The Littlest Triple

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Weird little bikes are hard to find new. A bleak homogeneity has settled in. Small bikes are safe bikes; conventionally styled, with mild engines. Made, in brief, for beginners. To be thrown away once mastered and their owner moves on to something more interesting.'72 S1 ad

Kawasaki’s littlest triple – the S1 250 Mach I – was not like these modern milquetoasts. It was a savage bitch, with the same crackling and spitting and zing zing zinging! two-stroke oil-burner as its sister bikes, the scary H1500 (first factory mass produced bike to deliver a 12 second quarter mile back in 1969) and the even scarier H2 750, on which Hunter Thompson heard the song of the Sausage Creature.

The same sick powerband. Nothing below 3,000 RPM. You had to roll the thing out, feathering the clutch and throttle to keep from stalling it. What a dog, you’d think! Especially if you’re new to old triples and used to modern bikes, with their easy – their safe –  power delivery. But then the tach would clear 4,000 and – like the deadly snap of a copperhead you didn’t see in time – the little bastard would let loose with piston ported fury. If you weren’t ready for it, sliding off the bike’s flat seat was a definite risk, especially if the front wheel got air. And – though just a 250 – that S1 was fully capable of that. From about 4,000 RPM to about 8,000 RPM the thing became an M80 with a quarter-inch lit fuse. Not much time to think. Better do something right now.sausage creature

Like, hang on.

The S1 is among the few – and perhaps, the only – small CC street bikes capable of throttle wheelies. And the sound, the glorious sound.

There is nothing on this side of hell that sounds like an angry Kawasaki two-stroke triple. It spits, it crackles – each individual cylinder firing through its own individual pipe, two one side, one on the other. It’s a death organ concatenation of combustion. The Germans, in WWII, fitted the Stuka dive-bomber with a screaming siren intended to scare the crap out of the civilian populace in the crosshairs below, even before the bomb actually hit. The menacing sound of a Kawasaki triple – even a small one, like the S1 – achieves the same effect. With chambered pipes – as essential an accoutrement for a bike like this as a piss-and-vomit-and-blood-stained leather vest is for a member of the Hell’s Angels – this bike can be heard coming (and going) for miles. No Harley can match it, not even with four times the displacement.

It is not, however, an easy bike to ride. Which is as it ought to be – and was.'72 S1 white

There is no electric starter. That’s for pussies and this is a man’s bike. Men kick-start their bikes. But first, the fuel must flow. Two strokes don’t have chokes per se. They have an enrichment  toggle on the left grip. Use your thumb to push it all the way to the right. Now, kick the sumbitch in the guts. If the points are set right and the plugs not fouled, a triple will usually light on the first or second try. Once it does, you must keep the revs up – to avoid fouling the plugs while feathering the enrichment toggle until the engine settles into a steady (for a triple) idle.

Now, point it where you intend to go and – using your feet, give ‘er a rolling start as you feed it power while gradually releasing the clutch. If you did it right, you’ll hear the song of the Sausage Creature, as Hunter did.rear 2

The five-speed box is Soviet and needs a firm touch. This is a bike you must work. No leaving it in third or fourth and letting the powerband carry you through. There is no powerband. There is a power spot – a slice of the rev range in which the full-throated banshee scream comes online. But you must keep the throttle fully open during the moment to keep things going. Kawasaki triples like wide open and not much in between.

Stopping the thing? The brakes – such as they are – are treacherous. Never trust them. The H2 (and the S3 400) at least got a single disc (solid) up front. The S1 got mechanical drum brakes on both ends. Grab a handful of fade and pray.


Luckily, the littlest triple did not have a deep-end-of-the-pool top speed. In good tune, tucked in, you might crest 100 MPH but 90 was more realistic. But getting there – and back – on the S1 feels as hairy as running a turbo-goosed Hayabusa up to 200 and back. It’s a full time and attention situation. Easy to go all kinds of wrong if you don’t. The tube-steel frame was heavy and prone to evil flexing; there were loose BBs in grease in lieu of proper bearings in races in the steering head. That plus pretty but easily (and often) out-of-round spoked rims made for sudden onset high-speed wobbles that could work themselves into unrecoverable tank slappers. They did not call these bikes widowmakers for nothing.'73 S1 pic

Like all the early Kaws – two-stroke and four – the triples (small and large) were two-wheeled analogs of the muscle cars of the same era. They were all about engine and attitude. Canned adrenaline, without the safety net of proper medical administration. You took a shot – and took your chances.

