Road tests


The Black Little Beast

A 2005 Road Report

By Eirik Skjaveland

What have I gotten myself into, I pondered as I glanced over the black contraption left in my shed by my brother while I was on vacation with the family. Have I actually paid good money for this...this...THING?!

This THING was supposed to resemble a motorcycle. A 1979 Kawasaki Z400G Custom, to be specific. Or what was left of it. Carburettors sat in a cardboard box, apparently overhauled by some unknown shop, and various paraphernalia lay scattered around the bike without disclosing where they were supposed to go. Rust seemed to be the favourite disguise, having replaced most of the chrome and eaten into virtually every nut and bolt as well. The engine ventilation cover, which also doubles as top engine mount, had obviously cracked at some stage and been welded back in place. To top it all off it had been painted mattish black with a rattle can and unskilled hand over a base sanded with 80-grit paper in an erratic pattern. Nice!

Without muttering a word I closed the door and went back inside the house, leaving the relic to itself for the time being.

Two days later the lady across the street bought my pristine Suzuki GSX600F Katana and I was left without a workable motorcycle. Very reluctantly I entered the shed with the intention of actually making an effort of getting the 400 back on its wheels. However, I chickened out after a quick glance at it and instead spent the evening tidying up my bombed shed that also function as my motorcycle workshop. I think it must be the first time in my life that I voluntarily tidied instead of working on my bike!

The next day I stepped back into the tomb with the Kawasaki remains, rolled up my sleeves and went to work in earnest. And was pleasantly surprised of both the underlying quality and simplicity of the machine! The only struggle was fitting the carburettors, which like virtually every motorcycle from the era doesn’t have enough room for fitting and removal. Hardened and cracked rubber connectors between air-box and said carburettors sure didn’t ease things. But for the cost of about a bucket of my personal sweat the instruments eventually found their way into the engine bay.

I went over the electrical harness and repaired and rerouted and improved as needed, got rid of the worst layers of rust with steel wool, oil and lots of labour and made sure everything was snug and well. Actually, there is a list as long as my good arm as well as my bad leg with little stuff I had to fix or adjust or attend to, but out of fear from putting my sole reader to sleep I’ll refrain from listing it in every boring detail. I will mention that the difference between working on the little Custom and my former Katana is similar to that between a 50 pieces and a 1000 pieces puzzle!

Finally, after 5 days of intense work and with new fork and engine oil, overhauled brakes and a complete tune-up (that revealed that the poor bugger definitely hadn’t been maintained to death over the years) along with fresh fuel in the fuel tank it was time to attempt start-up. And it fired without too much kicking and cranking, actually! Only to reveal it was sucking false air between the cylinder head and intakes with an enthusiasm otherwise only experienced when Pamela Anderson is giving head. Not good!

I made an emergency repair with some silicone smeared ungracefully around the whole ordeal and pronounced the bike fit for its virgin trek around the district. However, after only a couple of miles it seemed to have lost all power and I stopped beside the road to see what was going on. Smoke poured from the oil-polished mufflers in a haze that almost obscured the ground when my brother, who tagged along for the trip onboard his Triumph, pointed out that smoke belched from the front brake! It was sticking on, probably caused by the same problem that prevented me from bleeding the system properly. A quick bleed job freed the brake and I returned home without the use of the front binders.

Or I would have if the thing didn’t turn dead the moment I switched on the headlight. I suspected a blown main fuse but was relieved to learn it had only abandoned its holder and could be pushed back in place to restore power to all systems.

Brainless people shouldn’t work on motorcycles! While fitting the brake lever I struggled a bit because I had to use quite a bit of force in order to get the bolt in. That should have set off some alarm bells inside my compact scull, but no alarm ever reached my submerged consciousness. By closer inspection I discovered that the lever pushed ever so gently on the master pump piston. Not enough to apply the front brake, but enough to prevent fluid to return to the main reservoir. All was fine until the brake, and hence the fluid, began to heat up. Warm things need more space, but the expanding fluid had nowhere to escape but to push harder on the calliper piston, causing ever increasing friction which caused more heat which caused more expansion until the front brake was virtually full on. Lesson learned.

