Tested and rated Kawasaki GPZ500S Andy Bolas asks if this is the forgotten 500. Andy Bolas asks why the workmanlike and wonderful Kawasaki GPZ500S has been largely forgotten when there’s so much to love. Words: Andy Bolas, Andy Catton. Photos: Dr. Gary D Chapman, Kawasaki UK, Catman.
It’s 1987 and Kawasaki has just released the 500cc GPZ on the British public. Back then it was billed as half a GPZ1000RX, which at the time was the fastest production bike in the world. It’s funny how quickly the motorcycle industry moves on, and so it was with the parallel twin GPZ500S. You see, having started its life as a mid-range kind of ‘my first sports bike’, by the time I started riding it was seen as little more than a cheap commuter bike, which is such a shame as the GPZ isn’t really a bad bike at all and is so much more than just an ‘A-to-B’ machine.
“There's not much of a ‘big sound’ from those original and very mint pipes. And yet despite this lack of sound, wind the throttle open and head to 8000rpm, where the fun is at!”
In many respects the GPZ started out as a fairly sexy model. On paper you’d easily compare the 500 to a 350 powervalve or such like, and certainly in terms of outright performance. OK, so the bike weighs around 20kg more than the 350 stroker, but to be honest it isn’t that noticeable, especially when you’re actually on the move. The 500 shares its wheel size with the RX, having 16-inch front and rear wheels, which will limit your tyre choice somewhat, but such is life. If you want to move to something more easily shod with modern rubber, you could choose the D/E model.
Of course we like older bikes here, and we have to say those ‘sexy’ first generation GPZ500s come in some rather pleasant colour schemes, which are quite restrained for the late 1980s early 1990s, but ones that set the bike’s original clean lines off perfectly. Of course, it wasn’t without its issues. Build quality (while better than some) wasn’t up there with the Hondas, and like many Kawasakis from this era, the GPZ500 suffered from carb icing, with many bikes having a heater kit fitted under warranty to cure this. Strangely, our test bike has had this removed – according to its owner – and we’re not sure exactly why.
As I walk around this 1992 K-plater, I begin to think that the GPZ could be the ideal ‘starter classic’ as it’s not too heavy (a shade under 200 kilos with a full tank) and they go quite well with around 60bhp on tap. They’re cheap, too. In fact, it’s little wonder that two CMM staff members, Andy Catton and Justin Blackamore, have done just that and taken the plunge with a GPZ, but more of this later.
Kawasaki also put a few nice touches on the 500S like the span-adjustable levers. The clocks are clear and functional, and the centre-stand and grab rail are a welcome nod towards practicality too, even if we would like a fuel gauge rather than just a tap. The bike is definitely a better prospect than Suzuki’s GS500E, which suffers from lower build quality (and the Kawasaki’s isn’t brilliant, as we said) and the Suzuki lacks the fairing and sharp looks.
Some say that, back to back, the GS, perhaps thanks to its twin, 17-inch wheels, is the sharper handler, but (again) if you want 17-inch wheels, simply get a post-1994 GPZ500S. We mentioned the poor build quality of the GS500E. Well, the Kawasaki’s was somewhat better, but the nature of the bike meant many were not looked after. Not so our machine today, which has been given plenty of TLC. The black chrome on the downpipes is perfect, as are the original silencers. The paintwork and wheels look to have a real quality finish to them too, but this isn’t surprising when you check out the reading on the milometer, as this bike has covered only just over 9000 miles. The only things that seem not to have stood the test of time are the paint on the swingarm and the rear shock appears to be in a mess, but the rest of the bike is gorgeous and a credit to its owner David, who, now in his 70s, is considering selling the bike as he feels that it’s time to hang up his riding gear as his wife doesn’t like him riding any more.
Well, this could be David’s loss, but let’s find out by heading out on the open road. Choke on and a quick prod on the starter button sees the liquid-cooled 500 twin chug into life. Then, before the choke can run away with the idle speed, I knock it back half way because as with other Kawasakis of this era they have a tendency to race on full choke and it doesn’t sound pleasant. But then isn’t this true of most Kwaks from the 1980s and 1990s? I did notice on a previous ride of the GPZ that she does like a lot of choke before you can ride away cleanly, so today we wait a good three or four minutes to ensure the bike will take some throttle without bogging down. This also gives us time to set the levers where we want them, and also to adjust the mirrors to suit. Lovely.
Slinging a leg over the bike and I’ve got both feet flat on the floor, which makes a change for a shorty like me! The bars are slightly raised and swept back to the rider and the pegs, while not mega high, do give a sporty, but comfortable riding position. As the GPZ gains forward motion and we start to gather pace, I have to admit I just can’t get excited about the noises coming from the twin silencers on the 500S. It kind of reminds me of my generator at work, albeit in stereo. The delivery low-down seems a little lumpy, but if you keep the revs up a little the motor replaces the lumps with a surge of forward momentum and seems to love being revved hard. One thing though, as you get towards the red line it does sound a little harsh. Eight thousand revs appears to be where the real fun’s at and it doesn’t run out of steam until the red line at 11,000rpm.
What I do notice is that it is very novice-friendly, as the action of the clutch and gear change are virtually perfect and smooth, without any snatch or sloppiness in the gear linkage and change.
Down the lanes and the front-end seemed a little light and skittish. The bike does lift the front wheel easily, too (unintentionally, of course) but it’s surprising how perky the old girl is. The front forks seem a little soft under heavy braking, but unfortunately these are not adjustable. The single front disc and caliper work surprisingly well, as does the rear drum, which has a very positive action to it and gives enough feel to lock the back on demand.
