Life After Elsie - 1984 Kawasaki KR250 v 1983 Suzuki RG250
No other 250 stroker was worth considering when the 250LC came out in 1980, but just as the 250cc Elsie came to the end of its life, Suzuki and Kawasaki were ready with even more advanced 250s
he pace of technological development during the 1980s was red hot. In the space of three years, Yamaha’s RD250LC went from being the apex quarter-litre performance tool to dated has-been. ‘Race Developed’ it may have been but the RD, faced with the relentless tide of new models and ideas from four Japanese manufacturers all desperate to lead from the front, was simply tossed aside by the following generation of 250cc Grand Prix replicas.
Each year they got faster, better, more focussed and closer to the GP bikes they aped. By 1989 the road going quarter-litre two-strokes – Suzuki’s RGV, Honda’s NSR, Kawasaki’s KR-1S and Yamaha’s TZR – were better than the 250s winning GPs only a decade before.
This furious race to be the best pushed the technological envelope further than it’d ever been forced before or since. Anything was fair game if it’d get one over the opposition. Parallel twins (RD, RG, TZR, KR-1/S), tandem-twins (KR), V-twins (NSR, RGV), and even a V3 (MVX).
The first two bikes to really bang heads after the LC were Suzuki’s RG and Kawasaki’s dual-induction KR. Europe got only the RG, which was lapped up from the start by proddie racers and street hooligans alike, but in Japan where the the RG and KR were sold side-by-side the battle of the 250 two-strokes really took root.
But the ’80s were such a fast-paced blur it’s difficult to remember which bike came out on top: KR, or RG. So let’s find out…
Suzuki RG250 W
The first race replica to truly earn the coveted title
COMPARED TO THE RD250LC before it, Suzuki’s RG250 Gamma looked like it had arrived from another world when it landed in dealers in ’83. It was such a mould-smashing creation it managed to make even Suzuki’s own Katana look conservative.
Held rigidly together by the first-ever box-section all-aluminium chassis to grace a mass-production bike, and cloaked in a sharp plastic shell that looked part RG500 GP bike and part space shuttle, the Gamma unashamedly meant business.
It made an instant impact, especially in production racing, where it left all but the best-developed 250LCs floundering in its wake. It was lighter, more nimble, more powerful and more aerodynamic thanks to its three-quarter length fairing.
Standing still wasn’t an option for 250 class contenders during the ’80s, so just 12 months after the RG’s launch the MkII appeared with a sleeker fairing, twin front discs (UK Mk1s had a single front disc), dual-piston calipers and a touch more poke from the motor.
The RG’s most radical update came in ’85 with the MkIII. The AEC powervalve-equipped motor made just under 50bhp, good for a touch below 120mph on a good day, and all-new enclosed bodywork made the RG pretty for the first time. A Japan-only MkIV model with wider wheels bridged the gap before the RGV’s appearance in 1988.
Today I get to try the LC’s nemesis for myself. It’s a Mk1 that belongs to two-stroke hoarder and PS friend Rob Elliott, and those who know their Gammas will have clocked that it’s a Japanese import – the twin front discs and kph speedo being the giveaways. Although Rob’s yet to restore it, it’s an honest and original bike.
Side-by-side, the Gamma is visibly slimmer and more focussed than the KR. “The Kawasaki looks like a road bike, but the Suzuki looks more like a racer fitted with lights,” reckons PS Editor Jim. I’d agree. It’s more spartan from the rider’s position, with a narrow tank, a firmer seat and a more basic feel. This isn’t built to last; it’s built to go fast.
Before our test, this Suzuki hadn’t been used for a while (Rob has 15 other bikes to play with), so it took a few miles for it to clear itself out and take full advantage of a tank of fresh super unleaded. Standing around had left its old Continental boots feeling more like Bakelite than rubber, so we fitted a set of Avon Roadriders in order to take full advantage of its lighweight chassis.
It’s as raw as you’d expect a race-ready Suzuki two-stroke to be – the ball-ended alloy footpegs are great for shuffling body position around on the entry to bends, but they transmit toe-numbing vibes to my feet too.
