KAWASAKI SAMURAI 38
Kawasaki’s 250 two-stroke always was a potent brew. Andrew Smith discovers that it’s hardly mellowed with age…
Kawasaki’s 250 two-stroke always was a potent brew. Andrew Smith discovers that it’s hardly mellowed with age…
In the article about my CZ which appeared in RC186, I mentioned that I had another CZ 250 in my garage. I had some ideas about fitting it with a fairing and altering some other bits and pieces – but a friend of mine really wanted it, so I sold it to him. Probably more to save it from my madcap designs than anything else!
With that CZ safely out of harm’s way of my spannering efforts, there was a space in my garage. What would fill the gap? I started to look around for a similar motorcycle, a two-stroke twin of around 250cc. I have always liked quarter-litre two-stroke twins, much more so than any other class of motorcycle. I like all sorts and sizes and have owned many machines that were not 250s. But I enjoy riding a well set-up 250 twin and it feels more rewarding to get the best out of them.
I looked at some very nice late 1960s Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki bikes, and then I started looking at Kawasaki 250 twins and triples. A few clips on Youtube and the sound of the Samurai 250 brought back some memories from 50 years ago. One particular Samurai was owned by a chap I knew. It wasn’t in the best condition but back then we were indestructible and would ride anything that ran. That Samurai had the sound that still to this day makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’m sure its frame wasn’t straight and it had four spokes missing from the back wheel… but it screamed away and was very fast in a straight line – once you got used to the feel of the back wheel trying to overtake the rest of the bike! Corners were a
different kettle of fish. It didn’t like them nor wanted to go round them.
That Samurai lived up to the reputation of Japanese bikes of that era, but really it was just badly maintained. I suspect that many similar machines were in a similar state back then, owned by people who didn’t know how to service them and had no inclination to do so. The 250’s engine was as sweet as anything, however. And silencers were different back then; they added to the soundtrack and the volume of it – as good as any Marshall amplifier turned up to 11!
The A1 Samurai 250 was developed by Kawasaki when the W1 (650 four-stroke twin) did not sell well, and was outclassed by its rivals in handling, speed and weight. Kawasaki took the risk of building a lightweight twin-cylinder, rotary-valve two-stroke 250. The Samurai was fast with performance to match British bikes twice its size. Jim Deehan, an American racer, won the open production race at Willow Springs Raceway aboard an early A1 Samurai, the first road race for a Kawasaki vehicle. The floodgates of interest in the Kawasaki brand burst open and the marque’s unique brand of daring, in-yourface attitude had arrived.
Back to the present day. I saw two
Kawasaki Samurai 250s for sale. One was a 1970 version that had been completely rebuilt, but was not the style I was after. Then I saw a 1967 blue-and-cream version: rounded fuel tank with the old-style Kawasaki flag emblem badges, rev counter and speedo together in the headlight nacelle. Oh boy, it hit all the right notes and brought back memories of the soundtrack that I wanted to hear again.
It disappeared before I could enquire about it: blast! I resigned myself to look again at the 1970 version… then a few days later the 1967 A1 was back on the market. My Better Half (for some strange reason) said I should buy it. Woohoo! Hold on a minute, this means there is a price to be paid – and we’re not talking about the price of the Kawasaki here.
Throwing caution to the winds, I enquired about the Kawasaki. It was imported from the USA in 2017 and had all the NOVA certification and an age-related registration number. It was being used by the seller as a runaround. I bought it without seeing it but was quite confident that they were a genuine company, according to my searches and background checks. I felt that this dealer knew what he was doing. He kept asking me about my motorcycling experience and what bikes
I’d owned and ridden. I got the impression that he was checking me out as someone who would appreciate the Samurai’s history and look after it. It was commissioned through their workshop and delivered with a guarantee.
The delivery driver handed me a folder with all the paperwork and keys for the Samurai. On all his other stops that day, everybody just wanted to look at the Samurai and admire it. As soon as it was unloaded, I couldn’t resist starting it. Oh, the sound it made! The hairs on the back of my neck stood up…
Next day, I had to ride it. What a joy and pleasure it is. It handles well, goes round corners and the back wheel just wants to push you forward and does not want to overtake you. It stops as well, with a nice big beefy 2ls drum up front and the same size sls on the rear wheel. It has a five-speed gearbox and neutral is at the bottom as with all Kawasaki of that era. Or one up, all up!
This means that there’s no problem finding neutral; just keep prodding the gear lever down until the green tell-tale light shines. The only other tell-tale light in the speedo / rev counter console is High Beam and, being 1960s American, it is red.
The bike’s sound is phenomenal. It starts off sounding like an orchestra of angels. Once warmed up and the revs increase it screams like a band of demons. It demands to be ridden fast. But whoa, this is a 54 year-old bike we are talking about, surely it needs some respect? Nope! It wants you to ride it as it was intended to be ridden: a screaming demon that was made to compete against the best of British twins at least twice its size.
When the Samurai was new, there were three models available. This one is the A1. The A1SS had high-level exhaust pipes on one side, à la BSA Firebird. The A1R had a stripped-down frame and engine, longer petrol tank, clip-on handlebars, rear-set foot rests with expansion chambers and a smaller rear wheel sprocket – it was used for racing.
