I’m beginning to feel like the Pied Piper — it seems like motorcycles just find their way to me, and then just follow me around.
The latest moto-child at the end of this little parade is a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR 600. The ZZR belongs to Cameron — Daughter Wallis’ Boyfriend — who, after a long period of unrelieved motolust, found this bike — low mileage, low purchase price — sitting out beside the road wearing a ‘For Sale’ sign. At the time, he was actually headed to look at another bike he’d found on Craigslist, but this one seemed like more motorcycle for less dollars, so it followed him, and by inference, me, home.
Bikes like this are a missed blessing — with an odometer reading equating to far less than 1000 miles a year, this was a motorcycle that had spent most of its life just sitting.
The ZZR was Kawasaki’s rebadged version of the first generation Ninja 600. After a substantial redesign resulting in Ninja V 2.0, Kawasaki had taken the first generation machine, equipped it with a slightly more rational seating position, a set of bungee hooks, and a sticker that said ‘ZZR’, and told people it was a sporty standard and kept selling it right along side the new, more track focused Ninja, only for a lot less money. For folks that didn’t want to go racing, the ZZR made perfect sense.
Did I mention that the ZZR is one of the last carbureted Kawasaki motorcycles? A carbureted motorcycle that had no choice but to be filled with the swill that passes for modern pump gas, and had spent its whole life sitting waiting to be ridden.
It didn’t take the Great Karnak to know the question was “What motorcycle will need a complete carb service?”.
I’ve been ragging on myself about my lack of skills and experience in working on Finn’s Harley-Davidson based Buell Blast.
My skills working on modern Japanese motorcycles, while non-zero, were certainly in that same reduced-capacity zip code.
Cam had described to me the bike’s operating character — would only idle on choke when not fully warmed up, stumbling idle, and wouldn’t take throttle until half open, and then it was bog, stumble, unridable blast. He fired it at the end of my driveway one evening, and the idle sounded like a box of rocks in a cement mixer. Awful.
This was a story I was sure I’d heard before.
Sweet Doris From Baltimore’s little moto-riding brother, Eric, had ridden a Yamaha FZ-1 of identical vintage and a parallel development story — v1.0 supersport — in this case the R1 — repurposed as a sporty standard while sold alongside Supersport 2.0. Eric had told me tales of that bike — also the last of the carbureted bikes — going back to the dealer 4 or 5 times — before it died an untimely death — for carb cleaning and replacement of its pilot jets. His frustration was palpable — couldn’t those guys get it right? — but the problem was, at root, not ham-fisted mechanics but a chronic design flaw. Microscopic pilot jet orifices driven by EPA emissions testing-driven lean running conditions combined with alcohol laden motor fuel meant that even the slightest evaporation or varnishing of the fuel in the carbs reduced the jet orifice sizes just enough to keep the bike from running. And it could happen over and over again.
Cam’s little problem clearly fit the same pattern.
I told him to order the parts I figured we’d need — pilot jets, spark plugs, an air filter, a fuel filter, an oil filter and fresh motorcycle oil. I figured that with one good afternoon we could set the ZZR aright.
I figured wrong.
Cam came over one Saturday afternoon with two bags full of parts obtained from Frederick’s local Kawasaki dealer, so I rolled my LT out of the garage, and positioned the ZZR in the large space thus vacated, in the implied operating theater in front of my rolling toolbox.
I strapped on my mechanics gloves and we dove right in.
We pulled the saddle to access the tank mounts. Three bolts, one fuel gauge connector and one clamp later, the ZZR’s tank was sitting in the fuel tank cradle on top of my workbench.
Ten 10 mm bolts later, the top of the airbox came off.
And that was when, as my British are won’t to say, things began to go pear-shaped.
I pulled the foam air cleaner element out — it was visibly crumbling and in bad shape — and Cam made a face. He removed the new air filter from the bag — his new one was clearly shorter from front to back than what was in the bike.
I told him to call the dealer, and have them check the number, and see if they had the correct filter in stock.
While he spent some time on the phone, I continued removal of the ram-air-equipped airbox and worked my way towards removal of the rack of 4 downdraft Keihin CV carburetors. 4 clamps later, the rack was off the head — flipping them upside down in place was sufficient access to get to the float bowls and jets.
It was then that I began to understand just how bad our local dealer’s attention to detail might be.
I put down my tools and went over to Cam, who was still on the phone.
“Have them check the rest of the part numbers on your order. If they effed up the filter they probably effed up the other parts too.”
