Kawasaki ZZ-R 1100

Source: Superbike, April 1995

Speed, and lots of it: 174 blistering mph; 10.5 second standing quarter miles, big numbers and huge thrills. That's what usually first springs to mind at the mention of Kawasaki's crushing ZZ-R 1100. The big Zed remains the fastest production bike ever built and it has been, assuming the mantle from its ZX-10 predecessor, ever since it first burst onto the world four years ago.

Launched in 1990 along with the sibling ZZ-R 600, the ZZ-R 1100 was a logical successor to the ZX-10, which in turn had evolved from the original king, the GPZ900R Ninja before it. The ZZ-R not only had a bulletproof (and ballistic) 1052cc version of that original 16-valve, transverse four (distinctive by the cam chain housing down the right-hand side, rather than in the centre of the block) it also had forced or 'Ram Air' induction which pressurised the huge airbox at high speed but also cure the ZX-10's infamous 4000rpm flat-spot.

It achieved both. The ZZ-R engine is phenomenal: smooth, flexible and free-revving, yet faster and faster and faster as the revs build.
Cracking open the throttle from 5000rpm on a ZZ-R is one of life's unique experiences. Even more power comes from the best know tweak of recent times - swapping the ZZ-Rs standard restricted carb tops with a set of those from a ZXR750 (cost around 110). Although most don't bother because it's not as if the ZZ-R's lacking power anyway. Oh, and by the way, when launched the ZZ-R also became the first production bike with 200mph on its speedo.

If all that inspires caution when considering it as a secondhand buy, there's no real need for worry. Fast it may be, but it's a much more rounded proposition than the likes of, say GSXR1100s. It's somehow calmer, less frantic and certainly a better tourer, and as such, though massively exhilarating when the mood takes you, much less of a hooligan buy. That sort tend to go for FireBlades instead.

That's reflected in the kind of people that buy ZZ-R11s, and has great repercussions for what you can expect when viewing one secondhand. Most owners tend to be mature, over 35, and the sort who've got their bonkers, laddish days behind them - but still like the occasional huge dollop of speed. As such, they're the sort who now know how to look after their bike, don't thrash it too often and want and can afford to adhere to proper service schedules, oil changes and the like

What's more, simply because of the silly speeds ZZ-Rs are capable of, they don't tend to get caned much anyway - certainly not in the same way an RGV250 would be. Thrashing a ZZ-R would mean 160mph everywhere and you either banned or dead. But even so, the big Kawasaki is as near indestructable as the come, mostly thanks to its impeccable heritage and continual refinement and development over the best part of ten years.

Handling-wise you never quite forget that the ZZ-R is a true heavyweight superbike. It's big, bulky and with a fair dose of all the roomy comfort that goes with it. But thanks to that huge and spiff beam frame and decent suspension it may be squidgy compared to outright sports bikes but it's still assured and predictable compared to everything else. Big weight makes it feel like a lumbering giant at low speeds, but at greater speed it can carve gracefully and let you use that warp drive engine easily.

The ZZ-R's bulk also makes it a reasonably comfortable tourer. The saddle is wide and comfy, the fairing (although the screen is a little low on the C models) is good and the tank is large enough for an easy 180 miles. it takes a pillion reasonably comfortable too, although the grab handle is a tad small. Sadly, because of the bulbous rear end hard luggage is tricky to fit and the flashing fuel warning lights (which start blinking away a good 30 miles too early and which also afflicted the first ZZ-R 600s) can annoy. Otherwise, the ZZ-R is superb.

Brakes are good and powerful, if again a touch mushy compared to the best of pure sportsbikes (Goodridges are a good investment to sharpen them up) and one suspension trick worth knowing, is to use the eccentric chain adjusters by turning them 180 degrees to raise rear height and sharpen steering a little.

Problems, as you might expect of a bike so well developed, are few and far between with most faults (and they're minor) centred around the engine rather than in it. The washer around the gearbox sprocket on the C models has been known to fail to lock the sprocket in place and if the sprocket comes off the chain it invariable smashed through the gearbox housing. All Cs were recalled in Jan '94 to have a new washer fitted. But check the gearbox housing carefully.

Owners of C2 models should also have received a recall notice about the rear brake hose clamp on the swing-arm because on some bikes there's a chance the hose is too long and could snag on the rear disc. While on the rear brake, check the pads - the ZZ-R eats them.

Grease nipples are all over the place on the rear suspension linkage so it might be worth checking to see if they've been used, by inquiring if the owner has a grease gun. Otherwise, servicing is relatively expensive, not because of the complexity of the engine but because (like its 600cc little brother) it takes best part of an hour to get the fairing off in the first place. Servicing intervals also come every 3000 miles which can be a bit of a hassle, alternating between major an minor. Cost is around 200 for a major.

Spares prices are reasonable, but plugs are expensive at around 8 each. Also remember to check tyres, sprockets and chains - the monster ZZ-R gets through them mercilessly.

Get that lot right and you'll be getting yourself a stupendous machine. The ZZ-R is not only a fantastic bike (although the later D models are much better with an improved fairing and much improved finish and detailing) but it's also readily available, very reliable and relatively cheap. Only the cost of insurance could put you off. But if, like all the others, you're over 35, that shouldn't bother you either.

Model History
1990: ZZ-R1100C1 launched, replaces ZX-10 as Kawasaki flagship. Has 200mph speedo and ram air. BIKE hits 174mph. Engine basically ZX-10 (and GPZ9 before it) with ectra 55cc (1052cc) and ram air induction designed to rid the bike of the ZX-10s legendary 4000rpm flatspot. Twin flashing fuel lights irritate. Blue/black or red/sliver.
1991: ZZ-R1100C2 unchanged bar new colours: black/grey or violet/metallic purple.
1992: ZZ-R1100C3 again unchanged bar new colours: mean and moody plain black or red/black.
1993: ZZ-R1100D1 a major redesign. Engine virtually unchanged except for new twin ram air intakes under the headlight. But frame and fairing are all-new. Side rails are stamped sheet alloy, steering head and swing arm pivot are massive alloy castings. Front discs go from 310 to 320mm; wheelbase, rake and trail all increase; rear tyre is a wider 180-section. Fairing is less bulbous but improves protection greatly. Overall finish much improved. Partly 'cos now made in USA! (where launch was). Annoying flashing fuel warning lights now replaced by a fuel gauge. Colours: violet/orange or black/grey.
1994: ZZ-R1100D2 blue or red.