Back in the mid-1960s, the Samurai was advertised as having 31bhp and a top speed of 105mph. It gets up to the national speed limit quite quickly and without any fuss, even after all these years. I’m sure it would go at least another 15 or maybe 20mph faster. And that soundtrack at volume 11 sounds oh-so good!
Starting is very easy. From cold, turn on the petrol, open the handlebar-mounted choke lever, turn on the ignition. With an assertive
push down on the kickstart lever it will normally burst into life by the second kick. Tickover with the choke out is around 2000rpm. The choke can be pulled off after around a minute and the tickover settles down to around 1000rpm mark. When it’s warm, just turn on the fuel and ignition and it usually starts before the kickstart lever has completed one stroke.
In 600 miles it’s been very reliable. The only thing I’ve done is to check the spark plugs and other service routine things. I checked and set-up the brake cable adjustment to suit my preference. I adjusted the clutch cable to give a small amount of play at the lever end of the cable. The chain tension and tyre pressures are checked before each ride, as are lights and hooter. It seems to be very reliable and there are no misfires or anything like that.
Throttling back and slowing down without braking while going down through the gearbox makes a wonderful sound – like an elongated ‘wowwwwwww’. That’s probably as it’s a rotary-valve two-stroke and the carbs are on the end of the crankshafts. There’s no backdraft through the carbs as can happen on a piston-ported two-stroke, which makes this sound very smooth. The sound as it accelerates is something else to be heard, completely living up to its racing heritage.
As with all Kawasaki motorcycles of the period, the clutch and gearchange are very smooth and precise, this is even noticeable on the Samurai today. The clutch is very light and no problems have been encountered when negotiating
traffic and filtering. On a couple of occasions I have found a false neutral, but this was more me than the gearbox – I try to be more ‘delicate’ with it than on the CZ! You ride the CZ with great big steel toe-cap boots, but on the Samurai you ride using slippers…
The ride is very smooth and it can be ridden very easily. The footrests are quite high but as I’m only 5’ 8” I find it comfortable enough with the balls of my feet on the rests. I wouldn’t change the handlebars for lower ones as I’m not sixteen anymore. These are very comfortable sitting upright and make the bike very easy to manoeuvre in traffic. My back is kept straight and upright, and it’s comfortable enough for me to get off without any stiffness after 40-plus miles.
My normal cruising speed is 50-55mph or 40-45mph on narrow, twisty country lanes. From cold and up to ten miles it can be rather smoky, even though I use synthetic twostroke oil. The smoke is probably oil from a previous outing that has settled on the cranks and baffles. When warm it settles down to a thin blue haze.
My Better Half likes riding pillion and had no problems through the last year. This Samurai has no problems getting up to 70mph on dual carriageways, two-up. It has plenty of pulling power and will quite easily exceed the national speed limit. I have on occasions made the engine scream as it nears the redline at 8500rpm in the lower gears. When accelerating hard, the rear wheel has been known to skip on rough road surfaces. I’ve only noticed this in the lower gears and even then it’s still under control. It is very quick, even for a 54 year-old motorcycle.
Handling is very good compared with one I rode many years ago – but this one doesn’t have a bent frame. Also the swinging arm bushes are good and it has all its spokes in the wheels! The forks are quite beefy and look good. They also work very well and the frame and swinging arm cope well with poor road surfaces. I had no problems when caught out in a couple of heavy rainstorms going to Sudbury Bike Night last summer (thanks to Dave for that invite).
Normally I only need to use two fingers on the front brake, and use the back more when using hand signals to turn right. I like to maintain a constant speed and use the engine and gears more than the brakes. I prefer to slow down using the engine, coasting to a stop with very light pressure on the brakes. I use the back brake more to let those behind me know I’m slowing down, because the front brake doesn’t make the brake light work.
I try to avoid the pot holes, although the Kawasaki doesn’t get out of shape much or go off line. When this has happened on bends, it’s been very controllable and quickly gets back on track. Not an experience I can recommend on any bike, however.
Spares are very hard to get. North America is probably the best place to source them. The lack of parts should the need arise will be a challenge, but that’s the chance you take when buying what is by now a very rare motorcycle. This is an original unrestored Samurai and I will do my best to keep it that way. If the need arises then I’ll get professional help, I know my mechanical limitations! A local company restores Japanese bikes and would be used if I ever need major work done to it. I make no pretence at being a bike mechanic. I can do routine service things and have a nice friendly mechanic who is always willing to give advice and to check over the roadworthiness of my bikes.
The only niggling issue with the Samurai is that there are no direction indicators. It has the switch on the throttle / front brake control and I have found some wiring under the seat and what looks like a flasher unit. But I believe indicators were an optional extra for some American states back in the 1960s. I found some for sale in the USA between $60 and $80 and each buyer only had one left! Then I found a UK seller who had ten, so I bought four. Hopefully this means I’ll be able to trace the wiring and cure one of the bike’s few flaws.
In the photos I think my Samurai looks really good, and closer inspection shows that it’s in good condition, but not concours. The front mudguard is stainless steel; the rear mudguard has a little flaking and I may get around to getting it re-chromed. The wheel rims are sound; the rear has some minor signs of pitting and minor spots can be seen on the silencers. But there’s nothing to take away my enjoyment at seeing how well it has been kept over the years – and nothing to reduce my overall riding pleasure.