Sure enough, the pilot jets were also wrong. The dealer, despite having been told the year and model of the bike, had referred to the parts listing for the 2004 Ninja, not the 2004 ZZR. The spark plugs and oil filter just happened to be shared between the two models.
This bike was not going back together today.
I hate it when an easy job turns into days or weeks waiting on parts.
Having told the dealer to order the correct air filter and jets, Cam and I set about to do what could be done in the absence of parts. We pulled each of the carb float bowls. Each of them showed some varnishing and staining — blasts of carb cleaner and shop rags and cotton swabs had them all looking factory. We cleaned up the throttle butterflies, CV slides, float bowls and hosed down the main and pilot jet orifices with carb cleaner and then buttoned things up loosely to await the arrival of the required parts.
My collection of I.T. Tech Vendor giveaway tiny screwdrivers was not really adequate for removing the varnished up pilot jets — the further delay would allow me to finally replace them with a proper tool.
Putting four new spark plugs in the motor was unremarkable, except perhaps for how far down beneath the cam covers those plugs were.
With the bike in parts all over the workbench and garage, the afternoon beer sure didn’t taste like victory today.
The following Friday, Cam went back to the aforementioned dealer. They slid a small bag across the counter with 4 of the correct pilot jets.
“Where’s the air filter?”
The befuddled counterman cut into a stream of Hummina-Hummina-Hummina.
After a quick check of the parts computer, it was revealed that our erstwhile professional had reserved the remote inventory for Cameron, without exactly having ordered it.
Cameron is, if nothing else, a good human being, who departed the shop without directing animus or personal violence against said offender, who was now on the verge of making a simple motorcycle tune up last three full weeks.
In his shoes, I would have likely expressed myself in potentially unfriendly ways.
I will mention in passing that there was a time when I seriously considered emptying my garage of all of its BMWs in favor of purchasing a KTM Adventure from this self same dealer.
My gratitude that this did not come to pass likely knows no bounds.
Back in the garage, Cam and I put the new screwdriver to good use.
I’m pretty sure I hadn’t remarked on it before, but if you are the daughter of a hidebound motorhead, bringing home a boyfriend named Cam has to earn you some kind of extra points.
Anyway, since it was at the absolute bottom of the open engine bay, the old fuel filter — eeech! — was popped off the Kawi’s fuel pump, and a new clean one popped on.
Then I’d draped a worn out white polo shirt across the frame rails, to ensure that any tiny parts that tried to make a break for it would be stopped cold on a clean white surface.
With the correct pilot jets and tool steel screwdriver in hand, removing and replacing the pilots went quickly.
After about 15 minutes of close order work, we flipped the carb rack back over, pulled the shoprags out of the intake spigots, revealing the absolutely tiny intake valves, and remounted the carbs to the bike’s cylinder head.
I replaced the carb rack’s choke cable and holder, reattached the feed line from the fuel pump, and then took the lower half of the airbox in hand.
During this entire little operation, I’d been remarking on how small and tightly packaged everything on this 4 cylinder 600 cc motor appeared.
Now, an applied illustration of the effects of this presented itself.
Removing the airbox had been absolutely trivial.
Reinstalling it, though, not so much.
The Kawasaki’s airbox was one of the ram-air type. It was held in place by two flange headed bolts in the rear that attached it to a plastic panel which connected the four carburetors together. In the front, it was supported by large rubber ram air ducts that fit inside the large diameter spigots at the front of the airbox.
Finding the correct vector and rotation to get all that stuff to magically realign proved, well, elusive.
After several runs at it, I could sense that rising panic that tends to occur when something that one’s brain knows is trivial starts to temporarily seem to be impossible.
All of a sudden, everything became darker still.
Not metaphorically, as one would assume, but literally.
We’d been having unnaturally warm autumn days hereabouts. These unnatural conditions tend to be short lived, and subject to sudden and violent change.
And while that observation is intended here to be literal, it may have metaphorical applications as well.
A cold front had swept across the mountain ridge that sits between my garage and Buddy Al’s house, and the sky went black, the wind picked up, and the rain began to hammer down, all in a matter of seconds. I only noticed this when the first big raindrop hit the bottom of the Kawi’s airbox.
Operating, as we were, in the open garage door to take advantage of the light and extra space to walk behind the bike, it became immediately necessary to close to door to keep the bottom of the sea and the ZZR’s intake tract logically separated.
