It all started in the Spring of 2001, late in my senior year of high school in Pittsburgh, Pa. I was a few months away from graduation and I had the burning desire to be a badass. It is an epidemic that is not uncommon with most 18 year old males who are preparing for a major direction change in life. I wasn’t the world’s biggest party animal in high school (ok I didn’t have my first beer until my 21st birthday). So for my rebellious move I decided to buy a street bike. But not just any street bike, a classic and muscular Kawasaki KZ 1000.
For me the choice was easy. My father has owned a pretty mean 1976 KZ 900 for as long as I’ve known him. Infact he rode (raced) it to the hospital to see me for the very first time in 1982. My mom should have known her son was going to have the motorcycle addiction from that very instant.
Growing up some of my fondest childhood memories came from the dragstrip, as a spectator and later as a crewman for my father who was forced back into racing after I nagged him endlessly to get the bike running again after one of our annual trips to the US Motorcycle Nationals in Atco, NJ – an event we’ve been attending since I was four years old. So my selection for an affordable street bike was simple, go with the machine that I had seen countless times at the racetrack.
The problem was I was still just 18 and my now conservative father was not in favor of turning me loose on the street or strip just yet, and probably rightfully so. However like most 18-year-olds I was determined to rebel and I was determined to prove I could do it. In my defense I had about 10 years of motocross and trail riding under my belt, which made me a better rider and to this day still helps me out on the street.
However maybe dad was right. My first rookie mistake came before I even threw a leg over a bike. I decided to shop on this new popular auction site called EBay (I’m sure you’ve heard of it.) I would later vow to never buy another motorcycle without inspecting it in person beforehand.
With the help of a high-school friend and self-proclaimed EBay expert, Ken Cooper, I found what looked to be a pretty good deal on a 1977 KZ 1000. Being an experienced EBayer Cooper was adamant that we could not put in our bid until the last minute – a very smart strategy. The only problem was that the auction was set to end at exactly the same time as my interview for a part-time job life guarding at a Spring Hill Suites Hotel. Cooper also worked there and set me up with the interview. He was on duty at the time of my interview and he assured me that he would take care of the bidding.
The day of the interview arrived and the motorcycle was still within in my price range. I was pumped. I entered the pool area to talk with Ken and his supervisor/ my potential boss decided to unexpectedly meet us there. I remember this man as one of those guys who enjoys talking a little too much. After about 15 brutal and seemingly endless stories about his childhood, glory days, and marital problems, I noticed we were less than 10 minutes away from the end of the auction and I had yet to bid. Now as young, respectful, boss-fearing men who are not supposed to be mixing extracurricular activities with work, it was hard to break away from this long-winded conversation we pretended to be interested in. In other words we couldn’t get this guy to shut up long enough for one of us to excuse ourselves to the “bathroom.” Finally I interrupted and Ken was able to make his move. He rushed into the computer room, fumbled with the login process and was able to sneak in our bid with 13 seconds to spare. As he walked back into the room I was now hired as a lifeguard and I was also the winning bidder of a 77 KZ 1000 for $1,250.
As a side note the life guarding job turned out to be a bit of a joke. I came in with a couple of years of experience guarding at an Olympic-sized outdoor pool that hosted a summer camp. At times there were about 200 screaming kids in one 10-foot-radius.
The pool at the hotel was a little more laid back. In fact it was only about 25 feet long, 10 feet wide and no deeper than five feet. I think the bathtub or a puddle presented more dangers than this particular body of water, but the hotel was required by Pennsylvania law to have someone there. People rarely came into “swim” so I eventually used my free time to work on motorcycle pieces. I got away with it for the most part until one day I was sanding down a mag wheel and an annoying 40 year old man who was swimming alone said, “Shouldn’t you being giving all of your attention to me right now?’ I assured him that if he felt like he was starting to drown all he had to do was stand up and his head would be above water. This gentlemen decided to direct his feelings toward my advice to the hotel questionnaire found on the night stand. A few weeks later our boss wanted to know who had a tire in the pool area me or Ken? Naturally we knew nothing about this.
After winning the auction, I now had to figure out how to get the bike, which was located in Indiana, about a six-hour drive from Pittsburgh. That is quite a haul for an 18-year-old, especially when you don’t tell your parents exactly where you are going. I loaded up my partner in crime, a friend and longtime wrestling teammate “Big” Dan Boden. Dan was a strong 205 pound food-crushing and hell-raising machine. I knew this would be an interesting trip. The plan was to drive all night Saturday and meet another good friend at Purdue University. We’d stay overnight, and get the bike on Sunday.
