The Last Samurai: 1965 Kawasaki SG250

An early model, the Kawasaki SG250 was one of the first bikes to wear the Kawasaki badge in the U.S.

1965 Kawasaki SG250

Photo by Dain Gingerelli

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1965 Kawasaki SG250
Engine:
248cc air-cooled OHV single, 66mm x 72.6mm bore and stroke, 8.7:1 compression ratio, 18hp @ 7,000rpm (claimed)
Top speed:
78mph (claimed)
Carburetion:
Single Mikuni with tickler
Transmission:
4-speed w/rotary shift pattern, chain final drive
Electrics:
12v, coil and breaker points ignition
Frame/wheelbase:
Single downtube steel cradle/53.5 inches (1,359mm)
Suspension:
Telescopic forks front, dual shocks w/adjustable preload rear
Brakes:
7-3/4in (197mm) SLS drum front and rear
Tires:
2.75 x 18in front, 3 x 18in rear
Weight (dry):
364lb (164kg)
Seat height:
32in (813mm)
Fuel capacity:
3.2gal (14.6ltr)
Price then/now:
NA/$4,500-$7,500

Try to pinpoint the greatest Kawasaki 4-stroke motorcycle to ever roll on American pavement, and you’d be hard pressed to name just one model. But you couldn’t blame diehards from the 1970s for suggesting that we give the nod to the fabled Z1, the inline four-banger that, in 1973, elevated the Superbike game to a whole new level.

Enthusiasts today might say “no way,” insisting that we leap-frog back to the present, touting the 2016 Ninja H2R with its rollicking 326-supercharged-horsepower engine as the top 4-stroker from the Big K. Calmer heads might point us back in time, say to 1966, so they could coolly explain that the W1 and its 624cc vertical-twin 4-stroke engine was the bike responsible for setting the company’s 4-cycle movement into motion in the first place here in America.

Or not. See, before any of those models ever so much as rotated a camshaft on these shores, Kawasaki had the SG250 in its American model lineup. The SG250 (some early documents describe it as the SG1, others suggest 250SG) had a single-cylinder, overhead valve 4-stroke engine that produced a claimed 18 horsepower at 7,000rpm. Records are sketchy, but by all indications the SG250 first appeared on these shores in late 1964 or sometime in 1965 when Fred Masek, owner of Masek Auto Supply in Gering, Nebraska, received what are believed to be the first samples for U.S. consumption.

Act One

By the mid 1960s, Kawasaki had awarded Masek the Midwest distributorship in America, and some of the first bikes ever to wear the Kawasaki tank badge were sold by his company. The SG250 featured here was, in fact, owned by Masek himself, and the all-original bike shows only 344 miles on its odometer.

Before considering the history leading up to this bike, though, you should know that this part of Kawasaki’s history is where its lineage in America can be sketchy, if not downright confusing. To better understand that we should look deeper into Kawasaki’s past.

Most motorcycle enthusiasts are aware that Kawasaki’s motorcycle division is but a tiny sliver of a much larger corporation, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a conglomerate known for producing airplanes, huge seagoing ships, bridges and other forms of infrastructure, and much, much more. Indeed, the motorcycle division was formed in the 1960s, more as a public relations exercise, to help make the Kawasaki name more familiar to the general public. Who cares what company produced those massive steel bridge girders or many of Japan’s high-speed trains? Few people do. But that intimidating 220mph motorcycle sitting curbside? Yeah, Kawasaki makes that!

The Kawasaki industrial empire was originally founded by Shozo Kawasaki toward the end of the 19th century. Mr. Kawasaki set out to build a shipyard, and with that success many more companies followed. As the company grew, KHI soon included an aircraft division (1918) and more in coming years. By 1949, KHI opened doors to a small engine plant to supply engines for Japan’s budding motorcycle industry. Among its clients was Meguro, which soon became the second-largest motorcycle company in Japan, second only to Honda Motor Company during the 1950s.

But by 1954 KHI began dabbling in the manufacture of complete motorcycles under the Meihatsu banner. This subsidiary did quite well, and within two years the Kawasaki name appeared on Meihatsu engine cases, but was found nowhere else on the bikes. Simultaneously, Kawasaki’s business relationship with Meguro continued, but by the early 1960s hard times befell Meguro. Within a few years Meguro ceased doing business, when it was taken over by Kawasaki.

