And that very first Japanese factory custom? One of the Yamaha Specials from around ’78, right? Nope. The very first Japanese cruiser, the one that nudged open the floodgates for all the Specials, Viragos, Eliminators, Shadows, Spectres, Maxims, V-Maxs, Vulcans, Magnas, and Intruders to come, was the Kawasaki KZ900 LTD of 1976.
    The LTD pictured here, owned by Kawasaki and on display at its new digs in Foothill Ranch, California, is a pretty special example too. It’s VIN 0001—which makes it the very first production example of the very first Japanese factory custom ever minted. Custom Number One, indeed.
    Much of the brains behind the LTD belong to the late Wayne Moulton, director of technical ops at Kawasaki in the early 1970s. Moulton had been part owner of a Triumph dealership that did a lot of customization in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and that experience stayed with him when he joined Kawasaki.


    1 of 6
    ©Kawasaki

    Throwback
    Like the standard KZ900 (above), the ’76 KZ900 LTD (below) was built at Kawasaki’s then-new plant in Lincoln, Nebraska.





    2 of 6
    Julia LaPalme

    1976 KZ900 LTD




    “When Kawasaki introduced the Z-1 in ’73,” Moulton told the AMA’s Bill Wood in 1985, “everyone wanted one. In ’74 and ’75 it was basically unchanged, [and] at a Kawasaki distributor meeting we started discussing ways to extend the life of the Z-1. You just can’t keep repainting a bike and calling it a new model.”
    The obvious thing was to build a variant of the Z-1, especially since streetbike sales had slowed, and a new machine would likely enlarge the potential market. But what sort of variant? Should it be sportier, which the café racer crowd would want, or something a little more American—something more hot rod and custom flavored? Dealer input, especially from the East Coast and Midwest, strongly favored the latter flavor.
    “American customizers had been 
rearranging motorcycles to suit themselves for a long time,” Moulton said, “but they were working with Triumphs, BSAs, and Harleys; they wouldn’t be caught dead with a Japanese bike. So we wanted to build a Japanese motorcycle that American riders could identify with.”

    To that end, Kawasaki product planners—including Moulton—built two different prototypes, one custom flavored, another a bit sportier, and had Kawasaki sales and product managers rate each specifically—right down to things like bar shape, exhaust look, shock-spring color, and seat contour. In the end the custom-look machine won, and the US design team began finalizing the prototype in order to show Japan exactly what they wanted.
    “Some of the Japanese were all for the project,” Moulton said, “but most weren’t. They thought we were crazy, that we had ruined their motorcycle. They were also concerned about handling and suspension problems.” Testing proved that the Moulton-team bike worked fine functionally, and the bike was shipped to Japan for production readiness.
    Interestingly, the production LTD would not be designed solely by Kawasaki. In a unique twist, Kawasaki coordinated with some of the US-based aftermarket companies that had worked with Moulton on the prototype. The rear shocks, for instance, came from Boge-Mulholland, the 4-into-2 exhaust from Jardine, and the wheels, cast-aluminum race-spec units, from Morris. The tires, specially made Goodyears, had raised white lettering, a look you’d typically see on a jacked-up Camaro. The factory worked closely with engineers and designers from these companies, and, once the specs were agreed on and the testing done, parts were made and shipped to Kawasaki’s then-new Lincoln, Nebraska, plant for final assembly.


    3 of 6
    ©Kawasaki

    1976 KZ900 LTD engine.





    4 of 6
    ©Kawasaki

    The $3,295 LTD was unique in that it used a few US aftermarket-sourced parts, including Morris cast-alloy wheels, a Jardine-built exhaust (no room for a centerstand, thanks), and Boge-Mulholland shocks. Its triple discs were a first for Kawasaki.




