This story is long overdue. Mostly because the best customs are never finished, and I’m not sure if this bike is finished or not, so I’d decided I wasn’t quite ready to tell the bike’s story, but then Ross gave me a slap and told me to pull my finger out. It has been over a year – so I guess it’s time to begin, and see where the tale leads…
Now I think about it, all my bikes start with a similar brief… “I want a bike that I can use everyday, but then maybe on the side I’d like to take it flattrack racing / motocrossing / on a track day / across a continent.” It’s a bit like my endless quest for the perfect leather jacket that I can wear on a bike, in the rain, that looks like a cool casual jacket down the pub with my mates. This just means I have about 8 jackets, and if I could afford it I’d have as many bikes too – because at the end of the day, none of them can really do it all.
“I want a road bike that I can race at Dirt Quake but it mustn’t be too pro or proper, and should be totally practical on the roads in London. Or Biarritz. Or maybe on the B1056 to Finchingfield.”
This impossible brief fell to Will at Café Racer Customs, who sadly closed their workshop last year. I’d always wanted a W650 as the base because I really like the old US Triumph parallel twin flattrack racers, and in my wisdom I decided that the lighter new W was a better donor than either a heavy Hinckley Trumph or an old pre-Hinckley Triumph that would break down all the time and leak oil on my fictitious driveway.
Will also knew better. Having ridden a few Kawasakis he thought I’d find the W650 a bit gutless so I needed the 800. What we hadn’t bargained for was how much harder this would make the build. The 650 has carbs and a kickstart, while the W800 has a leccy boot connected to all the joyous electronics of FI, including sensors, fuel pumps, and a CAN-Bus link to the clocks.
The donor bike was a super clean 2011 bike that had been garaged with only 1800 miles on the clock and a full service history. It was expensive at £5250, but mint, and I wanted something reliable and decent to start with. My ambitions for the build were actually pretty modest, as I like the standard W design.
Keep the frame, brakes and forks but re-lace the hubs to a pair of flattrack sized rims. The tank could stay, but lose the badges and fill the holes for a respray. The standard clocks were already neat and slim, and the airbox could remain but I wanted new side panels. The subframe could also stay, with maybe a rounder rear loop to hold a new seat (flattrack style, but good for two-up), and then we’d just need a one-off stainless 2-into-2 single-sided exhaust system with loud reverse cones. There were loads of examples to look at, from James Whitham’s W650 to the early Deus builds.
It all looked easy, relatively inexpensive to do, and hopefully in plenty of time to ride the bike at the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. But CRC wanted to showcase their skills to the fullest so Will asked if he could add a few upgrades… Air shocks, a whole new subframe (flatter, narrower, higher), lose the airbox and swap for pod filters, fit a minisucle Li-Ion battery into a tiny hand-folded box under the seat, polish the cases back to the metal, fit a Koso uber-mini speedo, Power Commander, a change to the bar-riser angle, new bars, and finally – an XS650 tank. The list of clever mods grew and grew. Being a typical, wide-eyed bloke, all I could do was nod and drool, but it was going to cost a lot more than planned and take longer than I wanted.
I visited CRC weekly, partly to see what was going on or to drop bits off, but mostly to give Will and his crew the hurry-up so I could get it finished before the summer was to end. I think it’s fair to say that Will had bitten-off a little more than he had time to chew as they had plenty of other custom builds going on at the same time, so the project seemed to drag on and on. But as the weeks went by, the work progressed. I was well impressed by the kit at CRC’s Wembley workshops, with proper frame jigs, mandrel benders, English Wheel, lathes and milling machines. The new subframe was millimetre perfect and looked factory, with integrated LED tail lights and a hand-rolled stainless steel integrated rear fender. The pipes were also things of great beauty, all crafted in-house on a massive Huth pipe bender.
The mods were plentiful, but Kawasaki did also provide us with lots of good kit worth keeping. The brakes were acceptable for such a light bike (especially minus another 20kg) and the levers and switches were super-neat. The engine is a lovely piece of modern design and even items like the simple footrests were keepers.
The big pain in the arse was that tank. I actually quite like the original W800 tank. It looks huge on the standard bike because of the massive chromed badges, but when you remove those (there are holes to fill) and respray they are actually a nice shape and suit the stance of the bike really well. Changing to an XS650 tank meant re-mounting the fuel pump and modifying the frame to an extent where there was definitely no going back. With a paint-job by the very talented D-Luck, it looked superb mounted on the bike. However, not only did I end up with only 12 litres total capacity but because the fuel pump was now side-mounted due to internal packaging issues the first 4 litres were un-pump-able, so I was left with with just 8 useable litres and around 55miles between stops. To add to that inconvenience the thermistor switch which indicated low fuel was now side-mounted, giving the ECU conflicting messages about actual capacity remaining. So, 55 miles to being stranded was now the norm. Bugger. Best get used to resetting that trip meter…. So much for keeping all the mod cons.
