The Complete History of Kawasaki Motorcycles

Kawasaki Motors was the last of the surviving Big Four manufacturers to enter Japan’s motorcycle business, although like its wartime peers Fuji and Mitsubishi it did make an aborted foray into scooter manufacturing during the early 1950s. Details about the vast and diverse Kawasaki Heavy Industries Corporation could fill several volumes, and while Kawasaki documents many of its manufacturing divisions extensively, it dedicates just three pages of its 1997 published history to its motorcycle operations.

Kawasaki Motorcycle History Ninja ZX-14R

This is perhaps appropriate because Kawasaki Motors makes up only a fraction of this vast corporation’s global operations, but it is undoubtedly the conglomerate’s most recognized division. Kawasaki does, however, document the origins of the motorcycle division’s parent firm, the Kawasaki Aircraft Company, in detail in a separate volume. This source illustrates the aircraft manufacturer’s steady growth during the transwar era and leaves little doubt as to the extent of the firm’s technological capabilities.

A late entrant to the motorcycle market, Kawasaki’s rapid success in the field stemmed from a long history of engine and turbine design and manufacturing. In April 1876, Kawasaki Shozo (born 10 August 1837) established the Kawasaki Tsukiji Shipyard alongside the Sumida River in Chuo ward, Tokyo, with the support of Prince Matsukata Masayoshi (1835-1924), who was then Japan’s vice minister of finance. When the first Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, the company received extensive orders for ship repairs.

Immediately after the war’s end in 1895, Kawasaki decided to take the company public, and in 1896 the firm was incorporated as the Kawasaki Dockyard Company. As Kawasaki Shozo approached sixty years of age without a son old enough to succeed him, he chose Matsukata Kojiro (1865-1950) to lead the company into the next era. Kojiro, Matsukata Masayoshi’s third son, served as the president of Kawasaki Dockyard for thirty-two years, from 1892 to 1928. During that time, the firm diversified its interests broadly, expanding into shipping and the manufacture of steam turbines, submarines, locomotives, rolling stock, and, of course, aircraft.

As Kawasaki grew, its principal divisions were spun off into separate entities (look at the figure above). The first to branch off was its marine freight department, Kawasaki Steamship Lines, or K-line, which was incorporated in 1919. In 1928, the company’s Hyogo works was incorporated separately as Kawasaki Rolling Stock Manufacturing Company. Kawasaki’s aircraft department had been established in this manufacturing plant in 1918, but in 1922 a new plant for aircraft construction was established at Sohara (today Kakamigahara City) in Gifu prefecture.

Here it began producing its first surveillance biplane, the Type Otsu 1, for Japan’s military. Kawasaki built roughly three hundred of these aircraft over the next five years. The aircraft department was spun off in 1937 as the Kawasaki Aircraft Company Limited. In 1938, the year after Japan’s invasion of China, Kawasaki sought to expand its operations at Gifu, but there was insufficient space to construct additional manufacturing and aircraft testing facilities. Consequently, the Imperial Japanese Army encouraged Kawasaki to construct a new plant just west of Akashi City in Hyogo prefecture, where there was enough land available (1.8 square kilometres, or 0.7 square miles) to build both a new factory and a pilot training ground. Kawasaki then moved its existing Kobe Motors plant to Akashi, where Kawasaki’s motorcycle production later began.

Kawasaki Aircraft designed and built a series of fighter and escort aircraft for Japan’s military until the end of the Second World War. Its products included a long-range escort and ground attack aircraft called the Ki-45 Toryu¯, or "Dragon Slayer," which emerged in September 1941 and was dubbed "Nick" by the Allies. The frame was designed and manufactured by Kawasaki, but it featured a pair of air-cooled, fourteen-cylinder, radial piston engines designed by Mitsubishi Aircraft. From 1941, Kawasaki also produced its own engine through a licensing arrangement with Daimler-Benz. Known as the Ki-61 Hien, or "Flying Swallow" (and called "Tony" by the Allies), this aircraft was based upon the Messerschmitt Aircraft Company’s Me109 and Me210 designs, all the parts for which were purchased from Germany by Japan’s army in June 1941 and January 1943, respectively.

