(TL;DR: this is in no way a midlife crisis, nor is it a misguided impulse purchase made in an attempt to reclaim my youth.)
So I’ve been a big Kawi fan since the beginning—or at least since the beginning of my moto-curiosity in the early ‘90s, when I was cooking pizza in San Francisco’s Marina District and starting to experiment with college again. Having no previous mechanical experience, I bought a ratty, knocked-about 1980 KZ550A1, black with red and blue pinstripes, followed inevitably the next day by a set of crescent wrenches and some fuses and a shrink-wrapped copy of the Clymer book.
The bike been raced or stolen or crashed at some point. It had a salvage title, a set of Honda turn-signals, and a speedometer cable that had gone missing somewhere around 13,000 miles. It had a Hefty bag for a seat cover. The electricals were just wrong enough to keep things mysterious and interesting, but the frame and fork were straight and the engine and gearbox were strong.
That bike taught me how to wrench. I learned (repeatedly) about wet ignition points and corroded switch contacts, how to thwack a starter solenoid back to life and how Loctite can keep the clutch-linkage cover bolts from vibrating out. I learned to always ride with spare fuses, and to always keep a spare clutch cable around because You Never Know. I learned how to bump-start it in the rain, and how your helmet can keep your head dry even when it’s pouring out and your points got wet and now you’re walking home.
But it was a great commuter, easy to filter through traffic and quick off the line, and absolutely aces on winding roads.
I spent hours picking through boxes for parts at the salvage yard, looking for my bike’s missing bits and pieces, muddling through and gradually sorting out what was wrong with it. And I fell in love with the thing.
But then other things happened—school and career and bicycles and family and life and death and so on.
Then a couple of years ago I came back to motos again, via a 2012 Versys for my Seattle commute. It’s a great bike and it’s fun and flickable and planted on the highway, and it still has that overbuilt Kawasaki gestalt I love so much—but it looks more like a bug than a motorcycle.
I love standards in all their forms. I’d always kept my eye on them even when I was away from motos, and I was rooting for them when they started coming back in in the early Aughts—the SVs and Z900s and Monsters and so on. And what’s not to like about fuel injection and electronic ignition and even—gasp!—ABS?
But that KZ550 always stuck with me as the Platonic expression of the Ideal Motorcycle—or, at least, the Platonic expression of the Ideal Mid-Sized Universal Japanese Motorcycle: understated, honest, elegant, directed, a little bit of chrome to offset the black, and a delicious whine followed by an angry roar as you wound it up in third gear.
And then a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon an advrider thread (“What’s your ideal two-bike scenario?”), and then a random moment of Craigslist synchronicity happened and suddenly here I am, the proud owner (once again) of a 1980 KZ550A1, black with red and blue pinstripes.
(I’m thinking most or all of the 1980 KZ550A1s—at least the ones sold in the US market—are black with red and blue pinstripes, and most or all of them have a speedo cable that quits at about the 13,000 mile mark.)
It’s more complete than mine ever was but of course it’s [mumble mumble] decades older, too. But the frame is straight and the engine is strong, and I still have my tools, so…
Welcome back to the fold Sturmey!
I too started with a 550 although it was a GPz550 in college. I loved that bike. Then came job, wife and kids and I hung it up for a decade or two. When I got back in it was a impulse eBay purchase of an '82 GPz750 - the bike I always wanted. Still looking for that 550 though...
I love the line "looks more like a bug than a motorcycle". I may have to borrow that
2016 Yamaha FJR1300ES
1982 GPz750 R1
1974 Kawasaki H1
1976 Kawasaki KZ400
1979 Yamaha XS650 cafe'
2001 Yamaha YZ426
1981 Honda XR200 stroked in an '89 CR125 chassis
1967 Triumph GT6
"If you didn't build it, it's not really yours"
"looks more like a bug than a motorcycle."
The looks of bikes from mid 70s to early 80s just look right to me (Universal Japanese Motorcycle). The only new motorcycles that interest me are the retro models (w800, TU250x, Bonneville). A motorcycle engine is a work of art. Why would you want to cover it with plastic.