The Kawasaki Ninja is a legend in motorcycle circles, a nameplate that has survived while others have been replaced with alphanumeric designations in the tradition of cars from Europe. The Hurricane and Fireblade became the CBR, the Katana became the GSX, and the Interceptor became the VFR. Surprisingly, the Ninja name, along with Kawasaki’s signature green before it, was conceived in the United States, not in Kawasaki’s home country of Japan.
First affixed to the 1984 Ninja 900 (aka GPZ900R) and famous for being Maverick’s bike in the 1980s movie Top Gun, the Ninja name has adorned Kawasaki’s highest performing models and several that were the fastest production motorcycles of their time, including the current king, the Ninja H2. However, the Ninja name is also used on smaller displacement sportbikes, down to the diminutive, single-cylinder Ninja 80RR that was available in some markets in Asia.
Behind the Ninja is the might of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a multinational corporation that manufactures heavy machinery, robotics, aerospace and defense equipment, gas turbines, and ships. Established in 1896 by Kawasaki Shōzō, who had previously worked with samurai in the Kagoshima prefecture of Japan, the company would build its first motorcycle in 1953, 41 years after the founder Kawasaki’s passing.
The Ninja has ruled the world, both on the streets and on the racetrack, winning championships in road racing, endurance racing, and drag racing around the world. With such a long and storied past, there are many facts about Ninjas that riders may not realize, so we have compiled a list of 20 little-known facts about Ninja bikes.
20 They Will Never Build A Bike This Fast Again
Established in 1980 by national champion drag racer Terry Vance and legendary tuner Byron Hines, Vance & Hines is a leading manufacturer of motorcycle performance parts, most notably their popular exhaust systems. When the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10 was released in 1988, it was the first production motorcycle to reach speeds over 165 mph, producing a claimed 135 horsepower. Byron Hines purchased one and promptly crated it up and placed in on a shelf in his warehouse, proclaiming that the manufacturers would never produce a bike this powerful again. He was, of course, wrong and Kawasaki produced an even faster, more powerful ZX-11 just two years later. It would reach 176 mph with 145 horsepower on tap.
On the southern island of Japan, on top of a mountain range and within a national park, sits a racetrack called Autopolis. Competed in 1990 at a cost of $500 million, the track was meant to attract Formula 1 racing but it never held an F1 race. The track was too remote for such an event and the only major international event it hosted was the 1991 World Sportscar Championship final race. The owner and builder of the track, investment banker Tomonori Tsurumaki, went broke and the track closed in 1993. The track and facilities sat virtually dormant until the whole setup was purchased by Kawasaki in 2005 and it now hosts various races, as well as being the test track of choice for Kawasaki’s Ninja.
18 Rob Muzzy
Legendary tuner and race team owner Rob Muzzy was hired by Kawasaki as a mechanic in 1980 and together, they won the AMA Superbike titles from 1981 to 1983. In 1988, he opened his namesake exhaust and performance parts business and in 1990, he started his own racing team with help from Kawasaki, winning and coming second in the AMA Superbike Championship in its first year, his riders piloting the Ninja ZX-7. Moving to racing in Europe, Team Muzzy Kawasaki’s Ninjas would win the 1993 World Superbike and World Endurance championships. More championships would follow in road racing and drag racing and the Muzzy name is now synonymous with Ninja performance.
17 Kork Ballington Swears By The Ninja
Motorcycle racers know about high performance; it’s their lives. Four-time Grand Prix motorcycle road racing champion Kork Ballington helped develop Kawasaki’s first 500cc Grand Prix racing machine, the KR500—designed with a square-four engine and unconventional monocoque frame—and he competed on it between 1980 and 1982. Kork retired in 1988 and the South African moved to Australia to start a new life. In 2012, he was invited back to the UK track at Snetterton to ride his old KR500, as well as a new ZX-10R, and upon returning to the pits on the new Ninja, was moved to swear (literally) in excitement, later proclaiming, “I could not believe how much road bikes have come on. It made my old GP bike seem tame by comparison”.
16 Ninjas Return To MotoGP After 20 Years
Kawasaki exited the Grand Prix World Championship after the 1982 season on the KR500 that Kork Ballington helped develop. It would be another 20 years before Kawasaki would return, this time with the Ninja ZX-RR MotoGP machine piloted by Australian Andrew Pitt and a rider from Japan named Akira Yanagawa. Meant for prototype racing, as opposed to being production based, the Ninja ZX-RR featured an inline-four engine developing over 200 horsepower, an aluminum twin-spar perimeter frame, Öhlins suspension, and advanced carbon brakes. Between 2002 and 2008, the Ninja ZX-RR would finish as high as second place at three races before Kawasaki again withdrew from MotoGP at the end of the 2008 season.
