For some enthusiasts, the most exciting era of motorcycling is the two-stroke era – when screaming “stink wheels” ruled the world’s circuits, and street riders too could get their kicks on lightweight, powerful motorcycles that produced hoarse exhaust notes and clouds of blue smoke. .
Two-stroke racing dominance came to an end in 2002, when Valentino Rossi claimed the first MotoGP title on Honda’s RC211V four-stroke, confirming the demise of the fearsome factory 500cc V4s that had ruled the tracks since the mid 80’s.
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On the road, the heyday of the two-stroke was arguably the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the dream bike for busy young riders was a sporty 250cc – preferably Kawasaki’s KR-1, RGV250 from Suzuki or the TZR250 from Yamaha.
These quarter-litre racing replicas had engine capacities no bigger than a bottle of cheap shampoo, but they were a fiery breed. Their very fast twin-cylinder engines developed 50 bhp and gave top speeds of 130 mph, and their aluminum frames helped keep the weight under 130 kg.
More importantly, their narrow powerbands and smooth-steering chassis made every twisty road trip a chance to imagine you were lapping a Grand Prix circuit with 500cc factory aces Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey or the 250cc maestro Sito Pons.
Kawasaki’s glory days in two-stroke racing date back even further, to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the firm won four titles with the KR250, a “tandem twin” whose cylinders were lined up with the bike. In contrast, the KR-1’s cylinders were placed on its frame in a conventional twin-parallel format.
This twin-spar aluminum frame confirmed how far motorcycle technology has come since the days of the steel-framed KR250. The frame contained thick front forks and a single rear shock unit which was actuated via an up-speed linkage system.
The complete KR-1 fairing could have come straight from a racing bike, aside from its headlight and mirrors. It was finished in either striking red, white and black or Kawasaki’s more traditional combination of white, light green and blue.
Behind this fairing, the 249cc engine was liquid-cooled and featured a racing-style six-speed gearbox that could be removed from the side. The exhaust system incorporated KIPS – Kawasaki’s power valve system, designed to add low end torque. The maximum output of 55 hp was impressive for such a small powertrain.
There was no doubting the aggressive intent of the KR-1, from the moment I stepped aboard. Its handlebars were clips, mounted under the upper yoke; the passenger seat was a thin piece of foam. When stationary, the Kawasaki seemed almost ridiculously light, thin and maneuverable, thanks to its claimed dry weight of just 123kg.
Getting started was effortless. The lightest squeeze was needed on the starter to bring the crackle of the two-stroke to life, with a puff of smoke and that distinctive smell that has long been lost on high-performance bikes.
Pulling away was fairly easy too, though the small liquid-cooled mass was slightly rough until it warmed up, and even after that its low-end response was weak. The Kawasaki chokes and hisses below 5000 rpm, and pulls harder from that point, but still without real enthusiasm…
Until its tachometer needle hit around 7,500 rpm, when the KR-1 woke up angry. Suddenly it was all sound, fury and aggression, screaming forward with the tachometer needle spinning toward the 11,500 rpm redline as my left boot hit the shifter to keep up.
In the first three gears, there was fun revving up to legal speeds. At 8,000 rpm and in the power band in fourth gear, it was doing 80 mph indicated, ripping forward with two sprockets and 50 mph still to go.
The forward-leaning riding position encouraged all-to-the-stop throttle behavior, especially since the fairing and windshield provided useful wind protection. Some riders complained of having their hands numb from the vibrations and there was a bit of a buzz at around 7,000 rpm, but that wasn’t an issue on my relatively short ride.
While the little Kawasaki’s straight-line speed was impressive, its handling was even better. This sturdy twin-spar frame was stiff enough to handle twice the engine power. And the bike’s light weight, racy geometry and 17-inch-diameter front wheel made it easy to launch it around corners with a caress of the bars.
The suspension was firm without being harsh and damped well enough to keep things under control. The KR-1 felt slightly jittery on a bumpy road at times, but I had to try hard to get it seriously warped. Its brakes and tires were also excellent.
It all added up to a delightfully quick, nimble, responsive and enjoyable machine with the potential to make any road ride feel like a GP. The Kawasaki also lived up to expectations on the track in 1989, with numerous production race wins.
Inevitably with such a focused bike, there were downsides. The thin seat quickly became painful. The 16-litre tank’s fuel range could dip below 90 miles with heavy use (and why else would you?). And the engine drank up two-stroke oil almost as fast as gasoline, requiring frequent replenishment of the tank under the seat.
More seriously, the KR-1 was far from the best-finished or most reliable model Kawasaki had ever produced. The fact that many ran and most were hard did not excuse the fact that the engine suffered from various problems, including piston failure.
At least Kawasaki moved quickly to update it. Just a year after its launch, the model was replaced by the KR-1S, which produced an additional 5 hp and featured a new frame, suspension and front brake, making the two-stroke an even faster and more ready machine. for the track.
Unfortunately for Kawasaki, what it didn’t do was make the KR a commercial success. Despite the twin’s performance and some notable production run successes, it sold in relatively low numbers. At the end of 1992, after only four years, it was dropped from the lineup.
The lovely twin hadn’t lasted long, but it had boosted Kawasaki’s image and become a cult machine for a small group of enthusiasts. Three decades later, this passion remains. The era of two-stroke racing replicas is long gone. But as long as bikes like the KR-1 are ridden and enjoyed, stinky wheels will be remembered.
You will like: Racebike-style feel on the road
You will curse: Racebike style comfort and cost
Buy it because: Addictive speed, sound and smell
Condition and price range: Project: £3,000 Lovely walk: £5,000 Demonstration: £7,000
Engine: Liquid-cooled two-stroke parallel twin
Max power: 55 hp at 10,500 rpm
Lester: 123 kg without liquids
Top speed: 130mph
50 years later, the Kawasaki Z1 is still one of the meanest motorcycles on the road
Commercial break: In 1975, Kawasaki urged you to think even smaller
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