Sean Skinner of MotoRelic builds a red-hot KZ…
Introduced in 1977, the Kawasaki KZ1000 would set the standard for generations of liter-size superbikes to come. The 1015cc engine boasted 90 horsepower in factory trim, good for a quarter-mile time of 12.17 seconds at 107 mph and a top speed of 132 mph:
“The Fastest Stocker We’ve Ever Tested.” –Cycle World, December 1976 cover.
Thirteen big-bore KZ’s would star in 1979’s Mad Max, destined as a cult classic, and a pair of police models would serve as the capable steeds of California Highway Patrol officers Jon and Ponch of CHiPs — in fact, the KZ1000P police model would remain in production until 2005! The KZ also burned up the race circuits, winning AMA Superbike Championships in 1977, 1978, and 1981, piloted by the likes of Reg Pridmore, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, and other legends of the air-cooled era.
Enter our friend Sean Skinner of Virginia’s MotoRelic, who consistently turns out some of our favorite builds on the planet. Last year, he completed a ’79 KZ1000 that graced the pages of Pipeburn, built for a client who’d inherited the bike from his uncle and wanted to restore it to its former glory…with a custom twist:
“We settled on a classy brat style theme that would be comfortable enough to do a cross country trip to San Diego on so he could ship the bike back home to Hawaii!”
Well, as often happens, one project breeds another. Sean soon received a call from a prospective customer by the name of Mr. Bob Kelly who couldn’t stop raving about the black ’79 KZ — he wanted one of his own, or quite similar. At first, Sean was reluctant to go through all the same fabrication and headaches of the first build:
“Part of building one-of-a-kind bikes is that only one has to be built.”
However, without too much convincing, Sean agreed to the project under three conditions:
“We find a ’78 that already has spoke wheels, we use shaft drive side covers, and it can’t be silver. He said absolutely! And before I knew it, a bike was on its way from Colorado.”
The end result, in our opinion, is even better than original. The Raptor Red paint absolutely pops on the Royal Enfield Continental GT tank, which required a completely new tunnel and frame mounting points to fit the KZ’s backbone. Below, we get the full story from Sean himself, as well as more gorgeous photos from photographer Jonathan Thorpe.
KZ1000 Custom: In the Builder’s Words
When I posted my last build of a 1979 KZ1000 I had no idea I would get a call from someone asking to build one like it. Last year a guy by the name Bob Kelly called me and couldn’t stop raving about the KZ he saw on the internet. He asked if he could ship a donor bike and get started. At first my thought was “Ugh that was so much work to get that tank to fit and all of the other fabrication.” Part of building one-of-a-kind bikes is that only one has to be built. All of the work in design and fabrication is forgotten about after that first real ride. While talking to him my mind had flashbacks to all of that but without too much convincing I said yes under three conditions. We find a ’78 that already has spoke wheels, we use shaft drive side covers, and it can’t be silver. He said absolutely! And before I knew it, a bike was on its way from Colorado.
Since this build was to look similar to the ’79 I really didn’t need to do too much designing. Bob shipped me a Royal Enfield Continental GT gas tank and I got to work cutting it up to fit the KZ frame. The tank’s outside dimensions fit the bike very well. The tunnel, not so much. It requires a completely new tunnel to fit the KZ’s frame. Then the frame needs mounting points welded on.
Once the tank was fitted and had the right clearance to the forks I set off to build and shape the seat. The new seat is still able to lift up using the stock lock and modified hinges and is covered in black leather sewn up by Wes at Counterbalance Cycles. This allows easy access to the battery and a bit of storage.
As I previously mentioned I wanted to use shaft drive covers. The cover closely resembled the handmade covers on the ’79 build. To make the covers fit required moving the tabs around on the frame and moving the seat latch to have everything line up. They look and function perfectly.
The frame needed to have a cafe-style hoop welded in to finish off the rear of the frame and help hold the custom rear fender. Bolted to the rear fender is a Motone tail light.
This particular ’78 KZ didn’t come with a right side caliper and rotor. Finding a good used caliper for the right can be difficult and expensive. I lucked out finding one on ebay that was mislabeled as a left side. I hit the buy it now button quickly! I found another rotor and sent all three to TrueDisk to be resurfaced and drilled. Anything to help stop this beast. I lowered the front forks internally about an inch and a half and used new Ikon Dial-a-Ride shocks on the rear to give the bike a nice stance.
Once the fabrication was finished and the lines and look of the bike were to my liking I dove into disassembly. All of the parts that would be black were cleaned up and taken to Right-a-Way Powder to have that gloss black applied. The bodywork was given to Danny at Knight’s Kustoms. Bob had chosen to paint the bodywork Ford Raptor Red. It’s a beautiful color that showcases the classic look of the bike.
Since everything was out getting shined up I got started on the engine rebuild. I removed the top end to inspect everything and saw that the engine was well cared for. I installed new pistons and rings and had the cylinders honed. All new gaskets and seals were used and fresh paint was applied to finish it off. Browning Polishing added a bright new shine to all of the engine covers and new stainless hardware fastened everything down.
Assembly went well and everything fit great. I laced up the wheels with new stainless spokes and wrapped the fresh black rims in Conti GO tires. The classic MotoGadget mini speedo looks the part and a new wiring harness made all the electrics work as designed. Biltwell grips and some aftermarket switches cleaned up the bars.
When the project is coming to a close the excitement builds and you go over the mental list of all that you have done or have to do. You have touched every single part and you hope that all went according to plan. Adding gas to a freshly welded, sealed and painted tank. Adding oil to a just rebuilt engine. Brake fluid in rebuilt calipers. These are all things that have the potential for hiccups.
But once the bike was running and I heard the sweet 1000cc sound ripping through the new Delkevic exhaust and all the fluids stayed in their locations, my stress level dropped. Taking the bike on its first couple rides sheds light on anything that needs to be addressed. But this time the only thing was a main jetting change and it was ready to be shipped back to Colorado.
With long distance builds, the only thing I wish I could see would be their first reaction. Like your kid at Christmas opening that one special gift. Hopefully Mr. Bob Kelly will love his resto-modded KZ1000 for years to come.
Thanks for reading,
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- Photography: www.jthorpephoto.com | @jthorpephoto
Absolutely gorgeous !
Very nice take on a Brat Build on this ’79 Kawi!!! Nice lean-looking Big Bore. Great color and I love the tank and old Kawi logo! Everything looks great…fits well…and speaks volumes of the builder’s close attention to detail. Wreaks of quality!!! LOVE IT!
That’s a beautiful bike! Nicely done.
Love that tank!
I would ride this.
Nicely done. This build takes the 70’s icon and gives it a 60’s look. Love the tank and old logo. Great paint. And something no-one has mentioned, the beautiful metal polishing which makes this handsome air cooled motor really pop.