Recently, my motorcycling has come full circle as in the garage at present is my father’s Royal Enfield 11 plate Bullet EFI, a 1994 Yamaha FZR600 (3HE) and finally, a 1999 Kawasaki ZX-6R G2. The reason for the previous comment? My first memories of motorcycling was sitting on the tank of a 350cc AJS of some sort as my dad rode around the streets of my youth. And then, when aged sixteen, the bike to be seen on was most definitely the Yamaha, rather than the Simson S51 that I was riding. Fast forward many years to the year 2000 and I was fortunate to be commuting to and from work on a 1986 Kawasaki GPZ600R, the original SuperSport racer for the road and what a machine that was, which is why, when the ZX-6R came up a few short months ago, it was a done deal before the print had even dried on the advert. Massive thanks for such a great machine from ritebike of Bradford, I can’t recommend them highly enough.
All of this preamble highlights how quickly fashion and motorcycling has changed here in the UK over the last thirty or so years. Pre GPZ, a middleweight sports bike was a very different animal. In fact, it can be argued that the SuperSport 600 changed the landscape of motorcycling forever, introducing technology and innovation at regular intervals ever since.
In 1985, motorcycling was at a crossroads as riders were becoming more and more demanding with their expectations. No longer was the idea of an air cooled 4 cylinder twin cam engine enough, twin shocks and bikini fairings were starting to look old fashioned and riders were looking for more than around 57bhp from their middleweight sports bikes. That’s not to say that the Kawasaki GPz550 was a bad bike, it certainly wasn’t, it’s just that it had been out since 1981 and the next generation was waiting in the wings. Kawasaki though, had been planning ahead and had already realised that the landscape was changing, their designers and engineers taking this on board and preparing for the future. A future that included light weight, water cooling, increased power and race track inspired handling and with Kawasaki traditionally building powerful engines with excellent top speeds, they were already in the driving seat when it came to meeting this brave new World head on.
The GPZ600R has long been seen as the father of the modern SuperSport era and it’s easy to be dismissive of the innovation and forward thinking that was designed into the Kawasaki from the off. In 1985 Kawasaki had created a motorcycle that weighed (dry) just 195kg yet delivering an equally impressive 75bhp at 10500rpm meaning that the GPZ600R could go on to a quite incredible, for the time, 127.5mph. Not quite the 140mph that Kawasaki would prefer you to believe but quite an achievement out in the real world. And that’s not all. The Kawasaki arrived in dealerships sporting a four stroke, transverse four cylinder, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder, water cooled engine with a capacity of 592cc with power being augmented through it’s 6 speed gearbox.
Motorcycle manufacturers had already moved on from providing the consumer with power in abundance held together by a frame that was barely up to the task and so the GPZ was furnished with 37mm air assisted forks with AVDS adjustable anti dive technology, as up to date as it got in 1985, whilst at the rear there was a single air assisted shock adjustable for rebound damping. Combining this state of the art suspension with a steel perimeter chassis clad in ‘race replica’ bodywork became the overriding successful formula that would be copied by every other Japanese manufacturer within a few years.
But technology waits for no man/woman and so it is with motorcycling as the GPZ600R remained top dog for only a few short years before being superseded by the incoming GPX600R. One letter different but a lot of changes to contend with. The problem for Kawasaki back in the late 80s was the emergence of a new breed of competition in the shape of Honda’s CBR600 and Yamaha’s FZ600, soon to evolve into the FZR600 3HE once we got to 1989, all of which moved the SuperSport segment forward once more.
The GPX was released into this maelstrom in 1988 with some major changes over the preceding 600R, such as a new double cradle frame, a different anti dive system (ESCS-Electronic Suspension Control System) improving the AVDS (Automatic Variable Damping System) from the GPZ. Also, the GPX brought more power, 84bhp against 76bhp in the GPZ combined with a much higher top speed of 140 mph against the GPZ’s 127.5 mph. Despite all of this it was clear from the start that Honda had stolen a march on their rivals with the increasing sophistication of their evergreen CBR600, a motorcycle that held the hard to reach middle ground of being a bike for all riders. The Honda was more than capable of providing the commuter with a fun and reliable machine upon which to pile on the weekday miles whilst still providing the kick up the backside that riders wanted from their sports bikes. The GPX was already starting to look one step behind the competition and in the increasingly competitive 600 class, close was not really good enough.
So what to do? Kawasaki had always been known for designing barnstorming engines and wrapping them in up to date bodywork but the GPX just didn’t appear to cut it as a sportsbike with the consumer preferring, as they did, the SuperSport rivals from Honda, Yamaha et al. Despite this, you could still buy a brand new UK GPX600R right up until 1996, it was and is a great all rounder, it just wasn’t up to the standards of a race replica and that’s where it fell down. Good but not good enough.
Unused to such competition the designers and engineers at Kawasaki were determined not to underestimate the opposition and so we get to perhaps the first true SuperSport 600 that would not be embarrassed out on the roads of this green and pleasant land of ours today, the 1995-1997 Kawasaki ZX-6R. Kawasaki’s F-series ZX-6R was, according to road tests of the day, serious competition for Honda’s CBR600 and a welcome return to form after the disappointing GPX. Displacing 599cc and producing 105bhp at 12,500rpm and a top speed of around 155mph, the Kawasaki can still raise a smile today, but measured against the latest SuperSport machines it feels harsh and crude, but to be fair, you’re on a bike that is 22 years old and has more than likely had a number of different owners with differing levels of mechanical ability. It’s testament to the quality of the original design that we can even talk about the bike in fairly modern terms. Of course, If you’re buying on a budget then it’s certainly worth a look, but Suzuki’s GSX-R600 is said to be quicker on track, while the CBR has it beaten for practicality and build quality.
All of which brings us to the next step up in the evolution of Kawasaki’s SuperSport contenders. A story that will continue in Part 2.
Where will you go?