Motorcycle History: Kawasaki Motors and Kawasaki Heavy Industries

These days, we know Kawasaki as one of the “Big Four” in motorcycle industry, four giant powerhouse motorcycle manufacturers all hailing from Japan. But their heritage and history involves much more than just fast, powerful two-wheeled machines – in fact, motorcycles are just one of the nearly 140-year old company’s newest ventures.


Kawasaki Motors is a well-known motorcycle manufacturer today, but they are actually but a small part of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese conglomerate that builds planes, trains, tankers, industrial robots, and now, even spacecraft. In this article, we’ll show you how Kawasaki went from a small shipping company, to a multinational heavy equipment manufacturer, to one of the most prestigious and successful motorcycle manufacturers in the world!

The first company to bear the Kawasaki name was founded 1878 by Shozo Kawasaki, a tradesman in Nagasaki, which in the late 1800s was the only city in the notoriously protectionist country Japan to allow trade with the West.


The visionary founder of the company that bears his name, Shozo Kawasaki.


Though he was fortunate to be exposed to the rapidly modernizing West through this trade, Kawasaki was unlucky in entrepreneurship in the beginning – his first transport ship sunk at sea laden with goods, nearly bankrupting his young shipping business. But while trading with Western companies, Kawasaki had a great deal of exposure to Western ships, which were bigger, faster, and more reliable than their Japanese counterparts. In the Western ships, Kawasaki immediately glimpsed the future of the shipbuilding industry, and there chose to focus his efforts.

In 1878, the enterprising Kawasaki got his chance to get involved in the Japanese shipbuilding industry at the dawn of its inevitable modernization. An appeal to the Vice Minister of Finance, who happened to be from the same province as Kawasaki, resulted in government land grant at a large shipyard at the mouth of the Sumidagawa river. With that, Kawasaki’s shipbuilding enterprise was in business, and with the Japanese government’s blessing, his future was looking bright.

Kawasaki’s business grew steadily for the next several years until a monumental political event shot it into orbit – the Sino-Japanese war. Overnight, the Japanese government made massive orders for not only Kawasaki’s ships, but for maintenance and repairs on the Japanese fleet, whch at the time was one of the premier naval fleets in the world. This made the company a major name in Japanese shipbuilding, and made Kawasaki a very wealthy man.


One of Kawasaki's many large ships in construction on a Kawasaki dry dock.


Kawasaki had no children to leave his empire to, so he took the company pubic before the turn of the century and left one of his most trusted employees in charge. Kojiro Matsukata, Kawasaki’s first president, was keen to expand the company into new areas of manufacture, and began building locomotives and train cars in 1906.

At around the same time, the Russo-Japanese war broke out. A major naval conflict, the Japanese handily defeated the aging Russian fleet with their modern warships and another revolutionary new weapon – the submarine. Kawasaki manufactured Japan’s very first two submarines in 1906, with the consultation of notable American maritime engineers (with whom Japan had a cozy relationship with at the time.)

By the early 1910s, KHI was manufacturing a large portion of Japan’s naval fleet. It had also become renowned for it’s spectacular locomotives, which by that time were outclassing even imported models, which were perceived until then to be the best available. But then, in the same decade, yet another major war would completely revolutionize the way warfare was fought, and cause a seismic shift in the defense industries for every developed nation – The Great War, now known as World War I.

The Great War has earned its place in history as a bloodbath of epic proportions, largely resulting from the combination of outdated combat tactics with modern, lethal new weapons of war. One of these weapons, though very early in its development, was particularly revolutionary – the airplane. Again, the defense industry would employ Kawasaki’s proven expertise in heavy industry – KHI would deliver its first military aircraft in 1922, and would become the very first company to manufacture metal aircraft for the Japanese military a short time later.


One of Kawasaki's first-ever warplanes, delivered to the Japanese government in 1922.


In World War II, Japan’s heavy industries would end up going from round-the-clock production of war material to virtually complete destruction in only a few short years. But during Japan’s brilliant Macarthur-era postwar reconstruction, Kawasaki’s extensive experience in heavy industry developed for the war effort would later be put to use manufacturing an entire new generation of civilian and commercial machinery. Though Japan was completely prohibited from manufacturing aircraft from 1945-1952, in the 1950s Kawasaki would end up being a leader in manufacturing another revolutionary type of aircraft – the helicopter.


An experimental high-performance Kawasaki fighter plane. Though the company's aviation industry was crushed in Postwar Japan, it had a long history of creating major developments in aviation, and would use them again in the 1950s when they again began manufacturing helicopters.


Taking advantage of a rapidly advancing Japanese postwar economy along with rapid advancements in technology, the firm would even become a leader in yet another revolutionary industrial field – unmanned industrial machinery, aka robots. In 1969, Kawasaki introduced the first industrial robot ever made in Japan, setting into motion a revolution in assembly line manufacturing.

