In 1999 Kawasaki decided to go back to the future, but with the dawn of a new millennium it appeared to be a strange move. The W650 was actually ahead of the times and if we need proof of this, it came just a year before Triumph launched its own tribute to the past in the form of a new Bonneville – a bike that was very much designed to cash in on the past.
The inspiration for the W650 was Kawasaki’s own W1 of the mid-1960s, which was itself an evolution of a design licensed from BSA. The W650 is a great looking bike that faithfully recreates the look of British twins from the 1960s and can create a smile from any angle. If you own one, chances are you’ll always look back at it before closing the garage door. The styling is matched by the attention to detail. Touches like the fork gaiters, rubber knee pads and the drum rear brake show this motorcycle was the result of some proper R&D and in many ways it was a more faithful recreation of a classic Brit bike than the Bonnie that followed.
So why aren’t we sat here slapping it on the back? It was a sales disaster and we don’t have to look too far to see why. The quirky looking engine puffed out a measly 50 bhp, chuck in a dry weight of 195 kilos and you’ll understand that it was a pretty dull performer. Even allowing for its nostalgic slant, it just wasn’t enough. The whole retro scene hadn’t quite kicked in yet and, in the real world, even Kawasaki’s own ER-5 commuter was more exciting to ride.
But now things have gone full circle, a used ER-5 can be had for around £500, but prices for the retro W650 have rallied and you’d need at least a couple of grand to buy one. The fact they sold in such small quantities keeps prices healthy. The W650 is a wonderfully unique model. Other than some Kawasaki extras that ranged from a touring luggage package to a full blown café racer kit, the bike only appeared in its original guise. By 2007 its day was up and it was discontinued from the brochure. Meanwhile the modern day Triumph Bonneville, goes from strength to strength, with most other manufacturers doing well out of the classic inspired retro bikes in their range.
The W650 remained relatively unchanged in Kawasaki’s line-up from 1999 to 2007, when it was replaced by the similar looking but larger capacity and fuel-injected W800 – a motorcycle that was only phased out last year.
What is it like to ride?
Your first impression when getting on a W650 is how small it feels, the second thing that you notice is that weight. At 195 kilos it’s a heavy bike. For a motorcycle that’s so focused on the past it actually rides exactly how you’d expect a modern twin cylinder to. The third thing that you’re going to become aware of is the lack of power; you can’t help but wish you had some extra power right through the rev range. Around town it should be more fun than it is, but again that lack of poke spoils what could have been a really fun ride. On the open road there’s no better news, the faster you go, the twitchier the handling becomes. You might think it’s the 19 inch front wheel that’s to blame, though in actual fact the high handlebars are the culprit. The brakes are nothing special, there’s a single 300 mm disc up front and a drum brake hauls up the rear, which it does with surprising ease.
The overhead camshaft design features an anti-balance shaft which does a good job of ridding any unwanted vibes from that 675 cc twin. Ground clearance is limited by the centre stand and scrapes way too early on corners. For all of its shortcomings it’s still a bike that leaves you liking it. The styling is simply perfect and there’s even a kick start, the ultimate retro touch, as well as a modern electric boot.
What to look for when buying one.
We spoke to Vinny Styles from Wheels Motorcycles, a franchised Kawasaki dealer in Peterborough.
“Finding one will be your biggest issue, for a bike than ran for seven years there aren’t too many around, let alone for sale. Forget book prices too, these bikes have got a bit of a following now, so prices have bounced back. The biggest blight of the W650 will be the build quality. The mudguards are metal, show them too many winter miles and they’ll suffer. Exhausts, engine cases and the spoke wheels all suffer too.”
What goes wrong?
We spoke to Chris Tombleson from Grumpy 1260. They service used bikes and also break them for parts.
“There are no issues with the W650 at all, it’s a bulletproof design. Just feed it oil, spark plugs and filters and it’ll go on for ever. We know of a few people who’ve converted them into street scrambler spec, all they do is change the twin shocks for some heavy duty items and fit off road style tyres. Makes you wonder why Kawasaki didn’t do that to the W800?”
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