Crouching Panther, Hidden Ninja
April 12, 2011
Filed under Rider Magazine Blog
On the cover of our current issue (February 2011) is the new 2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000, a fully faired version of the Z1000 that features roomier ergonomics, an adjustable windscreen and touring accessories. Few motorcycle model names have been as enduring as Ninja. The name invokes images of aggressive, powerful sportbikes, often in Kawasaki’s trademark lime green. The Kawasaki Ninja is currently offered in seven variations: Ninja 250R, Ninja 650R, Ninja 1000, Ninja ZX-6R, Ninja ZX-10R, Ninja ZX-10R ABS and Ninja ZX-14.
While doing background research for my road test of the Ninja 1000, I came across Clement Salvadori’sRetrospective column about the 1984-’86 Kawasaki ZX900 Ninja—the first model to bear the Ninja name—in the May 2001 issue of Rider. Here’s the second paragraph in its entirety:
“It should be noted that the name Ninja can be attributed to the guiding hand of Kawasaki’s Marketing Director back in 1983, one Mike Vaughan. This was the height of sportbike fever in these United States, and Vaughan understood that cool names, like Interceptor, sold better than alphanumerology, like ZX900. In Japan a Ninja was an evil concept, and the factory folks wanted nothing to do with these semi-mythical warriors, but in the United States Ninjas were heroes. It took a while, but Vaughan was convincing.”
The first time I met Mike Vaughan was in Cambria, California, during the annual gathering of Riderstaffers and friends before the July 2008 round of MotoGP and AMA Superbike racing at Laguna Seca. Few people you’ll meet are as good-natured—and as fast on two wheels—as Mike.
Curious about how Mike came up with Ninja, I called him soon after I read Clem’s article. As a southerner, I appreciate anyone who can tell a good story, and Mike took me on a leisurely trip down memory lane. Mike said he’d always liked the word “ninja.” (I think he said it was the name of a boat—either one he owned or saw in a marina; our conversation took place about six weeks ago, and my memory and notes are little sketchy.) Like Clem said, it’s a cool name. Apparently Mike first proposed the name in 1980—three decades ago!—for the GPz750, which was introduced for 1982. The folks at Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. were all for it, but higher-ups at Kobe, Japan-based Kawasaki Heavy Industries put the kibosh on the idea.
According to Wikipedia, “A ninja or shinobi was a covert agent or mercenary of feudal Japan specializing in unorthodox arts of war. The functions of the ninja included espionage, sabotage, infiltration, and assassination, as well as open combat in certain situations. The ninja, using covert methods of waging war, were contrasted with the samurai, who had strict rules about honor and combat.” In other words, ninjas were outlaws—not an image Japanese executives wanted associated with their motorcycles. (It would be decades before the outlaw biker and hooligan subcultures of motorcycling went mainstream and got co-opted by marketing departments.)
When the ZX900 was ready to be introduced, Kawasaki planned to just use its model designation (alphanumerology, as Clem calls it). An ad agency suggested calling it the Panther, which is also black and stealthy. But the image brought to my mind isn’t of a bad-ass, man-eating beast but of a cheesy tattoo, hastily chosen on a Friday night and sorely regretted Saturday morning (compounded by an skull-splitting SoCo hangover).
By November 1983, with the January 1984 Kawasaki dealer meeting bearing down on them, still no decision had been made. As Clem suggests, Mike Vaughan was very convincing, and ultimately his idea prevailed. At first, the Ninja name was only used on bikes sold in the U.S. But eventually it caught on and ultimately became one of Kawasaki’s best-known model lines.