From Copycat to Ground Breaking: The history of the Kawasaki W1 & W2
Every great company and every great brand needs to start somewhere.
For Kawasaki Motorcycle & Engine Company, the dream of achieving success in the ever-competitive arena of motorcycles started with wings and not wheels. Prior to 1962, Kawasaki was more known for making aircraft than making motorcycles but after requiring struggling company Meguro Motorcycle Company in 1963, Kawasaki was well on its way to producing some iconic motorcycles. Well, sort of.
To put it frankly, Meguro was struggling for a reason, and procuring the rights to the brand didn’t necessarily bring Kawasaki any sort of instant success. In fact, what Meguro was producing at the time was a thinly disguised copy of the 500 cc BSA A7 4 stroke motorcycle, a design it had acquired the rights to produce right from BSA themselves.
So, how did the W1 and subsequent W2 motorcycles come from this amalgamation of off-the-shelf BSA motorcycles?
Let’s get into it.
History & Development
To really understand the W1 and W2, we need to dig back into the history of Kawasaki and their acquisition of Meguro.
Post World War II, Japan was in the precarious position of having to rebuild a country that had been torn about by a horrific war. Citizens were looking for cheap and meaningful methods of transportation, and companies like Meguro were poised to take market precedence. Frankly, at this point in history, the Japanese knew very, very little about producing motorcycles on their own. In fact, Meguro had purchased intellectual property from none other than Harley-Davidson during the 1930s and utilized their drawings and designs for everything from gearbox construction to motor design.
During the 1950s, Meguro was only outsold by Honda in their home country and saw great success by re-badging and re-engineering the charismatic but ultimately unreliable BSA motorcycles of the era. By the end of the 1950s, Meguro had marketed consumer motorcycles with little success due to their high price and they were in some major trouble. Kawasaki, already a major player in the heavy industry and aircraft arenas, saw the failing Meguro as an opportunity to enter into yet another market and purchased a controlling stake in 1960.
The Meguro K Series, a direct copy of the BSA A7, was launched in 1960 with the help of Kawasaki’s investment. In 1963, Kawasaki fully took over Meguro continued to build K under license from Kawasaki. Due to persistent issues with lubrication, Kawasaki re-engineered the troublesome engine in 1965 and relaunched the motorcycle as the K2. This would be the first of many effective attempts to distance Kawasaki from BSA. In late 1965, the K2’s engine was enlarged from 500cc to 624cc and became the Meguro X-650 prototype.
Looking to shed the image of Meguro in not only their home country but also America; Kawasaki dropped the Meguro name fully in 1965 and renamed the K2 to the W1. The design would also change from the traditionally conservative, to the more ostentatious designs that were favored by export markets; especially North America.
Powertrain & Chassis
When developing the W1, Kawasaki was working with limited resources and old technology that they had inherited from Meguro. The 650cc vertical-twin A10 design was common on European bikes like BSA and would make its way over into the W1, albeit with a handful of major changes that were designed to make the bike more powerful and crucially, more reliable.
To take the stress off the crankshaft, Kawasaki adopted an “oversquare” design that favored higher engine speeds. This was accomplished by retaining the K2’s 72.6 mm stroke but bumping bore out to 74 MM. W1 engines also ditched the plain insert type bearings and two-piece connecting rods for a design that utilized a multi-piece pressed crankshaft assembly with ball bearings and one-piece connecting rods with needle bearings. Power was a respectable 49 horsepower and top speed was around 110 mph.
In 1968, Kawasaki released the W2, also known as the Commander, which bumped horsepower up to 52 and offered slightly better performance, as well as additional styling details. Through 1968, a single Mikuni carburetor powered the W1 but was swapped out for twin Mikuni’s in 1968 and dubbed the W1SS. Similarly, W2 models also received twin carburetors and were also renamed W2SS. In addition to these standard models, Kawasaki also released the W1TT; a high-pipe version of the venerable W1 design.
Legacy & Impact On Motorcycle Culture
For Kawasaki, the W1 and W2 were not game-changing motorcycles based on their design, their engines, or their performance. They were game-changing motorcycles because they signified the introduction of one of the absolute stalwarts in Japanese motorcycle technology, and effectively launched an engineering war that would take motorcycles through a true Golden era. This golden era of multi-cylinder performance motorcycles would introduce the world to the superbike and set the stage for decades of two-wheeled engineering excellence.
Production for the twin-cylinder W series would eventually phase out in 1974, but Kawasaki had already moved on from these old school designs that were loosely based on British bikes by 1972 with the introduction of the 4 cylinders Z-series. By 1968, Yamaha has already crushed the W1 with their advanced twin design on the XS650, and firms like Triumph and Honda were pumping out three-cylinder and four-cylinder designs that were worlds beyond any twin in power and refinement. Take one look at the incredible CB750 or Trident and you can see why the W series just wasn’t a hit on the sales floor.
The fact remains that it was the W series that would go on to cement Kawasaki as not only a player in the industry, but an innovator that was not afraid to take on the likes of Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha. This sort of brashness and commitment to engineering excellence would go on to produce legends like the GPZ, Tomcat, and of course, the Ninja.
From a copycat British twin-cylinder to a leading manufacturer of motorcycles known the world over; we’d say that original decision to purchase Meguro was one hell of a good one.