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Kawasaki Drifter

Second life

(Travels with Guido series #334, March 2021, by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen)

How to drive motorcycle marketers crazy

Some days you have to sit back and wonder at the twists and turns of the motorcycle retail world and wonder if industry marketing managers are heavy drinkers. They’d have to be.

Honda Valkyrie Interstate

The history of motorcycling is littered with good ideas that hit the showrooms a little before the world was ready for them, only to discover there is demand just as the model disappears off the market. I distinctly recall having a Honda dealer crash-tackle me one day when I turned up on Mac the Valk – aka a 2000 GL1500CF Valkyrie Interstate. “Do you wanna sell it?” he asked with a slightly desperate look in his eye. “We couldn’t give them away new, and now every man and his dog wants one…”

Wouldn’t that rot your socks – having to pay floor plan finance on some over-sized chromed monster, only to flog it off at a sacrifice to get it out of the place, then have ready and willing punters magically appear when all the stocks are gone.

Come to think of it, this was an all-too-common occurrence during the late 1990s and early noughties. Another bike to suffer a much-delayed popularity – in fact a case that stretches over a decade – is Kawasaki’s VN1500 Drifter. Never heard of it? Back in 1999-2003 when it was a local model, it was priced in the Au$18-19,000 region and was about as popular as deep-fried cauliflower on a stick. Keep in mind the entire market was badly depressed and sales of anything were sluggish.

Now while the base bike under the paint was the long-lived and bullet-proof VN1500 cruiser (there was also an 800 version), the market just wasn’t quite ready for a combination of revived extreme 1940s Indian styling – with those huge valanced guards – and having it attached to the ‘wrong’ brand. Forties styling was confronting enough, but the idea of a ‘tribute’ (or ‘fake’) was a long way from being acceptable.

My impression was these things sold in very modest numbers and disappeared off the market with barely a whimper. Not entirely surprising when Kawasaki developed the platform further with arguably more attractive and capable machinery, such as the Nomad. And there may have been some friction developing with the revived Indian brand via the Gilroy factory. However they went out of business in 2003.

Kawasaki Drifter

The Drifter story was far from over. Across the years, every now and then I’d come across an owner who had bought theirs for about half new price, or even less, and thought the world of it. I reckon about two-thirds of them lost most of the Kawasaki branding and replaced it with tank decals that looked more like an Indian logo.

The weird thing is, these things seem to have experienced a whole new rise in popularity. (That squawking noise you hear is another Kawasaki dealer cursing the fickle finger of motorcycle marketing…) One of the several clubs I’ve joined over the years is the Iron Indian Rider Association. They’re a great bunch and have some fairly loose acceptance rules – Indian motorcycles of all ages and sources (there were several makers over the years) are welcome, and if you occasionally turn up for a ride on the ‘wrong’ brand, that’s okay.

Something you couldn’t possibly miss with this lot is the popularity of Kawasaki Drifters. There were (at the time of writing) three in the club, all wearing some variation of Indian-ish warpaint. Why? Well, they certainly have the look. Plus, you could get a good one for around $9000, so they were not expensive. And they’re somewhere between a current Polaris Scout and Chief in size. Of course they are ultra-reliable and, with shaft drive, low maintenance.

Indian motorcycle 1947 ad

The people who run them generally have a Springfield Indian – which means 1953 or earlier – plus the Kawasaki as the lower-stress alternative when they just want electric start and an easier ride. They reckon there’s a good online support network and, since VNs have been around for decades, spares for maintenance are not an issue. It makes sense doesn’t it? Really, what they’ve done is successfully re-interpret the bike for their own purposes.

Which takes me back to Kawasaki. Back in the 1990s, when they were signing off the design of this thing, I wonder if they had any clue the humble Drifter would have a second life with a real Indian club?

drifter ad

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