Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. All of which explains the appearance of a certain lime-green production motorcycle in the latter part of 1981 that looked a lot like the racebike Eddie Lawson had ridden to that year's AMA Superbike championship. Today, you'd think this was a well-considered plan baked up by the marketing department to "leverage synergies" or otherwise put the racing budget to good use.
In 1981, not so much.
"We had a lot of standard KZ1000Js sitting around," remembers longtime Kawasaki man Mike Vaughan, who'd been called to a meeting to discuss the less-than-stellar J-model sales situation. "Dealers weren't ordering many. Our updated KZ1000J was a good motorcycle but really just a beefed-up Z1, and things were moving on technologically."
That’s an understatement for sure. This was the early ’80s, and things were changing. New technology was on the way, and everyone knew it. What’s more, the dollar/yen situation was in major flux; prices were up and dealers were jammed with marked-down “non-currents” from ’79 and ’80, remainders from the infamous Honda/Yamaha sales war of that period. It was an unsettled time. Enthusiasts knew that we were about to take the leap from traditional air-cooled inline-fours in steel-tube frames to truly groundbreaking machines. Those who loved the old air-cooled fours housed in steel-tube frames already had their fill, and the youngsters were happy to wait for the new metal to arrive.
These cultural and economic challenges blunted sales of the new-for-’81 KZ1000J. “Eddie had just won the ’81 Superbike championship,” Vaughan recalls, “so I asked, sorta off the cuff, why not build a Lawson replica to generate excitement for the KZ line? This sort of thing had been done successfully in the snowmobile industry and with the IROC Camaros. We’d paint the new bike green, just like the racer, give it some special parts, and see how it did.”
Building such a bike wouldn’t be complicated, and the idea gained immediate traction within Kawasaki Motors in the US and, very quickly, in Japan. Kawasaki engineers had two bikes to borrow from when assembling what would become the KZ1000R (or the ELR as it’s commonly known today): the aforementioned J-model and the then-new GPz1100. They also had the very machine Rob Muzzy had built for Lawson, which was crated and shipped to Japan immediately after the final race of the ’81 season. From this they’d build the limited-edition KZ1000R-S1 production racer, of which only 30 were assembled. Little of Lawson’s racer made it onto the production replica, but it was a hell of a visual template to recreate for production.
The 1981 superbike season was something worth celebrating, with Lawson taking the AMA title by just 10 points—with a total of 125—over an up-and-coming racer named Freddie Spencer on a CB900F-based Honda and the famously mop-topped Wes Cooley on a GS1000 Suzuki. Eddie won half of the eight AMA Superbike races that year, Freddie won three, and while he only won once, a consistent Cooley failed to make the podium only for the Pocono round in August.
Building the KZ1000R followed Kawasaki’s typically deliberate path. From the J-model came its 998cc, DOHC, two-valve, air-cooled four, with electronic ignition and strong roller-bearing crank assembly. It was a hammer of an engine, really, and the perfect starting point for hot-rodders already in love with the bulletproof Kawasaki fours. The conventional steel-tube frame was J-spec, too, with slightly lazier steering geometry and additional trail for the presumed higher-speed work the bike would see.
The ELR’s more memorable parts—the long, coffin-esque tank, swoopy tailpiece, and sporty cockpit fairing—came from the GPz1100, as did instruments, brakes, wheels, and its Dunlop K300s. Also added was a deep-dish saddle, more rear-set footpegs and controls, an oil cooler, a black Kerker 4-into-1 (which, by law, had to be installed by the dealer after the bike was uncrated), and a superbike-bend handlebar designed by Lawson himself. It was an impressive piece, visually and technically, with strong, near-GPz performance, reliability, and more than its share of chutzpah that took riders back to the famous Z-1.
But would it sell? Or help sell standard KZs? “It looked great and sparked interest among the press, dealers, and enthusiasts,” Vaughan remembers, “but it didn’t sell all that well. We only built 750 or so that first year, and due to the low production we left pricing to the dealer’s discretion; many priced it too high, and by the time prices dropped, late in the year, the market had changed.”
Boy had it ever. Honda’s new-think, liquid-cooled V-4 Sabre had debuted for the 1982 model year, and the legendary ’83 Interceptor had already been announced. Suddenly, liquid-cooling, perimeter frames, 16-inch front wheels, and single shock rear suspension were at the top of everyone’s two-wheeled wish list. Suzuki redefined the shape of the otherwise conventional superbike with the immediately controversial, Hans Muth-penned GS1000S Katana. Development, for a decade taken at a leisurely pace, was stuck at full throttle. Leftover ELRs would soon face not just the Interceptor but also the Ninja 900R (in 1984), the 20-valve FZ750 (in ’85), and the all-conquering GSX-R (also in ’85). By the time ELR asking prices got within earshot of demand, there really was no going back to air-cooling, twin shocks, and standard-tube frames, at least with regard to performance motorcycles.