The real surprise for me riding the bike was how composed the rear-end felt, looking at the state of the rear shock. The half fairing seems to offer reasonable protection, although the screen appears a little flimsy at times when travelling at speed.
All in all, the GPZ500S is a very competent road bike and would make a lovely first classic. It looks quite sharp, handles fairly well and is more than powerful enough to keep up with today’s traffic conditions, with ample in reserve, should you feel the need to get a sprint on.
Also, having accounted for the seat height and light weight, if you’re getting a little long in the tooth or you’re of small stature, you can still savour the joys of owning a modern classic motorcycle!
Best of all, there are so many versions and models out there, even if they didn’t change much over almost 20 years, so you shouldn’t struggle too much finding a GPZ500S. What you will struggle to do is find one of this era in such a good condition as that of our test machine.
Looking online, prices vary from the project/spares bikes for a couple of hundred quid up to £2000, with the top end of the scale reserved for the ever-optimistic dealers! I would have thought you could get something as good as our test bike for between £1200 and £1600, which to be fair makes it a bit of a biking bargain.
There doesn’t seem to be any major things to look out for, other than the odd generator breaking up or starter brushes wearing. Carb diaphragms can also split, but part from that it will just be general wear and tear, plus owner abuse. There seem to be two types of owners with these. You either get the doting owner who does a lot of preventative maintenance (see Andy Catton’s tale), or the ‘run it until it breaks down’ type.
As always with any modern classic, the rule is this: Buy the best you can afford and you're more likely to get the maximum number of miles and smiles from your investment.
Plenty of fun can be had with a well-sorted
GPZ500S. Slim, subtle and yet sporty. No, not our Andy B... Sporty colours were available on early models.
IN DETAIL: 1/ Original exhausts are just a distant memory on most GPZs of this vintage: mint! 2/ Half a GPZ1000RX? Who knows, but it's a trusty and lusty mill. 3/ Clocks are of their time and could do with a fuel gauge, if we're being picky. 4/ Single-disc is adequate, but other versions and later models had twin discs up front, joined by a disc at the rear on the 1994 update.
I own one – Andy Catton Andy bought his GPZ500S in around 2010 with approximately 5000 miles on the clock.
“My 1996 GPZ EX500-D3 is possibly the best 500cc sized motorcycle ever. For me, the 1994 update and the 1996 candy wine red/silver colour scheme look awesome.
The GPZ is easy to ride, a fact highlighted by my partner learning to ride on it. Some of the single disc UK model's front brake power is outdated compared to more modern machines, but is adequate, safe and progressive. With a good service and braided brake lines it is sharp enough. Mind you, I would like to try a twin disc E-model in comparison. The GPZ responds to Avon RoadRider tyres well, and I would recommend these as the best mod for stability and handling. For long distance riding, fuel consumption is strong.
Cruising at 80 mph and returning 55 mpg(ish), the tank gives an extremely useful 200-mile range (falling sharply on faster blasts). Equipment is good for the era, with a grab handle, centre-stand and fold-out luggage points and two helmet locks, a comfy seat for rider and pillion, and the modern rider will like the now very retro-looking and easy-to-read analogue dials on the instrument panel, but perhaps will miss not having a clock on the dash.
Worthwhile touring additions are a 12 volt plug socket, heated grips, and a top box. A Hagon shock and Corbin seat make long journeys even better comfort-wise.
This example has covered 22,000 miles over the last nine years, 17,000 with myself. Every ride has been fun and the high points include the way the twin cylinder engine delivers its 59 horses – hard above 7000 rpm – along with reliability and secure handling. Low points include locking the front brake in a panic after six-months of ownership, the resultant cost of the new front fairing cowl (£750.00) and, despite my best attempts, the advance of corrosion after 22 years. My advice is to keep your GPZ covered in ACF-50, and wash and dry it properly after every ride. Then the finish should stand up to the test of time amazingly well.
General maintenance is easy. Change the oil and oil filter either yearly or every 4000 miles; keep water topped up; use washing time to look for anything loose; and be prepared (if your D-still has a standard exhaust system in reasonably non-corroded condition) for the linking clamp under the swingarm to be the first part to corrode through. Stainless replacements are available. Finally, install a new chain and sprockets, keep them clean and they will last for several years. Oh, and replacing bearings on older bikes is worthwhil, with the sprocket carrier bearing the most likely to go first from washing. A new cush-drive is a good and properly-needed addition on an older machine. As for reliability, well, despite it having snowed, the GPZ still started up and sat ticking over after four weeks of hibernation with no worries. I can’t wait to take it for a blast. Every year since I bought the bike I've enjoyed riding it or looked forward to sorting out/restoring the next bit of the trusty twin.
A GPZ is the real deal and one will keep you happy for many, many miles.”
Andy Catton and his GPZ.
SPECIFICATION Kawasaki GPZ500S
ENGINE 498cc 4-stroke parallel twin with 4 valves per cylinder
The engine was derived from the 450 motor in the EN450LTD custom, or half a GPZ1000RX (minus the belt-drive.) Originally, the A-model came with 16-inch wheels front and rear, and a rear drum brake. Forks were 36mm, seat height was 770mm. Price new in 1990 was £2949.
1988-1993 GPZ500S B1-B6
As left, although this model, which was generally for the European market, came with twin front discs.
1994-2004 GPZ500S D1-D12
Updated model with 17-inch wheels front and rear and the drum at the back replaced with a disc. Forks were now sturdier 38mm items. Seat height was raised to 775mm, and in came swoopy new bodywork.
1994-2004 GPZ500S E1-E12
Again, as left, but with a twin front disc set-up mainly for the European market. Basically, with both the D1 to the E12 of late 2004, no changes other than colours were made. Price new in 2004 was £4145.
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