After popping a work light in place to replace the lost sun, Cameron, who with his very slight build — more suited to ramming one’s arms down plastic pipes — managed to get the intake ducts realigned.
Two bolts were run down, and the airbox was back in place.
Cam and I agreed that even without the air filter, we’d test fire the bike just to make sure we were on the right track.
By the time the top of the airbox, with its ten bolts and small internal ram-air birdy catching fence, was tacked back in place, the rain had passed, and the sun was back out. We rolled the garage door back up, backed the bike back out, and then set the fuel tank back into place and attached the fuel line.
I did the honors.
I turned the key, half expecting the fuel pump whine I’ve come to expect from my fuel injected motorcycles. I didn’t get it.
I set the choke lever on the left handlebar, and pressed the starter. Unsurprisingly, the engine rotated through three or four full crank rotations before we had enough fuel and air in the places where fuel and air needed to be before the Kawi fired, and the bike came up to an immediate 2000 rpm high idle.
I rolled off the choke and it immediately died.
On the second attempt, I left the choke in place for a few seconds while the engine warmed. I tried to open the throttle with the choke activated, but with this carburetor, the throttle was essentially useless while the enrichener was on.
After about thirty seconds, I rolled the choke closed in stages and the engine stayed running, although the idle was still noisier than I thought optimum.
The ZZR, like many inline 4s, has an idle adjustment knob on top of the left side transmission case that connects via a cable to the center of the carburetor rack. I gently rolled the knob open until the butterflies began to open, and dialed in a 1200 rpm idle speed. This seemed better, but wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t put my finger on what wasn’t right now, but later all would be revealed.
As the engine finally began to get some heat in it, I was able to drop the idle speed lower, and the engine began to respond to opening throttle as it should — instead of the former bog, choke and gasp, I was now getting smooth throttle response from idle — the engine would smoothly add RPMs, swinging the tach upwards to 4 and 5 thousand on opening throttle. I was confident there was more — the ZZR revs to 14K — but don’t routinely redline motors on the stand.
After a cold, rainy afternoon, a properly running bike seemed like a major improvement.
As Sweet Doris from Baltimore called us in to a warm meal, Cam and I decided that the rest of the work — oil change and air filter — could wait until the MIA airfilter finally showed up.
Have I ever mentioned how mental unfinished motorcycle jobs make me?
Consider it mentioned.
At lunchtime Monday, I slipped out into the garage, and pulled the belly pan from the ZZR. Unlike my KLT, where removal of the lower fairings is an exercise in excessive fasteners, the ZZR is simple and fast. A very visible gold anodized phillips head screw unhooks a belt band that allows access to all the other fairing fasteners. One screw on each side and two screws at the rear of the belly pan allows one to remove the entire lower fairing. Total elapsed time — about 3 minutes.
I started and rewarmed the motorcycle until I could feel some heat in the engine and transmission cases. I then slid a pan under the engine and pulled the drain bolt. After a few seconds I also got a wrench on the filter and pulled it as well.
While standing there with oil draining I noticed the service sticker on the rear of the tank — “Oil Change Volume with Filter Change — 3.4 US QTS”. I had previously remarked that the engine appeared overfilled — there had been no space visible at the top of the sight glass.
With oil still pouring out, the level in my drain pan had now gone past the level normally associated with a change in my Ram Pickup. Who ever had serviced this motorcycle last had dramatically overfilled the crankcase — the dealer had sold Cam 5 quarts of expensive synthetic racing oil and the OEM instructions clearly called for less than 3.5 — what was in my pan was looking like 5.
Coincidence? Who knows?
There is only one Kawasaki dealer near this small town.
I headed back into my office to complete the day’s work while the engine fully drained, thinking perhaps I had uncovered the last clue to why the bike had been exhibiting such awful idle and off idle performance.
After dinner that night, I went back into the garage and pulled the new oil filter out of the box. Because of all the confusion, I’d checked all of the part numbers myself, just to be sure that we had the right parts and would have no more problems. The Kawasaki OEM filter that I’d removed didn’t have the correct part number. Size was roughly right, but it was not the correct filter for this engine.
Whoever had been maintaining this motorcycle before we got here had apparently been a little weak on details.
I oiled the gasket on the new filter and torqued it to specifications.
I cleaned up the drain bolt, torqued it to specs and put 3.4 quarts of new oil into the motor.
