The Kawasaki vulcan 1500 was in production for around 20 years making it one of the longest running cruisers in the Kawasaki lineup.
Kawasaki have been using the Vulcan name since 1984, it has been designated to their cruiser and custom motorcycles of various engine capacities from then until today.
It was not only Kawasaki’s King Cruiser, or indeed the King of Japanese Cruisers, but it gave Harley Davidson a serious run for their money for the King of All Cruisers title.
So while today’s Vulcan is a little different and will suit those looking for modern comforts, the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 is a beastly classic that is still worth a good look at if you are on the hunt for a bargain cruiser.
Let’s get started.
Kawasaki vulcan 1500 History
The Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 was third in the line to take the name; it followed the Vulcan 750 released in 1985 and the Vulcan 400 in 1986.
The Vulcan 1500 was only superseded in size by the 1600, 1700 and 2000, however upon its release in 1987 it was bigger than HD’s Evolution engines of 1,340cc and that was enough to give it serious brownie points.
In order for the big Kawasaki Vulcan to seriously contend with Harley, the designers and engineers both knew that they had to get serious and produce some big performance numbers along with superb riding qualities.
From the ground up, Kawasaki started with the big boy engine that was going to power the groundbreaking bike and the result was a liquid-cooled 1,470cc (88 Cubic Inches) V-twin.
Named after its capacity the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 (AKA Vulcan 88) was born.
There was a heavy focus on making the bike the ultimate cruiser so comfort, handling and performance were absolute priority with traditional styling forming part of the package.
To start with, the bike was equipped with a double-cradle steel frame that was big enough and strong enough to house the engine. Mounted on the front were huge forks and which in turn had wide, pulled back handlebars that had a tall rise.
A big 16 liter fuel capacity tank sat on the frame followed by an oversized plush leather saddle topped with a pillion pad behind. The forward-mounted floorboards completed the look.
The end result was a riding position that was likened to that of a lazy boy chair, being pulled along by a cruise ship or freight train.
The rider had plenty of space to move freely thanks to a large wheelbase of 1,605mm; equally the pillion wouldn’t feel cramped at all with the pad and backrest being of the most comfortable in the cruiser class at the time.
At no point now or then would a rider complain of discomfort aboard the stretch limo that was the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500.
In terms of power then the huge 1,470cc V-twin engine produced 64 horsepower and 112 Nm of torque, which gave plenty of get up and go across the range and would pull at any given moment in any gear.
The need to shift gears would dissipate as riders could just stay in the same gear at any speed for as long as they liked thanks to the even spread of power, something not really heard of with V-twin cruisers at the time.
Gear changes are heavy, you feel it when you do make that change which is a good thing in this case and Kawasaki fitted a Positive Neutral Finder, which prevents you from switching from 1st to 2nd at a standstill.
The only downside to this nice touch was that when crawling at slow speeds you could find yourself hitting neutral before finding 2nd gear on a regular basis. However, it did make balancing the heavy bike and getting into neutral a breeze when at a stop light.
Vibrations would kick in at highway speeds, this was regardless of a counterbalancer and rubber mounts being implemented. However, it wasn’t so intrusive that it would put you off pulling on the throttle.
I think the key thing to remember with the Vulcan is that it was built as a cruiser, and not a high-performing sportsbike.
So the strength of the big engine was in its ability to chase down the miles effortlessly whether absorbing the scenery on the backroads or pounding down the highway.
What this means is that even smaller capacity cruisers of the time like the Honda Shadow 750 would out-perform the Vulcan on the twisty backroads; while they might get places faster, there were few if any that would get you there more comfortably.
Here is what riders became quickly aware of when it came to the Vulcan 88, just how quickly both the suspension and brakes would be overwhelmed by the engine.
The bike was set up so your ride would be smooth, but the forks were unadjustable and rear shocks on the firm side of matters.
So if you were crunching highway miles then the bike would give you no grief and neither would it on modern city streets.
Where you would come into issues would be on the backroads where the road could be a little bumpy and surface uneven.
While the plush seat and sheer weight of the bike would soak up some of the bumps, some would still cause some discomfort particularly over time.
Single disc front and rear brakes just isn’t enough to slow the bike down from high speeds quickly, it does the job but not as quick as some would like. Slow speeds around town and gentle rolling to a stop is no issue, so it is best to bear this in mind.
When compared to modern motorcycle brakes the original Vulcan’s would be deemed pretty poor.
Styling wise the big motorcycle took inspiration from the early Indian cruisers with big flamboyant fenders and lashings of chrome.
It was flashy, dominant, built to be seen and to cause a scene, it was there to make you look twice and stand out from the Harley lineup at the time.
Although the touches of chrome even down to the engine side covers meant the comparisons between the two would be drawn and judged.
Over the following two decades Kawasaki would evolve the Vulcan 1500 through several variants all of which made their mark on the power cruiser segment.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Performance
Upon its release the Vulcan 1500 was overall embraced by press and public and it did become the ultimate big cruiser of the time.
Cycle World’s review in 1987 gave the Vulcan a glowing report “In top-gear roll ons, the Vulcan will outgun a Yamaha V-Max; and in everyday situations, its engine feels more like something unbolted from the engine bay of the Queen Mary than a powerplant designed for a mode of transportation as insignificant as a motorcycle.”
Test riders were particularly impressed with the riding position, comfort, handling and the V-twin engine, with the only division of opinion being about the bikes styling.
Cruiser magazine in 1997 wrote “Since 1987, the Vulcan 1500 has been the biggest V-twin available without a prescription. The bragging rights and no-excuses torque it delivers has been the big Vulcan’s primary appeal ever since.”
