Marlon Brando or Gene Vincent? The W650 Conundrum
AS the world was marching towards the new millennium and potential year 2000 computer melt downs, this old school carbie bike was released in 1999.
It is a replica of a bike you could have parked outside the hamburger shop in the 60s with “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las playing on the juke box. When girls had posters of Marlon Brando from the “Wild One” on their bedroom walls.
Is it a Triumph, is it a Norton or is it a BSA? No, it’s a Flying W.
I wanted a classic bike that didn’t break down when riding to local cafes. I ended up with a bike that I can jump on the interstate express, with two up trips from NSW to Queensland and South Australia. The bike is a 2005 Kawasaki W650 that presents somewhat of an identity conundrum.
This 676cc parallel twin appears to be a 1960s British bike with Smiths style gauges, pea-shooter exhausts, two tone paint on the tank and Trumpy like crankcase. The polished chrome guards and the white piping around the seat add to the 1960s style.
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Back when there was a Harley, Triumph, Norton dealer on Paramatta Road in Sydney, a W2 Kawasaki would sit on the show room floor, next to a BSA with a drip tray under it. Not many Triumphs were available as this was when the Meriden Triumph factory workers blockade was in place. The heritage of the W2 Kawasaki was drawn on for the release of the W650. The W1, W2 and W3 Kawasaki 650s were manufactured from 1965-74. Easily recognised as being based on a BSA design, they were among the first large capacity motorcycles to come out of Japan.
But there was a change blowing in the wind for the motorcycle industry. A shot had been fired across the bow of the industry (under a cloud of blue smoke). That shot was the 1968 release of the lightning-fast two stroke Kawasaki Mach 3, 500cc triple. This was followed by a king hit with the Kwacka Nine Z1 in 1972. Those Z1s were 900cc with a quarter mile time of 12.4 seconds!
It took until 1999 for the W650 to be released. This 195kg parallel twin has a 3600 firing order. That is, the pistons rise and fall in unison and firing is on opposite rotations, giving the bike that exquisite exhaust note of a traditional British twin. The retro image is enhanced with fork gaiters, tank knee pads, kick start and an electric starter that looks like an old Lucas magneto.
While the W650 appears to be a rewind to the 1960s it does include some more modern updates such as 8-valve head, electronic ignition, balance shaft, and bevel drive gears and shaft to drive the overhead cam. As well as providing accurate timing, this allowed some owners to turn their W into a convincing replica of a Manx Norton.
The importance of the W650’s release to the factory is highlighted by it being on the cover of the Kawasaki Heavy Industries Annual Report 1999, which also featured the development of new jet fighter trainers and a high-speed bullet train!
Advanced technical features of the W650 included the K-TRIC throttle sensor, which varies ignition timing, and Neodymium magnets in the flywheel.
Result of the W650 development is a bike that could do a 14.2 second quarter mile time with a terminal velocity of 150kph, more than fast enough to beat the cars off the line at the lights after lane filtering. Production of the W650 finished in 2007 and was followed by the fuel injected W800 in 2010. It appears that with additional emission control the 800cc does not provide any increase in horsepower.
Now for the identity conundrum.
Its previous owner had removed the Kawasaki badges on the tank and seat. When I first started riding the W650 people would approach me and say, “I like your old Triumph mate”. When I explain that it’s a Kawasaki their faces often drop with disappointment, so it is often better to tell them it’s a BSA Lightning.
When I purchased the W650 it had the high American handlebars, which felt like you were riding into a brick wall at higher speeds. Returning to the standard Kawasaki handlebars fixed that, with modifications that include a higher profile rear tyre, gold emulator valves in the front forks and Ikon suspension on the rear. The bike is well balanced, with an even torque spread, and gets a second wind at about 5000 rpm.
Riding this bike is like a trip back in time, to when a motorcyclist had to be able to kick start a big twin and get the spanners out for some roadside repairs.
Unlikely with the W650, but if you really want to cut a pose, just a bit of weight on the kick start and the bike roars into life. You could imagine doing that outside Sydney Stadium in 1957 after watching Gene Vincent sing “Be-Bop-A-Lula”.
But forget about being James Dean on the way home!
- Marlin Brando starred in the 1953 movie “The Wild One” based on motorcyclists taking over a town in 1947. That actual event is often attributed to being the start of outlaw bike riders.
- Gene Vincent was a musician who pioneered rock n roll and rockabilly, releasing Be-Bop-A-Lula in 1956. He had a major leg injury from riding his Triumph. Gene Vincent was so popular with the motorcycle rockers in the UK they often painted his name across the back of their ‘Brando’ leather jackets.
- James Dean, who lived a fast lifestyle and starred in the 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, is known to have owned at least two Triumphs. However, his death in September 1955 was in his Porsche 950 Sopyder.