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Kawasaki W800: Sixties personified

2013-11-20 18:13

NO, IT'S NOT A WOLSELEY: Kawasaki's W800 is a retro-focused biker's dream machine. Image: DRIES VAN DER WALT


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Sometimes nostalgia bites so hard you have to do something about it. If you're an older biker, you might like to hark back to the 1960's and make friends with Kawasaki's new but retro W800.

I’ve always loved classic bikes but I’ve never owned one because of the associated nightmare of maintenance and parts availability. So what if you could have a bike with all the benefits of a modern machine but with the look and feel of a classic?

Kawasaki W800 image gallery

Kawasaki, it would seem, has exactly what the doctor ordered.

It’s the Kawasaki W800, Team Green’s replacement for the W650, their take on the classic twins of the 1960’s. It looks the part from head to tail, including the meticulous attention to detail associated with the time when robots were found at (some) intersections and not in factories.


The W800 is not the only retro bike on the market – choices range from the Triumph Bonneville to the more authentic (if less refined) Royal Enfields and Urals – but it is perhaps the best combination of modern reliability and old-world charm.

The first thing that struck me was the quality of the finish. Gleaming chrome combines with satiny paintwork to give the bike much more presence than its physical size warrants. The attention to detail is not limited to the superficial, either – where practical (as in the case of the front mudguard), Kawasaki has opted for metal rather than plastic. So, the W800 feels solid and should last just about forever.

When you first sit on the bike, you realise how small it is. Not only is it lower than you might expect but it is also quite narrow. Looking down, you attention is drawn by the two suitably retro-looking dials and beyond that by the exposed headlight finished in body colour. On closer inspection, you’ll notice a small LCD in the speedo and a fuel-injection warning light in the rev counter - the only clues that you are not sitting astride a real period bike.

The chromed detail on the engine, the “peashooter” exhausts and the skinny Dunlop rubber combine to place the looks firmly in yesteryear. Kawasaki has opted for a “W” logo on the tank in lieu of Kawa badging, which means that the uninitiated might not guess that this is Japanese, rather than a British, bike.

The name (and styling) pays homage to Team Green’s W Series, three models produced from 1967-75 which were based on the British BSA A7.


Push the starter button (Kawasaki has omitted the W650’s kick-starter) and the engine springs into life with a muted purr. It has just enough mechanical clatter to evoke memories of bygone days but not so much that it could become annoying. It looks the part, sounds the part and it certainly feels the part when you get rolling.

Don’t expect an eyeball-flattening surge of power - you won’t get it. You also won’t be able to challenge the sport bike set in the twisties because the W800’s handling is adequate at best. That said, it’s quicker than you might think with more than enough grunt to keep up with the highway traffic with a little in reserve for overtaking.

Roll-on acceleration is quite respectable, making it possible to overtake slower traffic without swopping cogs.

Vibration from the inline twin has been tamed but not to the point of making it feel like a modern four. There’s just enough shake, rattle ’n roll to evoke the period feel, accompanied by an engine sound very unlike other current bikes. The sweet spot is at a speed fine-avoiding 110km/h. Although it can comfortably go a bit faster I tended to settle around that speed for relaxed open-road cruising.


The thing with bikes such as these is that it is almost impossible for the manufacturers to go wrong. Things either work well, which is great, or they don’t, which simply adds to the character. And character is something of which the W800 has oodles – taking this bike on a relaxed cruise, deliberately going on the back roads to enjoy the scenery I normally miss on my own litre-class mount, turned out to be one of the great joys of the review period.

If you’re looking for a commuter that will always make heads turn, an open-roader for the days when speed is less important than sight-seeing, or a classic with none of the drawbacks associated with owning a period bike, then the Kawasaki W800 is well worth your attention.

Read more on:    kawasaki  |  dries van der walt  |  road test

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