Call it the semi-chopper, or maybe the almost-custom
Editor Hall bombs down our favorite local backroad, working the cobwebs out of the KZ650SR.
Years produced: 1978-1981
Claimed power: 62hp @ 8,000rpm
Top speed: 115mph
Engine type: 652cc double-overhead cam, air-cooled inline four
Weight (dry): 493lb (224kg)
MPG: 40-50 (period test)
Price then: $2,395 (1978)
Price now: $1,000-$2,000
Call it the semi-chopper, or maybe the almost-custom. No matter how you slice it, Kawasaki’s KZ650SR was, in many respects, little more than a mildly-altered KZ650. And, believe it or not, that’s what made it great.
By the time 1980 rolled around, “factory specials” were all the rage. They were the perfect motorcycles for riders who wanted something with style and panache, yet weren’t mechanically inclined enough to build their own custom ride.
Like the factory customs offered by a variety of other manufacturers, Kawasaki created the SR by taking a bike they were already building (the KZ650) and dressing it up a bit to turn it into a boulevard cruiser. It was hardly an original idea, and in fact, Kawasaki had already applied the same recipe in 1976 with the KZ900 LTD. But most of these factory specials turned out to be lousy bikes in some regards. They often had uncomfortable seats that were stepped in the wrong spot or that swooped at some unfathomable angle. Most had handlebars that made the bike hard to push around corners, and pint-sized gas tanks that, while shapely, didn’t hold much fuel. Combine these “features” and you were often left with a bike that wasn’t good for riding very fast or very long. But somehow, by some great stroke of luck (or, possibly, real engineering) the SR came away as something stylish and fully rideable. In fact, some of the modifications made in turning the KZ into the SR actually made the bike better.
In converting the KZ to the SR, Kawasaki gave it cast wheels, dual-disc front brakes, a single-disc rear brake, a 4-into-2 exhaust system, a 16in rear wheel (instead of the 18in wheel on the KZ), fatter front and rear tires, a longer, deeper seat, higher handlebars, a smaller, almost coffin-shaped fuel tank, chrome covers for the tachometer and speedometer, a chrome chain guard, and painted fenders instead of chrome. It also received 22mm carbs, down from 24mm.
Ergonomically correct“Straddle the bike on the showroom floor and it feels just right. The bars and seat and pegs put you in a posture that can only be described as Swagger Sitting Down.” That’s what Cycle World had to say when they first threw a leg over the SR in their August 1978 issue. Riding one today, the seating position, though comfortable, feels a bit odd compared with modern motorcycles. The bars are fairly wide with a good amount of pullback, and the thick, flat seat allows a variety of riding positions. The foam on the seat of our test bike was in good condition and it proved a comfortable perch, good for at least a couple of hours riding, if not more, depending on the build of the rider. The pegs are just slightly forward of the seat, offering plenty of room for those long of inseam. At 31.5in the seat height is not as low as some customs of the day, but it’s manageable for most.
Riding the SRFor its age, the SR is a surprise. While not the screamer its GPZ brothers became, the KZ from which it was born was a competent road-burner for its day. It’s not light, but it feels solid and planted through all but the tightest bends. A soft front suspension shows its age (and “cruiser” tuning), while the back shocks are adjustable for preload only. The fatter tires (in comparison with the stock KZ) help with grip during both acceleration and panic stops, and last a bit longer than their skinnier counterparts. Though our test bike was missing a bit of power on top (probably due to a needed bit of tinkering with the carbs) it was surprisingly competent at anything under 90mph. That said, it was happier cruising boulevards or running in city and freeway traffic than it was strafing the twisties. But don’t believe us. Find one and try it out (carefully) for yourself, then enjoy the bike for what it is — a usable, attractive version of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, all dressed up for Saturday night.
Cruiser alternatives to the KZ650SR
1980 Yamaha XJ650G Maxim- 64hp @ 9,000rpm/120mph
- Air-cooled, four-stroke, inline four-cylinder, double overhead cams
- Single-disc front, drum rear
- 478lb (wet)
Here, friends, is the reverse of the Kawi. Instead of taking a bike that was already being produced and turning it into a custom, Yamaha decided they’d just build a custom from the ground up. The result? The XJ650 Maxim.
The Maxim was the child of surveys, design studies — and a lot of other things motorcycle purists despise. But the bike had style (for its day), along with an engine that turned out a bit more power than its competitors. The Maxim was smooth, reliable and low-strung, and for a bike with a soft ride and no sporting intentions, its limited ground clearance wasn't an issue: When pushed hard, the list of things dragging on the ground grows exponentially as speed and lean angle increase.
Many period testers disliked the Maxim’s riding position, finding its stepped seat and buckhorn bars painful after about an hour; although for quick trips, the bike shined. Its small, 3.4gal tank would hit reserve after 115-125 miles, underscoring the point that looking good has its downsides.
If you’re looking for a beginner bike, an in-town bike or just generally like riding in a relaxed manner, the Maxim is a fine choice. That said, if the above descriptions don’t fit your personality profile, it won’t take you long to discover the Maxim's limitations. There are a whole lot of Maxims out there to choose from (which helps keep prices low), so take your time and find the nicest, most well kept one available.
Honda CB650 Custom- 60hp @ 9,000rpm
- Air-cooled, four-stroke, inline four-cylinder, single overhead cam
- Single-disc front, drum rear
- 447lb (dry)
Honda’s 1980 CB650 Custom debuted as another “Special” right in the middle of everyone else trying their hand at the game. Cycle Guide magazine immediately defined the bike as “a little bland, but pretty nice.” Not the most inspiring review.
The Custom wasn’t as showy as the Maxim, but it was a stylish, solid motorcycle fully capable of interstate cruising, although in truth it was most at home at speeds of 60mph and less. It suffered the same drawbacks common to other “Specials” when it came to rideability, as its pullback bars and stepped seat had test riders of the day complaining after just a few miles. Its 3.6gal gas tank was only slightly larger than the Maxim, yet still not as big as the 3.85gal tank of the Kawasaki.
Its suspension set-up also followed the short-trip mentality, as it was too soft for carving canyons or “breasting concrete waves on the superslab,” as Cycle Guide put it. The Custom was made for three years (1980-1982) and sold fairly well. Though they’re not as easy to find as a good Maxim, they are normally a bit cheaper. This example was a prior sale at Brad's Bikes (www.bradsbikes.net) that sold for $1,700. Depending on your taste, that “blandness” back then roughly translates today to “doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb,” which is something we can’t say for the Maxim.