The steering is precise and, despite the fork oil weeping from the right seal, the forks are well damped – I suspect that when the anti-dive was removed, the forks were refilled with the standard oil volume, and without the anti-dive chamber the excess is being forced out. No matter – it’s working now.
The shock is typical of an ’80s sporty lightweight – firm but a little underdamped, so bigger bumps kick me around a bit. Not the end of the world, but it’s the price paid for better handling compared to the comfy Kawasaki.
In theory the home market-specification twin discs should help the RG at least match the Kawasaki on the brakes, but the single-piston calipers lack both power and feel despite braided lines and no further need to pump the now removed anti-dive units. I suspect a pair of twin-piston calipers from a later RG would help.
In terms of outright handling, the RG’s the best of the pair. There’s only two kilos difference between them – the Gamma being the more svelte – but the Suzuki feels much lighter and is by far the more eager to be flicked on its ear into a bend. Show it a turn and the RG laps it up.
Where the Gamma is most noticeably lacking against its tandem-twin rival is its engine. Not in outright performance, but in delivery, finesse and usability.
Some of that is down to design – the Gamma’s 247cc parallel twin is essentially a liquid-cooled X7. Very little happens below 7000rpm, and it’s all over by 8500rpm.
Rob’s bike is further handicapped by its recent lack of use so, even when the tacho needle’s tickling the dial in the 1500rpm go-zone, the power available isn’t clean or consistent. Big throttle openings are met with apathy and the motor bogs down and gasps for air. To make matters worse it got all hot and bothered, sapping what power there was.
To be fair to the RG, when it runs cleanly it’s great and once Rob has the time to rebuild the motor it’ll be way better. But even factory fresh it would have its work cut out to match the Kawasaki which is much more tractable without losing its top-end rush.
The RG represents the line in the sand when the 250 two-stroke class really earned the race replica tag. Without it I’d have an empty space in my garage where my RGV sits, and for that
I adore it, but is original really always best?
The KR was never an official UK import. Why on earth not?
Never seen a KR250 before? You’re not alone. Even by grey-import standards these Kawasaki tandem twins are rare. Those in the know reckon there are less than 50 in the UK, 30 of those arriving in a batch independently imported by Huddersfield Kawasaki.
Only Japan, Australia and South Africa got the KR through official channels, but given the explosion of interest in the 250 race-rep market during the 1980s we have to wonder why Kawasaki UK never saw fit to bring the KR here to take on the RG.
As well as being one of the rarest 250 two-strokes, the KR is also one of the most technically interesting. Its motor is a dual-crank tandem-twin, with Kawasaki’s Rotary Reed Valve Induction System (RRIS), as used on the AR125. This gives it a much broader spread of power than the reed valve only RG – the KVSS powervalve equipped KR250S introduced in ’86 is claimed to be even more tractable.
The chassis is striking too. There’s an adjustable underslung shock, a braced swingarm, adjustable anti-dive forks, triple discs, a hand-welded aluminium frame and styling that gives more than a nod to the GPZ900R. There’s also a fuel gauge on the well-laid out dash, and easy to reach preload and damping adjusters for the shock. Overall fit and finish is excellent too.
This immaculate 1984 KR belongs to PS reader Andy Bolas. It’s an unusual example, being one of a handful left in their crates until 2000, and then registered as new bikes by now defunct importers Bat Motorcycles. Having been fastidiously maintained by Andy for all of its 2000 miles, it’s as good as new.
Starting these Kawasakis requires a knack – even in fine fettle, they’re notoriously recalcitrant and sometime refuse to fire on one or both cylinders, despite vigorous kicking. Flipping the fuel tap to ‘Prime’ before prodding the kickstarter coaxes it into life.
The quirky motor idles with a distinct off-beat burble, not unlike half an RG500, which the layout essentially is. There’s a slight tingling vibration too, which is again unlike anything a parallel or V-twin stroker creates.
The GPZ900R comparison runs deeper than just looks, extending to the riding experience too. A 45bhp two-stroke twin is clearly no match for a 115bhp inline-four, but the Kawasaki philosophy of building a sportsbike that actually works on the road rather than simply as a track bike with lights shines through in the KR. Aside from gutless response under 2000rpm the engine’s surprisingly tractable, especially given that there’s no midrange-enhancing powervalve, and the power picks up at 7000rpm and stays strong up to 10,000rpm.
