The Kawasaki H1 was introduced in late 1968. The Sixties were in full swing, and dizzying changes in art, music and politics were taking place. Motorcycles were changing, as well.
Years produced: 1969-1976
Claimed power: 60hp @ 7,500rpm
Top speed: 114mph (period test)
Engine type: 498cc, air-cooled, 2-stroke inline triple
Weight: (wet) 188kg (415lbs)
Price then: $1,195
Price now: $1,500-$3,500
MPG: 23mpg (period test)
Cue the music. Turn the petcock to the “prime” position, wait until the Plexiglas filters are full of gas, then back it to the “on” position. Turn the ignition on and engage the choke. Kick twice.
The triple cylinder 2-stroke fires and Van Halen’s heavy metal band strikes up the staccato beat of “Hot for Teacher.” Listen to the beat for a minute. The beast is easy to kick start, but it is cold blooded, and it takes a while before it is ready to roll from its den. Wait until the Kawasaki H1’s exhaust note smoothes somewhat — although it won’t smooth much. Now you’re ready to rock and roll.
“In 1971 I was in high school and friends with a kid named Dennis Baxter,” Bill Swagerty explains. “He got one for Christmas. It was radical. It was a 3-cylinder, 2-stroke fire breather with electronic ignition and a lopsided power-to-weight ratio.”
Bill fondly remembers a trip to Lake Havasu, Ariz., with his friend. “He picked me up and we ran out there, but the bike seized up on the way. We walked to a store, got some 2-stroke oil, and it started up like nothing ever happened. That bike was so powerful that it wanted to fly, even two up. The front end came off the ground in third gear.”
Beginnings of the H1
The Kawasaki H1 was introduced three years before, in late 1968. The Sixties were in full swing, and dizzying changes in art, music and politics were taking place. Motorcycles were changing, as well. The economical transporters of the Fifties had become sporting machines primarily ridden by young men. Speed sold, fuel economy didn’t. Motorcycle manufacturers took note, and bikes blossomed out in chrome, with quarter-mile times prominently advertised.
The motorcycle market was changing quickly, and Kawasaki, eager to push its way to the top, had a 4-cylinder, 4-stroke engine under development when the company learned to its horror that Honda would upstage it with the impending 1969 Honda CB750 Four. Management decided to push back the introduction of the four and introduce something entirely different, something that would make a real splash. After experimenting with a 2-cylinder, rotary-valve 2-stroke engine, Kawasaki engineers found that a triple would produce more power with a lighter drivetrain.
A beastly concoction
To increase anticipation for its exotic 2-stroke, Kawasaki announced a list price of $1,000 — at a time when the list price of a Harley XLCH was $1,698. Officially named the H1, but often referred to as the Mach III, the 498cc, 415-pound speedster produced 60hp at 8,000rpm, would do a standing-start quarter mile in 12.8 seconds, and claimed a top speed of 125mph. This was big stuff.
All that power came at the expense of civilized riding. The mufflers were really racing expansion chambers, muffled just enough to meet the loose decibel requirements of the 1960s. The H1 would pop wheelies at the slightest provocation, sometimes in the middle of turns. Vibration was annoying, and the seat was uncomfortable, but the kids who bought H1s didn’t care, and the H1 became immensely popular with the young men who formed the bulk of early Seventies riders — if not with their parents and the highway patrol.
Here was the ultimate bad boy, with blistering acceleration and looks to match. And it would stop, too. While much has been made of the Kawasaki’s supposedly ineffective brakes, the fact is that by today’s standards, just about all 1960s-era motorcycles had lousy stoppers. In March 1970, Cycle magazine did a head-to-head comparison between Honda’s CB750, a Harley-Davidson Sportster, a BSA Rocket 3, a Triumph Trident, a Suzuki 500 Titan, a Norton Commando and the Kawasaki triple. The Kawasaki was second only to the Honda, which claimed the best deceleration rate Cycle had ever tested.
After its introduction, Kawasaki tried hard to civilize its bad boy without destroying its essence as a street legal drag bike. Engineers burned a lot of midnight oil over the electronic ignition. The first version of the H1 was sparked by a CDI ignition that was complicated and had weak links. It was so bad that Kawasaki temporarily gave up on electronic ignition in 1972 and installed three sets of points instead.
The 1973 H1D returned to electronic ignition with a second generation CDI unit that was more reliable and gave a hotter spark at low and midrange engine rpm. As a result, Kawasaki could re-jet the triple Mikuni carburetors for a (somewhat) wider powerband.
Other changes over the years included making the huge induction ports smaller and changing their shape, decreasing fork rake, stiffening the frame (something it definitely needed) and beefing up the swingarm. Metal swingarm bushings replaced the previous plastic ones, and changes in weight distribution lessened the triple’s tendency to pop unintended wheelies.