At about that same time another nameplate, Omega, entered the picture. Omega motorcycles were, in reality, rebadged Kawasaki B8 models, which were powered by single-cylinder 2-stroke 125cc engines and were sold in America by Ken Kay Distributing Co. Now, if this is beginning to read like a Shakespeare play to you, don’t feel alone. By 1964, when Kawasaki’s motorcycle division encamped itself in Chicago to begin its own United States venture, some bikes wearing the Omega name plate were already on the streets, while those being imported by Kawasaki bore the Meguro badge. It wasn’t until 1965 that the first Kawasaki tank emblems were included, and some of those badges read “Kawasaki Aircraft,” others “Kawasaki Heavy Industries.” William Shakespeare couldn’t make this up, and you’ll be pardoned if you need to take a few minutes to digest this information and/or take a swig of your home-brew barleycorn ale (or sake … ) to ease your mind.

Okay, having briefed over those incestuous times, we’re all in agreement that, with more names being tossed around than you’ll hear at an Italian wedding, it’s fair to say that some of the facts might remain, to this day, somewhat unclear to us. Suffice it to say, by the time Mr. Masek received this particular SG250 (or is it SG1?) he himself had gained control of how he was going to distribute the Meguro/Kawasaki motorcycles once they arrived at his warehouse in the Cornhusker State, and that’s the main thrust of why the SG250 might be so important to Kawasaki’s heritage in America.

And with that we’ll mix even more names into this drama: Kawasaki historical documents list Masek’s company in numerous ways, among them Masek Sports Division, Masek Auto, and Masek Auto Distributing/Rocky Mountain Kawasaki. Regardless, Mr. Masek was quite adept at his trade, because not only did KHI allow him to retain his distributor status up to his passing in the 1990s, but one of his two sons — Alan Masek — eventually became president of Kawasaki Motor Corporation after settling its headquarters in Santa Ana, California, when it ultimately became the sole distributorship of Kawasaki motorcycles in America. KMC’s newest headquarters recently opened doors in Foothill Ranch, California, and with that we pause now for intermission before proceeding with the second act of this Shakespearean moto-melodrama.

Act Two

Among the early mentions of the SG250 in America was a road test appearing in the September 1966 issue of Motorcyclist magazine. In this segment of our Shakespearean moto-melodrama we see that Motorcyclist referred to the bike as the Model 250SG, stating that the “high-quality machine features all of the attributes of a good touring motorcycle.” Hmm. Author Frank Millis, Sr. based that claim on various attributes, among them, “Ease of maintenance, simplicity, ruggedness, economy and a high degree of rider comfort, plus the best overall finish to be found on any Japanese machine!”

Obviously Mr. Millis was impressed by the SG250, which featured electric starting for its long-stroke 248cc engine. And unlike our featured 1965 SG250, the 1966 model in Motorcyclist’s test had a chromed front fender and full-length two-passenger seat that certainly were more striking to American buyers than the valance-wrapped front fender and solo seat/pressed-steel rack of our 1965 model. Interestingly, too, according to the magazine article some early 1966 SG250s, including the bike featured in the road test, still wore the Meguro tank emblem that eventually was “abandoned in favor of [the] Kawasaki emblem on later 1966 models,” read one photo caption. In addition, the SG250’s electric starting system utilized a solenoid device, placed above the spark plug on the engine’s left side, that momentarily raised the exhaust valve when the starter button was depressed, “much like the manual compression-release trigger on large British singles,” read the Motorcyclist article. That system allowed for easier starting of the long-stroke engine.

By the mid-1960s Japanese motorcycle designers were abandoning the use of pressed-steel frames in favor of utilizing stronger steel tubing to cradle the engines. The SG250 was no different, although by today’s standards the twin-shock steel-tube frame seems rather archaic and rudimentary in design. The SG250’s chassis, coupled with 18-inch wheels and tires front and rear, offered what Millis described as “above par” handling, with a ride “firmer than that offered by other touring 250’s [sic].”

