Sunday, 15 January 2017

Kawasaki GPz550


In October 1985 I purchased a 1983 GPz550 for a mere thousand notes. It was a private sale, the bike having only one owner who had only done ten thousand miles in two years. He also had a complete service record and was far away from the normal GPz owner in being over fifty and, as far as I could ascertain, had never thrashed the bike.

I'd seen seven other machines before purchasing this bike. The others had looked their age and I didn‘t much like the look of their owners. This bike actually looked like it had never seen the downside of the English climate. Unfortunately, this was soon to change as I intended to spend a few months touring around the UK prior to taking the bike to the Continent. In all, I would knock up 22000 miles in little more than nine months.

The bike was kept in the front passage until March, when I'd optimistically assumed that the weather would be fine enough to allow me to do some riding and get used to the bike. My keenness overcame my disbelief that it could rain quite so much at that time of year.

My first impressions of the Kawa were tempered by cold fingers and wet roads. Keeping the engine under six grand meant I had to rush up and down the six speed gearbox to keep the bike running along. At least the clutch and gearbox were light and precise. Revving the engine hard above six grand turned the bike into a different kind of motorcycle. The bright red paintwork and racy reputation were fully justified by the arm straining acceleration and delightful exhaust growl.

But the weather and riding in built up areas meant I rarely ventured beyond six grand for the first month of riding. This had a very pleasing effect of fuel economy, with the bike returning 65mpg.

In April the weather was still poor but I wanted to put some miles on the Kawa. I did my first bit of maintenance, and the only regular servicing I was going to undertake, by changing the engine oil. The ignition is electronic and the valvegear bucket and shim, the camchain tensioner automatic and four carbs tend to stay in balance; thus I figured that I could get away with just changing the engine oil every 2000 miles, working on the basis that If the bike was running well, it was best to leave well alone.

In April, then, I went from London to Lincoln the slow way. Once past Luton there are any number of amusing minor roads that avoid the tedious A1. This circular route extends the journey from 150 to 250 miles. I eventually pass just on the outskirts of Cambridge heading for the long, fast and flat roads of the Fens. The freezing winds blow in from the sea over deserted landscapes. I wonder what I'd do if the Kawa expired in the middle of nowhere. There are no hedgerows and nowhere for the pigs to hide, so there are places where I can run the Kawa flat out in fifth with 120mph on the clock. There's a slight weave but it doesn't get any worse so I just have to live with it.

The rumour is that a better rear shock makes the rear end more stable, but the stock Unitrack isn't bad enough to make the effort worthwhile. I stopped in Wisbech - a surprisingly quaint town - to eat some lunch and drink some; warm tea. It really is cold out there, but the Kawa seems to thrive on it. It purrs along even flat out with hardly any harsh vibration getting through. Ridden hard the mpg dips to 52mpg, but I usually average around 60mpg. With a who engine and 125mph bike this is quite impressive.

I followed the A17 towards Sleaford for a while, but take some more back roads before coming out on the A15 a few miles before Lincoln. These back roads have some hairpin bends and small hills. The Kawa can be braked, flicked through the gears or twisted lnto a new direction while in the bends with no problems. The back end squirms a little and the front forks can dive rather violently, but the basic double cradle frame is rigid enough to compensate.

In third or fourth, whacking open the throttle makes the Kawa shift like a much bigger machine; it's great fun playing with the gearbox to keep the engine skirting the redline. The entrance to Lincoln was, as usual, slowed by road works, but the Kawa only weighs 430lbs and it's easy to chuck through the traffic.

I had a friend in Lincoln, so I could stay the night and recover from the cold. Early the next morning, I had to be in work so I took the A15 until it met the A1. These roads are fast and empty that early, but there are many spots on the A1 where the police wait for speeding traffic, so a little care is needed. These lazy A roads are a piece of cake for the Kawa, all I had to do was hang onto the bars, flicking between fifth and sixth, repeating to myself that I was warm. But I can't fool my mind into such beliefs.

As the weather gradually improved I began to use the Kawa to travel further and further out of London, until I was regularly dolng 1000 miles over the weekends. The more I used the blke, the more I became Impressed with the apparent toughness of the engine. It started first press of the button with just a little choke and from there on it just ran and ran. There was just nothing to spoil the Kawa's performance.

After five thousand miles I fitted a new chain. This was one of the cheapo jobs (fourteen notes) and it only lasted for eight thousand miles even though I sprayed it with chain oil after each long ride. The bike was also using a Road Runner every 7500 miles on the rear, although the front went for over ten grand. Two sets of disc pads were needed every 8000 miles. This meant I was spending about eighty quid on consumables every eight thousand miles. In view of the fact that, apart from oil changes, I wouldn't spend a penny on the engine, this worked out as quite reasonable. To go up to the next stage in performance would probably drastically increase these costs, and as I was quite happy with the GPz's performance there seemed little reason to incur such excessive costs.

