Reader’s Stories: A W650 Affair

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INTRO – Editor ‘arris

CMG regulars may remember some of Ian Chadwick’s previous musings with regards to his experiences with his 350 Enfield and 800 Drifter.

 

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He’s always come across as a man in search of the perfect bike, having also owned bikes as retro engineered as a Harley Sportster and as state of the art as the Honda VFR 800. His latest love is Kawasaki’s W650 – a retro twin.

The question is, will this follow the others as he continues his search, or take pride of place as THE bike in Ian’s garage …

I’ve owned a lot of motorcycles in the last few years, from Harley Davidson, to the new Triumph, old Triumph and BSA, a Royal Enfield Bullet to Honda sport bike, and several Japanese cruisers. I’ve loved them all. Each bike has its own strengths and weaknesses, as does each rider. Each bike generates passionate feelings in its owners and in its onlookers.

For me, the vintage and classic motorcycles generate the most affection. I love the lines, their style, their grace, and their history. To read the tales of British motorcycling from its beginnings more than 110 years ago is to read the story of popular culture, of invention, of the drive to reach and break through mechanical boundaries, and of course the goal of speed and performance. It’s a fascinating, gripping tale.

However, although I’ve owned some wonderful classic bikes, I’m not a mechanic, and didn’t do justice by them. I don’t have the time, the skills or the tools to become one. That might change, if I won a lottery, but until then, my relationship with classic motorcycles will remain one of enamoured observer.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

Oh very artsy fartsy. Courtesy of Kawasaki Japan.

I first encountered the W650 in magazine briefs in late 1999. I was intrigued by the idea of a modern retro bike, an oxymoron perhaps, but a reflection of current cultural trends. I had owned a beautiful ‘new’ Enfield India Bullet a few years ago and enjoyed the machine immensely. However, it proved less than satisfactory on the busy highways where my work and travels often took me. And it demanded more mechanical skills than I could muster at the time. When I saw the W on the floor of the 2000 International Motorcycle Show in Toronto, I was smitten. It looked like the bikes I loved: a vertical, parallel twin that could easily be mistaken for a Triumph Bonneville at first glance. 

The production quality on the W was marvellous. I liked the way it felt under me, the smiles it bought to onlookers who couldn’t resist giving it a second glance as they wandered the displays. But I didn’t plan on buying a new bike quite yet – I had purchased a 1999 Kawasaki Drifter in the fall and expected to ride it for at least another year before considering a trade.

Things change. I ended up selling my Drifter to a local rider who convinced me it was the bike of his dreams. Since there were no W650s available from Kawasaki at the time, I ended up with a Honda VFR800 Interceptor, a fast, sleek and powerful machine that was the essence of modern technology and design. Somehow I never warmed to it. It performed beautifully on the highway, but it wasn’t the best bike for around-town riding, where low speeds and low revs are the norm. I never bonded with it as I had my other bikes.

THE UNION

Another Kawi Japan artsy pic – click for bigger.

One day, I simply decided to trade it in. I took the VFR to a nearby dealer who had a W languishing on the shop floor. We agreed on a straight swap – somewhat of a financial loss for me, but the W had captured my imagination, with its silver with lustrous blue paint, slightly dusty and looking somewhat ignored among the sport bikes and bad-boy cruisers.

The W was a little grumpy at start, and the shop had to play with the unbalanced carbs to keep it running. It took three hours to get everything sorted out, and the needles in the right places, but once on the road, the W was smooth and steady, never once hesitating. True, it was slower than the VFR to rise to speed, but to be fair, I was its first rider and had some breaking in to do. The 70 km ride home was only the first part of the relationship and I reached a comfort level at around 100 kmph – 3,600 rpm.

CRITICAL PRAISE

The wide bars seem awkward at first – like the Kawasaki Drifter’s bars – especially after the flat, low, tight bars of a sport bike, but you soon get accustomed to them. They allow great amounts of leverage for cornering, which combine with the lightness of the bike to make it nimble and agile in corners. Plus you sit upright, not leaning on the bars, a real boon. It’s a very common cruiser position, easy to assume and settle into, but one that might be tempered by flatter bars for those of a more sporting bent. A windshield will help on long trips where the upright position against the wind gets tiring.

I had to keep the W under 4,000 rpm during break-in. Not a problem – at 100 kmph it is only doing around 3,600 rpm in top gear, so it handled the 70 km trip home quite nicely on the 80 kmph highway. During a test ride in June, I took another W up over 150 kmph – about 4,500 rpm, with plenty of power to spare: the redline is at 7,500. But the lack of a windshield, and the unfamiliar suspension made me opt for discretion and not push it higher. Besides, 150 kmph is usually plenty fast enough for my riding needs. At that speed, the W seemed a stable platform, although the single front disk brake (and rear drum), plus the period-style small forks would recommend against excess shenanigans or power stops.

Acceleration is acceptably smooth and powerful, given the claimed 50 bhp at 7,000 rpm, with a top speed of 105-110 mph. That compares nicely to the original Bonnies at around 46 bhp. The Yamaha XS650, a contemporary Brit twin clone, managed 53 bhp at 7,000 rpms. Around town or on the highway, the W is easy and comfortable to ride at almost any speed and rpm range. It offers good power in the low-to-mid-ranges, as well as having a “healthy” top end.

