Honda’s revolutionary 1960s ad campaign, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” gets a lot of credit for helping soften motorcycling’s unsavory image and grow ridership in America. By the early 1970s, many of those nice people were having some naughty good fun ripping around on Honda’s CB750-Four, or, to truly rule the road, the mighty Z-1 that Kawasaki launched for 1973 to counter the historic Honda.
Even if those Japanese four-cylinder superbikes could smoke anything from Britain or Milwaukee, they came up short on style and charisma. They looked like just about every other Japanese bike, a trend that inspired the “Universal Japanese Motorcycle” (“UJM”) nickname. Some owners looked at low-riding Harleys with at least a little envy, and the Japanese brands were about to figure this out.
Kawasaki would get there first. Its 1976 KZ900 LTD melded Japanese superbike performance with American hot rod-flavored style. The combination proved to be just what the market wanted. The 900 LTD became a gotta-have-it bike, and its impact on the industry would be enormous and far-reaching.
Wanted: American style
With the ’74 and ’75 Z-1s unchanged from the original, Kawasaki distributors began asking for something fresh. Specifically, they wanted to see a Z-1 variant with “American” styling. Riders of Brit bikes and Harleys had for years been customizing their machines with high-rise handlebars, extended forks and stepped seats. “Easy Rider” failed to have the same motivating effect on riders of Japanese bikes.
Wayne Moulton, director of operations for Kawasaki in the U.S., saw an opportunity. Having run a Triumph shop in the 1960s, Moulton knew the customizing trend well. He proposed ideas for a European-style sport bike and a low-slung hot rod, both based on the Z-1. Kawasaki distributors chose the hot rod.
At Kawasaki’s tech building in in Santa Ana, California, Moulton began reworking a Z-1. He created a teardrop-shaped tank by welding the top section of a KZ400 tank to the bottom half of a Z-1 tank. To give the bike a lowered look, he switched the Z-1’s stock wire-spoke wheels for Morris cast-alloy wheels (16-inch at the back) with fatter tires.
Moulton gave his Z-1 custom one-inch longer fork tubes, cut the front fender and added a stepped seat. A pullback handlebar, a must for the hotrod look, replaced the standard bar. The Z-1’s curvy tail piece already fit the custom theme, although a unique, curved grab bar was used for the LTD. The production bike would add a chrome passenger grab handle and chrome chain guard, too.
More than just a pretty tailpiece
Moulton felt the new Kawasaki custom should have a performance upgrade to go with the hot rod look. He switched the four-into-four factory pipes that Kawasaki (and Honda) liked so much in the 1970s for a set of aftermarket four-into-two bell-mouth pipes from Jardine. These further lowered the look while cutting some weight. Twin front disc brakes replaced the Z-1’s single disc, and a single disc replaced the rear drum. Boge Mulholland adjustable shocks held up the rear.
Kawasaki’s engineers were less enthusiastic about Moulton’s prototype than he was.
“They thought we were crazy, that we had ruined their beautiful motorcycle,” Moulton recalled for American Motorcyclist, the American Motorcycling Association magazine, in 1985. He was by then an executive with that organization.
The engineers expressed concern about suspension geometry and handling for the customized Z-1, but testing proved the bike to be stable. Moulton also had to convince Kawasaki engineers to ditch the center stand, a deletion needed to use the smaller rear wheel and lower exhaust pipes.
For 1976, Kawasaki renamed the Z-1 “KZ900,” in keeping with its other four-stroke models. Moulton’s hot rod was called KZ900 LTD. The “LTD” part was real; production in 1976 was limited to 5000 bikes. The U.S. would get 2000 of those, priced at $3295.
With its road-hugging stance, the 900 LTD exuded just the right amount of mischief without appearing felonious. Kawasaki assembled the American-style hot rod in its then-new Lincoln, Nebraska plant, the first American factory for a Japanese motorcycle or automaker.
Moulton worked with individual aftermarket suppliers to tailor his chosen parts to the bike. Fat Goodyear white-letter tires picked up on a trend from American muscle cars, which by the mid-1970s were essentially comatose. The Morris cast wheels used on the first-year 900 LTD were replaced with Enkei wheels for 1977.
Kawasaki’s 900 LTD had really fathered two trends, the Japanese cruiser and the muscle bike. Its 81-horsepower inline-four was still king of the two-wheeled world in 1976, capable of revving to 8500 rpm and vaulting the 540-pound 900 LTD through the quarter-mile in the mid-12s. Compared to the standard KZ900, the LTD used 2-mm smaller carburetors to give a stronger midrange urge.
The 900 LTD was an immediate hit, and demand quickly outstripped the constrained supply. Motorcycle media liked the LTD’s style and praised overall handling and braking, but the bike drew barbs for compromised ergonomics that would become endemic to the cruiser breed. Cycle magazine’s review blasted the pull-back handlebar in particular, saying the design caused “a cocked and eventually cramped wrist” and “when you’re fighting wind pressure by hanging on to the grips you quickly feel the strain.”
Also, the LTD’s scooped seat that looked so cool also locked the rider in place, hurting long-distance comfort. At least for this first LTD, Kawasaki had not moved the pegs forward, something later Japanese cruisers would copy from Harley to complete the armchair-slouch riding position.
For 1977, a displacement bump turned Kawasaki’s hot new custom into the 85-horsepower KZ1000 LTD, and an LTD version of the KZ650 would soon join the line. Production of LTD models remained limited, however, and the other Japanese brands jumped in to supply the mushrooming new market.
Yamaha introduced its two-, three- and four-cylinder Specials; Honda brought out its Customs, and Suzuki had its “L” bikes (for “Low”). Kawasaki’s LTD ultimately became a regular production series, adding a two-cylinder 440 and a four-cylinder 550, with a 750 replacing the 650. A two-toned, de-chromed Spectre offshoot series added shaft drive.
Rise and fall of the muscle bike
Moulton himself felt the 900 LTD had more of a British custom vibe than a Harley look. As it turned out, many customers wanted the Harley look and sound. Yamaha’s Virago married a new V-twin engine to cruiser style, and others quickly followed. By the mid-1980s, a full-blown Harley clone category had emerged.
The Japanese bike makers hedged their bets, though, also launching a wave of four-cylinder power cruisers, a.k.a. muscle bikes. Honda had its V4-powered Magnas, and Suzuki followed with the oddly styled but fast V-4 Maduras. Yamaha went all in with inline-four Maxims and unleashed a 145-hp V4 beast called the V-Max. Reprising its original 900 LTD formula, Kawasaki put a tuned-for-torque version of the Ninja 900 sport bike inline-four into the drag bike-styled ZL900 Eliminator.
Except for the V-Max, which is still made today (now at 197 horsepower), that trend proved to be short-lived. The Harley clones saturated a motorcycle market that had become sharply segmented, with narrowly focused sport bikes on the other side of the coin. (Somewhat ironically, Harley would have a 16-year run with its first true muscle bike, the 2002-2017 V-Rod, though many Harley purists professed disdain for it.)
Japan’s V-twin cruisers, meanwhile, would get larger and more powerful, but despite some flashes of ingenuity (Suzuki’s first Intruder and the Yamaha Road Star Warrior, for example), these would always be rooted in imitation.
The Kawasaki KZ900 LTD was an original.
Our thanks to Daniel Schmitt & Co. Classic Car Gallery, in St. Louis, Missouri, for providing photos of the 1976 Kawasaki KZ900 LTD featured in our story. The bike is a never-titled LTD with just 2.9 miles that this classic car and motorcycle dealership sold to a collector a few years ago.