The Japanese aren’t as strong in the cruiser scene as they used to be, but all of the Big Four still make these bikes. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s have never lived in a world without Shadows, Boulevards, Viragos, and so on. Whether you think these bikes are “legit,” or just rip-offs of Harley-Davidson, there is no question of their reliability and performance. Many of them don’t just look right, they even sound right, attracting lawsuits over their potato-potato output.
But there was a time when a Japanese cruiser was a radical idea. In the early 1970s, the Japanese mostly focused on standard-style streetbikes, with some enduros and other offroaders in the mix. Kawasaki changed all that with the KZ900 LTD in 1976. This machine had Japanese origins, but it was built by Americans, for Americans.
Original muscle bike
The story of the KZ900 LTD really starts with the Z1, Kawasaki’s big four-cylinder streetbike released in 1973. The Z1 was an attempt to one-up the Honda CB750, and it succeeded. Journos everywhere praised the big Zed’s power, even if the handling was a bit crap, like all big-bore UJMs back then.
The Z1 looked like most streetbikes at that time: A straight seat, straight handlebars, upright seating position, spoked wheels, 4-4 exhaust. The air-cooled 903 cc four-cylinder engine came with DOHC, and claimed output of 81 horsepower, with 54.2 lb⋅ft pound-feet of torque. Hairy-chested stuff indeed, back in the mid-’70s.
By 1976 Kawasaki saw it was time to freshen things up, though. The Z1 became the KZ900; the engine didn’t change much. Depending who you ask, and what market they live in, the KZ900 either made more power or less than the Z1. You can probably blame the change to 26 mm Mikuni carbs, from 28 mm carbs, on environmental regs.
Either way, the KZ900 wasn’t terribly different from the Z1. It was basically a placeholder while Kawi waited for the KZ1000 to finish development. But one American Kawasaki employee saw an opportunity with the KZ900, a chance to do something different.
Enter Wayne Moulton, director of operations for Kawasaki. Moulton had plenty of experience customizing bikes, during his days as a Triumph dealer in the ’60s. Moulton saw potential to do the same thing with the KZ900, right at the factory, creating a new-looking model aimed at American customers. Thus was born the KZ900 LTD.
Hot rod hijinks
The idea was to give the KZ900 the same hot rod makeover that Harley-Davidson and Brit bike riders wanted. Moulton’s team got to work; they junked the 900’s 4-4 exhaust, bolting on a 4-2 exhaust that gave a custom look and cut off some weight. They extended the forks, and added a teardrop-style tank. They swapped mag wheels in for the stock spoked wheels, a very trick look for the 1970s. The rear wheel changed to a 16-incher, with fat rubber for an especially custom look (some things never change!).
Kawasaki added a chromed grab bar and chain guard, and cut down the front fender. The LTD got new Goodyear tires, with white lettering straight from the hotrod scene.
Instead of the stock, straightish handlebars, the Americans put on a set of pullbacks. Instead of a straight seat, the LTD got a stepped seat, with the pillion section elevated.
The whole look was a more toned-down take on the ape-hangers-with-king-and-queen-seat look from that era’s choppers. In fact, many of the parts were either sourced from American aftermarket manufacturers, or patterned to look very similar.
With that in mind, it might not be fair to call the KZ900 LTD the first cruiser from Japan, despite its lowered rear suspension and extended front end. It might be more accurate to call it Japan’s first factory custom, because that’s really what it was.
Made in the USA
After some back-and-forth between the factory and the US subsidiary, the KZ900 LTD went into production … in Lincoln, Nebraska. Kawasaki’s plant in Lincoln was the first-ever Japanese automotive factory in the US, and that’s where it assembled the KZ900 LTD.
First-year production was only 5,000 bikes (hence the LTD, or “Limited,” name). The US market got 2,000 of those.
From there, we got the KZ1000 LTD, the KZ440 LTD, the KZ750 LTD, and a whole host of other Kawasaki “customs” or cruisers built around parallel twins and four-cylinders. By the early 1980s, the other Japanese were in on the action, building V-twins like the original VT750 that out-performed their Harley-Davidson equivalents. From there, we got Reagan-era tariffs to punish the Japanese manufacturers, who retaliated by building cruisers that were even more American, with lots of excess weight and crappy engine performance. Take that, Yankee Doodle Dandy!
What about this bike?
This is another machine for sale in ADVrider’s Flea Market. Inmate 2LTwhlrider is selling this ’76 model in Sacramento, California, for $8,250. It has a clean registration and title, and comes with the following list of recent maintenance:
- New lower front and rear brake hoses/lines
- Completely rebuild front/rear brake calipers (seals, dust boots, o rings, brake pads, etc.)
- New front master cylinder, rebuilt rear master cylinder
- New brake fluid and fully bled systems
- New spark plugs and spark plug caps
- New motor oil and filter
- New battery. Battery tender installed
- New petcock, fuel filter, fuel lines
- Carbs ultrasonic cleaned, rebuilt with complete carb rebuild kits and synchronized
- New Bridgestone Spitfire S11 tires and new tubes
- New EK 630 O ring chain
- New clutch and speedo cable
- Many new chrome parts
Some negative Nancys may complain about paying $8,000+ for a 45-year-old bike. To them, I say—start watching Mecum’s auction prices, or sale prices on Bring a Trailer.
While you could argue that any collectible is a tough investment in today’s market, there’s no denying classic motorcycle prices are on the rise these days, and a KZ900 LTD would also make a reasonably sound daily rider, if you so choose. We’re not talking a finicky Laverda here, and if something does break, you can still get parts. With low mileage on the odometer (8,320 miles), there’s plenty of life left in this KZ either way, whether you want to ride it or just display it. More details at the advert here.