By the end of May I was ready to quit both my job and England, spending the rest of the year wandering around Europe in the search for some way of making some decent money. I took the ferry from Dover to Ostend. There was only one other bike aboard, a dubious looking Commando. When I caught up with its owner in the bar - recognizable by a tatty leather jacket with a huge Norton symbol on the back - it turned out to be sometime contributor to the Used Motorcycle Guide, Johnny Malone, who spent most of the journey reading out excerpts from the first issue. I wasn't surprised to learn that the editor had temporarily relocated himself in Bangkok to avoid any physical retribution or libel writs after hearing his comments on some of the bikes (I deny this... Ed).



For the first time in what had seemed years, the sun was actually shining. Welcome to Ostend. The Belgian customs just waved us through and I had problems keeping up with the Norton. We were both heading for Antwerp and it had seemed a good idea to follow Malone as he knew the way. Readers of the second issue will know that the Norton is very highly tuned. I had to ride on the throttle and brakes, shooting up and down the gearbox to keep the Norton in sight, although it made enough noise to be heard several miles away. Out on the Belgian motorway I could relax a little, except with the speedo between 110 and 130mph for most of the journey I was afraid the police might stop us. Most of the Belgian police drive around in VW vans which can be ignored, but some of the traffic cops have Porsche 911s which are a different matter...

Following Malone off the motorway, I almost went up a road on the wrong side, but just saved myself. Why we had turned off into thee; countryside escaped me, and so did Malone as the road turned twisty. There was no way I would lean the Kawa over that far... Lost in the Belgian countryside, all I could do was follow the sun. The countryside was flat and desolate just like the Fens. l eventually made it into some kind of stretched out suburb, where small weirdly designed villas littered the sides of the road. A signpost for Antwerp, 20 kilometres, gave me fresh hope.

The drivers in Antwerp were all insane, in urgent need of psychiatric treatment. It came as no surprise to learn that it was only recently the Belgians had introduced the driving test... I liked Antwerp enough to stay there for a few months, very underrated with cheap beer and cheap accommodation. I used it as a base to ride to Germany, France and Holland.

Having little foreign language ability didn't prove a problem and riding the Kawa proved a useful way of meeting people as other motorcyclists seemed keen to talk to foreigners. I eventually caught up with Malone, who was heading back to the UK as he had run out of money. The collapse of the pound didn't help. I'd got a job, cash in hand, in an English owned bar. It meant working from eight in the evening to two in the morning but I got used to that after a week or so. This wasn't going to make me rich but it kept my capital intact.

The Kawa had burned out a battery, but I hoped it was just age and not the electrics playing up. It was beginning to look a little tatty, with rust on the frame and the black engine paint was worn away in places. Rust was beginning to eat holes in the silencers. I'd put eighteen grand on the bike and in a fit of extravagance let the local Kawasaki dealer give it a full service. He didn't mind me hanging around and I was only disappointed in that the valves still didn't need adjusting despite their neglect. It only cost thirty five quid, so I couldn't really complain as it included a steam clean. I touched up the paint and promised myself to clean it at least once a week.

On the radio I kept hearing about floods and cold temperatures, but in Antwerp the sun was always shining and I thought, poor old England. When I decided to leave for Spain, it was with a heavy heart and some trepidation.


For various reasons, I'd better not go into, the journey to Spain has become blurred in my memory. I can remember some custom officials poking at the Kawa and looking at my documents as if they were forged or something... my first impressions of Spain were bad and they just got worse and worse. The people were noisy and arrogant, and some of the young kids were violent. 

Coming out of a cafe, some youth was poking at the ignition switch with a long screwdriver. When he saw me he didn't run off but started to threaten me with the screwdriver. Only the arrival of the cafe owner saved me from getting cut up... the roads were bumpy and after fifty miles the rear shock overheated, lost damping and let the rear wheel lose control. The petrol was lousy, ruining the low speed running of the engine, the accommodation was cheap but full of bugs and I couldn't sleep because I thought someone might pinch the Kawa.

Spain I didn't like and I didn't hang around for long. After three days I turned around, heading back for civilization. This is probably unfair to Spain, but I never met anyone I thought I would care to pass more than a few minutes with. Perhaps if I could speak Spanish things would have been different...

I'm writing this in Paris. The hotel's run by an Algerian and I think there's a brothel in the basement, but no-one seems to give a damn. The Kawa's safely parked in the back alley. I've just cleaned it and it looks like new. I'd like to keep it for a hundred grand. I'll have to think of some far away place to go, but I think the Kawa will survive it...

Alan Smith

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