Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Kawasaki Z1100: Custom cruiser turned bruiser


I wanted a big Z four, ended up with a custom 1100 because it was cheap, low mileage and in excellent condition. The big wide bars were close to excruciating at anything over 75mph but I figured I could change them later. I actually liked the styling theme, somehow very classic and yet modern without looking silly.

Steering exactitude wasn't half bad up to about the ton, then the front end went a bit vague but nothing too worrying until about 120mph when the whole plot began to weave. This gentle amplitude rapidly increased when I didn't take the hint, kept accelerating rather than backing off.

Enlightenment, of sorts, came by getting my head down next to the clocks and using the pillion pegs. Awkward and painful, but the redistribution of mass quietened down the chassis, though it was still far from rock-like. Whereas the wind had tried to tear my head off, now the contortions threatened to permanently damage the joint between neck and spine.

In both circumstances I had no idea what was going down rearwards, the mirrors blurred into uselessness and impossible to look backwards. Secondary vibes above 7000 revs were rather fierce, somewhat ruining the poise of the aircooled four cylinder motor. Some heavy muscle on the engine bolts helped quiet things down.

Annoyingly, the set of 'Vincent' bars I fitted didn't match the engine's characteristics and vibrated alarmingly in my hands around 5500rpm! Recalling a tip from this site, I filled in the bars with mastic, which had a damping effect on the vibes. In fact, there was less apparent vibration than on the stocker.

The bars didn't match the footpegs, of course, and it took some ingenuity and a compliant breaker to find bits that allowed me to move them back a good six inches. Meant the centrestand had to be dumped, a huge old thing that must've weighed twenty pounds!

The bike felt and looked much more purposeful, was able to hold more than the ton without making me feel like I was on the rack. The handling was also much better, removing some of the flightiness from the not particularly robust front end - wimpy forks that would just make it on a mild middleweight, these days.

I was expecting all kinds of horrors from the twin front discs but someone had fitted non-standard pads and rebuilt the calipers - they performed flawlessly. Plenty of power, loads of feedback and no wet weather lag. Just as well, as the bike often needed to lose loads of speed to make it around the bends.

Long, flowing motorway curves weren't a problem but tight back roads, especially bumpy ones, tended to wind up the suspension, leaving the Z bouncing and buckling. I could never work out if it wanted to accelerate out of trouble or back off, it reacted in such a variety of ways to the same input that there was no knowing what to do. In the end, I just held on and let the bike sort out the mess.

The engine wasn't exactly lacking in power, a claimed 110hp at a mere 8500 revs - that was at the crank, by the time the power had gone through the gearbox and shaft drive (a slick set-up that rarely upset the handling) quite a lot of that was lost. 140mph was the most I did, the bike lost most of its accelerative ability dead on 125mph. Not so much its 520lbs of mass as the wind blast.

The motor had plenty of go from as low as 3000rpm. Probably lower but at silly revs the shaft drive did rumble a bit and the gearchange went from slick at higher revs to very truculent. Having said that, first gear was a bit silly, much easier to roll away in second or even third!

The clock had 23000 miles on it, the suspension on the firm side so probably upgraded along the way. Despite plenty of rumbling over bumpy going, the stepped seat was an object lesson in comfort, good for hundreds of miles in one sitting. The huge petrol tank carried almost five gallons and with fuel around 50mpg that meant at least 200 miles of motoring before thinking about a top up.

The bike was a huge success with the gals. Not on first impressions, perhaps, but as soon as they experienced the plush pillion perch they were converted to the cause. Most replicas have pillion perches suited to ten year-olds; complete waste of time. I had few complaints from the girlfriend even after more than 600 miles in a day.

One thing I had to watch was the way hard riding could get the sump down to the minimum oil level in, say, 500 miles. Usually, I didn't notice any burn off between 2000 mile oil changes. Never bothered doing the carbs or valves, the engine didn't complain. With the shaft drive the only real consumable expense was the tyres at around 5000 miles a set.

I didn't want to chance the bike with less than 2.5mm's worth of tread, those who wanted to live dangerously could possibly push the rubber to as much as 7000 miles. My guess, though, is that the bike would write itself off before the tyres were down to the carcass. There's an awful lot of mass and power in not an excess of frame, if any of the components get too far worn from the norm then things will turn nasty.

It isn't the kind of bike to do wheelies or stoppies on, it will throw you off rather than conform to such deviant behaviour. Trying to ride fast through town was more likely to sprain your wrists than attain warp velocities and it was a big, wide motorcycle that couldn't do the smaller gaps. The brakes saved me several times from the terminal manoeuvres of mad cagers.

Tough engines, shrug off massive mileages and most neglect, basically just do oil changes at reasonable intervals. Should be possible to go around the clock. I've got mine up to 56000 miles with no traumas.

However, one of the things to let the Kawa down has been the electrics. First the electronic ignition module went, stopping the bike from starting. I had an amusing time finding a replacement but eventually located a breaker who had one for thirty notes. No guarantee, had to take a chance but I was lucky. Extra rubber (from an old inner-tube) made sure the secondary vibes didn't get to it again, Paranoid Z owners carry a spare module, especially on tours abroad.

It wasn't the only component to give electrical hassle. I went through two batteries before I sussed that massive voltages were surging through the machine when it was revved hard. Ended up with an exchange alternator and non-standard rectifier/regulator.

Z's aren't anywhere near as bad as GS's in this respect but it's usually a sign that the electrical insulation is beginning to fail - I had to replace most of the ignition wiring. Worth bearing in mind when looking at the older and higher mileage examples. Other areas worth noting, though they haven't afflicted my machine, are petrol tanks rotting internally, seats falling apart and brake rot.

These bikes can largely be moulded into whatever the rider wants them to be. There are many sportier models but they command much higher prices than the custom stuff which can easily be modified into a more interesting spec. Well worth tracking one down.

Dave Gardiner

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