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Common Tread

Retrospective review: The Kawasaki KE100 sure beats a moped or shoe leather

Sep 17, 2021

A moped. Or your boots.

Kawasaki ad for KE100 in 1980
Kawasaki's pitch, circa 1980: It's better than a moped. Kawasaki advertisement.
According to some old Kawasaki ads for their KE100, that's what the marketing department considered "the competition." Surely the KE100 was a better way to get where you were going and didn't cost much more.

Recently, a 1998 KE100 came into my hands, and it seemed like a bike ripe for a half-assed review, which I have near-zero interest in writing at the moment.

Why? I should clarify that I don’t want to write because I have a KE100 in the shop and it’s sunny out and I’d much rather be riding it. Strangely, at 37 years old, I have been launched back into high school: I want to skip my assignment and go play on my motorcycle.

My formative years grow increasingly fuzzy, but I can acutely recall the pain of walking most places for several years, bypassing the purchase of a bicycle so I could stack bills that eventually were exchanged for a moped. Maybe those marketers were on to something.

a rider on the Kawasaki KE100
The KE100 is officially Stinky-approved. I'm using a time-honored manufacturer's trick to make a small bike appear more formidable: I stuck a teeny rider on it. Photo by Lemmy.

Awfully researched model history

The Kawasaki KE100 is a diminutive enduro. It’s also the last street-legal two-smoker sold by a major manufacturer. When I shot a text over to our Kawi rep, he was apologetic that he had no info on this machine that hasn’t been sold for 23 years. I can forgive that.

The KE is either closely related to the Trail Boss/G3/G4/G5/KV100/KH100 of the 1970s or not, depending on how pedantic one is. (Then, as now, the same powerplant was often dumped into different chassis.) The KE was definitely not a clean-sheet design when it debuted under that moniker in 1976, and given that it stayed on sales floors 'til 2001, it’s probably safe to say this thing is some sort of weird prehistoric motorcycling artifact.

It’s old and archaic and it was when it was brand new.

How much is it?

Nailing down an MSRP on this thing is hard, because Kawi hocked these things for over two decades. They were definitely under a grand at some point. Today if you want a clean one, you’ll cough up at least $2,000, but finding one that’s not totally thrashed is difficult. These were budget semi-trail machines, made to be ridden, and they were. Most of them are destroyed, and anyone who owns a not-so-roached one usually doesn’t want to trade it for the meager pile of dollars the book says they’re worth.

KE100 battery and oil fill
Two-stroke oil and a six-volt battery. It's like a time capsule under the very, very purple saddle. Photo by Lemmy.


Honestly, this bike’s spec sheet makes me laugh. The KE is like an anti-hero. On paper, this bike sucks. If we get right down to it, it’s an air-cooled, total-loss flathead. (Two-stroke, remember?) It’s got six volts, two shocks, and not a whole lot else. No push-to-cancel signals. No adjustable levers. No gas gauge.

That’s compared to a modern bike, though. Compare it to a moped and it’s faster and better, and compared to boots it’s not even a competition.

Riding the KE100

This bike is awesome. It’s awful, in many respects, but so harmoniously awful, you have a ball riding it.

Here’s the best way I can sum it up quickly: If you have ever ridden a moped or scooter and enjoyed it but came away saying, "Man, if only it had just a little more juice, it would be perfect!" then drop everything and go ride one of these. It’s even a little quicker up top than a modern Kawasaki Z125 Pro or Honda Grom. I weigh 270 pounds and I can tip the needle to over 50 mph on the flats. Not bad. (45 comes up a lot faster, though.)

rear shock on the KE100
Suspension by Moon Bounce. I've got the preload all the way up. Shocker. (See what I did there?) Photo by Lemmy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

When you walk up to it and take it off the stand, the KE100 nearly flies over to the other side. This baby is a flyweight. Just 186 pounds dry! Your eye is drawn to an instrument cluster that looks like it came from the bottom of a cereal box.

You knew what you were getting into when you read my lame attempt at a spec sheet. This machine is spartan beyond belief, but it has one trick hidden up its sleeve that you'll want to show off. There's a little metal box on the frame downtube. It's a cable splitter. When you pull the bike off the stand and yank in the clutch, the sidestand pulls up automagically! It’s an unnecessary and absurd feature I assume exists to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for motorcycle stands. After hearing everyone oooh and ahh over that, flip the petcock on, then kick it.

If you want.

