What Would Japan Do?


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.


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Commented on 11-3-2009 At 09:23 am

Great article, I am once again enlightened about a motorcycle I had no clue existed.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 09:29 am

I'm with MikeD on this. I thought they were Japan only models or something when I saw them on Bratstyles' site I loved them but figured it was unobtanium in the states.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 09:42 am

Awesome write up. W650's are definately cool rides wish there were more around.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 09:54 am

They definitely seem to be one of those bikes that holds their value. Never seen a cheap one.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 10:10 am

One of my favorites. Here's a couple pics I've posted in the past, including a few more of that coffin tanked chop

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 10:22 am

would love to get my filthy hands on a W650...
i scour the CL and the bay for that and a SR500 all the time!

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 10:30 am

The W650 was a sweet looking bike! However back in the late '70's and early '80's you could not give away the real deal British bikes much less the copies like the CB450, XS650 and the KZ750 Twin. The Big 4 Japanese factories were exporting thousands of bikes per year that would languish in dealer showrooms and warehouses to be heavily discounted at a later date to move them. The American market likes large heavy bikes e.g. Harley or Hyper performance UJM's not a middle weight parralell twin like the W650. It is a wonder that Kawasaki brought this bike to US soil in the first place. It takes a Japanese Chop Shop to bring it into view for the American enthusiast. Irony at its best a Japanese copy of a British Twin, Styled like an American Chopper.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 10:54 am

That was so awesome

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 10:56 am

Not many people know this, but Harley had asked for protection from imports long before they asked in 1980, they asked in 1951, when foreign bike sales topped 40% of the US market, and the ITC said no.

When H-D was granted protection in '83, REgan rerally didn't do it on behalf of H-D per say, he did it mainly to send a warning to the Japanese auto manufacturers, that they would be next. The tarrif restrictions were a real pee pee slap - the then tarrif was 4.4% on Jap bikes. The ITC took that to 45% the first year, 35% the second year, 20, 15, then 10% the final five years of "protection".

Honda and Kawasaki got around the tarrif on all their bikes ovet 1000cc's by just ramping up production at their US plants on those bikes, because there wasn't any tarrif on powertrains, just imported completed bikes. Only Yamaha and Suzuki were really affected.

H-D really didn't get the releif they needed, and as a matter of fact, asked in the middle of the 3rd year, that the tarrif be lifted for the final two years. H-D did this as a "good will" gesture, because Vaugn Beals wanted to tour the American Japanese motorcycle plants, to see exactly how they inventoried and built motorcycles. It was those tours that resulted in Harley's climb back up the product quality ladder, and reclaim. the heavy bike industry

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 02:06 pm

Always recieve a proper education from this gentleman.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 11:02 am

I will own one of these someday. Used ones are still going for top dollar in these parts. I love the bevel drive!

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 11:04 am

how about the kawasaki W1 that they built fromm 66-71 i believe. kind of a bsa look alike.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 11:10 am

My local kawi dealer had one for the longest time just sitting in their showroom for sale. It was a tight little bike

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 11:22 am

I owned one and sold it to a friend with the " If you ever sell it, it has to be sold to me" deal. I'm still waiting patiently.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 11:22 am

I've been looking for a decent priced w650 donor for a year with no luck. McGoo's point about small amounts were imported into the US is most likely the culprit.
I love the bevel drive.

A few of my favorites.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 12:10 pm

Them Aussie guys are making awesome ones too:

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 01:53 pm

I feel like crap, because when i was stationed in Korea, I saw a couple of these outside the back gate at Yongsan! If I'd only known then...

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 02:55 pm

Rich, Thanks for the expansion and correction on details related to Reagan's influence on the bike biz in the '80's. I touched on the period w/o expanding on the nuts and bolts as much for brevity's sake as for clarity. Your color inside the lines is a huge help, and much appreciated...

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 04:20 pm

These articles are always extremely well written. Even if the titles don't grab me I read them anyway, and I'm always glad I did. You're quite the wordsmith. Great!

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 05:45 pm

that is a pretty nice lookin motorbike. thanks for sharing

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 07:31 pm

Certainly a great platform for cafe or custom.
Deus in Oz can get fresh low-mileage ones from Jpn,
and makes a rigid rear for 'em. Neither is cheap...

Very nice closeups for this article, btw

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 08:00 pm

We got Deus in New Zealand now and they just got a shipment of SRs and W650s from Japan. I was lucky and bought a cheap one before the rush started and the price went up.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 10:28 pm

I have two w650's (one stock, one flat tracked) and one spare engine. I built a bike from the w650 because nobody else was, now the bags out of the hat.
I have one in the living room.

Commented on 11-3-2009 At 11:19 pm

eightthitysixcc - That bike is sick!

Commented on 11-4-2009 At 07:55 am

I'm not even sure how I stumbled across the W650 when it came out, but I was so into it. No money to buy one, but it made an impression. I saw one at a random shop in the country a few years ago that had about five different price tags where it had been marked down over and over. I went back again and it was gone. Good piece, McGoo!

Commented on 11-4-2009 At 12:47 pm

Great bikes, good write up and yes once people begin to like motorcycles and not the scenes that surround them, they will find that there are allot of great under appreciated bikes out there.

Commented on 11-5-2009 At 01:16 am

If people really want these, Red Baron will load up a shipping container with used motorcycles of choice and send it anywhere in the world

Commented on 11-5-2009 At 10:46 pm

pretty hard to find these babies cheap down in Australia unfortunately.

Commented on 11-9-2009 At 11:21 am

Great article, and researching w 650's is going to take up the rest of my day.

Commented on 11-9-2009 At 04:44 pm

I've only seen one of these W650's & it was perfect! The owner, a guy in his 60's knew what he had & loved it. Told me all about them. Thanks for the extra info.

Commented on 11-10-2009 At 06:56 pm

There is one for four grand on the denver craigslist. Looks to be untouched with low miles. If anybody is interested

Commented on 11-11-2009 At 06:59 am

Great article, its an honour to see my w650 in this aritcle :-)

..some more pics for w650 Fans:

Commented on 11-11-2009 At 06:59 am

Great article, its an honour to see my w650 in this aritcle :-)

..some more pics for w650 Fans:

Commented on 11-11-2009 At 08:16 am

Hey Itsingo, thanks for IDing the source of those great photos. I found these screen grabs somewhere other than your blog, and I fell in love with your bike. Thanks for sharing, and for building such a great machine.

Commented on 11-12-2009 At 09:42 pm

Here's a link to a sweet street tracker w650

Commented on 12-1-2009 At 01:37 pm

The one in Denver is already in the process of being purchased by "Me!" But it cost me a pretty penny. Still, I can't wait to ride it and I've always wanted one.

Commented on 1-9-2010 At 10:27 am

Some nice w650 builds on this Aussie site:

Commented on 1-19-2010 At 10:25 pm

to be honest. i am blown away. this is a great read. great bike. phewwwww w650's are sickkk

Commented on 8-30-2010 At 01:50 am

Yeah, I remember seeing one of these for the first time in my local Kwaka dealership years ago (down here in Oz) and thinking 'What a great Bonneville clone . . ' I knew I shoulda bought it!

Commented on 11-9-2010 At 08:32 pm

The W650 has just been resurrected in Japan as the W800.. it's not
impossible that they might appear in the USA as well.

Commented on 11-9-2010 At 08:45 pm

I see that HFL is now charging for archived posts :-(
but that the one with most of the juicy pix is still available for free :-)

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