    In the flesh, the LTD was a mix of custom and hot-rod/performance elements. The slightly extended fork, pullback handlebar, scooped saddle, shorty front fender, and semi-teardrop tank yelled custom all the way, while the megaphone exhaust, triple-disc brakes (which the standard KZ900 of ’76 did not have) and fat rear tire on a squat, 16-inch wheel, spoke directly to the go-fast guys, at least the straight-line ones.
    There were other touches, including a fancy passenger grab rail and a chrome chain guard. But the rest of the bike was pure Z-1—or, as the ’76 and onward bikes would be called, KZ900 (and KZ1000). Internally, there was considerable discussion, and some consternation too, about the name change. The Z-1 designation had generated a world-class reputation and following from ’73 onward. But in the end, Kawasaki felt it was important to bless the entire four-stroke family with the KZ nameplate, and the Z-1 became the KZ900.
    And when you talked Z-1/KZ900, you were basically talking about that engine—dual cams, eight valves, roller-bearing crank, 903cc, and 80-some horsepower. A great look. And durability beyond compare. There was literally nothing like it in all of motorcycling, and if you had to choose an engine to cloak with a fresh, custom/hot-rod look, this would undoubtedly be it.
    “When the LTD appeared,” longtime Yamaha product-planning guru Ed Burke told me recently, “we weren’t too surprised. We were working along similar lines, doing market research on riding position and tank shapes to gauge interest in custom/hot-rod styling among US riders. Kawasaki did a nice job with it but didn’t follow up too aggressively, as we did with our line of Specials in ’78 and ’79.”
    The LTD debuted in late ’75 and was welcomed warmly by dealers, most of whom already knew the buying public’s penchant for hot rod- and custom-oriented touches like the ones built into this new Kawasaki.
    The LTD moniker stood, obviously, for “limited production,” and the bike really was limited: Kawasaki reportedly only made 2,000 available for the US market that year (VINs ending in 0011 to 2011), with the other 3,000 of the 5,000 total headed for Europe and other world markets.
    “People loved it,” remembers longtime Kawasaki dealer Al Arbor, who ran Kawasaki East in Nashua, New Hampshire, for nearly two decades. “The paint faded too quickly, but overall it was a nice balance between a custom and hot-rod look. We were a big dealer and got more than the normal amount, and they sold very well for us—and for dealers all around the country too.”

    The press liked the LTD too, though there was some grumbling about the oddly shaped pullback handlebar and scooped seat. “Ride the LTD very far at highway speeds,” wrote Cycle in its April ’76 road test, “and you may wish you could drive the handlebar end through some stylist’s heart. The LTD’s handlebar may look right; it feels wrong, and the faster you go the wronger it becomes. [It] produces a cocked and eventually cramped wrist, and when you’re fighting wind pressure by hanging on to the grips you quickly feel the strain. [And], you won’t be able to slide back on the seat to get your body tilted against the wind unless you’re prepared to slide up and back to the passenger perch.”
    There was very little grumbling about the LTD’s power, handling, and braking, however. Horsepower and quarter-mile times were basically in line with previous Z1s, the 2mm smaller carburetors offering a bit more midrange pull. Braking from the triple discs was stronger than the Z-1, albeit a bit touchier, and right up to 9/10ths on a fast, snaky back road, the LTD was an able partner despite semi-limited cornering clearance and that funky, low-leverage, pullback bar.
    “Whatever your tastes regarding the styling of the LTD,” we wrote in our March ’76 issue, “it’s difficult not to admit that it’s a well conceived and beautifully executed piece of machinery. We’ll wager that Kawasaki sells each one they build, and that there probably won’t be enough to go around.”
    The limited supply of LTDs during the 1976 season would ensure that every unit Kawasaki built got sold—and quickly. But the model’s popularity--—and relative scarcity—began to create a demand that was not going to be fully satisfied in the coming years, at least not by Kawasaki. Despite offering the KZ1000 LTD in ’77 and ’78 along with a 650cc version based on Kawasaki’s then-new 650cc four, Kawasaki just couldn’t—or wouldn’t—produce LTDs in numbers the public wanted.
    “We couldn’t agree to build [enough] bikes to keep up with demand,” said Moulton back in 1985, “so Yamaha took advantage of the situation. They built a bunch of Specials, and in ’77, ’78, and ’79 they stole the show. We created the thing, but Yamaha jumped way ahead of us.”
    “We based what we did in those years on our research,” remembers Yamaha’s Burke, “not on what Kawasaki did. They got out there first, for sure, but the research we did during ’76 and ’77 told us that the custom/hot-rod thing was going to be a big deal, and we took that into consideration as we planned our late ’70s motorcycles.”
    That initial wave of factory customs from Kawasaki and Yamaha was hugely significant; it not only helped keep the industry afloat during the late ’70s and early ’80s (when boomers took family and career breaks before opening their wallets generously in the 1990s and beyond), but it fostered a serious desire for the entire factory-cruiser genre. And alongside a resurgent Harley-Davidson (and, later, British and Euro companies such as Triumph and Moto Guzzi), the appreciation those early Japanese customs generated quickly morphed into the largest streetbike category going—along with a huge aftermarket to support it.
    And to think the 1976 KZ900 LTD jump-started it all. The thing looks pretty damn good to us too—even at age 40. Let the good times roll.



















    Last edited by Racinfan101; 12-22-2016, 09:44 AM.

    • Ice Cube
      #1
      Ice Cube commented
      Editing a comment
      They were nice bikes and fast for a "cruiser". I was riding a 1975 CB750F when they came out and couldn't afford another new bike until 1978 and ordered the Honda CBX.
    Posting comments is disabled.

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    ROOTS – Kawasaki’s ’76 KZ900 LTD is Japan Inc.’s very first factory custom, and the bike that launched an industry.

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