(First posted July 7, 2013) After living in the city for a while (San Francisco in this case), often one starts to think that there must be better ways to get around than driving a car. And yes, obviously there are. Walking is good. Bicycling is better. Also, San Francisco has about half a dozen public transportation systems (that seem to be completely uncoordinated amongst each other, it must be said). But for a motorhead, none of these options will do. The only option to a car is a motorcycle. So I decided to get another one, the memories of crashing my old Suzuki having dimmed to an acceptable level…
After looking at various bikes (including everything from a Moto Guzzi V55 to a Yamaha FJ1000) I found a 1984 Kawasaki GPz550 for sale at an attractive price in the Outer Mission neighborhood. I test rode it around the block and bought it.
The printing company I worked at was only a few blocks from home, so really I could have walked without any problems (and these days I would). But I preferred to wake up, get ready, go outside, start the bike, put my helmet and jacket on, then push the bike off the centerstand and roll down the hill that is Pennsylvania Street toward 22nd. By the time I reached the corner, blipping the throttle in neutral and annoying the neighbors, it had sort of warmed up enough to go two blocks on 22nd, hang a left onto Minnesota for a few hundred yards, cut through the alley adjacent to 20th and pull in to the parking lot at work at the corner of 20th and Tennessee. Uh yeah, less than half a mile total. The bike was barely warmed up, mechanical sympathy was not something I had much of in my mid-20’s.
Then I’d go inside, hang up my jacket and helmet, smooth my hair, gather some coworkers and we’d walk halfway back to my house to the coffee shop on the corner for a cup of Java. Yes, it makes little sense but it was fun. Like I said, beats walking to work…
My GPz was one of the second generation models with a different frame design, body-mounted fairing, and different bodywork compared to the first ones. The ones most people initially picture in their mind are the early 80’s models with the toaster-shaped tank and (sometimes) a tiny front fairing, usually in bright red with black/silver stripes. There was also a 750cc derivative as well as a rare turbocharged 750cc model and even an 1100cc version.
The 550 though was lighter and had plenty of power, even for my 200 pounds. In the day, these were tested at doing the quarter mile in the 12’s and paved the way for Japan’s 600cc sportbikes, evolving into/being replaced by the Ninja 600 (which was called the GPz600R in other markets). It is no stretch at all to call the GPz550 the godfather of the crotchrocket. It was no slouch off the line…
Launched in 1981, the GPz550 featured an air-cooled inline four cylinder engine delivering 57hp at around 9000rpm with a six speed gearbox. Suspension changed to a monoshock rear for 1982 (UniTrak) and in 1984 the engine got a power bump to 65hp at 10500rpm. Weight was about 475 pounds, but handling was very agile and it was a comfortable bike, even for a passenger. We (my girlfriend and I) rode all over San Francisco on it and it was a great way to get through the normally clogged traffic. Parking was easy as well, just pull up onto a sidewalk and stop it right next to a building. A common complaint was the fairing mounted mirrors; unless you had the physique of Kate Moss you got a great view of your shoulders. Mine had been modified with bar-end mirrors which were perfect for actually seeing behind you and could double as an expensive “feeler” when weaving through stopped traffic.
I once took it north out of the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge and rode all the way to the top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County; it was a great ride up and back down the mountain. I also took it down onto the Peninsula a few times and found it to be a good freeway cruiser, but primarily mine was a city bike for going to work during the day, restaurants and concerts at night and random outings on the weekend. Prior to my ownership it had been repainted the graphite gray seen in the top picture and was a veteran of many a year living outdoors on the city streets. It looks better in the picture than I recall it looking at any time I owned it.
The picture immediately above this of the gentleman at speed on the red 1983 model was just shot last week during my annual father-daughter road trip. You don’t often see GPz’s anymore and I was very surprised to see this one. It was moving at about 70mph southbound on the 101 just North of San Luis Obispo, CA. My daughter amazingly was able to capture it using my iPhone while I was completely geeking out at seeing it. The rider gave us a long look as we passed him, no doubt trying to figure out why we were taking pictures and staring at him or more likely concerned that we would accidentally run him off the road. Very strange (perfect) timing; along with the CC effect, there appears to be a COAL effect!
I believe I had it for only about a year, then sold it to another friend at work who used it for some time thereafter; we had moved out of the city and onto the peninsula, and commuting 25 miles to work on a motorcycle was not something I wanted to do enough to keep it. But it was good, efficient, and cheap transportation in a city that can be very difficult to get around and park in.