Buzzy Betty: 2019 Kawasaki W800 Cafe
John L. Stein rides Kawi’s latest retro motorcycle, the Kawasaki W800 Cafe twin, and gives his impressions.
2019 Kawasaki W800 Cafe
Engine: 773cc air-cooled SOHC parallel twin, 77.0mm x 83.0mm bore and stroke, 8.4:1 compression ratio, 46.4lb/ft torque @ 4,800rpm, 46.2hp @ 6,200rpm
Fueling: Multiport sequential electronic fuel injection
Transmission: 5-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, electronic ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle frame w/steel swingarm/57.7in (1,466mm)
Suspension: Telescopic fork front, twin shock absorbers with adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Single 12.6in (320mm) disc front, single 10.6in (270mm) disc rear, ABS
Tires: 100/90 x 18 front, 130/80 x 18in rear
Weight (curb): 489.5lb (222kg)
Seat height: 31.1in (790mm)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 4.0gal (15.1ltr)/42mpg (observed)
Although it’s a bit wordy for today’s synthesized Twittersphere and nanosecond attention spans, I still like the old phrase, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Particularly in terms of the current market segment of retro bikes, it is absolutely the case. For proof, consider Kawasaki’s new W800 Cafe twin. Designed to mirror the Kawasaki’s star-crossed W1 and W2 twins of 1965 and later, it attracts both veteran riders who remember the good old days, and new riders with old souls. And it looks the business too, with a low-set Clubman handlebar, bikini fairing, peashooter mufflers and other ’60s and ’70s design cues. However, despite a half century with which to perfect the basic goodness of a parallel-twin, dynamically the W800 Cafe rather falls short — an ironic throwback to the grim realities for British bikes of yore, and why riders gladly left them behind. Grade it a “C” or perhaps, magnanimously, a “B.”
Before we dive into the Abyss of Reason, let’s look at the challenges of rekindling Kawi’s quinquagenarian into new form. For starters, in the mid-1960s the W1 (single carb) and hotter W2 (dual carb) 650cc twins were spinoffs of BSA’s 650cc A10 pushrod twin, which was a formidable enough bike in its day. Kawasaki was on the move at the time, attempting to leap up-market from its origin — like most if not all postwar Japanese bike-makers — as a practical “transportation” company. The 250cc A1 and 350cc A7 two-stroke twins launched around the same time, and with rotary valves and Grand Prix-proven engineering, they were blisteringly fast giant killers — exactly the kind of bikes that could and would smoke (sic) BSAs and Triumphs on the street and track.
So the W1 and W2 were then, and remain today, odd footnotes in Kawasaki’s trajectory toward superbike stardom. If you can find one, it won’t be worth what a good Mach III 500cc two-stroke triple, Mach IV 750cc 2-stroke triple or Z1 DOHC 903cc inline four will command.
Now we can fast forward to 2019, and the 773cc W800 Cafe. With Kawasaki’s “modern retro performance segment” (our label here — call it whatever you want) covered ferociously by the Z900RS Cafe, and modern 2-stroke remakes of the Mach III and Mach IV unfeasible due to emissions regulations, Kawasaki evidently chose to bring back the W1/W2 in café racer guise. This is a bit like bringing up an aging bush league ballplayer to the majors just because he has name recognition, and hoping no one remembers he was never that good anyway.
It’s hard to imagine a company going to such an effort to create a totally bespoke bike and miss by such a margin. Remember the British mathematician Alan Turing, whose team cracked the German Enigma codes during World War II? The term “enigma” perfectly defines the W800 Cafe. Only instead of providing answers, this two-wheeled enigma begs a question: Why?
The engine design is delightful, with excellent detailing, precise castings and finishes, and an elegant shaft-driven overhead camshaft mirroring Norton’s CS1, International and Manx racers, and most all Ducatis of the mid-1950s through early 1980s. (BTW it’s worth knowing for when you’re kicking tires with the car guys, that the Porsche Carreras — including the infamous James Dean 550 — also used bevel gear-driven overhead camshafts. As did Mike Hailwood in his historic 1978 Isle of Man victory aboard the Ducati 900 NCR.) And so, essentially the W800 Cafe engine belongs to an exotic club.
Here’s how the system works. Different from everything else in the motorcycle and automotive market, instead of the typical chain or belt drive for the overhead cam, the camshaft turns via a vertical “tower shaft” located in a tube on the right side of the engine. Crankshaft motion transfers 90-degrees through helical-bevel gears to this shaft and up to the head, where another set of 90 degree helical-bevel gears turns the camshaft. Advantages for the design decades ago included elimination of pushrods and reciprocating mass, precise valve timing, and no chance of breaking a chain. Contemporary engineering, materials and manufacturing eliminate such potential woes in other engines today, but the cool factor of a bevel-drive engine remains.
Image by Bill Masho
Advancements to current motorcycle specs including EFI, a clutch-assist feature for newbie riders, and a slipper clutch, which smoothens downshifts for the ham-handed. Naturally, the W800 Cafe is electric start, a welcome change to, for instance, Yamaha’s annoyingly regressive SR400 kickstarter.