You can start this bike by hand. Rather easily, in fact. I hope to win many beers at the bar because of that. If you need it, there’s a little choke near the idle adjuster sticking out of the top of the carb, which lives under the right engine side cover. (This is a rotary-valve two-stroke.)

Then you’re off! There’s no rev counter. Just right-wrist it until it stops increasing in speed, then roll off the throttle, click up, and repeat. Feel free to skip the clutch. Whee!

The motor is a cutie. Note this is not your modern injected, liquid-cooled, power-valved, expansion-chambered two-stroke. This 99 cc behemoth is a lump with a pressed-steel pipe on the left side of the bike whose shape was dictated primarily by fit, performance be damned. But it’s a willing workhorse, and it makes The Good Noise when you ride it, and then all the sudden you realize all the buzzing is actually really fun.

KE100 gauge cluster
This thing buzzes and shakes; I think it's mounted on popsicle sticks. But it does tell me what I need to know. More, really — I don't need a meter to know I'm going slow. Photo by Lemmy.

The KE has a first gear that is absurdly tall for a small trail bike. To get it going at my weight, I basically need to slingshot the clutch with the throttle fully open, but then it makes it all the way to 20 mph before it’s shift time! This makes first gear sort of useless on any actual off-road trail more difficult than a mowed meadow. My suspicion is this weird gearing was to sneak this thing past the emissions specs of the day. After accelerating through the cogs (there are five speeds), I have to bounce between fourth and fifth as fifth offers no more speed, just a reduction in buzzing.

Speaking of bouncing, the suspension is a lot like a trampoline. It’s undersprung and very... uh, boingy? There is no damping to speak of and riding this KE feels a lot like running full-steam through a bouncy house. This is not an indictment, however. It’s still a hoot to scoot on the li’l KE. Kawasaki engineers clearly understood that the one way to make crap suspension feel better is to make sure the rider never feels the bottom of it. So although this thing feels rubber-bandy as I go bouncing down the road, it doesn’t bottom out… on the street.

Kawasaki KE100 parked on a dirt road
The KE100 is not at its best on the trail, but then again, neither is this rapidly aging touring rider. Photo by Lemmy.

Off-road is less pleasant. In addition to possessing World’s Tallest First Gear, the KE also boasts an angel-hair fork. With 30 mm tube diameter, spaghetti would be an upgrade. It gets overwhelmed quickly. I can’t off-road this very seriously. The frame is tiny and thin, I’m certain I’d bust it if I got rambunctious. If I take it slow on fire roads and logging trails, it’s as sure-footed as a horse. The no-name street/trail tires on this one are acceptable. They basically suck at the same level as everything else. Post-1981 KEs have a 17-inch rear wheel and a 19-incher up front.

Let’s move on to my notes on the brakes.

  • More drums than Neil Peart
  • You will slow down
  • Leave following room
  • Whatever, they’re fine
  • Adjust the cables regularly so the previous statements continue to be true

Kawi perfectly matched bargain components. Every part is just as good (or bad) as every other part. Except the seat. The seat is glorious. This is a good seat compared to a touring bike. For a woods monster? It’s like some sort of divan.

Didn’t you say it was awesome?

Yes I did. It’s just fun to ride. It’s simple and it works for almost everyone. It’s snappier than a 50 cc moped or scooter, and with its height and real tires, it feels more motorcycle-like than a Grom or Z125 Pro. In a lot of ways, this is the forerunner to those bikes, like all the old tiddler enduros. It’s a wonderful learner bike, being light and low on power.

The thing is tough and willing to be flogged, and it needs almost nothing to stay in running order. Oil is injected, so one must just remember to keep that reservoir topped off. Transmission oil changes take all of about four minutes to complete. There are no valves to adjust, obviously. The spark plug is front and center. Feed the thing oil, gas, plugs and chain lube and your KE will probably run longer than the model ran.

Exhaust pipe on the Kawasaki KE100
What's an expansion chamber? Photo by Lemmy. Photo by Lemmy.

People do double takes when this thing goes by, constantly. It makes a dirt bike noise, even though dirt bikes by and large do not make that noise any longer, and people get confused. At gas stations, everyone comes up to you and tells you about the one they had on the farm or the one Roger flew off or the one Dad still takes out every now and again and by the way do you want to sell it?

And that’s fun, too.


The KE100 is a bit better than a moped. It’s a lot better than shoes. If someone offers you a ride on one or one pops up for sale that’s not completely roached, I’d say go for it.

I'm going to ride this bike.