I wiped off my hands, turned the key, set the choke and fired the engine. After only 5 seconds or so, I dialed the choke off and the engine went to about a 1300 rpm idle. I used the adjuster to dial it back to 1000 rpm, which was dead even and rock solid. What was more significant were the qualities which were no longer there — a whole bunch of noises and rattles that had been there previously — cam chain noises, the sound of the crank weights slapping oil — were all gone. Throttle response was also markedly improved — quicker, more linear.
After shutting her down, the oil level showed up right in the middle of the sight glass.
I started to think that this roadside refugee — with a little care and attention to detail — was going to turn out to be a really nice motorcycle after all.
Now, as soon as the MIA airfilter showed up, this bike was going to be back out of my garage and on the road.
Tuesday afternoon, the dealer finally called Cam to tell him the airfilter had arrived. Also Tuesday afternoon, one of Cam and Wallis’ friends gave birth to her first baby girl.
I have visions of Cam in the hospital room with the new little family, air filter in his jacket pocket, smiling weakly and thinking to himself “Stupid Baby.”
I’ve had the good judgement not to ask him about it.
After Baby Girl Frenzy abated just a little, Cam appeared in the garage bearing a Kawasaki OEM Replacement Parts bag.
We pulled the tank again and spun the 10 bolts out of the airbox cover. I have a trick little Bosch rechargeable 12 volt variable speed drill that accepts socket drive bits. Given the tool’s precision – speed control is very granular and linear — controllable at minute rotational speeds — and its nicely featured torque clutch — it makes jobs like this much faster than with a traditional ratchet. I might check torque with a traditional torque wrench for critical fasteners, but for jobs like this, or on body panels, it’s a winner.
One of my rare concessions to modern technology.
I had Cam clean off the plastic frames that support the top and bottom of the two stage foam filter. Another case where Al’s Cheap Trick of using brake cleaner — my garment factory skills identify this as aerosol dry cleaning fluid — useful stuff — had everything bright and shiny double quick. The service manual for the bike — Thank you, Internet! — specified that the new filter had to be oiled. We followed the manual to the letter — soak rag in motor oil, pat top surface of filter.
Airbox lid went back in place, tank back on, fuel line connected and clamped in place, and three bolts run down.
Cam put the saddle back in place, turned on the fuel petcock.
We rolled the bike out into the driveway. I grabbed my old Bell 500, and threw a leg over.
The bike fired perfectly on choke, which I was able to roll off almost immediately. I rolled down the driveway and headed for the circle two houses down from me at the end of my street. Immediately the bike went fluffy, started not taking throttle, and quickly expired.
My mental tach headed toward redline. Felt like no fuel. It WAS no fuel.
I felt for the Kawi’s funky bodywork-integrated petcock.
Cam had brought the bike in with low fuel level in the gas tank — a thoughtful move if one is going to spend a great deal of time taking said tank on and off — like in this case, which we did multiple times.
I rotated the petcock from ON to RESERVE, waited 5 seconds, and hit the starter.
“Wheeeeee….” Angry Bees.
I gave the bike a little gas, let out the clutch, and whizzed up Westport drive. I rolled out of the gas, toed the shifter and got a solid and precise shift to second. I trolled around the block, giving and taking some gas — this ZZR felt great.
I’ll admit I expected to feel cramped, but even with the high pegs the position was nicely balanced — I was even able to do feet up U-turns in the width of my street first try, no problem.
Coming back towards the garage, I did that thing that bikers do — don’t let on for a second like you wouldn’t, mate — where I gave the red machine some enthusiastic throttle. I could see where with the room to get some RPMs up, this was going to be a fearsomely capable machine. It was small, taught, precise.
I rolled the motorcycle back into the driveway, killswitched it and swung back off.
“This is going to be just fine, Cam. Go get some clean high test in this thing.”
I’ve never seen a man smile so hard, get into armored gear so fast, or say ‘Thank You’ so many times in such a short interval of time.
With a press of the starter, the red bike rolled to the corner, grabbed second gear, banked left and split.
I heard the ZZR go up through the gears — its distinctive angry bee inline four shriek as it broke into its rpm midrange — 8 grand or so gone with 6 more left — as it headed up the state highway towards the BP station in town.
I’d been hoping I’d get the chance to take a more thorough ride on the machine, but hearing it disappear into the distance, I suspected that was going to be a while before I saw it again.
Wallis was kind enough to let me know that Cameron got home safely later.
Later that week.
Good to see I’m still a positive role model for the young people I know.
Even if I’m not exactly sure how Wallis feels about that right now.