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Kawasaki W650
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John Moulton was searching for the ideal mix of old bike and new, and reckons he’s found it in the shape of Kawasaki’s W650. Is this a future classic…?

When you ride a Kawasaki W650 as I do, you get used to the unasked question on the faces of other riders. That question is, of course: why?

Classic riders are thinking: ‘if you like traditional parallel twins, why aren’t you riding a Triumph/BSA/Norton?’ Riders of modern machinery wonder why you are on something which is clearly an outdated design, when you obviously appreciate the convenience of modern manufacturing. Finally, riders of Hinckley Bonnevilles are itching to know why you aren’t riding the same bike as them!

Now is that a big smile, or what? John Moulton and his Kawasaki W650 Kawasaki W650

The short answer to the above questions is that I’ve tried the alternatives and a vastly expensive process of evolution by trial and error has led me to the W650. If you bear with me, I’ll attempt to explain the appeal of my PseudoClassic! Like many RC readers, I started riding in the 1960s on a variety of British bikes which were distinguished by their cheapness, if not by their reliability. It wasn’t all their fault though; my mechanical knowledge at the time was minimal. By the mid-Seventies, I had been lured away to the delights of Japanese motorcycles by virtue of their inherent reliability; even I could adjust a chain and change the oil every so often, which was all that they seemed to require.

Fast forward to the late Eighties and most of the Nineties when the classic bug bit. After helping my brother to restore a BSA B40, I had a happy time with an Ariel Red Hunter before catching the Velocette obsession. A rigid alloy engined MAC (you know - the bike that you never should have sold?) was followed by extremely fast Venom. The idea was slowly dawning that I wanted to spend more time riding than fettling, and a gearbox seizure on a VMCC run was simply the last straw. Not without regret, I rebuilt the gearbox (yes, with the fullness of time, I had evolved from the mechanical moron state), sold the Velo and turned my back on things classic.

So from the mid-1990s until two years ago, I owned and rode a succession of modern machines. These included a Yamaha TDM850, Aprilia Pegaso, two BMW R850Rs, two Honda Transalps, a Honda Africa Twin, a Suzuki SV650 and a Suzuki DL650 V-Strom. As you can see, all practical, everyday bikes, mostly sitting on the periphery of mainstream motorcycling – especially as they were ridden all year round.

A Kawasaki W650 and a dry stone wall, yesterday.

I had almost decided that big trailbikes provided everything that I needed from a motorcycle, especially when I like to cover a fair few miles in comfort and with good reliability. So why was it that, on the rare occasions that my 1955 G3L Matchless was on the road, a short ride would put a bigger smile on my face than riding my Suzuki for a day? Of course, as riders of RealClassics, you all know exactly what I mean, even if, like me, you find it difficult to explain!

Random 650 Kawasakis on eBay.co.uk

What my faithful Suzuki lacked was that elusive ingredient: ‘character’. So, the search was on, I had to find a machine which had that rare quality and would transport me reliably all year round.

BMWs fitted the bill, but I’d done them a lot, plus the fact that they seemed to be getting heavier as I got older! I was very tempted after a ride on a Moto Guzzi California, but that too seemed to be a big, heavy lump. I loved riding my brother Phil’s Harley 883 Sportster, but only for an hour or so, plus the fact that the finish disappeared during the winter if it got within a mile of a treated road…

Now, before I upset owners of Hinckley Bonnevilles, the example that I tried was an early one and I know that the recent models are much improved, but it just didn’t do it for me. I think that it was because the engine felt, for want of a better word ‘Japanese’. I came away feeling that it was a very nice bike but…. However, like Frank W, I think that the Scrambler does look ever so tempting!

What of the new Enfields? I hear you ask. Well, they were on my possible shopping list (and still could be in the future), but before I got chance to have a proper look, a chance visit to my local purveyor of motorcycles made up my mind for me.

So finally (and thank you for your patience) we get round to the Kawasaki W650. My local dealers had one in the shop that I thought was new (and therefore too expensive), but closer inspection revealed that it was nearly four years old with only 2000 miles on the clock. Having worked for said dealers on occasion, I have a good relationship with them, so I deposited my V-Strom and took the W650 with the usual ‘I’ll bring it back if I don’t like it or pop in with some money if I do!’ (Readers of the RealClassic interview with Jerry Lodge about his one-man effort to keep Honda MT125s racing may be interested to know that he is the dealer in question).

A Kawasaki W650 in a forest, yesterday. Kawasaki W650

So, what was the W650 like to ride? Well, despite having ridden pretty well everything under the sun in the past 40 years, I was totally captivated by the thing within ten miles. It was as if I had been transported back to the sunny summer (weren’t they always?) of 1970 and was riding my beautiful purple metalflake Triumph Daytona. The riding experience was uncannily similar to a Sixties’ Triumph, apart from the engine, which felt (at least to my hazy recollection) more like a good BSA A10, probably something to do with the long stroke.