It was right around this time that the Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a well-known manufacturer of ships, submarines, aircraft, and industrial equipment, decided to try its hand in an entirely new market segment – one foreign to them both literally and figuratively. In 1966, Kawasaki sent a small team of engineers and entrepreneurs across the Pacific to break into the then-booming U.S. motorcycle market. Setting up shop in an abandoned meat factory in Chicago, the tiny division of the Japanese mega-corporation began the mammoth task of introducing the American market to Kawasaki.

It didn’t take long. Starting with potent, powerful two-strokes, and later a pair of high-performance rotary valve twins called the Samurai and the Avenger, Kawasaki quickly earned its reputation as a brand that promised performance and fun. But it was in 1969 that Kawasaki would launch a truly game-changing product – a motorcycle so revolutionary, it would become a legendary machine in the U.S. and all over the world (an honor it retains to this day.) That machine was powered by a fire-breathing 500cc Mach III two-stroke triple, and was called the Kawasaki H1.


The bike that put Kawasaki on the map in America - the H1 (also known as the Mach III.)


The H1 became infamous almost as soon as it was introduced to the U.S. market. As as intimidating to the competition as it was to the brave soul riding it, the roaring H1 was the first bike that ever earned the reputation for being “too fast.” As if that wasn’t enough, Kawasaki topped the H1 with a new motorcycle powered by an engine bordering on insanity – H2, now powered by a 750cc two-stroke triple!


Known as the "widow maker," the Kawasaki H2 was a loud, fire-breathing, nearly uncontrollable two-stroke 750cc triple that was as fearsome to competition as it was to the person riding it!


Though the H1 and H2 have gone down in history as overpowered and not just a bit unrefined (which is actually a huge part of their charm), Kawasaki introduced another bike to the U.S. in 1972 that would become a legend for completely different reasons – the Z1. Compared to the wild H1, the Z1 had a powerful, yet smooth 903cc 4-stroke and was far more refined than the nearly lethal H2, and was a massive success. Nowadays, the H1, H2, and Z1 are still highly regarded and sought after as collector's items.

With Kawasaki now known as a company that would refuse to restrain itself in the pursuit of delivering raw, combustion-powered fun, the company moved to open up yet another completely new market, only 7 years after its introduction to the U.S. market – that of the personal watercraft. Combining the characteristics of small, agile, and powerful motorcycles with the fun of recreational boating, Kawasaki invented the segment, calling it the “Jet Ski” and beginning manufacturing operations in 1973. The "Jet Ski" name, a registered trademark of Kawasaki, became so ubiquitous that to this day, people often call personal watercraft “jet skis” no matter who manufactures them! The following year, Kawasaki made history again, becoming the first foreign vehicle manufacturer EVER to open a factory here in the U.S.

Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, Kawasaki continued to expand its heavy industries, expanding further into aircraft, shipbuilding, industrial robot manufacturing, high-speed trains, and even taking on such massive projects as tunnel-boring machines that have excavated tunnels under the English Channel and the Tokyo bay. Kawasaki’s U.S. division has also boomed, with the company expanding further into motorcycles for both on-and-off-road riding, with such notable successes as the KLR650, the KX450, and of course, the now-famous sportbike line, the Kawasaki Ninja.

In 2015, Kawasaki, in recognition of it’s five-decade old motorcycle business and nearly century-and-a-half of manufacturing revolutionary industrial equipment, disrupted the motorcycle market with a new machine unlike anything that has ever rolled off any factory floor. The Ninja H2 – a name notable for marrying it’s highly successful sportbike moniker with the legendary fire-breathing model from 1972 – was released after a highly memorable teaser campaign, and instantly became the most talked about motorcycle of 2015.


The Ninja H2, a unique supercharged superbike that was the talk of the motorcycle industry in 2015, and truly unlike anything else on the road with two wheels.


The H2 was a radical-looking, supercharged 1000cc inline-4 cylinder motorcycle, a type of powerplant never before used in a production motorcycle. Though the street version put out a mere 200hp, it was dramatically detuned for street use – the real story was the H2R, a completely unrestricted, track-only version that put down an ungodly 310hp, with a top speed of a blistering 249mph. The H2R was a record-breaker instantly upon its release, and became the star of uncountable drag race, top speed, and track racing YouTube videos all over the world.


While the H2 was unique, the real story of 2015 was the track-only version, the H2R. With a positively massive 310 horses and a blistering 249 mph top speed, the H2R was a legend before it was even delivered, and truly showed was Kawasaki was capable of achieving on two wheels.


The H2R is a true halo bike unlike any other that is a fitting tribute to the long, storied history of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, but interestingly, the model was not just a costly publicity stunt – in fact, the H2 platform has been expanded to the sport-touring segment as well in the form of the H2 SX. Now, Kawasaki – true to their heritage – continues to seek new ways to break molds and innovate into new markets, exploring the frontiers of forced induction, hybrid powerplants, and leaning three-wheeled motorcycles going forward.


One of Kawasaki's more modern creations, a Japanese "bullet train." Kawasaki is a constantly-innovating company that has been at the forefront of locomotive development since they first began building trains over a century ago!
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