Motorcyclist lauded the SG250’s electrics, too, giving a “satisfactory” rating to the headlight. Shedding some light on what riders confronted 50-some years ago with their motorcycles, Millis wrote, “Some currently imported machines have such weak headlights that it’s a wonder that the beam doesn’t actually droop!” He concluded: “With the Kawasaki you’ll be not only able to see the salient features of the roadway but you’ll be visible to following motorists as well because of the large taillight thoughtfully included.”

Apparently, too, the SG250 could easily keep up with its shadow during acceleration. “Although it is no great fireball,” Millis justified in his report, “the machine accelerates well enough to keep itself ahead of traffic rather than under it, and it is much smoother at cruising speeds than one would expect.” Millis wrote that the bike easily accelerated to 70mph, which put it close to Kawasaki’s claimed top speed of 78mph. Added Millis in his report, “… but if you can be content to putter along at a ‘slow’ 60-65mph then this may be exactly what you’re looking for.”

Intermission

Interestingly, other than the small spec box that appeared with Motorcyclist’s road test, there was no specific reference to the SG250’s odd-ball rotary-shift transmission, a design quite popular among Japan’s domestic bikes of the time. As the name implies, the shift pattern was rotary in motion, meaning you tap down for first, but rather than lift up for the remaining gears as you would with today’s motorcycles, the rider continues tapping down for second, third and eventually fourth gear. Neutral, too, is only a tap away from top gear, allowing you to tap one more time when you want to select first gear again. Downshifts were performed by lifting up on the shift lever with your boot toe.

Despite Motorcyclist’s favorable review, the SG250 was destined to remain in obscurity for one simple reason: During the latter months of 1966 Kawasaki introduced the 250cc A1 Samurai to the American market, and from then on nobody really cared about the model with the single-cylinder 4-stroke engine. The new Samurai boasted all the qualifications of a high-performance motorcycle of the time, something the American market was beginning to appreciate more and more during the late 1960s. The Samurai was powered by a 2-cylinder, 2-stroke engine that relied on rotary valve technology to help broaden its powerband, while delivering a claimed 31 horsepower.

Even though Kawasaki continued marketing the SG250 in other parts of the world through 1969, after 1966 it quickly became a footnote in Kawasaki’s American market saga, and for the next eight or so years Japan’s newest motorcycle product brand was highlighted with bikes boasting powerful, high-revving 2-stroke engines. The Samurai was followed by the 350cc A7 Avenger, which was superseded by the 500cc H1 Mach III in 1968 and later the 750cc H2 Mach IV. Not until the introduction of the 903cc Z1 for 1973 did Kawasaki consider 4-stroke engines to again be relevant and a viable formula for speed and high performance. Interestingly, too, the SG250 engine is currently considered the template for another recent retro-style Kawasaki, the 250 Estrella, a model that continues to be sold in parts of the world.

Final act

Shortly after Fred Masek’s passing in the mid-1990s, his small collection of Kawasaki motorcycles and snowmobiles was dispersed from his estate. When the dust settled and the various units were sent to their new owners, this all-original SG250 was gifted to KMC’s Kawasaki Heritage Hall museum, now in Foothill Ranch, California. Former longtime KMC employee Norm Bigelow, who oversees the collection, maintains that despite several minor blemishes such as the unsightly smudge on the muffler — a result, no doubt, from shuttling the bike from one storage place to the next over the years — this bike is among the most original older Kawasaki motorcycles in existence.

Norm harbors a soft spot for the SG250 in another way, too; he has one himself that he’s currently restoring. Make that cleaning up, because his bike, which he recently acquired through some bartering with another collector, is in all-original condition, and he intends to keep it that way. Indeed, when Norm and I rolled the Masek bike into Kawasaki’s parking lot for these photos, he spent much of the time surveying the bike’s bits and pieces, and the experience inspired him to put the finishing touches to his own SG250 soon.

“Yeah,” confided Bigelow during that photo session, “looking at this bike makes me want to get mine running.” And wouldn’t you know that among his bike’s surviving parts is a pair of pristine Meguro gas tank emblems. “I’m especially careful with them,” he says. “They’re really rare.” About as rare as this original-condition 1965 SG250, a bike that many Kawasaki enthusiasts today aren’t aware of, but should be. MC