From 30-plus years of hindsight, and knowing the extreme collector-itis that’s developed among a certain segment for the ELR over the past 15 or 20 years (not to mention the ungodly prices they command now), it’s simply unbelievable to think that these bikes sat in showrooms unsold for—in some cases—a year or more. “I couldn’t sell the thing,” one dealer confessed. “It just sat. People looked, but they all wanted the latest, greatest thing. It’s funny now to look back on it.” Not only was the ELR experiment a failure, but it didn’t do much to move the plain-Jane J-model, either.
Lawson took the Superbike title once again in ’82, winning five of 11 races and beating the Team Honda juggernaut, and teammate Wayne Rainey rode one of the S1s to third in the title chase. But with the ELRs lingering in showrooms and not creating much of a buzz, those on-track successes were the extent of any Team Green/pro-KZ1000J promotion.
Early in ’82, Kawasaki gave Lawson a crate-fresh KZ1000R, VIN 001. That bike would become hugely collectable down the road and become the subject of some controversy and intrigue. But Lawson asked instead for VIN 021 to highlight his racing number. He owns it to this day, and it’s the bike Lawson is pictured with in this story. Did Lawson have any input on the streetbike? “Nope,” he says with a laugh. “They showed me a couple of pre-production machines early on and asked which paint/stripe scheme I liked. They used the other one!”
Lawson was offered a massive sum for that #021 ELR several years ago by a Japanese investor but turned it down. “I can’t believe I said no,” he says. “The guy offered me a million bucks! What I wish I had was one of the S1s… They were pretty much like my racers but better finished. All my racebikes were crushed,” a fact that Rob Muzzy confirms, as he did all the crushing per Kawasaki’s request. Muzzy, by the way, also owns an ’82 ELR. “It’s VIN 300-something,” he says. “I ride it once in a while, and it’s fun—a great, old-fashioned superbike. Can you imagine building a streetbike like this today, with trick parts and an aftermarket exhaust? Not possible! The lawyers would have conniptions!”
For 1983, Kawasaki soldiered on, keeping the ELR in the lineup, now called the Superbike Replica in light of Lawson’s departure to Yamaha’s GP team. The erstwhile ELR received several changes. These included GPz-spec cams, valves, and cylinder head, adjustable shock damping, new instruments, a slightly longer swingarm, and revised graphics with a different tank sticker. Despite making more power, the ’83 KZ1000R seemed even more lost than the ’82 machine; Superbike racing had moved to 750s and Kawasaki campaigned a lime-green GPz750. It would be years before ELR’s mystique would begin to grow…
But not that many years. Vintage Superbike collector Brian O’Shea, who owns a handful of pedigreed and championship-winning Superbikes, says interest in the ELR began to bubble in the late 1980s. “It got crazy real quick,” O’Shea says, “especially with the S1s, as it was an actual and competitive Superbike racer you could buy from a manufacturer. The ELR craze hit in about ’89, with Japanese exporters running ads in Cycle News wanting ’82–’83 ELRs for top dollar. I paid $1,500 for my first two ELRs around the same time and sold them to exporters for nearly $6,000 each a few months later. And since Eddie and Freddie were like gods in Japan, ELRs got really desirable.”
Desirable might be the understatement of the year. “They’re just so cool looking,” O’Shea says, “and they bring you back to the early 1980s immediately. It’s not so much the bike but the time-machine aspect of it.” Time machine. O’Shea’s analogy is spot on, for it captures many of the reasons certain motorcycles transport us back to an earlier time—in this case, a time of wobbly, fire-breathing Superbikes, with guys named Lawson, Spencer, Cooley, and Baldwin fighting it out on the racetracks of legend…Pocono, Laguna, Daytona, and Loudon.
Time and technology marched on, relegating the old tube-frame, air-cooled fours to curiosities, then museum pieces, and then templates for modern retro. Today, an ELR—a real one like Lawson’s or even one of the many clones cobbled together from KZ1000Js and GPzs—is a period piece. A handsome, slow-turning, slow-revving, not-really-all-that-fast Universal Japanese Motorcycle with a cool paint job. But for enthusiasts who watched these dinosaurs race, the sight of an original, blinding-green ELR is a nonstop ticket to their fondly remembered and almost certainly aggrandized youth. Underwritten by a perfectly nice KZ1000J that just didn’t sell. Thanks, necessity; we owe you one.
The Ride of a Lifetime
Riding Eddie’s ELR—and getting to hang out with the four-time world champion in his garage—ranks up there as one of the most extraordinary things I’ve done.
Eddie seemed to have no reservations about handing me the keys to his ELR, which I rode away from his Upland, California, house on a perfect SoCal morning. The KZ1000R is a large bike, close in stature to one of today’s bigger-boned nakeds, but without the stiff frame, good brakes, and sticky tires. “The bikes flexed and slid and were hard to ride,” recalls Eddie, “but we didn’t know any better.”
I knew better than to do anything but be supremely cautious with the bike, which is easily the most valuable machine I've ever ridden. But the monetary value isn't what made my ride on the ELR exceptional—it's the bike's significance and who it belongs to that made the seat time so special. Thanks, Eddie. —Ari Henning