Kawasaki’s fantastically fun KR-1 was a fickle failure
For some enthusiasts, motorcycling’s most exciting ever era is that of the two-stroke—when shrieking “stinkwheels” dominated the world’s racetracks, and street riders too could get their kicks on light, powerful bikes that made rasping exhaust notes and clouds of blue smoke.
The two-stroke’s racing dominance ended in 2002, when Valentino Rossi won the inaugural MotoGP title on Honda’s four-stroke RC211V, confirming the demise of the fearsome, 500cc factory V-4s that had ruled the tracks since the mid-’80s.
On the road, the two-stroke’s heyday was arguably the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the dream bike of young riders in a hurry was a sporty 250cc stroker—preferably Kawasaki’s KR-1, Suzuki’s RGV250, or Yamaha’s TZR250.
These quarter-liter race-replicas had engine capacities of no more than a cheap shampoo bottle, but they were a feisty breed. Their rev-happy twin-cylinder engines made 49 hp and gave top speeds of 130 mph, and their aluminum frames helped keep weight below 287 pounds.
Most importantly, their narrow power bands and sweet-steering chassis made every ride down a twisty road an opportunity to imagine you were lapping a Grand Prix circuit with factory 500cc aces Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey or 250cc maestro Sito Pons.
Kawasaki’s glory days in two-stroke racing were even further back, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the firm had won four titles with the KR250, a “tandem twin” whose cylinders sat in line with the bike. By contrast, the KR-1’s cylinders were set across its frame in conventional, parallel-twin format.
That twin-spar aluminum frame confirmed how far motorcycle technology had come since the days of the steel-framed KR250. The frame held thick front forks and a single rear shock unit operated via a rising-rate linkage system.
The KR-1’s full fairing could have come straight from a race bike, apart from its headlight and mirrors. It was finished in striking red, white, and black or the more traditional Kawasaki combination of white, light green, and blue.
Behind that fairing, the 249cc engine was liquid-cooled and featured a racing-style, six-speed gearbox that could be disassembled from the side. The exhaust system incorporated KIPS—Kawasaki’s power-valve system, designed to add torque at low revs. The maximum output of 54 hp was impressive for such a small powerplant.
There was no mistaking the KR-1’s aggressive intent, from the moment I climbed aboard. Its handlebars are clip-ons, mounted below the top yoke; the pillion seat is a thin piece of foam. At a standstill the Kawasaki seems almost ridiculously light, slim and manuverable, thanks to its claimed dry weight of just 271 pounds.
Starting is effortless. The lightest of pressure is required on the kickstarter to bring the two-stroke engine crackling into life, with a puff of smoke and that distinctive smell that has long been lost from high-performance bikes.
Pulling away is easy enough, too, though the little liquid-cooled lump is slightly rough until it warms up, and even after that its low-rev response is feeble. The Kawasaki chokes and wheezes below 5000 rpm, and pulls more strongly from that point, though still without any real enthusiasm …
Until its tacho needle hits about 7500 rpm, when the KR-1 awakes in a rage. Suddenly it was all sound, fury and aggression, screaming forward with the tacho needle flicking towards the 11,500 rpm redline while my left boot jabbed at the gearlever to keep up.
In the first three gears there is high-revving fun to be had at legal-ish speeds. By 8000rpm and into the power band in fourth gear, it was doing an indicated 80 mph, tearing forward with two cogs and 50 mph still to go.
The leant-forward riding position encourages throttle-to-the-stop behavior, especially as the fairing and screen give a useful amount of wind protection. Some riders have complained of numb hands from vibration, and there was a bit of a buzz at around 7000 rpm, but that wasn’t a problem on my relatively short ride.
If the little Kawasaki’s straight-line speed was impressive, its handling was better still. That stout twin-spar frame feels sufficiently rigid to have coped with twice the engine’s power output. And the bike’s light weight, racy geometry and 17-inch diameter front wheel mean it can be flicked into bends with a caress of the bars.
Suspension is firm without being harsh and sufficiently well damped to keep things under control. The KR-1 sometimes felt slightly twitchy on a bumpy road, but I had to try hard to get it seriously out of shape. Its brakes and tires are excellent, too.
That all adds up to a deliciously quick, agile, responsive, and enjoyable machine with the potential to make any road ride feel like a GP. The Kawasaki lived up to expectations on the track back in ’89, too, with numerous production race victories.
Inevitably with such a focused bike, there are drawbacks. The thin seat quickly becomes painful. Fuel range from the 4.2-gallon tank could drop below 90 miles with hard use (and why would you ride it any other way?). And the motor drank two-stroke oil almost as fast as it did gas, requiring frequent replenishing of the under-seat tank.
More seriously, the KR-1 was far from the best finished or most reliable model that Kawasaki has ever produced. The fact that many were raced and most were ridden hard doesn’t excuse the fact that the engine suffered with a variety of problems including piston failure.
At least Kawasaki acted quickly to update it. Just a year after its launch the model was replaced by the KR-1S, which produced an extra 5 hp and featured a new frame, suspension, and front brake—all of which made the two-stroke an even quicker and more track-ready machine.
Unfortunately for Kawasaki, what the revision didn’t do was make the KR a commercial success. Despite the twin’s performance, and some notable production racing successes, the 1S sold in relatively small numbers. At the end of 1992, after just four years, it was dropped from the range.
The rev-happy twin hadn’t lasted long, but it had given Kawasaki’s image a boost, and had become a cult machine for a small group of enthusiasts. Three decades later that passion remains. The era of two-stroke race-replicas is long gone. But for as long as bikes like the KR-1 are ridden and enjoyed, the stinkwheels will be fondly remembered.
1989 Kawasaki KR-1
Highs: Race bike–style thrills on the road
Lows: Race bike–style comfort and cost
Summary: Addictive speed, sound, and smell
Price: Project, $7K; nice ride, $11K; showing off, $15K*
Engine: Liquid-cooled, two-stroke parallel twin
Capacity: 249 cc
Maximum power: 54 hp @ 10,500rpm
Weight: 271 pounds without fluids
Top speed: 130 mph
*The KR-1 was not sold in the U.S.; note that these prices do not factor in cost of importation.