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The Old 550
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The Kawasaki KZ550A

Z550

This was the motorcycle that I pushed to the limit, it was the motorcycle that took me to other countries. It was the motorcycle I could not have done without. It was the motorcycle I learned to maintain. It was a stead. It was abused, and though it all it gave me its heart.

Details

The Kawasaki KZ 550 A1...
  • Is a 4 cylinder motorcycle
  • Displaces 553cc
  • Has a disc brake up front, a drum at the rear
  • Electric's made of rustomatic copper
  • Engine parts made of Kawasakium, a rare form of Alloy that melts in air
  • Handles well
  • Has a large comfortable seat
  • Has a 3.3 gallon (Imperial) fuel tank
  • Gave between 19 and 85 mpg
  • Preferred 4 star to L'essence
  • Went 115mph
  • Could cruise at 95mph with 2 passengers and all personal belongings
  • Could fight CB900's and win
  • Ran in snow, even on 2 cylinders

Failings

There were not many issues I had with this bike. It did however have electric's from HELL, the copper in the wires would corrode. Replacement of the wiring loom at 35,000 miles solved the problem for a while, but the movement in the loom up by the steering head was just too much for the poor plastic insulator.

Towards the end, the base gasket failed. Oil dribbled out from some odd place. I never solved this issue. With over 55,000 at the end of its time with me, I simply didn't want to open the engine up and see the mess.

The cam chain adjuster didn't. It was a permanent chore to take out the adjuster, grease it and reinstall.

The seat pan corroded through. This necessitated a new seat.

The coils failed twice. This required replacement of one or both at each occurrence.

Balancing the carbs was easy, but necessary, to keep the bike in tip top form.

Cables. The throttle opener failed once, and the clutch cable snapped once

Strengths

The motor could be revved to insane levels, its 9000rpm redline was rarely exceeded except when I missed the 1st to 2nd gear transition once or twice, once seeing 12,000rpm register on the tacho. The motor never missed a beat.

Power. The motor for all its limited size made extremely useful power. It was good on dry warm days, it was great on wet days where the smooth delivery was useful, and was a god send on snowy days where the low rpm power was essential.

The bike handled like a champ. The handling allowed extreme speeds to be carried into corners where larger bikes were having to be braked and slowed, this allowed its limited top end rush to be maximised to humble much larger machines. This came in useful in stomping on German riders on the rush to the Bol D'Or in the south of France.

There were many spare and custom parts for the machine, including a full set of Eddie Lawson replica bits.

Tried and Tested

Tyres

The original fitment were Dunlop TT100 K81's. These were a menace. I replaced these with Dunlop K181's. A dramatic improvement. However THE tyre was the Pirelli Phantom. This tyre was perfect, giving adequate mileage, and incredible grip. Never use Pirelli rears on the front, fit Pirelli fronts on the front, the ribbed pattern maintains directional stability. Pressure was somewhere around 42psi.

Exhaust

The original had Kawasakium internals, which rusted away shortly after first starting the bike. Replacement was with a Motad 4-into-1 pipe that fitted well, and took many years of abuse.

Seat

The original seat was great. Unfortunately it rusted through and eventually failed. I replaced this with an Eddie Lawson replica cut-down seat. This was not so comfortable. After a particularly nasty crash this seats covering was terminally damaged. This necessitated getting another replacement, I reverted to the original from a breakers yard.

Plugs

GKN.

Oil and other consumables

I replaced the oil regularly at about 5000 mile intervals. I always replaced oil and oil filter at the same time. I always used a Kawasaki filter. The oil could be any old slop that had the right numbers and seemed slippery.

Brakes

I tried many things with the brakes. I tried new pad materials, including originals (Ok), EBC (deadly - BAD), and Ferodo (Brill). I tried different brake fluids; DOT3 standard was Ok, DOT 5, the silicon fluid, was the best but required constant attention. I replaced the original rubber brake hoses with Aeroquip steel braided lines, replacing the standard three pipe system with just 2 pipes. This modification worked well, but required getting custom made lengths.

Suspension

I did much work in this area. I replaced the fork oil on many occasions, settling with a 10 or 15 weight oil, and about a 1/2 inch of additional spring preload up front (a large nut was placed on top of the spring). At the rear I replaced the shocks with adjustable Koni's. These worked fabulously.

Swing arm and Steering Bearings

I suppose I had about 20,000 miles on the bike when I found that the rear end was getting a bit wiggly and the steering was a bit clunky. I had greased the bearings a couple of times but this was obviously not enough as the needle bearings had rusted and become quite horrible. In one act of shear insanity I ordered a new Dresden box swingarm and a set of needle bearing races for the front end (the front races had indents that were effecting the steering.) Drifting out the old head races was hard, but installation of all the new parts was fairly easy. The difference in handling was significant. Maintenance of the swingarm was never again an issue as there was a grease nibble on the top, and the process of greasing was as simple as using the grease gun till you saw new clean yellow stuff ooze out. The head races were less successful. I could never get a nice setting that didn't either make the steering too stuff or cause a clunk each time I used the brakes.

Crashing

The bike suffered many ignominious occasions lying on its side, none worse that the images here show. These photos were taken for insurance purposes. I had been wiped out by a car driver at a roundabout on the A-1 near Peterborough, late at night (the roundabout has been removed in the last decade or so.) He had decided he was taking the wrong exit at the last moment and executed a U turn on the A-1. I happened to be in the way. Did the usual life saver move, looking over my left shoulder, to see the front of a car - right there! My leg got driven into the tank, somehow not breaking. Then the whole lot slid into the kerb, where the stop mangled the front forks. It's the only crash I have ever had where I thought a part of me had come off. When they pulled the motorcycle off me (I was under it) my boot had almost come off. For one dreadful moment I thought my foot had been severed. Fortunately it was just the pain from my crushed leg.

I recovered the motorcycle from Peterborough Kawasaki as fast as I could, within a couple of days, because I was sure if the Insurance company saw it they would reclaim the bike. To compensate they required that I take the photos and have the insurance assessor come to my house.

In the end, the bike was assessed as a technical write-off, but because I was in possession, I retained and repaired it. I was given about £1000 for the bike damage and £1500 for the damage to my leg (after threatening to sue the other drivers Insurance company).

At this time I had some good luck! I had previously replaced the tank under warranty, it had a little rust on it, so when I went back to the dealer to get a new tank they were able to give me my old tank back again! I had one fork leg rolled straight, and replaced the other. Replaced sundry levers. Bent many parts straight and sanded the scuffs out of others. The bike was back under it's own steam for the princely sum of £250 and lived for the rest of it's life with some of the scuffs!

Crashed Z550

Mirrors removed because they were trashed. Handlebar straight to better show 45° angle of wheel

 

Crashed Z550

Shows off tank dent quite well.

 

Crashed Z550

Tack had 24000 miles on it; the bike was about 12 months old!

 

To Round Up

I did over 53,000 miles on this bike before retiring it. It let me down on occasion, but rarely. It took me on many great journeys and served well as an everyday commuter. If you should come across one in good condition it's probably not a bad buy, and should be a steal as the bike is most certainly the ugly cousin to the GPz550.


Updated 4/22/2009
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