Why The King Died…

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This old Kawasaki motorcycle I’m trying to resurrect has a neat little engine of a type you don’t see anymore – unless you’re in the backyard weed-whacking, that is.

I’m talking about two strokes.

In the late ’60s, Kawasaki cleaned the streets with its fearsome H1 triple, followed later by the even more fearsome H2 – which upped the cc ante to 750 and gave those brave enough to twist the throttle all the way and hold it there low 12 second quarter mile capability. For some perspective, that was almost as quick as a 2012 Corvette – only 40 years ago,  when nothing was even close to that fast that wasn’t a specially-made racer. Hunter Thompson wrote with respectful dread and awe about the Kawi Triple’s capabilities – and of the song of The Sausage Creature its rider might hear as the tach swang past 7,000 and the front wheel rotated skyward like an F4 with both afterburners ripping holes in the sky.

Best of all, these menacing triples were cheap or at least, affordable. For the cost of a few payments on a new Hemi ‘Cuda you could own an H2 – and mop the floor with the ‘Cuda.

Not even Kaw’s own (and much better-known today) Z1900, which was a four-stroker with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and 150 more cubes (250 more by ’77-’78 when the 900 engine was punched out to 1,000 ccs) outperformed the Terrible Triple.

And that was stone stock.

With a set of Denco pipes (remember those, anyone? ) you could pull 120 head-kicking, ball-stomping and totally untamed horsepower out of a 750 cc Kaw triple.

The 900 made 82.

Even today, decades after the last two-stroke triple was uncrated and put out on the showroom floor, they’re still unbeatable. A two-stroke holds the record for the quickest quarter-mile on two wheels: a 7 second pass that makes a ZR-1 Corvette look like an 80k Pinto with bad compression and two dead cylinders.

So, as they once said about another King… what happened?

I’ll give you a guess and it starts with a “G.”

Two strokes are outlaws, off the reservation, not so much because of their anti-social performance but because of their anti-social exhaust. Two strokes are designed to burn oil on purpose. Many an uninformed victim of an H1 or H2’s bumblebee fury has rolled up on one, seen the blue haze pouring out of those three pipes (two on the right side, one on the left) and thought, easy meat. He’s got a tired engine. I can take him. Only to find himself with a big WTF just happened? expression on his face a fraction of a moment later, after the light goes green – and the Kaw checks out on him. 

But, alas, the government is even quicker. Emissions laws felled the Kaw triples – all two strokes, in fact. Or at least, all street-legal ones. There are still two stroke off road/motocross bikes – for the moment. It is the last redoubt of the Engine That Has No Valvetrain.

All of which is too damn bad, because, like another oddball engine – the Wankel, or rotary – two strokes are much more efficient at making power than four-strokes. For a given displacement, you can get twice or more the output. Example: I have a single cylinder, but four-stroke, dual-sport motorcycle. It makes about 15 hp. Stack that up against the little S1 triple I’m resurrecting. It’s also a 250 cc engine (though three cylinders – the smallest such machine ever mass-produced, in fact) but it makes about twice the power.  It’s also much simpler – the cylinder heads are a simple one-piece casting with no holes in them other than the one for the spark plug. There are no valves to adjust (or seats to recede), no cam chains, pushrods or shims – nothing. Just three pistons riding a common crank, sucking air (and oil) and exploding the mix in a synchronized ballet of mechanical mayhem. 

It is a magnificent thing.

Unfortunately, it’s also a highly unlawful thing – for a bike (or car) manufacturer to try to slip into the line today.

So, if you want to experience what it was like to ride an unfettered berserker – and possibly, hear the song of the Sausage Creature – you’ll have to do as I have and rummage in the trunk of history, see if there’s anything there.

If there is, and you dare, it’ll be a moment of clarity – and one you’ll never forget!

Throw it in the Woods?  




  1. Terrifyingly fun rockets.

    At one time in my collection of Japanese classics I had all five models(250cc/350cc/400cc/500cc/750cc)of the Kawa Triples. Today just an H1 ‘Cafe’ racer and a pristine H2.
    The H1 was the first production 12 second bike, the 1984 Kawa 750 Turbo was the worlds first 10 second production bike. Another Kawa that would stand on it’s tail light. A low mileage example is also in my collection.

