CLASSIC RIDELittle Kawasaki B8S Steve Cooper falls in love with a little gem!
If you are of a certain age and still riding, chances are you first saddled up out of necessity. From the mid-1960s through to the end of the 80s, socio-economic circumstances meant cars were financially beyond the reach of most of the working youth so it was either shanks’s pony, a push bike or a commuter motorcycle. It’s my contention that if the kids of the period had been able to access machines such as this month’s subject matter, Kawasaki would have had a much larger fan base and significantly earlier than it did.
In camera we have an exquisite example of what the Japanese factories were offering en masse to the average commuter of SE Asia and sporadically to the USA. It’s simply light years ahead of anything being offered in Europe at the time with the possible exception of more expensive machines from Italy and Germany. Possibly a supreme irony of post- Second World War reparation was the fact that the Allies ’profited’ from bikes derived from DKW’s pre-war RT125 while the defeated countries sought to design new motorcycles from scratch. These latter machines tended to be up to date and modern. Our Kawasaki B8S Super 150 came with full-on 12V electrics, indicators, effective full width waterresistant drum brakes and even an electric start: compare this specification to ‘home grown’ machines of the time.
The humble little Kawasaki was conceived, designed and built to offer near flawless commuter transport and to run faithfully for years. In contrast the combined, moribund, offerings of BSA, AMC, Norman, Velocette et al were made as cheaply as possible with little real thought to customer satisfaction let alone enjoyment!
Walk up to the B8S and it almost appears to be a three quarter scale model it looks that small. Much of this is due to the 16in wheels that were doubtless chosen to ensure even the shortest rider could sit with both feet flat on the ground. The pressed steel frame is of similarly modest dimensions, no doubt to assist the smaller rider. That T-bone frame was a cost effective method of creating a decent, rigid, chassis and was a format that almost every Japanese manufacturer followed; in fact Yamaha would still be using a similar layout well into the early 1980s. The Kawasaki’s piston-ported motor sits in the frame grasped by plates at the rear of gearbox with a bolted-in front down tube running from behind the headstock to another set of engine plates that fit to the lower front of the crankcases. Suspension is taken care of front and rear via enclosed and shrouded units. The rear swingarm is once again a pressed steel item just like so many of its peers.
Perhaps the only surprise on a self-professed commuter machine is the fact that the drive chain isn’t enclosed but doubtless Kawasaki probably offered one as an option. Otherwise, fully specified the bike offers genuine pillion accommodation with a decent dual seat, a rack and, of course, a heel-and-toe rocking gear pedal. Originally this form of gear selection was said to be an Italian affectation that saved style-conscious Latins from damage their suede loafers. In the world of 1960s Asian commuters the pedal had a more profound purpose; it accommodated the basic footwear, flip-flops or even bare feet, common among period riders!
Up at the front end both the bars and the clock are simple, uncluttered and purposeful. On the left there’s a horn and the indicator switch which mercifully operates on a horizontal plane unlike some of the period Yamahas I’ve owned. On the opposite side there’s a hi-lo beam switch and the starter button for the electric foot. The clock sits in a casquette style headlight unit and offers three idiot lights; charge, neutral and turn. Very much of the period, the ignition switch sits on the side of the headlamp. Unique to similar period Kawasakis the indicators illuminate both fore and aft thereby offering motorists little excuse for not seeing them. And check out that rear light. Isn’t that the funkiest period unit you’ve ever seen? And even better, when you apply the rear brake that outer chrome ring comes up as a red halo; form and function in one elegant package.
So much for detail, what about the riding experience? Fuel tap and choke are exactly where you’d expect them and for a laugh I’m trying the electric start facility. Of course it’s Japanese and a Kawasaki so it will work perfectly. The engine fires up instantly and almost immediately I can knock off the choke. The exhaust note is deep and not at all muted; blipping the throttle the silencer delivers a deep sonorous tone that only amplifies when the engine is worked harder. Neutral sits at the top of the box with four ratios accessed by tapping downwards with the front half of the pedal. Working down the gears requires the rider to concentrate and perform an unusual action, pushing down with the heel. Initially it’s an odd and slightly ungainly manoeuvre yet you quickly adapt. Well, until you inadvertently tap through neutral and find yourself in first gear with a frantically screaming motor.
Yes, for reasons we Europeans could never fathom the bike is equipped with a rotary gearbox allowing you to go from fourth, through neutral and back into first again. It’s an error you only tend to make the once as the result of such a crass error certainly focuses the mind!
The bike seems to possess a disproportionate amount of torque and pulls with a lusty enthusiasm BSA Bantam owners could only dream about. Ease of use and flexibility is what the motor is all about. First gear takes us to 12mph, second to 20, third to 30 or just over and top (fourth) gets the B8S into its comfort zone of 40 and above. The bike will happily exceed 50 and would probably breast 60mph but it’s happiest cruising between 45-50 and, after all, it was designed as a commuter not a sports bike. And for a commuter it has a stunning pair of brakes. Both are ’only’ single leading shoe units but they offer fantastic feel and retardation.
You can just see numerous B8s being hustled around the urban streets of 1960s Japan or being worked hard along the various dirt roads of SE Asia. Handling-wise the bike does everything you might ask of it and then some. The box-section steel frame may not be as light as a set of tubes but it’s strong and pretty resistant to flexing. The guys back at the factory knew exactly what sort of life the B8S and its kin would be living; hard work with several members of one family aboard or possibly loaded to the gunnels and beyond with produce destined for the local market. The suspension is basic yet still fulfils its purpose more than half a century later.