Fifteen minutes with a Dremel and grinder saw the profile of the lever redone to fit the master cylinder. I’m not sure if was the wrong lever or if it was poorly made, but at least it didn’t cost anything to fix it. While at it, I also fitted gaskets to the inlets (after removing the horrible silicon mess I had left all over the place) and removed the damaged stubs coming from the air-box. Instead I fitted a pair of brass stubs and used the remains of an old motorcycle inner tube to connect them with the carburettors. Worked a charm!

Time for a real test run, one on which I expected no problems. And had none as well - unless you want to count a throttle that took seemingly forever to return to idle, making gearshifts somewhat, uhm, interesting with revs climbing instantly every time the clutch was pulled, that is. Half a can of WD-40 improved matters a bit, but I reckon the throttle return cable (missing on my bike) really is there for a reason.

The immediate impression of the bike is utter and total slowness. It has taken slow and made it into an art form, I reckon. But it’s not slow in a typical manner for small bikes. Whereas the typical tiddler lives only from high revs and will demand a constant tap-dance on the shifter in order to keep the pace up, the little Kawasaki has power from idle to redline. On level ground it will accelerate smoothly from as low as 1500 rpm in 6th gear all the way up to around 7000 rpm where it runs out of steam unless the bike suffer from a severe case of homesickness and is pushed in the back by a healthy gale.

But this top speed, which can be improved upon by changing down a gear or doing something really silly like lying down on the tank to reduce frontal area, is a very strong one. In fact, facing a gentle breeze accelerating solely in 6th gear from 40 mph up a loooooong incline with roughly 2 % gradient, and a few hillocks thrown in here and there for good measure with up to 6% gradients, it reached 6800 rpm at the summit, or just shy of 80 mph. That was impressive to me!

Fanging in the mountains demand little in the form redlining the gears. Short-shifting between 5 and 7000 rpm is the norm and offers a satisfying shove in the next higher gear. And the healthy sound emitting from the non-stock “mufflers” (I use the term loosely) is addictive, as is the popping and farting on a closed throttle while slowing. The bike sounds like an old racer from the sixties and she makes me grin like a twat inside my old Nolan. Playing with the kill buttons makes for wonderful explosions that scatter cows and make dogs go crazy. All in good fun, of course!

The engine is very smooth between idle and 3500 rpm. From 3501 rpm it starts to vibrate enough to blur the sole mirror currently fitted. I’ve never known how important two mirrors are until I was nearly flattened by a speeding motorcycle passing on the wrong side! Anyway, from then on the trembling never stops; it only grows worse with every single rpm. However, despite still being fitted with the original rock hard grips designed by a torture specialist, I’m sure, the madly shaking bar ends never once even hinted at putting my fingers to sleep! I can only recall one other of the roughly 20 motorcycles I’ve owned of which I can say the same thing; a CB350 Four. Even my Z1300 DFI numbed my fingers - so much for perfectly balanced six cylinder engines.

Hardly any vibes ever reach the seat and only a mild, non-intrusive tingle goes through the pegs every now and then. And if I can find replacements for the handlebar rubber bushings (they are hardened and cracked and barely present now) I’m positive much of the shaking will go away there as well.

The seating position is one of the best I’ve experienced, although it wouldn’t hurt to move the pegs back 4 to 6 inches, or 100 to 150 mm. Still the 25 year old, cracked and abused seat is much comfier than what’s fitted to the Honda 750 Nighthawk, for instance. The same holds true for the riding position, which is tremendously more balanced on the little Kawasaki. Only riding two-up does the small 400 show its shortcomings; you will learn to know your passenger intimately whether you want to or not! And risk destroying the family jewels against the fuel tank should you be forced to perform an emergency stop.