So even 10 years after the original Vulcan 1500 release the bike was still considered one of the best big cruisers available.
Motorcycle wrote of the original Vulcan “The amazing motor is almost enough to overshadow the rest of the bike’s shortcomings…”
The shortcomings referred to was once again the styling, which definitely wasn’t to everybody’s taste, some argued that the chrome was actually offensive to Harley.
As time went on and the 1500 evolved reviews would continue to be good for the model with MCN rating the 1994 onwards models as “A far, far cheaper way of cruising than buying into the Harley dream. Reliable too. The VN1500s are positively vast so, if road presence is important to you, they could be your thing. Lots of gutsy, low down pull with smooth touring speeds at the top end mean relaxed, joyful and easy riding.”
The fact that the Vulcan 1500 lasted 20 years proves it was a welcome addition to the cruiser market even if the styling wasn’t always to the masses tastes.
Let’s look at some of the key variants over the years and what they added to the model.
I would argue that each variant of the Vulcan 1500 serves a different purpose for a different audience.
To the point that in some instances the bikes were almost different models all together with chassis changes, suspension differences and brakes.
Let’s have a look.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic
The 1500 Classic can be split with early models from 1987 and then the revised versions in 1996 which featured different gear ratios, single valve springs and a new oil pump.
In 1998 the suspension was revised which was a welcome relief to fans of the model and there was a shift from four to five speed transmission.
The next biggest development came in 2002 when the carbureted Classic became fuel injected and was eventually discontinued in 2004 after being replaced by the new 1600 model.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic Tourer
The Classic Tourer was based on the standard version, but came with cast wheels, a wider tire, windshield, forward mounted floorboards and hard luggage.
It also had a different exhaust system and was more accommodating for a passenger.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Drifter
The Drifter was the first model to get fuel injection.
It was heavily based on the 1948 Indian Chief with the designer given a Vulcan Classic and asked what the Chief look like like today?
It had a very classic 40’s/50’s cruiser style about it with dramatic fenders, plenty of chrome and a big saddle. Production ran from 1999-2004.
The Drifter was the Vulcan if you wanted retro styling with modern conveniences and rideability.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Nomad
The Nomad shifted gears a little and was clearly targeting fans of the Harley Bagger bikes. It was based on the Classic but with a screen, panniers and twin discs.
The Nomad’s chassis was altered slightly to make sure it accommodated a rider, passenger and all their gear for as many miles as they could cope with.
Cruiser Magazine in their review at the time said “If Kawasaki wanted the chassis to handle the loads encountered on touring duty, the cockpit was designed solely to maximize rider comfort. The Nomad’s seat may be the best long-distance stock seat ever bolted to a cruiser.”
The Nomad was produced from 2000-2002.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Meanstreak
The Meanstreak was a low-rider version, with slightly more horsepower, less weight, low seat height, twin discs and also bigger forks.
The Meanstreak is my favorite variant, it is an all round cool-looking bike.
Production of the Meanstreak ran from 2001-2004.
Buying an Original Kawasaki Vulcan 1500
Prices vary when it comes to buying a 1500 Vulcan. In the UK they seem to range from £3,000-£6,000 whilst in the US prices start at $2,000 and get to around $6,000.
Prices vary on the model type, age, mileage and condition.
The fact remains that even at the time of release for each model the Vulcan 1500’s were attractively priced to beat out the competition and this has continued into the used market.
You can buy a very capable cruiser that is ready for anything at a very reasonable price, in a variety of styles to suit your taste.
For example, I quickly found one with 15,000 miles on it and an asking price of just $4,995.
Restoring a 1500 Vulcan
If you find a beat up old Vulcan 1500, then you will find it very easy to get your hands on parts and at a really good price too.
The V-twin cylinder 1500cc Kawasaki power plant makes a very good donor engine to build a custom bike around.
You could pull parts from the Nomad, Drifter and Meanstreak models and build your own custom cruiser to suit your exact needs.
The Vulcan 1500 would be a great project to create a solid custom bike and would be far more affordable to do so than using a Harley or Indian for the same project.
CMS NL are well stocked at good prices and ship worldwide.
Are They a Good Investment?
Prices are unlikely to increase more than what they are, so in terms of a financial investment none of the Vulcan cruisers are the best choice if you are looking for a motorcycle that will give you a good return.
A Vulcan 1500 is better off being bought as a bike that you are going to love and ride until it’s taken its last sip of gas.
So if you want a cool big power cruiser that is a little bit different then a Vulcan 1500 might be the way forward.
The Vulcan 1500 in all its guises is a solid big cruiser, that is very capable, tough and ready to go the distance.
It has classic styling without the issues that comes with a classic bike, Kawasaki got it right with the Vulcan 1500 and I know there are plenty out there that would agree with me.
Saturday 15th of April 2023
My 2003 Vulcan main Street still runs great with over 40,000 miles
Thursday 24th of November 2022
A great bike, handles great, it is a cruiser not a sports bike only draw back is you only get around 120 miles to a tank full of fuel before res no matter how you ride.
Tuesday 1st of November 2022
I just purchased a 2006 Vulcan 1600 Meanstreak. So production didn't stop in 2004.
Wednesday 6th of July 2022
Have owned 2 1500 Vulcans, an A and a C model. Also had a 800 Vulvan A model and a 900 Vulcan Custom. Powerful, fast and comfortable to ride. Totaled close to 200,000 miles on those 4 bikes. The 95 C model had 30,000+ miles when I bought it in 2005. 18,000 miles later the plastic oil gear broke. Took it to the local kawasaki dealer - Kawasaki rebuilt the engine completely at no cost to me. As good as the 1500 was the 900 was just as fast, fuel injected and got great gas mileage.