The twin pistons work in 360-degree fashion: they rise and fall together, firing alternately on their long stroke. Despite the rubber mounting and internal engine balancer, the bike vibrates – less so than I recall an old Bonnie did, and much less than my BSA A50, but more so than any recent bike I’ve owned outside the Enfield Bullet and Harley Sportster. This isn’t uncomfortable, just different from the purr of the others. It’s most noticeable in lower gears, but quickly smoothes out in higher revs to a omnipresent background hum. No sufficient to jar one’s fillings loose, but always there. To me, that’s part of the charm. Motorcycles vibrate. The only question is whether they do so in an obtrusive manner. The W does not.

The throttle response is also very good – immediate roll on when exiting curves, albeit without a power rush of the sport bike: steady but muted. It’s got low-end torque that will let it break away from the traffic, but the W isn’t a racer – at least in stock form. Actually the slow speed capability of the W is appreciated in local riding and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Even in fourth or fifth gear, the W650 lets you slow to 2,500 rpm or less, revving back up without complaining or lumbering.

On the other hand, the W is old-fashioned slow to wake in the cool morning, taking its own time to properly warm up. The ‘choke’ is a simple in-out lever with little subtlety. You learn not to rush it, to be patient, and allow it the necessary time – although it takes less time to reach its operating prime than my Harley Sportster ever did.

I am also reminded of my former Enfield Bullet. Both share common styling characteristics, although the Bullet may be said to be more authentic: it’s been stuck in a time warp in India since 1955. Bullet and W have similar riding positions and handlebars, but the similarity stops there. The W is much peppier, handles itself well in corners, accelerates more and brakes better. It’s also better made in every detail – this is a thoroughly modern motorcycle if not the most modern cylinder layout.

The knee pads are overdone and grossly thick. They make the gas tank appear bulky and ugly. The gas-tank badges are similarly too wide. Both could use an application of more stylish lines to lose some of their bulk. Perhaps they can be replaced with more appropriate aftermarket items. And maybe the horn can be replaced with something that blares, not bleats.

As with the Drifter, the W is soft spoken. Kawasaki engineers seem unable or unwilling to come to terms with the aural pleasure afforded by motorcycles, or the demands of North American motorcyclists for bikes that can be heard. The little peashooter mufflers dampen the output to a quiet burble that, while not unpleasant, begs to be released to sing its tune.

In fact, there are very few accessories offered for the W650 in North America, not even a windshield. I couldn’t even fit a stock throttle-lock onto the bars. It’s as if Kawasaki grudgingly brought the bike over and left its new owners to make their own way into the murk of customizing. In Europe and Japan there are, at least, some Kawasaki and third party products available (engine guards, grip rails, luggage racks, new lights, handlebar kits and more). To date only Corbin (alternate seat), and Cobra (new exhausts) have reacted to the W650. I hope others will wake up to this new market soon.

The seat is a little too soft and slopes forward in a way that makes you shift a few times trying to establish a position where you don’t become too intimate with the gas tank. The seat cover seems too flimsy to withstand hard riding or long periods in the sun. It combines with a rather solid suspension to make backroad riding on rough pavement or even unpaved road a little too jangling. Neither are permanent faults. The seat can be replaced with a new Corbin seat, and I later adjusted the suspension to better suit local conditions.

The instrument cluster is beautifully designed. The speedometer and tachometer are reliable, electronic replicas of the old Smith instruments. Tucked into the speedometer face is a digital odometer, trip meter and clock display. The meters work wonderfully at night, too.

A HAPPY MAN

Mr. Chadwick and his “W”. Is this truly a happy man???

The W650 may be a modest offering in an era of superbikes, but it is competently modern; eschewing upper-end performance and technological wizardry in a time when high-tech seems to dominate. In an age of super computers, gigahertz processors, and fairings designed in wind tunnels, the W650 is an anachronism. It appears a throwback to days when motorcycles were machines built from human engineering. It recalls the grainy black-and-white films of Triumph production lines where Speed Twins were hammered into shape, fitted into frames by people, not machines. It works, but works without the Star Wars stuff of modern technology to make it come together. It has enough, just enough, modern engineering to make it do the job, and do it well, but no more. That minimalism makes you feel closer to the machine than with most modern bikes.

Having the W has given me the opportunity to reconsider what I like about motorcycling, why I like this style and to defend my choices online. I’ve had to ponder what it is I like and don’t like about various types of bike and riding styles. I’ve also had a chance to think about small, capable bikes versus large and/or powerful machines – and to wonder how we were so gullible we actually bought into all the advertising and marketing hype over certain styles and fashions. The W seems untarnished by the hype.

I’m happy to say that I’m as delighted with it now as I was when I first set eyes on it. The W is a charming throwback of a bike with a reliable, easy ride. It suits me perfectly. To quote Mark Tuttle Jr, in the May 2000 issue of Rider Magazine, “If you like the bike’s gorgeous retro styling and your expectations aren’t too high, you may just find the W650 to be one of the most satisfying machines you’ve ever ridden.”* Amen, Mark.

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CANADIANS and AMERICANS! Please remember: the Wretro Wriders want you at the Ride For Sight. The Central Ontario RFS is on June 15-17 at the GNE Fairgrounds, just outside Collingwood. Call 1-800-461-3331 for details or click here for their web site: www.rideforsight.org/. This is a charity event and one of Canada’s largest motorcycle events. Let’s show a strong W presence there this year! Great times, great riding around Blue Mountain and Beaver Valley, live music, vendors, field games, poker runs, manufacturers’ demo rides (ALL major manufacturers are there!), camping, food and beer tents and more.


If you’d like to read more about the W650 or other musings by the infamous Mr. Chadwick, you want to check out his very competent and diverse website at: www.ianchadwick.com/


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