15 Homologated For Racing
A motorcycle being “homologated” for racing means that the governing body for the race series has approved that particular model for production racing, often by having the manufacturer prove that it is or will be available for sale to the public in certain pre-approved minimum numbers. “Homologation specials” are bikes that are produced by the manufacturer in the bare minimum numbers specifically so that they can be used in racing and they often sport upgraded equipment or improved specifications compared to the regular versions of the same model. In 1991 and 1992, Kawasaki produced a homologation special Ninja ZX-7R that featured an aluminum tank, solo seat, and flatslide carburetors, all meant to give Ninja riders an advantage on the track.
14 Lou Reed
Lou Reed, the late rock musician, is probably best known for his classic hit “Walk on the Wild Side” that was released in 1972 (although “Sweet Jane” and “Rock N Roll Animal” are almost as well recognized). Lou was a big fan of motorcycles and was shown riding one in the video for his song, “I Love You Suzanne”. But his love of Ninjas is best expressed in his song “New Sensations” where he writes, “I took my GPZ out for a ride, the engine felt good between my thighs, the air felt cool, it's was forty degrees outside.” He would later appear in an ad for Honda scooters—but we won’t hold that against him.
13 Cheater Ninja
In the early 2000s, the 600cc Supersport class was quite popular, with models from Japan's big four manufacturers vying for sales and racing success. On the track, Supersport bikes were limited to 600cc of displacement but there were no such regulations on street bikes. With this in mind, the 2002 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6 model was conceived in two versions: the ZX-6RR, with 600cc of displacement and legal for road racing, and the ZX-6R, with 636cc of displacement for street riders. The two versions were nearly identical, with the RR version sporting a closer-ratio transmission and slippery clutch, while the R version enjoyed a more powerful mid-range afforded by the extra displacement.
12 The First Ninja Superbike
“Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” holds true with sportbikes more than anywhere else in the automotive world. Nowhere else can you purchase a showroom stock vehicle that is as close to the ones that are raced professionally than at your local motorcycle dealer. 1989 was the year that the Ninja went truly “Superbike” with the first generation ZX-7, one year after the inaugural season of World Superbike racing. Sporting a modern racing fairing, twin-spar aluminum frame, inline-four engine, and 17-inch wheels, the ZX-7 would go on to win multiple championships around the world and cement the Ninja name as racing legend.
11 Timeless 250
Previously, in some sportbike segments, major changes were made to models as often as every two years. More recently, four years is closer to the norm. But very few sportbikes go much more than that and only one comes to mind that survived major changes for over two decades: the Ninja 250R. Introduced in 1986, the small-displacement parallel-twin 250R was a great learner’s bike, with a very light weight, good handling, and a reasonable price. For many years, the little Ninja was the only real small-displacement sportbike available in the US, with competition finally arriving in 2004 in the form of Honda’s even smaller CBR125R. But before that, Ninjas ruled the beginner’s market.
10 Akashi Works Robots
Many Ninjas are built in Kawasaki’s Akashi Works factory in Hyogo prefecture, Japan. One of Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ other divisions, Kawasaki Robotics, specializes in industrial robotics and the Akashi Works utilizes them to full effect. According to Kawasaki, for some of their parts, 90% of the manufacturing process is automated. The image above shows a Ninja H2 frame being robotically welded at Akashi, where H2 swingarms are also robotically welded. As robotic technology advances, Kawasaki plans on further automating the manufacturing process and with Kawasaki Robotics at their disposal, they can be on the cutting edge of this development.
9 Akashi Works JIT
In simplified terms, just-in-time manufacturing (JIT) is a process developed in Japan whereby parts and supplies required for assembly of products arrive at the factory as close to the time they are needed as possible. Thus, if an assembly requires a particular widget, that widget only arrives at the factory right before it is required for assembly and only in suitably small quantities. This reduces the time and space required for the storage of said widgets and the practice helps speed up the entire assembly process. However, JIT as a methodology also involves many other factors, including elements of quality control, skills diversification, and cellular manufacturing. Kawasaki’s Akashi Works utilizes JIT to ensure fast, efficient, and dependable manufacturing of their signature Ninjas.
8 Class Creation
The 1985 Ninja 600R was Kawasaki’s first modern middleweight and their first bike with a perimeter frame, albeit in steel rather than the more exotic aluminum more common today (the limited edition Ninja 600RX version would have an aluminum perimeter frame in 1986). The 600R ushered in the era of the 600cc Supersport, with liquid-cooling, full fairing, and modern (for the era) suspension, brakes, and tires that caught the competition on their heels. It would take a couple of years for Honda to respond with their Hurricane 600 and Yamaha with their FZR600. Suzuki would wait until the next decade to truly jump into the 600cc Supersport fray, long after the 600R was replaced by the ZX-6.