Handling is dartingly quick despite the short legged non-beauty of a previous owner’s decision to fit shorter than stock shock absorbers to the tune of 47 mm, or almost 2 inches! To make it even more into a chopper it came with fork springs 10 mm longer than stock, although I have no idea why, and me adding 35 mm of extra oil as well to prevent bottoming. As a matter of fact, it takes no detectible effort to change direction and you have to really focus not to over-steer into bends. How it will be when I fit standard length shocks is beyond my limited imaginative capabilities!

Suspension is dated and there is a definite lack of rebound damping and a likewise surplus in spring rates. It’s difficult to fault the bike for the overly stiff springs since I messed with the forks and the shocks aren’t standard items, but I somehow suspect it was never equipped with state of the art items even from new. It still does a reasonable job of preventing the kidneys and lungs from swapping positions inside my torso, and stability is good despite the bouncing caused by mediocre damping.

Even in its current form cornering clearance is good, partly due to mufflers sitting close to the wheel and partly due to a missing centre stand. Playing racer in the mountains the bike has all the speed I dare to use, although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’m progressing at a rate that would have put me to sleep on the Katana. I won’t know until I go riding for real with my brother; his Daytona and my Katana were evenly matched and how the 400 compares in relation will be evident by the rate I’m left behind. The important thing is that it feels fast, it feels good and it’s immensely fun playing catch-up with an imaginary Mike Hailwood. Yes, I’m a sick and childish man, I admit it. I should be in kindergarten.

The best way to describe how it steers is to say it is closer to a moped than a full-size motorcycle. Apart from a couple of 100 cc machines I haven’t ridden anything as nimble as this and it feels at least 100 pounds / 45 kilo lighter than it’s actual 408 lb / 185 kg ready to roll with all fluids. Pushing the bike around is also child’s play thanks to low centre of gravity and reasonable overall weight.

Not only does it handle like a tiddler; it also looks every part like a modern 125 cc motorcycle. I snigger like a lunatic every time I wave at another rider. I see them return the greeting more or less automatically only to stop mid-wave and make a double-take like: What the hell did I just salute?! Was that actually a moped and did I make an ass of myself just now? And you can understand them. As one bystander told me; it looks like you come running with a big flashlight between your legs, not riding a motorcycle. Bastard!

Owning this piece of history isn’t cheap; it’s virtually free! Tyres cost half that of sport touring tyres for larger machines and only a fraction of a proper sports tyre. To compensate the tyres for the little Kawasaki last many times longer, so tyre cost hardly affect the running budget. Insurance is ridiculously cheap, it only sniffs at the fuel it’s offered and sends most of it back where it came from (28 km / l or 80 mpg IMP or 67 mpg US), service is so straight forward it can be done by a blind man’s dog - blindfolded! - and it seems to go a long way between any major repair work.

Overall I can safely say that this is one of the coolest and most fun bikes I have ever owned or ridden. It is surprisingly balanced, it looks splendid (or at least it did when new) and totally likeable with just enough character to make it interesting but not enough to make it maddening. It won’t keep up with a modern motorcycle unless it’s catalogued as a cruiser, but it is still fast enough to send you in jail should you be so unlucky.

It will help having great confidence in your equipment to come riding in on a bike like this; a penis enhancer it is not. But if you are past the worst boner age and think mostly of women as someone who makes you supper, tidy your bed and make sure you don’t leave the table with sauce remains resting on your chin, then this could be the bike for you!



Rider road test 1974


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(Click on the images to enlarge)


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Cycle world road test 1976

Road Rider test 1976

Cycle World roadtest February 1976

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Motorcycling February 1978 test.

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Motorcycle Sport June 1978 Z400 Test

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Road Bike bike profile 1980

Cycle World KZ440 D1 Belt test 1980

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Motorcycling March 1981 Z400C Marathon Test

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Here you can read what a few KZ400/440 owners say about their bikes: Motorcycle Online