Thunder Road Comparison of the 1999 Kawasakis

The trio of Kawis from 1999

This article was originally published in the June 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Vulcan 1500 line
Kawasaki started its Vulcan 1500 line more than a decade ago with the twin-carb Vulcan 88 (right), which was re-engineered and restyled as the single-carb Vulcan Classic (left). For 1999, the designers went even more retro with the Drifter (center) but modernized it with fuel injection for additional response and power.Dean Groover

Pick a decade from your life, and kawasaki probably has a Vulcan 1500 to take you back to it.

The original big Vulcan, the 1500 Vulcan 88, was a bike of the 1980s. The hulking, liquid-cooled, 50-degree engine was mated to four speeds, shaft drive and unmistakably Japanese-cruiser styling—clearly a product of the era when Japanese firms were making their first forays into V cruisers.

With its wide, comfortable style and Americanized proportions, the Vulcan 1500 Classic had the look of a top-shelf bike from the 1950s. The Nomad (not included in this comparison) added bags and a windshield to evoke the 1960s, when Americans were falling in love with the open road.

The new Vulcan 1500 Drifter is drawn in the luxurious, streamlined style of the 1940s, highlighted by its deep fenders with their French-curve lines.

However, although the styling seems to be regressing to even earlier eras, the technology has been evolving steadily. The same basic, liquid-cooled, 1470cc engine—which features a chain-driven overhead camshaft atop each cylinder’s four hydraulically adjusted valves—powers all three of the models tested here but each one is unique. When this engine was rolled out in 1987 to power the Vulcan 88 (or 1500A) it had two 36mm carbs and 9.0:1 compression. With two carbs, both exhaust pipes protruded from the fronts of their cylinders, and somewhat awkward oval airboxes hung toward the front of the engine. The rest of the Vulcan 88 styling was a little bit lumpy also, no matter which of the two versions you looked at. Although the 88SE version was eventually discontinued, the original Vulcan sold well enough for Kawasaki to keep it in production all these years.

The Classic was rolled out for 1996. The same basic engine with its single-pin crankshaft and vibration-canceling counterbalancer was employed, but it had been reconfigured with a single 40mm carb, lower (8.55:1) compression, milder cams and an exhaust system that exited the front of the front cylinder and the rear of the rear cylinder. The pipes were one component in the Classic’s cleaner, longer, lower, wider style that made it an instant hit. The Classic started out with four speeds but a five-speed was introduced for 1998. The chassis was completely different than the Vulcan 88’s, and it was a huge leap forward for the designers. Fat fork legs, wide wire wheels, tank-top instruments, floorboards, broad fenders with pretty curves and classic American proportions all helped to make the 1500 Classic an immediate success.

The new limited-production Drifter hit showrooms in March with a fresh take on traditional, American styling. The Drifter’s frame is similar to the Classic’s but with a stiffer front section derived from the Nomad. The fenders, which some identify with flagship Indian models of the 1940s, are its most apparent cosmetic feature. To maintain the profile of those hardtail bikes, the fender mounts to the swingarm where it can hug the tire. Many of the components that would be chrome on the Classic are blacked-out on the Drifter. It has a smaller-diameter multireflector headlight, black air shocks (with adjustable damping) and a fishtail muffler capping the 2-into-1 exhaust system. (The muffler design permits owners to change the tip.) The dual saddle is cantilevered to imitate the sprung solo saddles of big midcentury motorcycles (solo saddles are optional).

Although the rest of the bike is retro, the engine takes a step toward the future with fuel injection. The fuel-injector body replaces the Classic’s single carb and feeds the cylinders through two 36mm throats. The engineers also bumped the compression back up to 9.0:1 and used the hotter cam timing of the original Vulcan 88. First-year buyers will be sent a boxed kit which includes a top handlebar clamp with their name and the bike’s serial number engraved into it, an owner’s certificate, a key fob and a video. We can hardly wait to see what Kawasaki has in store for the 1970s.