Bikes You Should Know: The Kawasaki W650

Speaking of British bikes, may we present an alternative?

What’s more British than a Bonneville? Besides warm beer and putting leftovers in pies?
Kawasaki dared to suggest their W650, first built in 1999, as a way to capture the café-cool nostalgia of the old Bonneville, two years ahead of the new one’s rebirth. Those who lived through that era might think: what’s more Japanese than a knockoff?

How to separate the men from the boys.

Of course, Japanese motorcycles have always been accused of shamelessly aping the competition’s past. Look at almost every metric cruiser, for example. But there haven’t been too many attempts at going for that part of the nostalgic brain that viewed Tunnel of Love as a documentary. The Honda GB500 is the most tantalizing example that comes to mind—if you can find one that is, parked in the Amber Room at the bottom of Lake Toplitz, Elvis sitting astride its solo seat fingerpicking a banjo with JFK. It could happen.
Just as Justice Stewart knew it when he saw it, you’ll know it too—just look at the thing, dammit! Check out that flat seat, bordered with white piping, the knee pads on the tank, the fork gaiters, the dual-colored parallel twin engine and two black gauges that eerily mimic Smiths units. The peashooter pipes are straight as arrows, and it even has a kickstart! (Ironic that Japanese motorcycles were the ones that negated them with their standard electric starters.) The biggest difference between the bikes is the W650’s unique bevel drive system, guiding the single overhead cam and its 8 total valves without the need for a cam chain, tensioner, and related guides.
In comparison, the Bonneville looks tall and clunky, its contoured seat and over-proportioned tank not doing it any favors. The Kawasaki looks more like a classic Meridien Bonneville T120, or even an earlier TR6 Trophy, than the new example. Stylistically, Kawasaki had out-Triumphed Triumph.
If you’re a purist, presumably you’ll have choked on your kidney and ale pie by now. Please seek first aid.
But Kawasaki also had an answer for the Bonneville back in the 1960s: the W1, their first major overseas bike, aped the British BSA with a lovely chrome tank and a 650cc twin engine that was, at the time, Japan’s biggest motorcycle engine. That, then, is their retro link to the past. Does it work?
Please don't say, "…but I can't tell the difference!"

Those who rode the W650 praised its midrange power, despite being 20 horses down on the Bonneville. Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine believed the Bonneville to be “functionally the better bike, more powerful and comfortable,” with better brakes (dual discs instead of the Kawa’s oh so retro! rear drum), harder front forks, and a smoother engine. “OK, so it’s not what we’d call fast,” says Motorcyclist Magazine. “Take comfort in the fact that 90 mph at the end of a 14.2-second quarter would beat a ’60s Bonneville, but just.” Dynamically, and on paper, the W650 seems just that—a pale imitation of a revived British classic.
The W650's major difference: its bevel drive system, also seen on the Norton Manx.

Yet, ironically, both reviewers found disappointment with the Bonneville for being less like an old Bonneville than the W650 was. Turns out, the Bonnie is sometimes too smooth, too modern to successfully target the 60s-motorcycle demographic. Motorcycle Cruiser: “the W650 is a much more faithful recreation of those old Brit bikes and what it was like to ride them.”
The W650 might be rougher, and down on power in comparison, but you know what other bike was? The early Bonnevilles! And that is certainly the W650’s selling point: “Kawasaki isn’t betting the farm on the W650, so it can afford to be a more- convincing Bonneville—even if that means it’s a less-capable motorcycle.”
“The total package left me a bit cold,” says Andrew Cherney of Motorcycle Cruiser. “If the Bonnie is a fast and fun ride, the W650 is my pick for clown prince of the road, generating a few more smiles for my miles.”
Damn. Never mind the bollocks, the W650 is more British than the British. May God save the Queen.
This was a Triumph. I'm making a note here, huge success.

Production of the W650 ended in 2003, and finding one in America is a hilariously frustrating experience at best. Kawasaki may have beaten Hinckley’s Triumph to the game but they squandered a golden opportunity, failing to effectively market the bike to the type of Baby Boomers who seem to go nutso for this recapturing their childhood business, right in the beginning of the retro vehicle boom. Measley sales forced Kawasaki to pull it out of the North American market, and most of their sales have been in Europe and Japan. But Kawasaki has introduced a successor, called the W800, which is already on sale in Europe.
The Kawasaki W800.

Will the Green Machine bring it to America? There are more retro standard motorcycles to contend with now, such as the Moto Guzzi V7 Classic, the Suzuki TU250, a used Ducati SportClassic, and when Honda of America decides to recover from their collective head injury and regains their rational thinking capabilities, the CB1100F. There’s also the matter of, say, the entire Triumph range.
Not that it matters. Bonneville riders are like Harley riders, albeit svelte and (hopefully) less prone to own an Officially Licensed pool table—they’ll be loyalists to the end, and their minds are made up. Switching to a W650 is tantamount to treason, subject to a stint in the Tower of London. But for those who are looking for an alternative as a while still capturing the look, trendy urban types in Europe sure are spoiled for choice. Will it still out-British the Brits? I don’t know, but by God, I’d love to get the chance to find out.

Image sources: [cotaro70s, Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine, Super Streetbike]

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  1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    A W650 is a terrific thing, but if your Bonneville isn't sitting in a pool of oil and doesn't have severe electrical gremlins, it ain't no Bonnie.

  2. austinminiman Avatar

    Every time I hear that song I imagine this huge pile of vaguely TR6 shaped rust and someone gloomily remarking, "This was a Triumph." Well done.

  3. Bret Avatar

    This is just the type of motorbike I could see myself actually buying. And now I have yet another rarely seen thing to pine for.

  4. CJinSD Avatar

    I actually had a neighbor who had one. When I met him, he had something pretty generically mainstream, maybe a BMW R1150 or a Ducati. Then he bought the Kawasaki W650. He had foreign plates on it, maybe one longitudinally on the front fender as well as under the US plate on the back. Then he bought one of the little retro Triumphs and gave the Kawasaki to his girlfriend. Seeing him switching out parts on the Triumph was a pretty regular thing, as I think personalizing the bikes was a hobby. We only lived in the same condoplex for a few months, so changing motorcycles twice made an impression.

  5. CptSevere Avatar

    This article is actually more interesting than the bike, although I really like the bevel drive. And the kickstarter. As far as owning one, I already have. Close, anyway. My first streetbike was a 1970 Yamaha XS1, which was about as British as it gets, except for an overhead cam. Kickstart only, drum brakes front and rear, vibrated like a sonofabitch, even the tank reminded me of a Triumph. Yeah, great example of the Japanese outdoing the English at their own game, right before they completely bulldozed them by changing the rules and winning the same game themselves.