The delivery is refined, and the vibration present at idle disappears once on the go. The noise is great too – a deeper sound than the RG, reminiscent of early ’80s GP bikes, with a pleasing crackle on the overrun.
The quality feel extends to the ride. This particular KR obviously has an advantage being in near-new condition and fitted with excellent Pirelli Sport Demon crossplies, but the suspension deals well with UK road conditions while retaining nimble steering and high corner speed. On smoother roads the suspension is noticeably softer than the tauter Gamma, and it would start to complain on track, but for most conditions it’s a good set-up for road riding and a very different animal to the later razor-sharp KR-1 and KR-1S.
What the KR lacks in outright handling compared to the more focussed RG, it gives back in ride quality. When you consider that these bikes, although unashamed race replicas, will spend 95 per cent or more of their time on the road, a nod towards comfort makes a lot of sense.
The brakes are a real surprise – sliding calipers they may be, but they’re the same as those fitted to big GPZs of the era, albeit with smaller discs. Power and feel is excellent, and with the anti-dive turned down allowing the forks to work in a conventional way, the front end always inspires confidence turning in.
It’s comfortable too, not just by 250 race-rep standards but genuinely pleasant to be aboard, even for a big lummox like me. The seat foam is deep, the bars are set above the top yoke and the fairing’s wind protection will outlast the motor’s ability to guzzle a tank of gas every time.
Feel the need and the Kawasaki will comfortably cruise at 90-100mph all day long, but you’ll need deep pockets if you want to tour on one – getting busy with the throttle plummets fuel consumption down into the low 20s or worse…
I’d half expected the KR250 to be a quirky oddball that wouldn’t really add up to the sum of its parts, but the unconventional exterior hides a great bike that’s actually one of Kawasaki’s best-kept secrets. That just makes it all the more infuriating that Kawasaki UK never brought it here in the first place.
The legacy of that decision is the most frustrating thing of all. Wanting one isn’t enough. You’ve got to find one first…
1983 wasn’t the easiest time to be a 250. Only a year earlier their huge appeal had been dealt a near-fatal blow by the introduction of the 125cc learner law. So Suzuki’s RG250 had to show that it was much more than a glorified ex-learner bike.
The Gamma did that by being a proper giant-slaying sportsbike in its own right, boasting more Grand Prix-derived technology than any other production bike on the market. And in doing so the RG created the supersport 250 class and transformed quarter-litre two-strokes from basic commuter bikes into expert-level sportsbikes at a stroke.
But Suzuki built the RG to be fast rather than durable, and 28 years on that’s plain to see. Few Mk1 Gammas survive, especially UK bikes that were raced, thrashed and crashed into oblivion decades ago. The build quality is far from robust, and the motor potentially fragile – hence the emergence and popularity of the 350YPVS-powered ‘YammaGamma’.
Then there’s the Kawasaki. Unavailable to UK buyers then, they’re still a rarity now, but finding an early Gamma is almost as much of a challenge these days as tracking down a KR. Values are similar for both – a decent MoT’d bike should set you back around £2000, and up to £3k for a minter, so the Kawasaki’s rarity kudos doesn’t come at a hefty price.
What you do get with the KR, however, is a level of sophistiction and build quality that aces the RG in almost every respect. And unless you’re specifically after a sharpened track tool the Kawasaki works so much better as a road bike than the focussed Gamma.
The only areas where the Suzuki nudges ahead is ten-tenths riding, styling and spares availability. You could take an RG on as a project, but forget it with a KR unless you’re prepared to scour the world for spares.
A well-maintained Gamma is still a cracking bike, and they got better with each evolution, but having ridden the two back-to-back it’s clear the Kawasaki is better and we’d recommend you patiently search one out over the Gamma. It’ll be a treat when you find one. just be prepared for the inevitable question: “What the hell is that?”
Thanks to: Andy Bolas for letting us ride his immaculate KR250, and Rob Elliott for allowing us to thrash his tidy RG250W. Big thanks to Avon for the superb Roadrider tyres (www.avon-tyres.co.uk). Tim at the excellent www.kr250.org website and forum
Words Chris Newbigging Photos John Noble