The aircraft were disassembled and shipped to Japan aboard German navy submarines, and the engineers at Kawasaki Aircraft studied, sketched, and assembled each of the fighters over three-month periods. The engineers found the German designs and production methods highly innovative, but Kawasaki’s test pilots did not consider their performance in the air especially remarkable. Nevertheless, the engine casting plant at Akashi reproduced the Daimler-Benz engine, known as the DB 601-A, which was an inverted, liquid-cooled, V-12 cylinder machine. The resulting Kawasaki powerplant, designated the Ha-40, produced 1,175 horsepower and was the only liquid-cooled fighter engine manufactured in Japan during the war. Not limited to merely copying the Daimler-Benz engine, Kawasaki’s engineers later produced an improved version known as the Ha-140 that produced 1,450 horsepower.

Known to the army as simply the Type-3 fighter, the Ki-61 had its first flight in December 1941 and saw combat for the first time in the spring of 1943 during Japan’s campaign in New Guinea. Over 2,600 units were issued during its production run, and it later served as a defence against US B-29s, although too few remained by 1945 to be a significant deterrent to American air raids. In January 1945, Kawasaki was working on two versions of an updated model called the Ki-61-II, but only ninety-nine were completed before the firm’s engine plant was bombed on 19 January.

In an effort to make use of 275 remaining airframes, Kawasaki’s engineers substituted the Mitsubishi Ha-112-II radial piston engine for the usual V-12 powerplant and issued what it called the Ki-100 fighter. Although this turned out to be a tremendous design that performed exceptionally well against US fighters, too few were produced to be effective against the American advance. Production continued until the company’s operations at Hyogo were bombed by thirty B-29s on 22 June 1945 and again by ninety planes on 26 June, resulting in the destruction of Kawasaki’s engine and assembly plants.

By the time Japan surrendered on 15 August, Kawasaki records that it had designed, tested, and built roughly 11,600 aircraft. Crippling material shortages notwithstanding, the firm contends that its designs remained competitive and that its technical skill was closing in on international standards. With the end of the war, operations were idled until GHQ had assessed Japan’s industrial base and issued its ruling on which plants were to continue peacetime production and which were to be terminated. GHQ banned all aircraft design, testing, and production in the late summer of 1945.

For Kawasaki Aircraft, this directive meant that its bombed-out plants would have to convert, at least temporarily, to the production of other goods. This familiar pattern parallels the experiences of the Suzuki Automatic Loom Company, Nippon Gakki, and the Mitsubishi and Fuji aircraft companies. Early after the war, Kawasaki made arrangements to produce such items as firefighting equipment, duralumin suitcases, electric kettles, radio cabinets, typewriters, farm implements, and small engines. As a former manufacturer of its own V-12 aircraft engines, Kawasaki’s engineers were a uniquely skilled group, but the production of small engines for agricultural use was a significant shift in both purpose and scale. Combined with the difficulty in procuring production material, the Akashi works struggled to stay busy while General Douglas MacArthur and his staff considered its future.

In 1946, GHQ’s strict ban on aircraft production was relaxed, and on 12 June it announced that its total prohibition was “deleted” and replaced by the following order:

" You will permit no individual or group under your jurisdiction to develop or execute plans for the design, manufacture, procurement or operation of any aircraft, components or devices designed therefor; or for procurement outside of Japan of such services, except as specifically authorized by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers."

This new policy permitted some leeway, and as Kawasaki awaited the opportunity to again manufacture aircraft, its Gifu plant began manufacturing bus and truck bodies as a subcontractor for the Isuzu Motor Company. At this time, Kawasaki Aircraft had three divisions: Kawasaki Aircraft, in Akashi, Hyogo prefecture; Kawasaki Gifu Manufacturing, in Sohara, Gifu prefecture; and Kawasaki Machine Industries, in Takatsuki City, Osaka prefecture. Although Japan’s aircraft industry remained idle until the Treaty of Peace with Japan came into effect in March 1952, former military aircraft producers were called upon to service and repair US aircraft following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950.

This seven-year delay was a difficult obstacle to overcome, but Kawasaki had been able to maintain a baseline of technical skills and equipment through its interim role as a service subcontractor for the Douglas Aircraft Company of the United States. After aircraft production resumed, Kawasaki began developing the KAL-1 transport plane at its Gifu plant, while its Akashi works focused on the development of helicopters based on an agreement signed in 1952 with the Bell Aircraft Corporation of the United States. In 1954, Kawasaki produced six Kawasaki-Bell 47D-1 helicopters – the first helicopters built in Japan – for the nation’s Ground Self-Defense Forces.