The W650 would pull strongly from just over 2000rpm and, although it would rev quite happily, I found that changing up at around 5000rpm provided more than adequate progress for me. There was a slight dip in power at about 3000rpm where the designers had obviously tuned the motor to run lean for emission testing purposes. The engine vibrated just enough to let me know that it was a parallel twin and although commendably quiet, the silencers did emit an authentic Sixties sound.

The riding position proved to be typically Triumph with everything being in its correct place (except for the gear lever of course!) and I felt instantly at home. The Kawasaki even handled like my Triumph, being very stable up to a point and then warning the rider (with a little twitch) that maybe you shouldn’t be trying so hard at your age… The suspension was basic by modern standards, but certainly adequate for normal use. I found that the ribbed front tyre had a mind of its own on some surfaces and I resolved to change pattern when it wore out.

Although I remember that my Daytona had a particularly fine twin leading shoe front brake, I think that the disc on the W650 would be a match for it. The rear drum brake was unremarkable, which is just how I like my rear stoppers.

A Kawasaki W650 near a pointy hill, yesterday. 'After collecting the W650, I could have been home in 20 minutes, but...'

After collecting the W, I could have been home in 20 minutes, but for some inexplicable reason, I stayed on the road for hours, returning home just before dark. That evening, I can clearly remember finding an excuse to go back to the garage several times, just to look at the Kawasaki – something that I hadn’t done in a long time.

So have three years and 18,000 miles on the W650 led me to change my initial feelings about the bike? Well, if I tell you that after a lifetime of keeping bikes for a year or two at most, I am now stocking up on parts that might be hard to find in ten years time, I think that you will get the idea. I’ve even admitted to the female motorcyclist in my life that I’m keeping this one – and she will call me to account if I change my opinion!

Quite simply, the Kawasaki has exceeded my expectations. It has proved to be reliable, comfortable, fast enough and, most importantly, great fun. It has never failed to put a smile on my face, whether on the seven-mile commute to work or at the end of a 400 mile day on the Round Britain Rally.

A different Kawasaki W650, yesterday. Kawasaki W650

A great bonus has been the fact that the W650 has shown itself to be a very economical machine to run. I tend to ride with the flow of traffic, generally running at or near the speed limits where conditions allow. This style of riding has led the Kawasaki to return between 65 and 84 (yes 84!) mpg.

I do all of my own servicing, which mostly involves oil and filter changes. Checking the valve clearances is straightforward, with the clever designers producing a sliding rocker which allows access to shims without the need for a special tool. Having said that, I haven’t had to replace a shim yet. Carburettor balancing is an occasional but simple task and brake pads and shoes lasted about 16,000 miles. I replaced then original chain and sprockets at 15,000 miles and tyres last around 10,000 miles now that I have switched to Bridgestone BT45s.

I adjusted the bevel drive to the camshaft with some trepidation, when it started to knock, but this was a straightforward task as long as you get the engine up to temperature and you can distinguish between a knock (at one end of the adjustment spectrum) and a whine (at the other).

Although I have endeavoured to keep the W650 as standard as possible, I have made a small number of worthwhile improvements. The first was extremely cheap, simple and effective – an Internet solution to the fuelling flat spot which involves installing a shim under each carburettor needle. Total cost £3.50 but the improvement in fuelling would have been worth twenty times that expenditure. I replaced the standard front fork springs with Hagon progressive items and, at the same time, fitted Ikon rear shock absorbers. The bike handles in a very taught traditional manner now, reminding me in many ways of the Laverda 750SF which belonged to my old boss, motorcycle dealer Tom Loughridge.

Another different Kawasaki W650, yesterday. Kawasaki W650

In a recommended modification, I’ve relocated the rear indicators from the tail-light unit to their intended mounts below the seat. This not only looks neater, it helps to stop the rear mudguard cracking from too much unsupported weight. Of course, I did this too late to stop my mudguard cracking slightly, but I’ve strengthened it with a piece of coat hanger araldited to the seam (and before you ask, it is a recommended mod!).

You will have got the impression that I am rather taken with my Kawasaki, and, along with many other owners, I have no intention of selling it. For this reason, you don’t tend to see that many for sale. Would I recommend it? Without a moment’s hesitation – if it is the sort of bike you want of course. If you are looking for a modern machine that has a genuine ‘classic’ feel but can be used as everyday transport, then it could be ideal for you, especially if you want to keep your RealClassic for special occasions. You will get used to the funny looks from other riders and you will get tired of the ‘that’s a lovely old Triumph’ comments from the uninitiated, but the sheer pleasure of riding the thing will more than make up for these slight problems of ownership.

I hesitate to say this, but judging by the enthusiastic Internet sites and the cult status of the W650 in Japan, maybe I’m riding a ‘FutureClassic’?


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