Some wise wag once said nostalgia’s not what it used to be. If you sidestep the tautological mental somersaults such a comment implies there’s a certain truism about it. Our recollections often tend to enhance and exaggerate the past, both good and bad, and I’m about to meet up with an old lame from the 1970s. Against the odds I actually rode a Kawasaki F11 back in the day and what’s more it was a genuine UK example but now I’m wondering how the bike will stack up against an ageing memory.
Will it be as impressive as I once thought it was or will the bike turn out to be just another Yamaha DT250 wannabe? Whatever the end result at least for once the weather is doing a good job of replicating those balmy summers of the mid-Seventies. The sun is beating down on rural South Yorkshire as we get set to rock and roll and there’s no denying the Kawasaki F11 looks the part as we plot up ready for our statics and suss out some bends for action shots. In bright yellow it stands out pretty much wherever we put it and draws admiring glances and nods from passers-by. When the F11 hit the dirt back in the early 1970s Kawasaki was riding high on a wave of media hype and success and the company’s stylists did their best to maximise every model’s visual presence. In this instance it’s the combination of lurid yellow counterpointed with vivid red and dark blue graphics that initially grabs your attention and then your eye takes in that duck tail rear end. Make no mistake there is little if any justification for such an artefact on a trail bike; it’s here purely and simply as a fashion statement.
From the moment Kawasaki adorned the Z1 with the original tail piece it became an instantly recognisable signature. And stuck below this flamboyance in plastic is possibly one of the biggest rear lights ever fitted to a trail bike. Factor in a set of rigidly mounted rear indicators and you begin to query just how serious Kawasaki was about the bike being used off-road. Up front it’s a different story with a small headlight and a pair of indicators out of harm’s way hanging off the bars. Narrow tank and a well tucked-in exhaust system all argue the bike is genuinely intended for the dirt, so that’ll be mixed messages then?
There’s a real sense of what’s almost confusion and indecision about the bike. Trail aspects seem to be at odds with road use; what’s the logic or reason to fitting a chrome rear brake pedal to a dirt bike? The use of anti-in ringing rubbers on the motor implies the bike was thus equipped to meet contemporary EPA regulations and was thus cutting-edge but other aspects of the bike suggest the opposite. The head is equipped with two spark plug positions ready to run a spare but neither option is central; how come Kawasaki chose to ignore the best location? They certainly already knew how to make strokers fly. The previous models of 250 trail bike had all run disc valves yet the F11 gets by on a simple piston ported mill. And for a company that had pioneered electronic ignition on commercial motorcycles how come the F11 had to make do with points and a flywheel magneto?
The truth is that Kawasaki was probably more interested in making bikes as cheaply as possible and generating maximum profit as it moved away from irksome ring-dingers to socially acceptable four-strokes. Their reputation had already been well and truly established and arguably the F11 was just making up the numbers before the huge, end masse, decamp over to poppet valves and overhead cams.
All this and more we’ve discussed with owner Nigel Megson who has something of a thing for 1970s trail bikes. We agree the F11 is a strange beast but it’s Nigel’s parting words to me as I throw on my lid for our photo session that really pique my interest. “I’ll be interested to hear what you think of my Japanese Villiers Steve!”
Er, excuse me? Pardon, did I hear that right? Nigel just sits down on the grass verge and smiles enigmatically. With sparks awakened and go-go juice on, the sprung-loaded choke on the left bar is held down and the motor is kicked into life. For a big two-stroke single firing up from cold there’s little if any genuine engine noise, just a muted mechanical happening from down below. The exhaust is a lot quieter than I was expecting and throughout our time with the F11 it remains subtly muted and auditorily understated. Someone was obviously taking detailed notes about not upsetting the do-gooders or The Feds when the bike was being designed: in with the clutch and snick into first gear and the bike pulls away confidently and strongly. With some heat in the motor we start to wind things up and the simple engine cracks on delivering usable power with a nice slice of driveability.
It’s not reed-valve torquey smooth or disc-valve punchy yet there’s a unique character to the way the performance is delivered. Key to this is a gearbox that’s precise without being notchy, positive without being harsh; here where Kawasaki’s quality engineering shines through. In deference to the bike’s rarity, its originality and Nigel’s sanity we don’t do much off-road work other than the odd dry farm track but in the lower ratios the bike has all the power an amateur would need. The foot pegs are fine for a little riding standing up session, the bars positioning and width make perfect sense and when we need to turn around in a tight spot an awesome steering lock really comes into its own. Allied to a narrow seat and tank there’s some real trail riding capability here. Even a dirt novice like me could feel quietly confident with an F11 on a trail or forest fire break road.
Out on the Tarmac the F11’s duality comes through; it’s genuinely more than road compliant in a way the various contemporary Spanish competitor’s offerings never were. Although the seat is firm it’s not hard and would easily sustain and support riding to the tank’s capacity. Within the constraints of the wide bars and engine’s power longer runs on an F11 would have been trouble free as well. The brakes are better than many of the genre with just enough power and feel to sit comfortably between road bike reassuring and dirt bike compliant.
In reality the only fly in the ointment is the occasionally squirming rear end which seems to be an artefact of the trail bike knobbly running on smooth hot Tarmac. Nigel’s penchant for off-road shenanigans means he’s opted for a profoundly more dirt focused hoop on the rear alloy rim.
Doubtless a modern adventure touring tyre would sort out the F11 for the less adventurous types. When we swap over machines for a second bike two things are very obvious. One – Nigel is perfectly at home on the bike with its current rubber and two – I’m a wuss when it comes to tyres relaying messages to me.
As our riding time comes to an end the last model of Kawasaki’s 250 stroker trail bikes is still running faultlessly; it’s not missed a beat all day even if we’re all wilting under the ferocious sun. The only real quirk its power unit has shown is a propensity to eight-stroke on the over run or just as the throttle is moved from negative to neutral. And this characteristic is what Nigel means about the bike being his Japanese Villiers. There is something genuinely very old-world about that motor and the way it behaves. But it’s not rudimentary, unrefined, unsophisticated or coarse; it’s simply a supremely well sorted piston ported single and this is no mean achievement. If Villiers had been able to produce something as good as the F11’s engine there’d have been a reasonable chance the likes of Greeves and the lightweight AMC bikes would have been both attractive and viable to the kids of the 1970s.
Before the world cast out the two-stroke as a pariah MZ managed to craft the humble piston- ported stroker into a supremely competent power unit. The F11 simple mill could almost have been a progenitor for the Commie stroker. Yes the F11 really is that well sorted and if you’ve ridden any of the East German MZ ETZ250s you will appreciate just how good an apparently simple two-stroke single can be. One of Nigel’s offhand, throwaway, comments suggests the Kawasaki is powered by a hi-tech lawnmower engine. Sorry fella but I’d have to disagree on that one.
So how does the F11 stack up against the memories? If I’m brutally honest the bike is of its time. It’s fun, engaging, enthusiastic and well sorted but it is still an early 1970s trail bike built by a company already trying to distance itself from the polluting motorcycles that have made its name. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes as they rarely live up to your expectations.