When it comes to iconic Hollywood motorcycle scenes, there’s hardly anything more iconic than Tom Cruise riding a motorcycle next to a plane taking off, in one of the greatest aviation movies ever made: Top Gun. As iconic as that scene is, and as iconic as the actor riding that motorcycle, the motorcycle itself is also an icon. The bike in question was the Kawasaki GPz900R and it not only ushered in a new era of motorcycle madness in America, but also set Kawasaki firmly established as a major player for decades.
With the second installment in the Top Gun film series, Top Gun: Maverick, in theaters, we thought it was a good time to take a closer look at the motorcycle everyone remembers. Here’s what’s so special about the Kawasaki GPz900R and why it’s so cool.
The Top Gun moment for Kawasaki GPz900R
It’s 1986 and when someone sees a motorcycle, they think of the Harley-Davidson. Big, heavy cruisers, designed for the open road with a relaxed driving experience. ‘Potato-potato’ is what people expected to hear from motorcycles and things like ape handlebars were the in-thing. The most sought-after motorcycles included the Harley-Davidson FLT Tour Glide. It had a huge hood in the front and the bike was long, wide and heavy. But then Top Gun arrived on the big screens and everything changed.
America saw their favorite action hero, Tom Cruise, take off on a motorcycle next to a fighter jet. The sun is setting, Tom Cruise is in his pair of aviators, scoring on classic rock in the background. Tom Cruise greets the pilot as he takes off in the jet, disengages the clutch, downshifts and speeds forward. This had everything it took to make it an iconic on-screen moment that left everyone who witnessed this scene with goosebumps.
After this scene in Top Gun, Kawasaki’s popularity exploded through the roof and everyone wanted a motorcycle that could hold up next to a jet. They wanted a forward riding position on a bike that was light and agile. This was Kawasaki’s ticket to fame in America. It can be argued that the Top Gun motorcycle scene was one of the defining points in the rise of superbike popularity in America in the 1980s. The GPz900R was the birth of the Kawasaki Ninja series of motorcycles that are revered around the world to this day.
The Kawasaki GPz900R was ahead of its time
The Kawasaki GPz900R was unlike anything the world had ever seen. He is considered the grandfather of the current generation of superbikes. Developed in secret by Kawasaki for six years, the GPz900R was the first motorcycle to bear the ‘Ninja’ name. Unveiled to the press in December 1983, and within the span of six months, the GPz900R went racing in the hair-raising event called the Isle of Man TT, winning first and second place.
Kawasaki had the engine mounted lower in the frame for a lower center of gravity and better maneuverability. It used the engine like a stressed member… in 1984! This also made the bike lighter, which improved the bike’s dynamics. The GPz900R was the first motorcycle to ever exceed 150mph. Officially, it had a top speed of 255 mph, making it the fastest production motorcycle on sale at the time. This Kawasaki would run a standing quarter mile in under 11 seconds. It innovated so hard that even the fuel cap was airplane-inspired, as it sat flush with the fuel tank and was spring-loaded, making the bulky, pivoting fuel caps often seen on other Harley-Davidsons look old.
It came with the world’s first liquid-cooled, four-cylinder, 16-valve motorcycle engine. The 908cc engine delivered a whopping 115 horsepower and was a lot more powerful than the V-Twin engines in the Harleys at the time. The Ninja was also a lot smoother because it was the first large-scale production motorcycle to use a crankshaft counterbalancer. The front suspension came with variable dampers so riders could brake hard without worrying that a nosedive would affect the bike’s balance. The GPz900R was a leap forward from other motorcycles of its time and was one of the coolest motorcycles money could buy.
The Kawasaki GPz900R and Top Gun were a match made in heaven and as motorcycle enthusiasts, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast like Tom Cruise riding this machine feels just right. Sure, you could argue that Top Gun has a few things wrong with flying airplanes, but when it comes to motorcycles, they picked the right one. The GPz900R made the Kawasaki Ninja a force to be reckoned with, giving us motorcycles like the supercharged Kawasaki Ninja H2 and its touring cousin, the Kawasaki Ninja H2 SX. And when the new Top Gun: Maverick hits theaters and you see Tom Cruise on the new Ninja H2, remember that it was the GPz900R that started it all.
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