Back in the days when men were men and sheep were scared, the word "Superbike" meant fire-breathing 1000cc four-cylinder machines-not these namby-pamby 750s they're using today. And riders didn't have the luxury of full fairings and aluminum perimeter frames, either-regular ol' handlebars and a steel-cradle chassis were the norm back then. These four-stroke monsters were on the verge of becoming the premier class in AMA racing, and it was already turning into out-and-out war between the manufacturers. Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki were crossing swords with high-dollar factory teams and riders like Wes Cooley, Eddie Lawson, Fred Merkel and Freddie Spencer. The competition was intense, reflecting the increasing prestige of the once-disdained class.
But when all was said and done at the end of the season, one bike-and-rider combination stood above the rest: Eddie Lawson and the lime-green Kawasaki. Despite an engine that lacked the latest four-valve technology sported by the competition, Team Green had emerged victorious against considerable odds. In commemoration of its 1981 AMA Superbike championship, Kawasaki built a very limited number of special KZ1000Rs that, although appearing to be nothing more than a tarted-up KZ1000 at first glance, turned out to be a far better performer than the standard J-model, even with a suggested retail price that was listed as "set by dealer."
The biggest improvement was a change in steering geometry and riding position. The rake angle was extended to 29 degrees from the J-model's 27.5-degree spec, with an accompanying increase in trail from 3.89 to 4.50 inches. Generous scalloping to the standard saddle dropped the seat height by half an inch, and the footpegs were set four inches farther back and an inch higher. Suspension was altered, with a revalved (read: stiffer rebound and compression damping) fork and twin gas-charged, piggyback Showa shocks handling the road-hugging chores. A Kerker 4-into-1 exhaust replaced the standard 4-into-2 pipe, with other subtle changes such as a four-row oil cooler, wider rear rim (wow, a 2.50 incher!), an "Eddie Lawson bend" handlebar, some decent Dunlop rubber replacing the usual rim protectors of that era, and various GPz componentry (brake system, fairing, gas tank, etc.) completing the picture. Maybe the most surprising change, however, was the lack of weight. The KZ1000R scaled in a full 41.5 pounds lighter than the J-model.
Of course, it should be kept in mind that this is early '80s technology we're dealing with, so the KZ1000R's performance-while excellent for its time-isn't nearly up to today's standards. The added rake and trail give the R's chassis good stability in the fast stuff, and the steering is fairly neutral all the way down to max lean. But there's a pretty big slab of metal in the engine bay and keeping the motor high to stop the cases from grinding means a fairly tall center of gravity. The suspension on the bike we rode was pretty worn out (22,000 miles were already logged on the odometer) so handling was rather loose and not representative of the actual item. Keep the KZ1000R's year of manufacture in perspective, though, and you find it to be a fun sporting mount with an exclusivity that can't be matched by any Japanese sportbike of that era.
This article was originally published in the October, 1999 issue of Sport Rider.