Retro Rocket

“They don’t make ’em like they used to,” or so goes the popular expression. I beg to differ. I’ve just finished testing the bike that proves that old cliche wrong – Kawasaki’s 2001 ZRX1200.

The ZRX1200S has been deliberately built in the image of the bikes of the Seventies. It has four cylinders, twin shock rear suspension and a big, ballsy engine that hangs out in the breeze for all to see. The riding experience also owes a lot to the Seventies ‘Universal Japanese Motorcycle’ (UJM) that the big Zedder is so blatantly modeled on. For a start, you sit on the bike, rather than in it as with many of the modern sport bikes. The bars are wide, fairly high and made of tubular steel, unlike the stubby alloy clip-ons that grace so many bikes nowadays. It has a broad saddle, built for comfort that actually contains more than one millimeter of padding. The footpegs aren’t placed in a cruiser position, but then they aren’t set too far back and too high like on a hyper-sports machine. In other words, you’re now sitting as you might have done when riding your CB750/Z900/GS750 all those years ago.

Fire the big ZZ-R1100-derived engine up and you are greeted with a mechanical rustle that’s similar to a UJM from the Seventies. Despite the cunningly disguised water cooling you actually know when the engine’s running. But click the bike into gear, let out the clutch, twist the throttle and the first sign that this is a modern and much-improved version of the UJM theme becomes obvious. This bike is fast, effortlessly so, as you might expect from a bike with an engine transplanted from the once-mighty ZZ-R1100. This is completely different to the UJMs of the past that needed to be worked hard – they only gave their best effort very near the red line. The ZRX1200 is different.

2001 Kawasaki ZRX1200S Review 

Let’s pause for a little history lesson. In the seventies the engineers had wrung every ounce of horsepower out of the air-cooled motors in an effort to outdo the established bikes – mainly British Twins based on very old designs – and of course each other. Kawasaki, Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha were at war in a big four-stroke battlefield. It was a long-running battle to see who could make the fastest four-stroke production motorcycle on the planet. In the early days, the laurels usually rested with Kawasaki and the Z line up, often known in Britain as ‘Zeds’ or ‘Zedders.’ The range included the legendary Z900, the machine that aced even Honda’s CB750 way back at the start of the Seventies. None of these ground-breaking Japanese bikes actually contained anything new, the Italians had been making high-revving inline-fours for years, but only as race bikes. What they did have was reliability, availability and a marketing machine like no other that had gone before it. Honda and Kawasaki sold their big fours by the truckload. But Suzuki, with the GS range of middleweight and big fours, nosed ahead as the Seventies came to a close. It must have been galling for Kawasaki that the very machines that were grabbing the horsepower headlines, and the sales, were so blatantly modeled on their hugely successful Z range.

The S model we tested is shown here. It has the large front fairing, dual headlights and the increased wind protection is a welcome addition. You do sacrifice the retro look a little bit but, hey, who is going to notice, right?

Enough history. Welcome back to the present day where the ZRX1200 could take on and beat any of those old bikes – anywhere. Even suffering from the massive burden of emission and noise regulations the latest incarnation of the Zed range is much quicker than any of those old machines. It’s especially quick where it matters most – in the midrange. If you have anything more than 2,000 revs on the tacho and take a big handful of throttle the bike hurtles forward like a greyhound on amphetamines. The surge of power keeps building all the way to the redline at 10,500 rpm. The big motor is so flexible, it allows you to be very lazy with the gearbox. Once out of town, there’s no need to use any other gear except top. Even in traffic, I found myself leaving the ‘box in third and fourth – the motor will allow you to take even the slowest corner in third, and yet it still provides smooth and progressive drive out of the turn.

The only flaw in this user-friendly power package, at least on my test bike, was a slight hesitation coming off idle. This carburetion glitch also made its presence felt when shutting off suddenly from high speed. The engine felt like it had gone into total shutdown when the throttle was snapped shut – twisting open the throttle was sometimes met with an almost imperceptible delay before the power surged in.

I’m nit-picking here, and the trait may have been peculiar to the individual machine. The bike did pop and bang through the exhaust pipe sometimes on overrun, possibly evidence of an air-leak somewhere in the four-into-one system, which might have upset the carburetion. Getting the mix of outright power with flexibility just right is a challenge to the engineers in these days of stringent emission controls. The Kawasaki, with a bank of four carburetors and a catalytic converter hidden in its end can does an admirable job, but I’d like to have had the chance to ride another machine to see if it carbureted the same as this particular test model.