At the same time Kawasaki was trying to make the H1 acceptable in civilized society, the company was developing the 4-cylinder, 4-stroke engine it had temporarily shelved when the Honda 750 came out. The 900cc Z1 appeared in 1972, and it was everything the H1 wasn’t. The handling was decent, the brakes actually stopped the bike, and the seat was comfortable for an all-day excursion.
When sales figures proved that customers would pay for a comfortable, safe and durable machine that sipped rather than gulped gas, the H1 was headed to oblivion. 1976 was the last year for the triple, hastened in its demise by impending environmental legislation paired with increasing market distaste for loud, smelly and smoky 2-strokes. Yet even in its last and most civilized incarnation, Cycle World summed up Kawasaki’s triple in the words of the Steppenwolf song: “Evil, wicked, mean and nasty.”
A midlife crisis
While Kawasaki may have stopped building 2-stroke triples, people with a need for speed continued to ride them. The Kawasaki H1 became a cult classic, consistently showing up in Most Significant Motorcycles of the postwar years and Ten Worst Bikes lists.
In 2002, Bill Swagerty had a self-described midlife crisis and decided he had to have a Kawasaki triple of his own. “I decided to turn back the clock,” Bill recalls. He bought an H2, the 750 version, sight unseen from a Canadian eBay seller. Somehow the bike made it through customs, but it was a lemon. Bill shoved it to the back of the garage and started looking again.
Another triple turned up on eBay, and this one was only 50 miles from Bill’s house. “I got there, and was amazed — the seller owned a warehouse filled wall-to-wall with bikes. This Kawasaki was set aside under a cover. He pulled the cover back and my heart jumped. It had less than 4,800 original miles on it.
“The good news was that everything was original,” Bill continues. “The bad news was that everything was original, including all the dry-rotted rubber parts like the snorkel between the air filter and the carburetors. Purple Haze Racing out of Lakewood, Colo., came to my rescue. They import new rubber parts from Japan.”
Since Bill’s background is “in software, not hardware,” he has had to locate knowledgeable mechanics. “I have worked hard on building a resource network. Parts can be had. The biggest challenge is finding service people within reach, qualified and willing to work on a 35-year-old bike. This is not a bike for the casual owner. You have to want it — and I want it.”
Owning the H1
Since this bike is Bill’s fair weather weekend toy, he hasn’t had to do a lot of work aside from making sure the tank for the oil injectors is full (“I check it every time I go out,” he says) and the battery is kept charged. Bill gets special smokeless 2-stroke oil from France, which minimizes the blue haze behind this notoriously smoky machine.
People who ride H1s the way owners rode them in the 1970s will likely have to rebuild the wet multiplate clutch on a regular basis. Although the clutch would be fine in a less performance-
oriented bike, it starts to slip after too many enthusiastic stoplight takeoffs. “The H1 doesn’t have a lot of torque off the line,” Bill explains. “You have to keep the revs up. Once you are rolling, it rides well in traffic. The disc brake [introduced for the 1972 model year] works well. The suspension is relatively soft in the rear and the front suspension is moderately firm. “The powerband is spectacular,” he continues. “Turn the throttle, and it will go faster than you expected. In a straight line, it’s raw performance.”
Period testers were fascinated by the off-kilter sound of the triple, and loved the blistering engine performance, but tiptoed gingerly around the handling. The 1973 revisions were hailed by testers as the cure to what ailed previous models. “Our test bike vibrated about half as much as the early Mach III that I last rode,” wrote Frank Conner of Cycle Guide in April 1973. “The machine felt good in corners, and I could ride it with confidence.”
Bill rides his somewhat cautiously. His boyhood friend was killed on his H1, and respecting the motorcycle has kept Bill out of trouble. “I tend to stay off the freeway on this bike,” he says. “I know some stretches of windy road, and that’s where I tend to go. I don’t go into corners fast. I try to anticipate corners rather than react. I go into the corner slowly, and then throttle out. It’s not easy to change lines once you are in a corner.”
Although Bill truly loves his Kawasaki, he realizes it has limitations: “You just have to keep in mind that the H1 was notorious for its lack of handling. My mechanic took it out for a test ride. She was doing 80 on the freeway when she went into a high speed wobble. She’s a good rider, though, and kept it up.”
Economy is not the bike’s strong suit. “The gas mileage is not great. I think I get around 20mpg,” Bill says. “Although the seat is comfortable, it does vibrate. It’s not a touring machine — it likes to be in the fast lane. It likes to settle in and cruise at 6,000 to 7,000rpm in all gears, and that’s where I end up on secondary roads or freeways.”
Instead of expecting it to be what it is not, Bill appreciates his triple for what it is. “The H1 excels at straight-line raw performance. It’s not efficient, but it is exciting,” he says. “What H1 triples have is sound. That throaty ‘rat-tat-tat’ is unique. They have style. The long tanks and the gleaming upswept pipes of the 1974 and 1975 triples have a timeless classic industrial design. And most of all, they have raw performance.”
A raw performance Bill isn’t likely to let go of anytime soon: “That machine was imprinted on me in my youth. It’s a part of me.” MC