Top Gun day is a perfect time to look back at what makes this movie a true classic, and a nod to the bike that defined the 1980s in many ways, the Kawasaki Ninja GPZ900R.
Top Gun is one of my fave action comedies of all time. Why comedy? Come on, are you taking dialogue about inverted MIGs, target-rich environments or Ice-Men being Wing-Men seriously?? Then there’s the oiled up guys playing volleyball and the aircraft carrier crew’s reaction to Maverick starting WW3 by shooting down four Russian pilots in balls of flame.
So much about this 80s action movie defines the era.
Maverick’s leather jacket, handmade by Intersport Fashions West in California, sparked a hundred imitations. The karoake bar, where Mav and Goose murder the Righteous Brothers was a social trend way ahead of its time, reaching its peak about 15 years later in the UK. The way that jets, and military hardware in general are depicted in soft-focus, almost pornographic homage, is something that you can see later in Top Gear Specials and films like True Lies, Independence Day, Under Siege or Navy Seals.
NINJA BY NAME, ASS-KICKER BY NATURE
But let’s talk motorcycles. The Kawasaki GPZ900R was a 1984 model Superbike which kicked the arses of rival brands like Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, not to mention Italian manufacturers still struggling to shake off their 1970s demons of piss-poor electrics, patchy build quality and under-powered engines.
It was still a heavy bike, but compared to dinosaurs like the Honda CBX1000 six, Yamaha XS1100 or Suzuki GSX1100, the new Kawa 900 was a lithe supermodel. Even rivals like the Ducati 900SS/S2, which was beautiful to look at, couldn’t match the sheer barnstorming speed of the Kawasaki. Road tests at the time raved about reaching the scary side of 150mph, which was a magic number back then, a true landmark in production motorcycles.
More importantly, the Ninja 900 had a certain poise, a grace, that others lacked. I tested one in the 90s for a used bike/classic feature and still thought it was a half-decent machine in the twisty sections, with reasonably sharp steering thanks to that 16 inch front wheel. Tiny front wheels were all the rage in the 1980s, but Kawasaki seemed to get the overall handling balance just right, whereas bikes like the GSX750/1100, Yamaha FZ750 and Honda’s VF1000R and CBX750F models often felt less stable, less trustworthy when push came to shove. In fact Kawasaki ballsed things up with the GPZ1000R, which was a sister model to the 900R and frankly, cornered like a bucket of lard on a hostess trolley by comparison.
YEP, SUZUKI GOT THERE A YEAR LATER
OK, I will accept the GSXR750/1100 models which came after the Ninja 900 were lighter, more agile bikes – better to race without a doubt – but definitely more scary to ride on bumpy public roads. The early `Gixers’ were head-shaking, hard work on the open road to be brutally honest, and you always felt like a hunched-up jockey on top of a wayward missile.
THE ESSENCE OF COOL – THE NEED FOR SPEED
Here’s the thing, Cruise looks cool on that red/black Ninja 900R. The stickers match his cocky, street-racer jacket, the black paint adds a stealth fighter touch. The 900R also sounds like a jet fighter when you rev the heck out of that liquid-cooled, 16 valve engine. Kawasaki spent years developing a motor that would power a generation of superbikes in the 1980s, and the Top Gun movie would have been a lesser film without its banzai performance.
Incredibly, Kawasaki did NOT provide the Ninja bikes for free – the production company actually bought one from a dealer, which seems crazy now, but that’s how things were back then. Kawasaki have never really courted the film industry, mainly because making motorbikes is small beer to a conglomerate that makes rockets for NASA, build bridges, or designs drills that can dig a channel tunnel.
Brando on his Triumph defined the 50s rebel, Hopper and Fonda stuck two fingers up at The Man in the Sixties classic Easy Rider on their H-D choppers. Motorcycles always hint at rebellious characters, like Richard Gere in An Officer and A Gentleman. But Tom Cruise and the Ninja 900R both came along at just the right point in the mid-80s – suddenly, Japanese motor cycles became cool.
They were Top Dog, and Hollywood knew it.