At the end of the 1940s, meanwhile, Kawasaki’s management began laying the groundwork for its foray into motorcycle production. In 1949, aircraft engineers at the Kawasaki Machine Industries plant in Takatsuki began designing the company’s first motorcycle engine, an air-cooled, four-stroke, one-cylinder, overhead-valve, 148 cc machine, which they dubbed the KE, for "Kawasaki Engine." The prototype was completed in 1952, and Kawasaki began manufacturing the design in 1953.

For that purpose, Kawasaki established a subsidiary called Meihatsu Industries to oversee the production and distribution of a scooter equivalent to the Rabbit and Silver Pigeon scooters then being produced by Fuji and Mitsubishi, respectively.121 Kawasaki Machine Industries manufactured the engine in Takatsuki, and the Kawasaki automotive plant at Sohara, Gifu (which continued to build bus bodies for Isuzu) began building scooters with the KE motor in October 1953. Although the new Kawasaki brand scooter was priced competitively at ¥90,000, the company had no effective domestic sales network and therefore discontinued production after completing just two hundred units. As a munitions corporation, its principal customers had theretofore been Japan’s government, major rail companies, the army, the navy, GHQ, Douglas Aircraft, and Bell Helicopter, so Kawasaki did not have a great deal of consumer product sales or marketing experience. Though a skilled manufacturer, Kawasaki had not considered the challenges of bringing its new scooter to market, and the product was a failure.

In February 1954, the Kawasaki Aircraft and Kawasaki Machine Industries divisions merged, and, spotting another opportunity in a converging market, the company’s head office decided in July to enter the motorcycle industry. Under the joint company name of Kawasaki-Meihatsu, the parent company and its subsidiary worked together and followed Yamaha’s lead by developing a 125 cc engine called the KB-5 at the Kawasaki Aircraft plant in Kobe in 1955. At this point, Kawasaki designed and manufactured the engines, and the finished motorcycles were named Meihatsu. The KB-5 engine was installed in the Meihatsu brand 125-500 motorcycle in that year, and customers were pleased by the responsive torque that it produced at low and mid-range rpm.

The same engine was also installed in the Meihatsu 125 Deluxe, which debuted in 1956, and Kawasaki produced a modified version of the engine, called the KB-5A, in 1957. The 125 Deluxe was well received by industry writers, who reported that it reached a top speed of 81.5 km/h (51 mph), and it also completed a 50,000-km (30,068-mile) endurance test without breaking down. Kawasaki-Meihatsu also supplied engines to a variety of contemporary "assembly makers" throughout Japan, such as the Ito Motor Company and the Rocket Company. The latter company, however, judged Kawasaki’s engine too expensive and discontinued its use in the Queen Rocket motorcycle.

By 1959, the company was pleased with the performance of its Kawasaki-Meihatsu motorcycle division, and, like the three companies profiled above, Kawasaki determined that in order to compete effectively, a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant was required. The firm therefore erected a factory at 1-1 Kawasaki-cho, in Akashi, Hyogo prefecture, dedicated to production of complete motorcycles bearing only the name Kawasaki. Construction of the plant began in January 1960, and mass production of the 125 cc Kawasaki New Ace commenced in November of that year. At the Japan Auto Show in October 1960, Kawasaki displayed its newest 125 cc designs for the 1961 model year, the Pet M5 and the B7.

The Pet M5 was styled as a utility motorcycle, but because it boasted Kawasaki’s 125 cc engine, it appealed to firms in Japan’s service industry that wanted more power than Honda’s 50 cc Super Cub could offer. These new products sold well: production rose sharply from 5,400 machines in 1960 to 17,000 in the following year. The former subsidiary Meihatsu Industries, meanwhile, was absorbed by its parent in 1961 and converted into Kawasaki’s sales division under the name Kawasaki Auto Sales.

Kawasaki’s attention turned in 1960 to the troubled Meguro Manufacturing. Meguro was then Japan’s longest-running motorcycle maker, and it had remained one of the industry’s leading firms until the late 1950s. A manufacturing veteran, Meguro had issued its first four-stroke, 500 cc engine in 1937. By the mid-1950s, the styling of its motorcycles bore a strong British influence that was popular with consumers, but when Meguro’s designers tried to update their image in 1958, consumers deemed the new 125 cc, 250 cc, and 350 cc products too heavy, and sales were dismal. Its designers also tried to produce a 50 cc moped, but consumers found it too expensive, and the project was a failure.

In 1960, Meguro agreed to enter into a development partnership with Kawasaki, whose engineers learned a great deal about building four-stroke engines from the senior manufacturer. In 1962, Kawasaki released the first motorcycle both designed and built by its own engineers, the 125 cc B8, which performed well in the market. Kawasaki was the financially dominant partner in the relationship with Meguro, and having learned what it needed to know, it absorbed the elder firm formally in October 1964.

