It’s hugely ironic that Kawasaki, which ever since the 1969 creation of its H1 Mach III two-stroke triple has almost permanently led all other Japanese manufacturers in the pursuit of performance for its street bike range, should have started out its life on two wheels by trying to build a better British bike. For that’s what the OHV parallel twins it manufactured from 1965 to 1974 unquestionably resembled – and even after it trumped Honda’s groundbreaking CB750 four in both capacity and performance terms with the 1972 introduction of the world’s first four-stroke hyperbike, the 903cc Z1, it still kept producing the ultimate version of its BSA A10 Super Rocket klone-with-a-K, the Kawasaki W3 650, right alongside it at its Akashi factory. For a couple of years, grilled steak and beef stew both coexisted on the two-wheeled K-menu.
Indeed, the Japanese had form from the very start in replicating British two-wheeled technology, with the country’s first series-production model, the Miyata Asahi 500cc single built and sold from 1913 onwards, a faithful copy of the side-valve Triumph 3Ð which bicycle manufacturer Eisuke Miyata had imported and replicated for use by the Tokyo Police, amongst others. Bar some 18,000 heavyweight Harley clones which Rikuo built from 1935-42 alongside locally assembled H-D models, rip-offs of British designs dominated the Japanese motorcycle market in the run-up to WW2, epitomised by the Nakagawa company’s Osakabuilt 500cc OHV single debuting in 1935 under the Cabton name – an English acronym standing for - Come And Buy To Osaka Nakagawa! But, just as in China even today, there was no shame then attached to replicating overseas manufacturers’ designs, seen as a necessary first step on the path to global leadership. Stage One entailed copying others to redress the disadvantage of being new to the marketplace – but Stage Two entailed improving on those first models, in terms of quality of either design or manufacture, or both. Stage Three was then represented by building on those first two steps to produce something completely fresh, which surpassed the original in both performance and design, and this was exactly the strategy adopted by Kawasaki in developing its range of motorcycles in the postwar era.
Founded by Shozo Kawasaki in 1878 as a shipbuilder, Kawasaki Heavy Industries is today one of Japan’s three largest engineering conglomerates, with 2019 revenues of US$15 billion earnt producing a huge range of products from motorcycles, aircraft, bridges, tunnel-boring machines, missiles and ships to railway rolling stock, including the ultra highspeed Japanese Shinkansen, and even the rails they run on. Banned like Piaggio and MV Agusta in Italy from producing aircraft after WW2, in 1949 Kawasaki instead began building motorcycle engines in its former aircraft factory in Kobe, for sale to many of the 100 or so small manufacturers who’d sprouted up to address the lack of personal transportation in postwar Japan. In 1953 it made its first complete bike under the Meihatsu name, which being built to aircraft standards was better engineered than its rivals, albeit made in relatively small numbers. The rapid expansion of the two-wheeled sector prompted KHI to establish its own purpose-built motorcycle factory in its Akashi base which opened in October 1960, the same year it teamed up with Japan’s oldest motorcycle manufacturer, Meguro.
Named after the Tokyo district that housed the Meguro Manufacturing Works, Meguro was founded in 1937, and for many years was Japan’s largest motorcycle company, until overtaken by Honda. Its various models were strongly influenced by existing British designs, aided by the fact that these could be imported free of the otherwise very stiff import duty specifically for local manufacturers to copy! Meguro’s Z97, introduced in 1937 and utilising 500cc single-cylinder engine heavily influenced by the Swiss Motosacoche motor, was the first Japanese motorcycle to be built entirely in-house, not assembled from components sourced from other factories, and was immediately a volume seller. In 1954 the Meguro Senior T was launched at the Tokyo Show, whose 650cc pre-unit parallel-twin engine was closely based on the BSA A10 Golden Flash’s. In 1960 this was joined by the 497cc Model K1, a close outright copy of the BSA A7 which Meguro had imported three years earlier. Its quality and engineering was superior to the BSA’s, leading it to be described by BSA/Triumph technical guru Edward Turner as “too good to be true”! But industrial troubles culminating in a year-long strike by its workforce pushed the near-bankrupt Meguro into the arms of Kawasaki, which in September 1962 completed its acquisition of the firm, with the first motorcycles to carry the Kawasaki name appearing the following month.
The new Kawasaki Aircraft-owned company was assigned the task of providing motorcycles for police and escort duties at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and to save time the BSA-clone Meguro K1 was the basis of this new machine. The 500cc Kawasaki K2 customer version launched in March 1965 had detail technical mods aimed at enhancing reliability, but it lacked power while still sharing many of the BSA A7’s mechanical weaknesses. So in order to enter the booming American market, Kawasaki launched the W1 650 in October that year with revised 624cc engine dimensions achieved by enlarging the K-model’s bore size from 66mm to 74mm, to create another OHV pre-unit parallel-twin which was then, three years before the debut of Honda’s CB750 four, Japan’s largest capacity motorcycle.
While closely based on the BSA A7 and before that the Meguro Senior T launched a decade earlier, the W1 represented Stage Two in Kawasaki’s path along the R&D trail, for while the K2 had been a direct copy of the BSA A7, faults and all, the W1 featured several improvements over its BSA-based ancestors. While still a dry-sump parallel-twin with vertically-split crankcases, 360° (so, two-up) crankshaft, identical OHV pushrod valve gear and a separate four-speed gearbox with duplex chain primary drive, the 624cc motor measured an oversquare 74 x 72.6 mm against the longstroke 650 BSA’s 70 x 84mm dimensions, and had a much stronger bottom end. Unlike the BSA and Meguro K1/ Kawasaki K2’s solid crank with split conrods and plain big end bearings, the W1’s three-piece built-up crankshaft assembly used one-piece conrods running on caged roller bearings, with a roller main bearing on the drive-side, and timing-side ball bearing.
74’ KAWASAKI W3 650
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