Kawasaki’s KLE500

The su­per util­ity bike that’s bet­ter than you think – pro­vid­ing you go back early enough

Motorcycle Monthly - - Emerging Classic - mem­ber­ship_vjmc@ya­hoo.co.uk 01634 361825/07948 563280 Words: Steve Cooper

If you look up this month’s sub­ject mat­ter online you might well come away with the opin­ion the bike is rather like the one and only main­stream hit by The Monks – Nice Legs, Shame About the Face.

Kawasaki’s sec­ond it­er­a­tion of the KLE500 was some­thing of a le­mon – all show and very lit­tle go. Emis­sions leg­is­la­tion had pulled the rug out from un­der­neath what had pre­vi­ously been a rather nice bike. Go back to the early 1990s and things were a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Kawasaki was ap­ply­ing lat­eral think­ing to their de­sign and mar­ket­ing like few oth­ers.

Not too long af­ter the launch of the leg­endary GPZ900R some­one at Kawasaki Cen­tral had the bright idea of ef­fec­tively ax­ing the four-pot mo­tor in half to pro­duce a sub 500 twin. Sadly, one of the first prog­eny of this log­i­cal act was the EN450, a ma­chine that inspired one journo of the pe­riod to cry “my king­dom for a ma­chete!”

Re­triev­ing the sit­u­a­tion, Kawasaki fol­lowed this by pro­duc­ing the amaz­ingly suc­cess­ful GPZ500, which swiftly pro­gressed from be­ing one of the best mid­dleweights of the era to a long-term cash cow.

Look­ing to max­imise the po­ten­tial of the mo­tor, Kawasaki took what was then a bold move and pro­duced the KLE500. Us­ing a re­tuned en­gine de­signed for mid-range us­abil­ity rather than top end power, Kawasaki de­liv­ered a very cred­i­ble mo­tor.

If the mo­tor was still ef­fec­tively half a GPZ900R then the body­work was a mile away. Tak­ing some gen­eral styling cues from Yamaha’s frankly loopy TDR250 and chuck­ing them into the blender with things like their own Ten­gai KLR650 the fac­tory de­liv­ered some­thing very close to what we now call an ad­ven­ture mo­tor­cy­cle. With the small fair­ing and head­lamp cover mor­ph­ing into the tank, which blended in with the rear panel and seat, the looks were some­thing quite dif­fer­ent at the time but now we take them for granted.

What does now stand out is the colour schemes that were used, very shell suit, very 90s. How about pur­ple pan­els and mauve seat? Per­haps ma­roon with pale blue or aqua­ma­rine sad­dle? Or how about teal pan­el­work with pink flashes and a pur­ple perch? Thank­fully, other less gar­ish op­tions were avail­able.

The bike of­fered a de­cent rid­ing po­si­tion and a com­fort­able ride pro­vid­ing you weren’t sit­ting on the pil­lion seat that sloped alarm­ingly. The braced han­dle­bars came with hand­guards as stan­dard, of­fer­ing a lit­tle weather pro­tec­tion and the easy­go­ing na­ture of the mo­tor made the bike a cinch to ride in traf­fic.

Per­haps not too sur­pris­ingly the KLE500 swiftly found favour with riders who’d re­cently passed their tests. In­evitable com­par­isons were swiftly made be­tween the Kawasaki and Honda’s Tran­salp. In terms of out­right qual­ity the lat­ter won hands down but the KLE gen­er­ally came out tops on point and squirt rid­ing. Although both ma­chines had some off road pre­tence, nei­ther was es­pe­cially adept when it came down to it, although the Kawasaki was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be the bet­ter of the pair.

Why would you want one to­day? Well, they’re now quite rare and have a look like lit­tle else. In­sur­ance is go­ing to be silly cheap, as is their pur­chase price. Amaz­ingly, £800 gets you a tidy run­ner, while a grand should de­liver some­thing re­ally smart and a top-end low-mileage ex­am­ple is un­likely to go much over £1750. Fac­tor in an abun­dance of spares, both OEM and af­ter­mar­ket and the bike be­comes even more at­trac­tive. If you fancy some­thing just a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent but still fun then a KLE500 might be just the bike you’ve been look­ing for.

Ja­pan’s re­la­tion­ship with par­al­lel mid­dleweight twins has been as long as it has been capri­cious. Honda’s CB450 Black Bomber beat many Bri­tish fac­to­ries at their own game and in var­i­ous guises the mo­tor, hogged out to 500cc, went on for years. Yamaha’s best at­tempts at turn­ing out a quar­ter litre four-stroke twin did their rep­u­ta­tion lit­tle if any good. The orig­i­nal TX500 was some­thing ap­proach­ing flawed ge­nius and the sub­se­quent re­vised ver­sion, the XS500 was un­fairly com­pared to the sem­i­nal and all con­quer­ing RD400. One of the best of the genre has to be Suzuki’s GS400; a ma­chine now over­looked and ig­nored but it was mile­stone for com­mon sense and re­li­a­bil­ity. Kawasaki may have made a damn good fist of it with the GPZ and KLE 500 twins but its early of­fer­ings on a sim­i­lar theme were less suc­cess­ful. Back in the day Bike mag­a­zine, when test­ing the then new Z400 twin, dressed a rider in a full clown out­fit. Per­haps not too sur­pris­ingly the bike is not one of the world’s most de­sir­able clas­sics!

The VJMC; run by mo­tor­cy­clists for mo­tor­cy­clists

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