With black rims, black frame, black yokes and swing-arm the engine’s bright metal work and classic AMA flattrack inspired paint on the tank stand out perfectly. The seat, courtesy of the upholstery wizard Glenn Moger, looks very cool and is comfy for one or two. The Falcon shocks originally destined for a grasstrack racer are sublimely smooth on the road, and work well on the dirt track, generally speaking the bike is a huge success.
My biggest disappointment was the standard engine. The W800 isn’t slow or gutless, but Kawasaki have managed to build an 800cc parallel twin that feels very sedate even when it’s going like the clappers. Side-by-side with my Triumph T100 the bikes are actually neck and neck on acceleration, but for some reason the Kwacker feels less powerful. Will’s view was “too little overlap in the valve timing” and pronounced the need for “lairy cams”. I know that a Japanese outfit supply hot cam kits for the W650 and I’ve heard these might work in the 800, but because the bike is also very light and manouvreable it’s lack of obvious punch has been offset by it’s supermoto flick ability and I’ve never got around to fiddling with it. Proper dyno time could help, but at the end of the day the bike does deliver. (I’ve probably been spoiled by litre twins).
I did have a chat with Chris at X-Bikes who is the king of big twins, and he knows the Kawasaki ECU very well, but his suggestion of a switchable map for road vs flattrack racing set me thinking. I assumed the Track setting would be punchy and quicker than Road but Chris actually suggested a softer map for racing, with a flat 40bhp to keep useable power as even as possible across the rev range when sliding on the dirt. The more I thought about it, the more the flat power delivery already on-tap might seemed to be just right.
The DG Ride came and went and the bike got a huge amount of positive comments and appeared in loads of photo albums, but the big test was ahead of us. First a winter of mild commuting duties in the wet, and then Dirt Quake the following summer.
Over winter the bike didn’t get heavy wet-weather duties, but it did do some cross-city grunt work in the drizzle, and true to it’s modern level of finish the Japanese bike cleaned-up like new. There were a few hiccups along the way. The one challenge to the build was cramming the electrics, battery, Power Commander and Koso control unit into such a small box, removing the seat was something akin to taking the back off a mainframe server at Google. The inevitable gremlins were ironed out and perhaps one day a bit of extra snipping and splicing might not go amiss.
…But, more importantly, how would it fare at Dirt Quake? After all, what’s the point of designing a tracker inspired bike without putting it to the test.
With such smooth and predictable drive, the W was actually perfect for Dirt Quake. It was definitely at home in the street tracker class, as the mild power and road manners would have been out-classed by anything specifically built to race, but in the company of other street trackers, and fitted with proper Dunlop K180 tracker tyres, she made me look better than I deserved. I ended up second in the B group. A more talented rider could have kept up with the front of the pack in the A-group, but with no practice, very little previous experience (just DQ the previous year) and riding without a steel shoe I felt like the W was exactly what I needed for the task. The bike also did me proud again at this year’s event.
So, in summary, I got a lot more than I originally asked for, but I also got a bit less too. The bike is possibly the perfect city commuter with attitude, and despite it’s slim, light-weight build it’s plenty strong enough for two-up riding. It’s like a nimble, retro supermoto with looks that attract a lot of positive attention from pretty much everyone. The fact that it combines these notable talents with decent off-road, foot-out sliding is actually quite remarkable, so big boxes have been ticked. The one thing I have regrets over is the tank range and lack of fuel light, as this is also a perfect bike for carving up the mountains around Biarritz and Wheels & Waves, but I think I’d spend half the trip checking out local filling station locations and opening hours. Maybe I’m over reacting, as my KTM LC4 was no different, but this build was meant to be the practical one.
The last chapter isn’t quite written. I’m planning a bigger version of the build story for print, with more detail on the commissioning process and over a year of living with a pretty full-on custom build on road and track. There are also a few changes I’d still make, perhaps a number board style headlamp setup, and for peace of mind I’d take another quick look at that busy loom.
But – I also have a few too many bikes and they’re all a large capacity twins. One has to go, so I think this lovely machine might soon be on the Bike Shed Classifieds to be passed on to someone who can take her to the next level.
STOP PRESS – Since this feature was written Dutch has decided to take the plunge and sell – Check the advert on the Custom Classifieds.
Huge thanks to the talented and reliable Mihail Jershov for the photos. Next time I’ll clean the bike properly too.