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Kawasaki Drifter VN800

Updated on January 6, 2011

There was a motorcycle on the other side of the square. I could see it through the shrubs in planters and the trees, gleaming a pale golden colour in the watery sunlight. It was larger than the bikes and scooters around it, with extravagant bodywork redolent of another era - Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, Frank Lloyd Wright. This bike was the Gernsback Continuum on two wheels. I crossed the square and mounted this anachronism, started the engine and rode away, with the boom of the exhaust echoing back from the shop-fronts.

The bike is a Kawasaki Drifter VN800. If you're not familiar with the type, it's basically a Kawasaki Vulcan Classic with a bit of a restyle to make it look like a '40s Indian - big mudguards, black paint instead of chrome etc. It looks like there's no rear suspension, but actually it's a sort of softtail arrangement with a monoshock, linkages etc. Final drive is by chain, not shaft or tooth belt, although there's a belt drive kit available. I had a Scottoiler on it for a couple of years - it lived behind the RHS sidepanel - but I eventually removed it because it was such a faff getting at it behind the sidepanel, and I kept letting it run dry.

Mileage when I sold it was just short of 30,000, over 5 years of ownership. The tank holds 15 litres, 12 to reserve. MPG was around 50 in average use, which gave about 130 miles to reserve, plus another 30 to bone dry if I was lucky.

In good conditions, on the flat, it would indicate 105mph, but I generally didn't take it much beyond 85-90. Those big wide bars were actually pretty good at that speed: I never felt like I was hanging on for grim death. I considered fitting a screen, until I had a go on a friend's 1500 Drifter with a screen fitted: double vision by 40mph, genuine fear of concussion by 70mph. I decided not to bother spending hundreds of pounds on spotlights, either.

The brakes worked okay once I got used to them. There's a single disc front and rear, neither of which would make the grade on a sportsbike, but they're each powerful enough to lock a wheel. Gearchanges are effected by rocker pedal, although mostly I just used the front half in a conventional style. You can actually buy a hand-change conversion for these bikes, which is possibly taking things a little too seriously.

Handling. What can I tell you? It's a cruiser. It handled pretty good for a cruiser, but you wouldn't be chasing R1s down twisty roads on it. If that's your mission, this isn't your bike. Being a lardy cruiser, you'd imagine that tyres don't matter, and it could be cheerfully rolled around on third-world Deathmaster knock-offs. This turns out not to be the case. The Bridgestones Excedras it had from new were just about adequate for keeping those chubby 16" rims off the deck, but the Avon Venom I put on the back made a real, noticeable difference. When the front wore out, it was going to be replaced with a Venom too. I'd also upped the tyre pressures a little, which seemed to help.

Floorboards. Cornering. Well, yes, they touch down pretty soon after you start to lean it over. Surprised? Good job I hadn't got the 3" lowering kit installed.

I owned this wonderful motorcycle from new (9:00AM 1st September 2000). It was the most comfortable bike I'd ever owned, good for 12-hour days in the saddle. The first day I had it, I put 350 miles on it at a running-in max of 60mph, finishing the day somewhere in Northern France (Duclair, actually). It's not so good for pillions, because although the pillion seat is big and soft, the rear shock is a bit soft too. Well, very soft. Not much damping, either. I had the preload screwed up to max for solo riding. With a pillion on board, the handling is appalling - the front end flops about at low speeds, and the pillion complains because the seriously reduced suspension travel is doing her back in. Hagon do a replacement rear shock, which would almost certainly be a big improvement. And progressive springs for the front end. I really should have gotten my arse in gear on this.

Allow me to be brutally frank: this bike did not spend five years in a centrally heated, carpeted garage, lounging around on soft cushions. It's a bike and it was used as such, all year round, in all weathers.

It had a few low-speed drops - the worst, about a year after I bought it, put a big dent in the tank and broke my collarbone. It had a replacement tank, after the people who were supposed to be repairing the damage "blew it out" into the form of an amusingly-shaped potato. I'm still using the original collarbone. The stupidest drop was in a field in Chimay in Belgium, where I managed - notoriously - to turn it completely upside-down. You know when you turn a bicycle upside-down, to work on the wheels or whatever? Like that. Both wheels in the air, and half the bikers of Europe rolling around on the grass, convulsed with mirth. It needed a new handlebar and indicator, and put a couple of dents in the replacement tank. I have still no idea how I achieved this.

There were scrapes on the edges of the footboards, and scuffs on the exhaust. The chrome on the exhaust was starting to go a bit freckly with rust, but polishing seemed to keep this at bay, and it was still solid, with no holes or serious rust. The bolt that held the rear end of the silencer onto its support sheared off after a while, so the silencer was strapped on with a big Jubilee clip. I actually acquired another silencer, in good condition, off Ebay, but never got around to fitting it. Are we seeing a pattern here?

It has to be said that it was a good bike for backfires, either the loud ones off the kill switch, or the soft, wooffly ones that sometimes happened on the overrun.

There were scrapes on the front mudguard which were caused by a French motorist pushing me into a barbed-wire fence, on my way to Amboise in September 2003. They didn't go rusty because both front and rear mudguards are plastic. Some of the paint had come off the bottom end of the shrouding of the fork legs, partly due to the French barbed-wire fence episode, but mainly down to poor quality of finish. The plan was to either repaint them or replace them with chunky rubber gaiters next time I had the fork legs out, but I sold the thing first.

I made a couple of half-baked attempts at selling it, before I was finally parted from it. I loved riding it, and I reckon it's good for 100,000 miles before any major overhaul. It was mostly dealer serviced, with additional oil changes between services, and was always run on good quality (ie Castrol GPS or Mobil-1) semi-synth oil.

Drifters were never plentiful, and they seem to have mostly disappeared. I still look out for them on Ebay, and if a nice, original one came up at the right price, I have to admit that I'd be sorely tempted.


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      Don Barrett 

      7 years ago

      You either love 'em or hate 'em!

      I've got a 1500 Drifter hitched to a Watsonian Monza sidecar and she burbles on happily @ around 35 mpg no matter what speed. Been told me & Wifey resemble Wallis and Gromit!


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