The Return of the UJM

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

I knew if I bugged Bill long enough he'd sell me his bike. He hardly ever rode it. I was in a very unusual "bikeless" stage of my life while living in Asheville, NC, which is as close to moto-Utopia as you can get. I needed a bike and Bill had a bike he didn't need. Sounded like serendipity to me.

The Bill I speak of is Bill Miles, my stepfather. He kept his 1978 KZ650 C in the walk-in basement that also served as my residence when not away at college. I marveled at the great shape the bike was in even back in the mid-80s. As the years went by, the bike remained ageless. Bill was meticulous about storage and maintenance, and his work schedule allowed him little time for riding. I made it very well known that I was interested in the bike every time we spoke. Finally, after ten years of incessant why-don't you-sell-me-your-bike blather, he broke down and agreed to the transaction.

For the next couple of years in Asheville, the little KZ served admirably as an everyday commuter and it opened up a whole new world of mountain roads for my wife and me. Even after the purchase of the much more road worthy BMW K75S, the Kawi managed to see plenty of daylight. Kathy and I never ceased to be amazed at the comfort and nimble qualities the 650 offered. The constant "nice bike" comments didn't hurt its status either.

Change is Inevitable
Despite the awesome riding in the Asheville area, it just wasn't home. When Kathy was offered a great job opportunity in Winston-Salem, we jumped. Our rather abrupt move landed us in a rental house that offered no covered storage areas. Refusing to let the Kawi spend the winter exposed to the elements, I asked my father-in-law if I could park the bike in his garage "for a little while."

Long story short, that little while became six years. Thankfully for the faithful KZ, the very vintage section you are now reading saved it from an even more protracted period of improper cold storage. When Christian learned of my bike, he gave me a deadline to have it ready for this feature. That lit a fire under my butt and got the ball rolling.

Once I got the bike home to my own crowded garage, the teardown began. I had all but forgotten how much fun it is to work on older machines. A little common sense, a few free Sunday afternoons, and a good ballgame to listen to can add a breath of new life to any project. I felt like I was getting reacquainted with an old friend.

As is typical of older Japanese bikes, getting the motor running was no big deal. Points, plugs, oil, battery, and a surprisingly easy rebuild of the carburetors had the motor running but not quite purring. I'm guessing that a carburetor synchronizer and a timing light will do wonders. Both are tools I do not own - yet.

The initial ride was a bit sluggish, but even in its poorly tuned state a hint of the KZ's former bravado shone through. Despite old tires and an unseasonably cold winter day, the ride across the lonely country roads near my home was therapeutic. Like a first walk with a loved one recently released from the hospital, the happiness lies more in the moment than the activity. There's still a ways to go before the Kawi is where I want it to be and that's fine; I'm just happy to have it back.

So What's a Vintage KZ650 Really Like?
The bike in question here is a 1978 Kawasaki KZ650 C. I'm no Kawasaki expert, not yet, but I will tell you what I've learned so far. This 650 C seems to be somewhat unique, with some forward-thinking elements attached. From what I can tell the majority of the '78 KZ650s were B models and fairly standard for bikes of the time. They had spoke wheels, a single front disc brake and a drum rear brake. This C model, on the other hand, features triple disc brakes and mag wheels. Obviously, there was a lean toward increased performance as well as style in its design. The brakes on my C hold up remarkably well even by today's standards. The black with silver trim mags look great and they're much easier to clean than their spoked counterparts. The factory deep-blue paint has a hint of metal flake and, combined with the pin striping and liberal use of chrome, it gives off an aura of classic '70s styling.

Riding the bike is really fun. The KZ is a classic UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle). When properly maintained, the machine is rock-solid reliable, comfortable, and handles quite well when not pushed too hard. Please keep in mind: This is 27-year-old chassis technology. Back then, flexible frames were not exclusive to the Jane Fonda Workout.

The air-cooled, inline four-cylinder engine puts out a respectable 49 horsepower with 33 ft. lbs. of torque. You're certainly not going to strike fear into the hearts of today's riders, but that's plenty to motor around two-up for a relaxed weekend ride. The engine runs smooth and quiet, perfectly capable of handling highway speeds all day long. The seat and upright riding style combine to make two-hour stretches in the saddle a breeze. In fact, Kathy, my favorite passenger, completely swore off our previous cruiser style bike that had her coveted backrest in favor of this upright seating. (Thank you, KZ. For that I will be forever indebted.) As best I remember, gas mileage was always around 40 miles per gallon no matter the road. Once this bike is back in shape, I'll have no qualms about riding it anywhere.

My Inner Child
Let's face it: Classic bikes are cool. They're fairly straightforward mechanically and their styling returns us to another time, whenever they were built. They're as fun to tinker with, as they are to ride. I'm still just beginning to immerse myself in the learning process regarding this machine and its history. As I work on the bike, I make mistakes, learn, and smile. Most parts are fairly easy to find and a surprising number are still available through your Kawasaki dealer. Give them a call first - original is good.

It's probably fair to say that most of us are attracted to the bike models that first attracted us as kids. My first bike was a brand new 1978 Honda XR 75; it therefore seems fitting that my first foray into classic motorcycles should be another 1978 model. I'm willing to bet that somewhere back in the deepest recesses of my adolescent memories there's a KZ 650 embedded in my psyche. Maybe as I traveled with my parents, one passed us and represented freedom from the confines of the Beetle's backseat. Maybe I stared longingly at one from the back of a Vista Cruiser on the way to soccer practice, wishing for the wind in my face instead of Olivia Newton John in my ears. Who knows? I'm just glad I have it. Call it arrested development, but when I ride my KZ 650C, I'm one of the "big kids." And that's cool.

TECHNICAL SPECS:

1978 Kawasaki KZ650 C

YEAR DOHC inline four cylinder, triple disc brakes, chain drive
ENGINE
Bore and Stroke 62mm x 54mm
Capacity 652cc (39.8cu.in.)
Compression Ratio 9.5:1
Spart Plugs NGK B7ES
Carburators 4x Mikuni 24mm
CAPACITIES
Fuel 4.4 gal
Oil 3.7 qts
TIRES
Front 3.25 x 19
Rear 4.00 x 18
SPROCKETS
Gearbox 16
Rear Wheel 42
BRAKES
Front twin disc
Rear single disc
DIMENSIONS
Length 85in
Width 20.5in
Seat Height 31,5in
Weight 498lbs