“Buzzy Betty” sounds like the name of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, but it defines the W800 Cafe motor nicely too. In contrast to the 900cc Triumph Street Twin, a 16-percent larger, sweet-running parallel twin, the W800 acts more akin to a V-1 buzz bomb. In the “Plus” column, the engine note is crisp and alluring, with an impressive minimum of mechanical noise. Unfortunately, though, high-frequency vibration permeates the motorcycle, with the grips, tank and footrests all alighting as the revs build. The only respite we found was between 4,500 and 5,500rpm. To warp some Dierks Bentley lyrics, “I know what they were feelin’/But what were they thinkin’?”
Image by Bill Masho
Finding comfort at legal highway speeds means using fourth rather than fifth gear, which helps keep the engine in the sweet spot. Creative W800 Cafe owners will find some of this can be masked, such as with vibration-quelling grips (Pro Grip 714 Rally Dual Sport MX grips worked wonders on a vintage enduro, I found) and inexpensive bar-end weights (cheap used on eBay), but it would be better for Kawasaki to sort out the engine balance and/or mounting system. Remember, Norton developed its famous Isolastic engine mounts a half century ago for the same reason.
Overall, performance is friendly for street use and adequate for jaunting along wiggly two-lanes, thanks to peak torque delivery at 4,800rpm, but it’s hardly stirring by sport-bike standards. The W800 returned a 42mpg average during our time with it, while exclusive freeway use netted a better 48mpg.
Keeping the English thematics flowing here, owing to the W800 Cafe’s design roots borrowed from the Mods and Rockers era, the above subtitle Lovely Rita was of course a Beatles song about a meter maid. Hardly a glam topic, but in truth the W800 Cafe is just that — lovely in design.
It has a minimalist café fairing, the aforementioned Clubman handlebar, a two-tone bum-stop saddle, avantgarde black spoke wheels, the chromed peashooters, and surprisingly, an upscale LED headlight — a rarity in this class of machine — to advance day and night safety.
The finishes are particularly nice, including the satin-black engine cases, glittery paintwork, and seemingly flawless chrome plating on the header pipes, mufflers, camshaft shaft tower, shock bodies and fuel cap. The gloss-black rims — a throwback from the bygone Brough Superior era and signature of the current café/bobber era — look great and are an unexpected touch.
Befitting its role as a retro machine, the W800 breaks no new ground in the chassis department. Twin shocks, a conventional fork, and single front and rear disc brakes with ABS about cover it. Suspension travel is modest with 5.1 inches in front and 4.2 inches out back. Only the shocks are adjustable, and then only for spring preload. Cue 1969!
The marriage to the ’60s-’70s era continues with the W800 Cafe’s 18-inch wheels and tires. Once a common size, they’re rare today because most every sport bike worth its lean-angle uses 17-inch rubber. And that brings up another negative for the Kawasaki. The 100/90 front and 130/80 rear tires feature a vintage pattern (reminiscent of Michelin’s bygone PZ2) and profile with two negatives: an unnerving tip-in feeling when initiating corners, and a disquieting weave on grooved freeways. As Commander Cody sang in Hot Rod Lincoln: “The brakes are good, tires fair.” Were a W800 Cafe to take up residency in my garage, I’d bin the OE rubber and fit a pair of Avon Roadrunners pronto.
As great as the W800 Cafe looks — and we do fancy it — there are troubles even here. The vintage-style 4-gallon fuel tank has a graceful organic shape but, woefully, is too wide and splays the rider’s knees outward unnaturally. And too, the low and rakish Clubman bar — its iconic design borrowed from the BSA Lightning Clubman of the mid-1960s — requires scooting forward on the stepped dual saddle to find something approximating a comfortable position.
Happily, the front of the seat is long, wide and flat enough to allow the rider to move around to find a satisfactory position — unlike deeply pocketed solo saddles on bikes such as the Ducati Monster — and is also deep enough to provide reasonable comfort … despite the engine vibration. And the clutch and brake levers are adjustable for reach — a highly useful feature more bikes should have.
One hot mess
So as you can see, in our opinion Kawasaki’s W800 Cafe is a pretty — and also pretty messed up — retro ride in stock form. In unvarnished truth, it represents an attractive proposition for a Japanese modern classic that can benefit from (and sincerely needs) immediate and modest fixes including tires, grips and bar-end weights, and a flatter handlebar shaped to nest behind the BMW R90S-style bikini fairing.
Image by Bill Masho
As a next stage, for experienced and confident bike builders, narrow the fuel tank, rubber-mount the footrests, handlebar and maybe even the engine cases, and fine-tune both the suspension and brakes. Or our bold suggestion: a high-pipe scrambler, replete with a narrowed tank, skid plate, longer-travel adjustable suspension, no fairing, a cross-braced handlebar, universal tires, a flatter vintage Bates-style desert sled seat — and of course, much attention paid to creature comforts.
Image by Bill Masho
But do not despair: Such dreams are why bike owners and riders — and not manufacturers at all — started the café racer and scrambler movements in the first place: to improve stock bikes for sporting riders. Thus, with Kawasaki’s re-entering the classic category with the 2019 W800 Cafe, it’s somehow fitting that this new machine would beg for the same attention all over again. In its own roundabout way, then, Kawasaki’s W800 Cafe really does encapsulate the retro spirit.
Now go forth, and live it. MC
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