The porting of the cast iron barrel delivers instant drive in pretty much any gear unless you try pulling away in top. With no rev counter it’s not possible to give engine speed figures but gut feeling suggests the 150cc motor gets into its stride by 2000rpm and providing the revs don’t drop below that it’ll do whatever you ask of it within the constraints of its design brief.
And it’s that one word – design – that is key to the bike’s undoubted success. This is not a motorcycle designed by a group of hog-tied motorcycle engineers working to a bean counter’s restrictions. What we have here is a machine drafted by a team of ex-aircraft engineers. Study those ultra-rare and expensive tank badges and read what they say; this is a machine researched, designed, prototyped and built by an entire workforce trained and educated to produce aeroplanes. The very nature of the division’s previous purpose, aircraft production, meant that everything had to be subtly over engineered quite simply because as an aeroplane manufacturer you can’t afford to have your products falling out of the skies! Everything on a plane must fulfil its function whilst retaining a safety factor.
That same ethos was carried into all of the company’s early two-wheeled products and it shows in bikes such as the B8S here. They had to live up to their primary purpose as reliable and consistent commuters and then some; there was no room for foibles perpetuated via poor design or starting/ running issues instigated by penny pinching.
For far too long the Japanese classic scene has pretty much studiously avoided commuter machinery other than Honda’s ever-present step-throughs. The likes of Yamaha’s YB series, Suzuki’s utilitarian A range and even Kawasaki’s sublime GA models have had little coverage yet things may be about to change. Firstly the once apparently limitless ocean of old Japanese iron is rapidly becoming a smallish lake; secondly the demographic is aging. For some, big bikes will simply be too weighty to manhandle and/ride or possibly even kick start. Suddenly an older Japanese classic with an electric foot becomes hugely attractive. With the likes of Honda’s iconic CB92 Benly heading north of £10k for a prime example cute little commuters such as the Kawasaki B8S allow an ageing rider to still ’keep their hand in’ without breaking the bank. As the saying goes – it ain’t what you ride, it’s how you ride it. And you don’t have to be an old codger just to enjoy the B8S; it’s packed with character, pretty as a picture and as reliable as anything several decades younger. How many more reasons do you need to buy one?
ABOVE: Why didn’t the British bike firms make something similar? ABOVE: Just so easy to use... AND enjoy!
RIGHT: Built up to a standard and not down to a price. ABOVE: Scoop must be impressed... he’s actually smiling!
“The very nature of the division’s previous purpose, aircraft production, meant that everything had to be subtly over engineered.”
Tech and photos
SPECIFICATION KAWASAKI B8S / Kawasaki K150
ENGINE TYPE 148cc air-cooled, two-stroke, single, piston-ported
BORE AND STROKE 58 x 56mm
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER 12.5bhp @ 6500rpm / DIN nett (metric)
MAXIMUM TORQUE 10lb-ft @ 4500rpm / DIN nett (metric)
TRANSMISSION TYPE 4-speed, rotary shift, chain final drive
COMPRESSION RATIO 6.0:1
CARBURETION Mikuni VM20SH
TYRES 3.00 x 16 (F&R)
FUEL CAPACITY 2.2 gallons (10 litres)
FUEL:OIL RATIO 20:1
BRAKES SLS drum (F) SLS drum (R)
OVERALL LENGTH 1900mm (74.8in)
OVERALL WIDTH 680mm (26.8in)
OVERALL HEIGHT 980mm (26.8in)
WHEELBASE 1255mm (49.4in)
DRY WEIGHT 116kg (256lb)
The owner’s tale: Grahame Peters
I brought the B8 ES 150 off eBay in April 2009 for £386 and put it on the road in the June of the same year. After riding it for a bit, I restored it to its current condition in 2014. I rechromed all the various parts and re-trimmed/re-spoked the wheels. I have re-covered the seat and also got the shock absorbers overhauled. These parts are very scarce for these bikes and mainly sourced from the USA which means expensive shipping plus the added costs of import duty, VAT and handling fees which makes even cheap parts pricey.
I have learnt that you buy the parts when you see them not when you need them off eBay. The rarer the part the less likely it is you’ll see another one of them anytime soon! It’s one of my favourite bikes for riding around country lanes as it’s just so much fun and so easy to ride. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain it’s one of just three examples known to exist in this country!”
History of small Kawasaki singles
It’s really not until you pick up one of those rare Kawasaki Motorcycle Recognition Manuals that you truly appreciate just how many sub 200cc models the company offered.
The J series based around an 85cc disc-valve single came in 12 facsimiles over just four model years. The subsequent G series (90cc – 100cc) offered some 34 variations over seven years but then the bikes renamed as KEs, KHs, KDs and KCs almost treble the model count. The B series to which our test bike belongs ran from 1963 through to the late 1970s in numerous guises and spawned a bigger brother via the F-series 175cc versions that would ultimately evolve into the famous trail bike family which in turn would then become the KE series. The key to such success and model proliferation was in the attention to detail of the original design, the robust nature of the bike’s construction and, crucially, an almost pathologically rigorous quality control department. Kawasaki’s senior management were smart, recognising that every bike mattered regardless of engine size. A humble 50cc commuter carried the same level of importance to its end user (aka the customer) as did the hairy chested A7 Avenger to the guy who was going to race it; both had to run faultlessly. Still made as a mass produced item, the Kawasaki singles were made up to a standard not down to a price.
That doyen of the British motorcycled industry Edward Turner reckoned Blighty’s bike manufacturers had nothing to fear from the Japanese. After all they could only turn out small capacity machine and what value did they have? History shows the answer to be… ’more than you can possibly imagine!’
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