The archetypal cruiser is heavy, oversized and runs a V-twin engine. The American companies are loath to colour outside those lines, and the Japanese companies have made millions of dollars copying that formula. That’s how we got the Honda Shadow, the Kawasaki Mean Streak, the Suzuki Marauder, the Yamaha Virago, and so on.
But, the Big Four also have a long history of adapting other engine designs to offer cheaper alternatives. The Kawasaki Vulcan 500 was one of the most successful cruisers built along these lines. Although the leather-vested gangs of pretend pirates might sneer at the diminutive Kawi, the little 500 had more power on tap than you’d think.
The Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD hit the market in 1990, an evolution of the 454 LTD model. The kinda-new Vulcan was a small cruiser built around a sporty parallel twin. It shared an almost-identical engine with the EX500 sportbike, aka the Ninja 500. This liquid-cooled DOHC parallel twin had four valves per cylinder, with six-speed gearbox. The EX500 and Vulcan 500 were aimed at different purposes, so they were tuned differently. The EX500 had bigger carburetors, and camshafts profiled for more high-revving horsepower. The Vulcan engine wasn’t aimed at frantic riding, so it came with smaller carburetors and more calmed-down cams. It made around 50 horsepower, and 32 pound-feet of torque, although these numbers changed somewhat through the model’s long production run.
Despite the differences between the engines, they’re basically interchangeable if you know what you’re doing.
It was an interesting idea for Kawasaki, and typical of its late-’80s engineering. Kawasaki resisted the move to V-twins for longer than anyone else, adapting sportbike engines for cruisers—the Eliminator 600 and Eliminator 900 models are other good examples from that period. The Eliminator models had shaft drive, to cut down on maintenance. The Vulcan, with less horsepower to play with and a lower budget, had a belt drive. Sensible, cheap, and the same end result.
Alas, when Kawasaki updated the 500 platform in later years, it changed the Vulcan over to chain drive around 1996. This was probably a plan to streamline production costs, but it gave the rider one more thing to fuss about. Considering the target market was new or budget-minded riders, I’d say the switch to chain drive was a poor decision. Not that anybody asked me. Kawasaki also changed from cast rims to spoked rims at that time; it gave the bike an old-school look, but meant owners now had to fuss with tire tubes as well.
Most riders didn’t care, though. Despite those minor setbacks, the 500 was still a very fun, rideable cruiser. Curb weight was 472 pounds on later models; not svelte, but all low-to-the-ground and manageable. The Vulcan was significantly lighter than the entry-level Harley-Davidson Sportster 883, and cheaper—both very important features for newbies. Its high-revving engine might not have looked as impressive as a gleaming V-twin, but when you did the math, the power-to-weight ratio tipped in favour of the Kawasaki, and real-world riders discovered their mini-cruiser was capable of hanging with larger bikes (often to the chagrin of the riders on those bigger machines).
More show than go
Having said that, the Vulcan 500 wasn’t exactly a marvel of engineering. The engine was solid, but the chassis was aimed at posing, not performance. With dual rear shocks, butt-dragging stepped seat and drum rear brake, you’d only push this bike so hard before it pushed back. It was not a modern performance cruiser like the Ducati Diavel series. Along with the spoked wheels, later models also had a tank-mounted speedometer, for that American cruiser look. Many of the used models on the market come with chromed-out crash bars fitted, or fake leather saddlebags and fork-mounted windshields.
There’s nothing wrong with that, though. For many riders, this was a sensible way to get a fun, affordable commuter or weekend pleasure-cruiser, and a gateway drug to faster, better bikes. For others, it was all they ever wanted or needed. Even now, with accessories fitted, it could possibly prove to be a very practical backroad touring bike, if you’re into the moto-vagabond lifestyle. Running costs should certainly be cheap!
Ultimately, the Vulcan 500 line was canned in 2009 as the platform aged, same as its EX500 step-brother. Kawasaki revived the basic idea with the Vulcan 650 S in 2015. That machine shares its engine with the ER-6N, Ninja 650 and Versys 650 machines, but follows a more contemporary cruiser layout, similar to the Diavel and other power cruisers.
This bike here?
This is an ’07 model, built towards the end of the Vulcan 500’s production run.
As it’s a newer machine, you get a chain drive, and a bit less horsepower. On the plus side, you also get bags, crash bars and windshield, and since it’s for sale at a dealership (WOW Motorcycles in Marietta, Georgia), you’d assume it’s reasonably clean and in good running order. With 7,366 miles on the odometer, this bike should have plenty of life left, too.
The price tag does seem a bit ambitious at $3,470; you should be able to get a more modern Honda Rebel 300, maybe even a 500, with EFI for that price. Maybe even ABS.
However, COVID-19 is driving up the prices of used bikes, as supply of new bikes drops off. For someone looking for a small, manageable cruiser, this might do the job, especially if the dealer can work some sort of deal on the sale.