The year 1973 marked the start of the Watergate hearings in the U.S. Senate, proceedings that ended with the resignation and eventual pardon of President Richard M. Nixon. That year also marked the beginning of oil embargo, which led to fuel shortages across the United States. It was hardly the best time in history to launch a water toy that burned gasoline, but Kawasaki did just that with its Jet Ski, a product that created a market where none existed before, and it’s still around to this day.
The first Jet Ski was a stand-up model with a 400 cc two-stroke engine, articulating handlebars and a trigger throttle. Hand-built in Akashi, Japan, it wasn’t easy to ride, but it was something new to get people out on the water and it made a big splash.
About the time Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1975, Kawasaki had built a plant in Lincoln, Neb., and began mass-producing the Jet Ski 400. That was the same year Jet Ski became a registered trademark of Kawasaki, which has had to police the marketplace, so people don’t use the name Jet Ski to describe other brands.
“You see it all the time,” said Jon Rall, senior public relations coordinator for Jet Ski. “It is trademarked, so we are supposed to be asked, but trying to police every little place that’s renting any kind of personal watercraft would be next to impossible.”
Brands like Kleenex and Jeep, two other proper nouns that people and media often mistakenly use as a common noun, also vigorously protect their trademarks. That trademark battle in part led to the creation of the term “personal watercraft,” or PWC for short.
By 1980, Jet Ski racing became its own sport in the United States and by the time AT&T broke up in 1982, the sport had gone global with the International Jet Ski Boating Association. But the market for the stand-up watercraft wasn’t infinite, and Kawasaki knew that new product would reinvigorate sales, so by the time most of learned where Chernobyl was in 1986, Kawasaki had released the new X2, a two-passenger personal watercraft that gave riders the option to sit or stand. Then, about the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Kawasaki introduced the Jet Ski Tandem Sport, the first true sit-down watercraft built for two riders.
In 1993, the International Jet Ski Boating Association was renamed the International Jet Sports Boating Association, which allowed for racers to compete on any brand of personal watercraft, not just Kawasakis. The IJSBA still exists today as the leading sanctioning body for watercraft racing.
About the time Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gilooly was pleading guilty for his role in attacking figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, Kawasaki introduced its first three-passenger watercraft, the 750 Sport Tourer. That was in 1994, the same year Kawasaki released the 750 XiR, a true factory race replica.
One year later, Kawasaki deepened its commitment to motorsports by creating a factory supported racing team. The company also released the 900 ZXi, the first three-cylinder engine watercraft on the market.
As everyone was getting ready to ring in the new millennium, Kawasaki introduced the fastest production watercraft in the industry at the time, the Jet Ski Ultra 150. With a 145-horsepower 1,200 cc two-stroke triple, the Ultra 150 could top 65 mph, which is still a benchmark to this day.
The late 1990s through the early 2000s were arguably the boom times for watercraft sales, and at that time there were five manufacturers all vying for a slice of the market: Kawasaki, Sea-Doo, Yamaha, Polaris and Tigershark.
To set its products apart, Kawasaki introduced the 1100 STX DI in 2000, its first model to use direct injection, and in 2001 debuted its new Smart Steering technology on its 1100 STX DI and Ultra 130 DI models. Smart Steering provides the thrust needed for turning even when the rider has let off the throttle.
For its 30th anniversary, Kawasaki delivered the 800 SX-R, an all-new stand-up watercraft that was easier to learn to ride and featured the requisite increase in power and stability. As the 800 SX-R debuted, Kawasaki also unveiled the STX-12F, a four-stroke personal watercraft that earned a three-star emissions rating from the California Air Resources Board.
Then came the Great Recession we all remember so well, and it wasn’t kind to the PWC market. By that time, Polaris had gotten out of the business and Tigershark went away, too, leaving the market to Kawasaki, Sea-Doo and Yamaha. Honda played a bit part for a couple of years, but the market wasn’t what it once was.
Public perception and emissions regulations reshaped the market, but for buyers the product was better than ever. They were quieter, safer, quicker and more fuel efficient, and that innovation continues to this day.
In addition to benefitting from Smart Steering, Jet Ski buyers enjoy the safety and benefits of electronic throttle valves, five-way adjustable handlebars and Kawasaki’s Smart Learning Operation (SLO, get it?), which limits engine speed to enable new riders to become familiar with the operation of a Jet Ski before they take off half-cocked at full throttle.
Of course, 2018 will be remembered as the year a Kawasaki Jet Ski appeared on national television during the Academy Awards. The idea was to award it to the actor with the shortest acceptance speech, no small task at the Oscars. In the end, it was Mark Bridges who won the Jet Ski Ultra 310LX.
That appearance might have given the market a little boost. Either way, the future of the PWC market seems pretty stable, and let’s hope that allows Kawasaki to continue to innovate its Jet Ski product line and expand its history.
For more on Jet Skis, WaveRunners, and PWCs, read:
- Personal Watercraft (PWC) and Jet Ski Buyer's Guide
- Choosing the Right Personal Watercraft (PWC)
- How to Drive a PWC or Jet Ski
- Getting Your PWC Ready for the Season
- How to Choose the Right Lifejacket for PWC Use