Like the industry’s leading firms, Kawasaki understood that in order to be taken seriously as a manufacturer it had to perform well in races. Well aware that Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha were several laps ahead on the world Grand Prix circuit, Kawasaki decided to focus first on motocross racing, which was growing especially popular in western Japan at that time. In 1963, the company’s designers issued the B8M, a motocross model with a distinctive red fuel tank, and with it Kawasaki’s riders took the top six positions at that year’s Hyogo Prefecture Motocross Tournament. Despite its recent arrival to the sport, Kawasaki went on to win most of the motocross races in western Japan that year, including every event at the Fukui Prefecture Motocross Tournament, prompting the media to dub the Kawasaki racing sensation the "Red Tank Furor." Kawasaki’s dealers rode the wave of media attention, and the company’s reputation continued to hit new highs as it performed well in international races throughout the 1960s.

In parallel, export sales had begun in 1960 and were supported by Kawasaki’s reputation for designing larger, faster motorcycles than its competitors The company’s product development engineers broke new ground in 1965 by designing Kawasaki’s first 650 cc motorcycle, the W1. Powered by an air-cooled, two-stroke, parallel twin-cylinder engine featuring rotary disk valves, the W1 was aimed at both Japanese and Western consumers. Its styling owed much to the machines once produced by former partner Meguro, which had closely resembled British makes. The W1 marked Kawasaki’s arrival in the United States as a “big bike” maker.

Thereafter, steady progress in international racing improved Kawasaki’s position as a world-class competitor and manufacturer. In 1966, Kawasaki’s first 125 cc Grand Prix racing machine, the KAC Special, took seventh and eighth places in the final race of the FIM (Fédération internationale de motocyclisme) World Championship. In the same year, its 250 cc A1R racing model finished second in the All-Japan Championship. At the Singapore Grand Prix race in 1967, Kawasaki entered the 350 cc class race with its A7R and took both first and second places, while the 250 cc A1R finished second and third. Determined to improve its standing in 125 cc class races, Kawasaki also developed a new machine for the Japan round of the 1967 FIM World Championship. Known as the KA-2, it boasted a liquid-cooled, V-4, 124 cc engine, and with it Kawasaki’s race team took third and fourth places.

In 1968, the company issued a three-cylinder, 500 cc production model known overseas as the H1 (and domestically as the 500SS Mach III) that could reach 200 km/h (124 mph), prompting significant safety concerns throughout Japan. In 1969, Kawasaki rider Dave Simmonds at last scored victories in both the West German Grand Prix and the Isle of Mann TT Race, winning that year’s overall championship series atop his KR1. Although several years behind its principal rivals, Kawasaki had finally arrived at the podium to confirm its status as one of Japan’s Big Four manufacturers.

In 1970, just a year after Kawasaki’s three machinery divisions merged to form Kawasaki Heavy Industries, annual motorcycle production neared 150,000 units. In 1972, Kawasaki bid to out-gun its leading rival, Honda, by producing Japan’s largest postwar export motorcycle to date – a 900 cc machine named the Z1. Nicknamed “New York Steak” during its five-year development program, the Z1 was powered by the world’s first air-cooled, in-line four-cylinder engine, which boasted dual overhead camshafts. The bold marketing strategy behind the Z1 was met with enthusiasm by consumers, and it enjoyed strong reviews and sales.

In Japan, the domestic Z2 was released in 1973 with only 750 cc and also enjoyed widespread popularity, but the overseas success of the Z1 kept Kawasaki on top as the maker of Japan’s largest production motorcycle for much of the decade. Honda did not begin issuing 900 cc machines until the late 1970s.

Having set its sights on the motorcycle market, Kawasaki was clearly a powerful competitor. The wartime experience earned while producing the Daimler-Benz 601-A aircraft engine was its principal technological advantage over firms that had produced nothing but motorcycles for the last four decades. Furthermore, its determined investment in a brand-new, fully automated manufacturing plant set the stage for its late-entry bid for market share. Timing, in this case, was critical, for the vast majority of makers had already departed from the industry when Kawasaki built its dedicated motorcycle manufacturing plant at Akashi in 1960. Armed with products designed and built by Kawasaki Aircraft and fuelled by international racing victories, Kawasaki Motors was well positioned to move into the motorcycle market of the 1960s, and the firm capitalized fully on its financial advantage over even the most veteran manufacturers.