On that long drive I learned a few important lessons. No. 1, when Dan unintentionally overflows a toilet at a West Virginia gas station it’s not always best to tell the 65-year old woman behind the counter about the situation as a courtesy. She chased us out of the place with a plunger and a broomstick. I think you can actually do time in West Virginia for clogging the throne. No. 2, do not take back country roads instead of the interstate because it “looks shorter on the map.” No. 3, when eating at Arby’s in Ohio do not assume that the 300 lb “chef” who just exited the bathroom and is scratching his butt has washed his hands.
It was April 1st 2001, appropriately April Fool’s Day and I was on my way to pick up the bike with Dan. Before I got to the seller’s house I knew the bike wasn’t perfect based on the way it looked in the pictures. Still I didn’t feel $1,250 was too bad for a machine, that according to the ad only needed a “good carb job” to be a daily driver. Little did I know the joke was about to be on me.
As we arrived at this man’s house I saw the bike from a distance. Even from 100 feet away I was hoping we were somehow at the wrong the house. The bike was in terrible condition. It was far worse than the pictures indicated. In my estimation it was a very nice street cruiser at one time (Probably late 70s), but it clearly hadn’t been on the road for the last 15 years and it had been sitting outside for at least the last five. There were flowers and weeds growing up from underneath the carbs up to the gas tank. There was rust everywhere. The bike had some chrome on it, but because it had been sitting so long, the chrome was flaking off. The frame appeared to be cracked in at least one spot.
As bad as it looked, it actually started. I think it was running on about one cylinder and made the most pathetic sound I have ever heard a KZ make. It sounded like a wimpy push lawnmower trying to cut three-foot-high grass. At this point I probably should have walked away. Enter rookie mistake No. 2 – I didn’t. The man said that because the bike wasn’t exactly how he described it he would knock 100 dollars off the bottom line. Well, after such a long trip I just couldn’t go home empty handed. I figured I could fix it up. We loaded up the bike and hit I-70 for the long journey home. This is the first time I truly felt what buyer remorse really is. Especially with Dan busting my chops the whole way home. “Hey did you hear that seller say he can’t believe anyone would pay this kind of money for this old piece of junk,” joked Boden. Wait that wasn’t really a joke because the man did actually say that. What little of a coscience that the seller had must have worked on him just a bit before I left because he also said, “Hey kid you might want to check this thing out a little bit before you go 100 mph on it.” Ha, this bike was dangerous at 10 mph at this point.
Nonetheless I was full of optimism and energy and figured with a step dad who is a mechanic and a father who is a KZ expert, this blue machine would be ready to ride to my high school graduation in two months.
When I arrived home my buyer remorse intensified. My step dad told me, “get this piece of crap out of here.” My father said, “You are about two years and $1,500 away from a nice street bike.” I was blown away by that statement. Little did I know that would prove to be an underestimation.
Here is another original picture from the 2001 EBay ad. Now keep in mind this is the picture that assured me it was worth making the six-hour drive to buy. I really wish I had taken some photos of my own in 01 to show just how bad this poor bike was neglected.
After seven long years of hard word, and a ton of help from my father, my step dad, and a whole slew of friends the machine is finally complete.
After I brought the bike home, I used the next few weekends to begin my restoration, which I thought of as more of a tune-up. Again at the time I was under the impression I would be riding in two months. I also had about $60 in my bank account.
As we began to work on the bike, it seemed like anything we touched would lead to five more jobs. It reminded me of the classic movie Funny Farm. For example I tried to change a broken exhaust flange – seems like a simple job right? The hardware on this bike was so old and brittle the exhaust pipe studs cracked off at the first turn of the nut, and took a piece of the head with it. Ok no biggie, we’ll pull the head and my step dad can tap the broken bolts and repair the damage. So now the head comes off and we discover that it is clogged with carbon and the valves were burnt to a crisp. It wasn’t long before I realized there wasn’t a nut or bolt on this bike that didn’t need to be overhauled. The Phillips-head engine case bolts were miserable. They either needed an impact driver or snapped clean off.
Also keep in mind that I wasn’t quite Jesse James or the crew from Orange Country Choppers. For a young guy that is in way over his head, even the smallest job took an awful long time. I did the best I could to bring the bike back to life before I had to leave town for my freshman year of college at the University of Florida in late August of 2001. I was disappointed when I didn’t meet my goal of getting the bike to start before I left. Nonetheless we carefully packed it away and promised to get back to it when I returned home for the summer.
As I started college I became busier than I ever imagined trying to get through what proved to be a very rigorous Journalism and Communication program at UF, and also getting my broadcasting career started. In November of 2001 I made my professional debut when I helped announce the AMA/Prostar World Finals from Gainesville, Fla. Actually I guess it wasn’t professional because I didn’t get paid, but I was able to impress the Prostar officials enough for them to offer me an announcing job for the entire 2002 tour with pay.