7 Aluminum 600
The 1986 Ninja 600RX had a rare (for the era) aluminum frame but was only available in small numbers. When Kawasaki presented the ZX-6 for 1990, it was less racy than the 600RX, but was the fastest 600 in a straight line and was the only one with an aluminum frame. The Honda Hurricane 600 was razor sharp and the Yamaha FZR600 was even sharper but they both sported cost-cutting steel frames. In comparison, the Ninja ZX-6 was roomier, more comfortable, and a screamer in both acceleration and top speed. In 1995, the ZX-6 was demoted by the racy ZX-6R, but the ZX-6 remained in Kawasaki’s Ninja lineup as a sport touring model, with the emphasis on “sport."
6 Ninja H2 Collaboration
Released in 2015, the Kawasaki Ninja H2 remains the fastest production motorcycle on the planet today. To develop this groundbreaking motorcycle, Kawasaki turned to a few of its industrial divisions in a collaboration not seen in the development of any previous Ninja. Kawasaki Heavy Industry’s gas turbine division aided in the development of the H2’s supercharger, their aerospace division helped design the bodywork, and, as previously noted, Kawasaki Robotics is heavily involved in the Ninja’s assembly process. Because of this unprecedented collaboration, the Ninja H2 bears the Kawasaki River Mark, the historic emblem of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, on the nose.
5 Monocoque Frame
Merriam-Webster defines “monocoque” as “...a type of construction in which the outer skin carries all or a major part of the stresses." The 1980 Kawasaki KR500 Grand Prix bike used an unusual monocoque frame wherein the fuel tank was directly integrated into the frame. More than 20 years later, Kawasaki would use a similar design in the Ninja ZX-12R, becoming the first production motorcycle to use a monocoque frame. The Ninja differed from the KR500 in that it used the frame to house the airbox and battery, not the fuel tank, which was relocated under the seat. The resulting design allowed the Ninja to be narrower than if it had a conventional perimeter frame, thereby improving aerodynamics.
4 The Endurance King
The FIM Endurance World Championship consists of races lasting from eight to 24 hours, with two to three riders taking turns riding over the course of the race. Races are held on historic racetracks such as Paul Ricard, Suzuka, and Le Mans. The bikes are production-based, outwardly similar to those used in World Superbikes, but with operating lights and quick-change wheel systems. Kawasaki’s Ninjas won the Endurance World Championship every year from 1991 to 1994, earning their Ninja ZXR750R the title of “Endurance King." The Ninja would win the EWC again in 1996 but unfortunately, Kawasaki has not won the championship since then.
3 World Superbikes
The Superbike World Championship, also known as World Superbikes, had its inaugural season in 1988, won by Honda rider Fred Merkel on the legendary RC30. A year later, Kawasaki would release their ZX-7 production superbike and by 1993, they had won the championship with Scott Russell on a Muzzy Kawasaki Ninja ZX-7. However, Kawasaki would have to wait 20 more years for a Ninja to win the championship again, coming in the form of Tom Sykes in 2013 aboard the Ninja ZX-10R. Fortunately for Kawasaki, they are currently on a winning streak, having won the championship from 2015 to 2018 with Jonathan Rea at the controls.
2 Team Green
Lime Green is synonymous with Kawasaki and the Ninja, similar to World Rally Blue with Subaru and Rosso Corsa with Ferrari. Kawasaki race bikes were previously painted red, which, along with blue, yellow, and white, were common colors in racing in general. In 1968, Kawasaki USA decided to zig when everyone else was zagging so they developed the Lime Green hue and they painted their bikes Lime Green for the 1969 Daytona 200. The success of this and subsequent teams in Lime Green prompted Kawasaki to adopt it as their official team color, which led to its use on production bikes. Lime Green remains a popular color for Ninjas to this day.
1 AMA Superbikes
Kawasaki’s long history of Superbike racing in the United States starts with Reg Pridmore winning the second-ever AMA Superbike season on a Kawasaki in 1977. Future Grand Prix champions Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey would win on Kawasakis in 1981 (Lawson), 1982 (Lawson), and 1983 (Rainey). Doug Chandler would win on a Ninja in 1990, Scott Russel in 1992, and Chandler would come back to win 1996 and 1997 on the venerable Ninja. However, 1997 would be the last year that a Kawasaki would win the AMA Superbike Championship. For 2019, Kawasaki has offered over $1 million in contingency money for racing and winning on a Ninja, hopefully increasing the chances of a Ninja winning the championship soon.
Sources: Kawasaki, Cycle World, Rumble On, Gear Patrol, and Merriam-Webster.