I said earlier that the ZRX would beat its UJM ancestors hands-down anywhere and it definitely would in the twisties. The Japanese were so obsessed with making their bikes fast in the Seventies that they forgot to make them go round corners. In fact, they didn’t actually know how to build a chassis capable of handling the weight and power of their engines. Even the legendary Honda racers had a reputation for evil handling and the late, great Mike Hailwood reported that he would be in a bad mood for hours after wrestling them around the GP circuits. The Japanese resorted to hiring European experts from the very motorcycle companies they had helped to destroy in an attempt to tame the wild handling of both their race bikes and the road machines. While the cycle parts might look superficially similar to those fitted to the Seventies UJMs, the components on the ZXR are far more sophisticated. The lay-down rear shocks, with their piggyback remote reservoirs, are adjustable for pre-load and damping and look the part. As does the massive reinforced swingarm, which has been designed to mimic something a UJM owner might have fitted as an aftermarket part in the Seventies. Combined, the shocks and swinger do a good job of keeping the rear wheel planted and delivering the 122 bhp made by the mighty motor to the ground. Up front the standard fork does its bit in keeping the ZXR stable. They’re not up to the same (very high) standard of the kit found on almost any modern superbike, so you can’t take the sort of liberties that you might with something like the GSX-R1000K. The ZRX is relatively heavy at 490 lbs and the wheelbase too long (1465mm) to expect sportbike-style, razor sharp handling. But despite the conservative steering geometry and the weight the ZRX can be made (should that be forced?) to turn in hard and will hold its line. The handlebars are long enough to provide plenty of leverage and direction changes feel relatively easy, but at high speed, changing line mid-corner requires the pilot to work hard to keep the ZRX up with a well-ridden sport bike.

Although the bike is retro, the accommodations are not. The big ZXR boasts all the amenities we expect from a modern machine.

The combination of well thought-out suspension, plus the weight and wheelbase conspire to shrug off most bumps. Really heavy going will induce a little flap and jump from the front end. The rear also isn’t too happy with very bumpy going, and the stiffly damped rear shocks will keep your own rear end informed of just how hard they are working. But the chassis works well enough that, when combined with the brilliant engine, the ZRX is perfectly capable of giving a few hyper-sports bike riders a surprise or two. Power needs control and the six-pot front calipers grip a pair of tea tray-sized discs to keep things in check.

The brakes are very strong but need a good squeeze to get the best from them. They are a little wooden at lower speeds and you have to work them hard when you really need them. But, given effort, you’ll soon be lifting the rear wheel under heavy braking and building up those forearm muscles. The rear disc is brilliant, it’s powerful enough to lock the rear tire when you want to – but not so sensitive that it locks it when you don’t want to. By when you want to, I mean showing off, tail sliding the beast to a halt. This sort of behavior suggests the ZRX induces a little lunacy from its rider. I’d go along with that, I had so much fun that I started to take the piss. Spinning the rear tire at the lights, popping wheelies, stoppies and sliding the rear tire on the brakes when stopping in front of bemused schoolgirls. If you’ve got the heart you’ll have plenty of fun on the big Zed.

The ZRX is available in three guises, the ZRX1200S model featured here, an ‘R’ version with a bikini fairing that apes the original Z1100R, or the Eddy Lawson replica, so called because the American racer used one to win superbike races in the USA in the days when superbike racing really did mean road bikes on the track. There’s also the standard unfaired model, the ZXR1200. Your choice would depend on what you want from the bike. The ‘R’ model might be the best for those seeking the authentic looks of a late Seventies muscle bike. The naked version will suit those with strong necks, you’ll need one to hang on to the 122 bhp missile at 155 mph! The fairing on the ‘S’ isn’t faithful to the Seventies look, it’s far too sleek and modern looking for that. But it does a brilliant job in keeping the rider comfortable. The airspace behind the fairing is completely still, even at 100 mph-plus cruising speeds. I’m six-foot-tall and usually find the turbulence from this type of half-fairing knocks my head about more than five rounds with Mike Tyson would. Not so on the ZRX, the air coming over the top of the screen was steady at all speeds and the cockpit was a place of almost Buddhist tranquility. This, combined with the effortless power of the engine, could have got me into big trouble! I often glanced down at the speedo on a motorway to find my cruising speed had crept up to well over 100 mph. Things were so quite and calm that I honestly hadn’t realized I was riding so fast, officer.

The ZRX’s Seventies styling combined with 21st century technology won’t suit everyone. Bikers are individuals and some will want a bike that’s even more Retro and others will want something cutting edge. But the ZRX is such a capable bike, and a damn fine looking one too, so it’s sure to find some takers. Those riders that are easily seduced by good looks and fine figures combined with mental horsepower won’t be disappointed with Kawasaki’s version of the Seventies UJM on steroids.