In the 1970's, motorcycles like Honda's rapidly evolving CB line and Yamaha's lauded XS650 helped elevate Japan's two-wheeled arsenal to new levels of performance and practicality. Stylish and affordable, these mechanically advanced machines cut across the landscape like a Samurai sword, striking the heart of America's obsession with mobility and freedom in one stroke, and draining the lifeblood from the British bike industry with another. In less than a generation, Japan's motorcycle industry vaulted from global whipping boy to world power. Great Britain could do little more than watch its beloved Triumph fade away. Back home, America's Harley-Davidson was forced to seek refuge from a bowling ball manufacturer.
With no one to compete against them in the moto market, Japan battled itself for global domination. When Honda thrusted with its CB750, Kawasaki parried with the KZ900. A superbike battle royale ensued, with four Kamikazes leaving few survivors. The '80s were good times for high performance, but the Asian aesthetic left many proud Americans cold. One such maverick was a matinee idol named Ronald Reagan. After saying goodbye to Hollywood, the California cowboy moved to the White House.
One of Ronnie's first moves in the parlor game called Reaganomics involved adjusting import duties on motorcycles, parts and accessories. This kicked value-conscious Japanese bike buyers where they lived, and gave the MoCo room to breathe. In a fire stoked on patriotism and fueled by nostalgia, Harley's fortunes burned bright once more. While Japan shaped the battlefield in other categories—minibikes, MX, sportbikes and ATV's, to name four—Harley clung to its heritage in the Big Twin market with cast-iron knuckles on shovel-sized fists.
Kawasaki W650: born 1999, died 2007
"Lead, follow or get out of the way" seemed to be the marching orders for the bike industry on the cusp of the last millennium, and the Rising Sun's Big Four took their mission seriously. Nipponese sportbikes like the Suzuki GSXR were clear leaders. On the path to Big Twin righteousness, Yamaha's Star fleet mirrored H-D's jackboot footprints in every detail. Even those who chose to get out of the way tasted success, with Honda Gold Wings and Kawasaki JetSkis dominating share in the cruiser and watercraft markets, respectively. In the two-wheeled arena, however, the latter manufacturer seemed incapable of getting a break. If you were one of the poor saps who bought a Kawasaki cruiser, some might say you were out of your Vulcan mind.
The distinctive tunnel for the cam driveshaft on Kawasaki's W650 was a visual and mechanical hallmark for the model
With nowhere to run and even fewer places to hide, in 1999 KHI rolled the dice on the W650, a spitting image of the British motorbikes that captured American hearts in the '50s and '60s. Dressed in livery that would make a High Street haberdasher look twice, Kawi's neoclassical twin beat a resurgent Triumph's resurrected Bonneville to the US market by two years. Unfortunately, when the new-and-improved T100 hit American dealerships in '01, Kawasaki had already pulled the plug on their stunning thumper. The W650 never thrived stateside, but enlightened riders and dedicated fans of the Cockney imposter have always sung its praises.
England, eat your heart out
In its motherland, W650's were reliable daily drivers and eager donors for inspired customizing. One need look no further than the Bratstyle shop to see what we mean. Good old-fashioned chopping and bobbing can turn one of these inconspicuous machines into a cool custom, too. I fell in love with the W650 when I saw one for the first time in 2000, and rue the day I failed to buy it.
"The Bratstyle" is everything budget- and style-minded customizers dream of. This W650 embodies the Japanese aesthetic perfectly
A classic Amercian chopper with the heart of a Japanese scootabout? You bet
If you know someone who rides a W650—your sister-in-law's lesbian lover, perhaps, or maybe some metrosexual at your gym—please give their precious parallel twin the props it deserves. If you meet someone who's selling a W650, make him an offer he can't refuse. In this age of underwhelming V-twins and over-achieving rice rockets, wouldn't it be nice to own a simple, no-frills motorcycle? I don't know what Japan might do next, but if Yamasaki or Hondazuki decides to build another bike like the W650, I'll buy it.