    A slight correction Eric… The Kawa Trip/two -stroke is not the worlds fastest two wheeled bike, it is the fastest two stroke bike and naturally aspirated bike.

    Back to the H1 ‘Cafe’ racer. The Kawa Trip with race expansion pipes makes a sound at full song like no other. It is unforgettable.

    My Cafe(built in the late seventies) has a custom road race frame by an English builder, with Italian race componentry, consisting of alloy wire wheels, race brakes, forks and shocks. Rear sets and clip-ons, with and English, full, race fairing, tank, and seat completing the package. Though I haven’t rode it in years, it is and unforgettable riding experience.

    Will keep and interested eye on your project Eric as I’m currently building a Yamaha XS 650 ‘Bobber’ of the same era as your project.

    • Good stuff, Deuce!

      I aspire to H2 ownership one of these days…

      Meanwhile, the S1 progresses. I am working on the engine now. I just finished cleaning up the cylinder jugs (degreasing and honing the bores) and am preparing to glass bead them, along with the heads. I’ll be into the bottom end soon. It’ll be interesting to see what’s going on in there!

  2. I was happily typing away when I accidentally pushed the wrong button and…. gone! Oh well.

    I was remembering back to when a co worker let me ride his RD400 or maybe it was a 350. He warned me not to goose the throttle until at least third gear, and was he right. Even in third the front wheel came right off the ground. What a rocket.

    One other time as I was cruising down the 101 in my ’57 Chev, along comes a Kawa 750 triple. The 500 had already made big waves on the performance scene. He was just tooling along and here comes a Honda 750-4 wanting to show what was what. I had to laugh when the Kawa rider IGNORED him. Great piece of chutzpa! My guess is the Kawa rider did not want to embarrass the Honda guy.

    But to give Honda its due, in the mountainous desert of the Sierra Nevadas, I was running my Suzuki 250 next to last in the line of my friends at about 50 or 55 mph when the new guy in our group came by me on his rear wheel, riding the new Elsinore. He just came along side, twisted it with a little pull, and up she came.
    The Elsinore started the power war with the other big three. Ah two strokes!

  3. When I was in high school the two stroke Suzuki 80 was a very popular bike. I seriously considered getting one but ended up buying a Honda Super 90 instead.

  4. Might want to check out what has been done with two strokes in the outboard motor industry. I can’t see why DI etc couldn’t be applied to motorcycles…

    • I haven’t looked into it recently, but last time I did, the deal was that even with DI, they can’t get emissions (esp, cold start) down to the minuscule – almost nonexistent, actually – levels required by current federal regulations.

      • They are being manufactured and sold for outboard motors, snowmobiles, etc. I doubt that the emissions requirements are all that much different for motorcycles as they too do not have as tight emission requirements as cars. It appears from web searches that DI offroad motorcycles are coming. So it’s a start.

        As to lubrication the oil appears to be injected separately.

  5. Back in the day…. when I was still in the Air Force I had a 1975 Yamaha RD350. My good friend and close associate from Alabama had an H2. He been out at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and picked up a set of road race chambers for his bike. One of his friends ran them through a chrome plating shop in Dothan. Not only did those chrome chambers look cool, it turned that bike into what could only be described as terrifying!

    I rode that 750 enough to tell you that all you had to do was roll the throttle in third gear and it would stand straight up! My RD ran like a scalded dog, but that H2 was pure evil in a straight line. Oh, I could take him or the triple 500’s (Kawasakis or Suzukis) in the twisties and often did. But once we were back on straight road all I got to see was his tail light and not for very long either! I embarassed more than one big block ‘Vette with my little 350 in the 1/8th mile with that little 2 strocke twin too. I also had a ’72 TS400 Suzuki single that was downright wicked (it only got 18MPG, so 2 strokes aren’t really economical). Yeah, Eric I miss those old oil burners myself. Maybe I need to find another RD for my mid-life crisis….


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