Sunday, 13 August 2017

Kawasaki GPz550

The old Z250 had just about had it. I wanted a bigger bike, preferably a four cylinder - I figured my available funds of £1200 should buy me something decent. I really wanted a GPz550. Trouble was they were too expensive at about £1400, until one day there was an ad in MCN for an X-reg one at £1150. I phoned up, the owner was only 30 miles away and explained that the bike was standard except for a Motad 4—1, good tyres, etc.

The mileage was described as quite high, but this was, to some extent, balanced by the fact that the motor had been rebuilt (by a dealer, over £300 - with receipts), so I decided it was worth a look. It appeared to be in good order, the wheels lined up and upon starting it sounded fine and had 37500 miles on the clock. A previous owner had painted the wheels and forks and, for some reason, replaced the rear light with a Yam XS250/400 item. As it had no tax or MOT, I offered £1100 which was accepted.

I returned the next day with the cheque, and after a test ride to make sure, I set off on the 30 mile ride home. The GPz, with its four cylinder, DOHC engine and Unitrak rear end, felt huge and smooth after the Z250 — l was well impressed. That is, until stopping for petrol (the usual egg-cup full in the tank...), I discovered the tail light had packed up, as had main beam, Bunging in two new bulbs made no difference.

As this was the first big bike l’d owned, it felt bloody powerful and the handling seemed great, if a little heavy on the steering, probably due to the considerable weight and the big 19” wheel. Two days later, with an MOT and lights working it was on the road.

After a couple of days I decided to clean it up. It took me yonks to remove the excess red paint from the wheels and, for a couple of months, 1 was running around with them half done. I dunno what it was, but eventually I had to resort to paint stripper.

After two weeks tie inevitable happened - I fell off. Late for work, charging flat out in second on a very bumpy road, I experienced my first tank slapper. The bars were quickly wrenched out of my hands before I’d had time to do anything except think, ”bloody hell, what's going on?" I was then deposited in the road. After getting to my feet, I looked at the bike. Apart from a broken indicator and ignition cover it looked unscathed, although at home I found the forks had twisted slightly.

The greatest damage was to my kneecaps, all the skin had been removed with surgical precision. After being patched up in hospital, I pushed the bike home. All this was a pain, as I was supposed to be going on holiday on the bike in three days. With no spares available in time, I cobbled on a Z250 indicator, repaired the ignition cover with insulation tape and reset the forks in the yokes, and went anyway.

At first my knees hurt a lot, but after a while in the same position the pain eased. As I regained confidence, my speed crept up and up until I was bowling along at a steady 90mph. 115 miles later I arrived at the camp. It was a sunny afternoon and I decided to have a few beers before erecting the tent, and awaiting the arrival of a mate who was supposed to meet me there. By 2pm he still hadn’t arrived, so I went for a ride on the bike.

A few minutes later I came to a squeaking halt — the front tyre was flat. Now, I was right up the creek without a paddle, as I didn't have a pump, and the tyres were tubeless: I left the bike where it was and hobbled back to the camp shop where I bought two litres of cider and then settled down on a bench to see if my mate was going to show up. By the time he did a third bottle had gone west, but at least I felt a bit more cheerful.

As he didn’t have a car jack or big log on his 400/4, the only safe way we found to remove the front wheel was to take off the tank and gently lay the bike down on the soft grass. We took the wheel to a garage where the airline was able to re-inflate the tyre — I never did find out why it deflated, but I suspected the accident had damaged the rim/tyre seal.

Apart from the tyre, the bike performed brilliantly and gave absolutely no trouble, even when I took a wrong turn on a dirt track and found myself up to the axles in mud. It took half an hour to drag it out with the 400/4 but was all good fun (we were legless).

At 39000 miles I decided to have the tappets checked ”No sweat, mate," the dealer told me. Ha, ha. The cam cover is retained by 24 allen screws, of which only 14 could be persuaded to shift. The others totally refused to budge, and I was told the only solution was to remove the engine and drill them out. As the tappets sounded okay they were left alone — and they still haven't been touched with 44000 miles on the clock.

Soon after this, the camchain started to rattle a bit, but was cured by inserting a tiny nut inside the tensioner cap (I know it’s naughty, but it works). By January 1987, both fork seals had gone but were replaced. Two days later, the fork legs were again covered in oil as the latest seals expired. The problem was solved by pumping up the forks to 13psi, and forgetting about the seals, which improved ground clearance to such an extent that a bellypan was fitted.

However, due to the air slowly leaking out of the forks, the amount of fork dive increased daily, resulting in some nice scrapes on the bellypan. One day I forgot about the pan, and almost ripped it off on a kerb. After that the bell pan was thrown away.

Soon after this a slight wobble appeared which got slowly worse. Replacement of totally shot front wheel bearings sorted it. In May the Cambridgeshire Plod presented me with a certificate of merit which stated my speed as 112mph (two up with camping gear), but I got away with it by being really nice to the copper and promising not to exceed 70mph for the rest of my life. Politeness invariably pays.

The starter solenoid packed up due to a shorting wire, necessitating application of a spanner to the terminals to start the engine. It took me nearly a week to find a breaker with one in stock, as l was told that only the correct one would do. Once replaced the bike started OK again.

In July I decide; to sort the forks once and for all — a day’s job, or so I thought. After a week spent trying to remove the seals and coming close to destroying the lower legs, I finally succeeded, and found the cause of my nightmare. The seals weren't proper GPz550 ones, at all but Z500 items which go in but are absolute hell to remove as they are deeper and seat in too tight. The seals were replaced (with genuine Kawa items, £11) and the job went fine, but I never want to go through that nightmare again.

At the end of the month the MOT expired, so in preparation the clapped chain was replaced with a cheapo one, and the next day a new rear Arrowmax was fitted. l nearly fell over when the bloke asked for £56 includin fitting — next time it'll be one of those mail order tyre discount places. It was the same day I had a brainstorm, and ordered a brand new GPz600R. I don't really know why I did it — I suppose the 550 was nearly six years old, and although still reliable I sometimes felt I shouldn't be caning a 42000 mile old bike and expecting nothing to go wrong.

Riding the 600R made me realise how far things had advanced since 1982, as the 600 went 20mph faster for the same mpg, handled about three times better and felt so good that it was pointless to even compare the bikes. The 550 was only used occasionally until a roundabout was thrown in front of the 600 when l was doing 75mph - I escaped injury, but the bike didn't.

I did the 550 up a bit, and replaced most of the front brake in order to get some kind of braking. I then decided to repaint the oil cooler, but stripped the gland nut when trying to remove it, but a mate repaired it for me. In May I went to the BMF rally without any problems, only the slipping clutch was any cause for complaint, though it was only a minor inconvenience as I’d educated myself not to take on YPVS’s and FZ’s.

The following weekend me and the missus set off from Bedford to Halifax. Despite getting soaked to the skin after 45 miles, and almost giving up, we persevered, finally arriving after six hours. The GPz ran well, and averaged 53mpg. On the way back the speedo cable snapped, and there was an occasional wobble from the front wheel. The front Roadrunner was shot. About a week later the gear lever fell off leaving the bike in fourth, but so tractable was the motor that l was able to ride home without a problem.

The 550 has been enjoying its second lease of life, and still runs like clockwork with 44000 miles up. Overall then, a great bike, with plenty of go, fairly good fuel economy and relatively easy maintenance. It has never let me down and always started impecably.

Nothing too important has ever fallen off or rusted away. Still, it'll have to go soon as I can’t afford to run two bikes... on the other hand, though, maybe I should keep it in case I smash up the 600R again.

Roland Black