Free time became harder to find, but I never forgot about my beloved KZ. Especially since I was around so many incredible classic Kawasakis on the Prostar tour. I vowed to finish it. I would put in a few hours with my dad when we could find time. For Christmas Santa would bring me things like a Dyna ignition and a Pingel petcock. I stayed the course, and after a trip to my friend Bruce Sauer’s shop to get some shims in 2002, the bike finally ran again. I almost cried.
Now although the bike fired up, it was still a long way from being roadworthy.
I continued to do my best to restore the KZ when my schedule permitted. In between college and announcing I managed to squeeze in a couple of internships at Fox Sports Pittsburgh and KDKA-TV, which proved to be incredibly beneficial experiences but left even less time for the KZ resto.
Finally in the summer of 2004 my father and I were able to get all of the lights and turn signals working. The bike was finally worthy of the road. After a test ride I learned that the horn would stick when I would come on the gas. This caused all of my neighbors to quickly hate me even more than they already did. Afterwards, we fixed the horn and the bike was finally ready for the street.
The ability to street ride the KZ in 2004 couldn’t have come at a better time. In Gainesville I found a very affordable and comfortable college living situation. The problem was that this place was about three miles from campus. Most students lived just a few blocks from the school. This meant I couldn’t walk to class which was a major problem. The University of Florida has a student body close to 50,000 and what I estimate to be about 5,000 parking spots for commuters. The drive to school was the worst part of my day. Traffic combined with the five mph campus speed limit would make my three-mile-commute take 45 minutes. I had to find a parking spot and then make the long walk to class. After two years of this, having my motorcycle in Florida seemed like a Godsend. Suddenly the worst part of my day became the best part of my day. There was plenty of easy motorcycle parking at UF. In fact I would park right outside of my classroom in the football stadium next to the athletes’ two-wheelers. Yes, the good ol KZ stood out quite nicely among the 100 or so scooters the Gator Football Team parked next to me.
Having the bike in Gainesville with me gave me a lot more time to devote to it. Plus Roland Stuart and his son Chuck, my good friends and crewmen for the world’s fastest motorcycle of Larry “Spiderman” McBride, had a shop right down the street. What a tremendous resource I was blessed with. I would bring Ro a 12 pack of Miller Lite and he would help me with just about anything I needed. Ro’s expertise helped breathe new life into the bike. We had the beast running well enough to take it for a few runs down Gainesville Raceway.
When I graduated from college in late 2005 and returned to Pittsburgh, I decided the bike had been so good to me in Gainesville, it was time to be good to it. I went all out and did a full frame-off restoration. My step dad helped me sandblast it to bare metal and we laid down a killer coat of black and clear. As the bike was completely apart I took the time to bring each individual component back to life.
I also decided it was time to beef up the motor. First I spilt the cases and sandblasted off the years of road grime and crud that refused to be scrubbed away. I got myself an 1197 kit from MTC. My friend and local engine builder Doug Stone of Performance Technologies bored out my cylinder and inserted the big sleeves. He also ported my head to flow more air to the extra displacement. Another one of my racing buddies, Dan Wagner from L&W, now Dan The Man Performance, welded my crank and undercut my transmission to strengthen the bottom end of the motor. I replaced the stock carbs with 36 mm Mikuni radial flat sides and added a heavy duty APE clutch to handle the extra power. A chrome Vance and Hines four-into-one exhaust system was also added.
Once I got everything back together about eight months later the bike fired up on the first try. It sounded like a million bucks. It was evident I had a lot of great help from a lot of talented people.
In the winter of 2008 there was just one area left to restore and that was the body work. I figured the tank, side covers, and tailpiece, are easy to pull off compared to disassembling the bike to the frame, or splitting the engine cases, so why not leave the paint for last?
After a ton of wet-sanding and filling in dents, the pieces were finally ready for paint. I again drafted my step dad to spray me down a few coats. He did a great job.
I got some pieces chromed and did my best to polish everything else up. I’m really happy with the way it came out. I look at it as a classic street cruiser with a little dragstrip muscle.
The machine has come a long way from the condition it was in back in 2001.
Wait, I thought all this bike needed was a good carb job? Good thing I looked at it before I went 100 mph.
Everything has a nice shine to it now, and it’s mechanically sound.
I added a few personal custom touches as well.
I couldn’t be happier with the final result. It runs like a dream. Sure you won’t be stopping on a dime or doing any knee-dragging on this classic ride but it is still very fun on the road and surprisingly comfortable. Plus, it has enough power on the straights to keep most sportbikes modest.
I want to thank everyone that had a hand in helping with this restoration. You guys are the best. Meeting this goal has truly been the realization of a dream. Don’t forget, persistence pays off.