Years produced: 1968-69
Total production: 639
Claimed power: 53bhp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 110mph (est.)
Engine type: Air-cooled, pushrod, two-valve, vertical twin
Weight (dry): 181kg (398.2lb)
Price then: $1,350 (est.)
Price now: $4,200-$7,000
"The ultimate in motorcycles — speed, style, comfort, handling and safety for the sports rider," boasted the first paragraph of the Kawasaki W2TT Commander sales literature.
"Instant power every time you crack open the throttle. Hour after hour of high speed riding without engine strain. This is a real high speed touring motorcycle."
The reality of riding Kawasaki’s British-style 650cc didn’t match the hype, but the two-cylinder W2 was still an important bike for Kawasaki. It was with the pushrod vertical twin, launched in 1967 when the Kawasaki motorcycle operation was still in its infancy, that the Japanese giant paved the way for its fire-breathing two-stroke triples and fearsome Kawasaki Z1 four-cylinder of the early 1970s.
The huge Kawasaki corporation, which built ships, trains and planes, had turned to making motorcycle engines and then complete bikes to keep its aircraft division busy after World War II. After building some small-capacity two-strokes under the name Meihatsu in the 1950s, Kawasaki stepped up its involvement when it took over the ailing Meguro bike firm in 1960.
Like many Japanese manufacturers at the time, Meguro had specialized in copying European bikes, notably BSA’s 500cc A7 vertical twin, which was reproduced as the Meguro K1. In 1965, Kawasaki made a few modifications and released the twin as the Kawasaki K2, then brought out an updated, 650cc version, the Kawasaki W1. Shortly after that came the tuned, twin-carb W2 models that would become Kawasaki’s best-known early roadsters.
Although the W2’s mechanical debt to BSA was undeniable, the Kawasaki was more than a copy of a 650cc BSA A10. The 624cc engine’s Y-shaped right engine cover was larger than the BSA’s equivalent, hinting at numerous internal differences. The short-stroke Kawasaki’s claimed peak output of 53bhp at 7,000rpm was identical to that of BSA’s sporty A65 Lightning. But unlike British rivals that had adopted unit construction of engine and gearbox, the W2 relied on the old-fashioned arrangement of a separate, four-speed box behind the engine.
The Kawasaki W2TT Commander was basically the W2SS roadster of 1967 fitted with a high-level, twin-pipe exhaust system on the left side. The model featured here dates from 1969 and was built using parts from two damaged W2s found in different parts of the United States. Paint and chromework were mostly good except on the high bars, whose chrome was peeling — and which were notable for holding the Japanese rarity of a manual ignition advance-retard lever.
A pleasant country-lane blast on a sunny afternoon showed that the twin-pot motor was great at low revs, carbureting crisply from below 2,000rpm and remaining very smooth until 4,000rpm. There was enough torque to encourage short-shifting through the right-foot-change gearbox, which had been considerably improved from the previous W1 unit but still had Kawasaki’s preferred early arrangement with neutral at the top, instead of between first and second.
The Kawasaki’s smooth low-speed running made it a handy bike in traffic, despite a horribly heavy clutch. The main problem on the open road was the vibration that began coming through the bars and footpegs at 4,000rpm and the speedometer reading 65mph, which combined with the exposed riding position to make using the twin’s top-end power uncomfortable. Top speed was about 110mph, but the vibration didn’t encourage me to keep revving to the 8,000rpm required to reach it.
Handling was stable in a straight line and not too bad in bends, either, with no sign of the head-shake for which Kawasaki’s lighter two-stroke triples would become feared. Given the 19in front wheel, old-fashioned steering geometry and two steering dampers — a friction version at the steering head and a hydraulic one mounted on the fork leg and frame — I’d expected changing direction to be like skippering one of Kawasaki’s container ships. But the high, wide bars and respectable dry weight of 398.2lb meant that the W2 could be aimed into a bend without risking a hernia.
Suspension was as good as could be expected given the bike’s age, though the rear shocks could have used more damping. The W2 was fun in turns, aided by Dunlop tires slightly wider than original equipment. The front brake was only a single-leading-shoe drum and needed a very firm pull on the lever but was no worse than the stoppers fitted to several British rivals. Nor was the Japanese bike alone in another of its less impressive features — a slight oil leak, seemingly from the tappet cover area, that left a light coating on a sidepanel and the back wheel.
Despite those shortcomings, the W2 was a big success in Japan, where it was the best-selling large-capacity machine. But it was a different story in more competitive export markets, where the W1 had been a flop and the W2 fared little better. This W2TT Commander model was dropped in 1970. Although the low-piped W2SS and the single-carb W1SS carried on for another couple of years, the twin never made the impact that Yamaha managed with its XS650 parallel twins. But these days, the Kawasaki’s rarity makes it all the more desirable. MC
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