But – hot damn! (as Hunter would have put it) it was fun.

Triple Trivia: 

* The S1250 was the smallest-displacement three-cylinder motorcycle ever mass produced. It was sold from 1972-1975 (and from 1976-81 as the KH250).

* The original (1972) S1’s engine developed a claimed 32 hp at 8,000 RPM – which worked out to about 1 hp for every 11.8 pounds of the bike’s 330 lb. curb weight.S1 engine

* Though the S1 looks (at a glance) to be the same bike as the H2 (albeit with a smaller engine) the frames and critical diminishes (such as wheelbase) are different. Parts – including engines – do interchange between the S1 and the S2 (350 cc) and S3 (400 cc) though those bikes also have subtle differences unique to each model.

* The S1 succeeded the Samurai, which was also a two-stroke-powered, but more conventionally styled. The S1’s waspish fuel tank (which held 3.2 gallons of fuel) and body-colored tail piece (very radical at the time, though completely common now) defined the new bike’s look.

* A well-tuned S1 with aftermarket chambered pipes was capable of high 14 second quarter miles, if ridden by someone who knew how to launch a triple correctly.S1 vintage ad pic

* Like the H1 and H2 (and S3 and S4) the S1 featured an automatic oil-injection system that eliminated the need to pre-mix oil with gas in the tank. An extra set of three plugs was carried in a special rack under the seat, in the event the ones in the engine became fouled.

* The S1 250 engine was derived from the S2 350, which Kawasaki introduced first (1971) on the heels of the successful H1 500 (1969). This was a plus because even though the S1 was less powerful, it was more durable. The engine had been designed for 350 (later, 400) cc displacement and 45 rather than 32 (later, in ’74, 28) horsepower. It was thus very hard to hurt one… unless you let the oil tank run empty.

Excerpted from Eric’s book-in-process on weird/cool/collectible old bikes; due out whenever he finishes it – and whenever he can find a publisher for it. 

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11 COMMENTS

  1. I never ran across the small Kawasaki triple. But when I was a kid I had a Yamaha RD400F and my buddy had a KH500! oh the memories, I can hear those 2 stroke sound now:) First wheels, First crash, first race and win, first date with…well a lot of firsts:)
    IIRC mine had the auto lube oil injection the the KH needed premix. God I loved that RD! Not much money but one quick bike and never felt less then the guys with T/As.

  2. If the Original Poster of this wants to sell the bike I want to buy it. The S1 was one of my favorites. Had it in high school lol.

    Posted 2 days ago By Mammatus (103.50)
    Read more at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=792_1427026559

    User account
    http://www.liveleak.com/c/Mammatus

    Details for user: Mammatus
    None of your business, but I do like to ride, fly, kayak and a myriad of other things.
    Location: Sacramento, United States
    Member since Jun-30-2014
    Last activity 4 hours ago

    Send message. (not sure if this link’ll work, users can pm each other tho)
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  3. http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=792_1427026559

    Sweet sound and memories. I purchased a new KH250 in 76. I traded it in for a new Z1000 a year later. My M8 had the H1500 with similar pipes fitted. Now that was a sound and smell never to be forgotten.
    Posted 18 hours ago By FloppyDick (111.24)
    Bergerac, France

    ZANGADO
    Indeed a beautiful sound.
    H1 Mach III 500 (Produced: 1968-1972) (a two stroke triple)
    H2 Mach IV 750 (Produced: 1971-1975) (a two stroke triple)
    These were the king of the road back then. I can still smell the Bel-Ray!!
    Posted 18 hours ago By ZANGADO (4264.70)
    Philadelphia, United States

    Brian Westlake
    @ZANGADO
    and the 750 affectionately known as the ‘widow maker’.
    Posted 18 hours ago By Brian Westlake (249.30)
    Australia

    ZANGADO
    @Brian Westlake Yup, Bad ass bikes back then. Even the Suzuki’s had a liquid cooled 550/750 triple two stroke. The GT series.
    Posted 18 hours ago By ZANGADO (4264.70)
    Philadelphia, United States

    @Brian Westlake mostly because the frames cracked, but yeah, the H2 was my dream bike. I had shared ownership with one for about 5 months, before the other owner got a great deal so we sold it. Back then always buying and selling, in fact that guy still does; that’s his living now.
    Posted 18 hours ago By Bigs (1050.40)
    Malaysia

    Brian Westlake
    @Bigs
    The trouble with old bikes, the flexing frame. Mates got an R75/4 rubber cow and that thing is a beast in the corners!
    Posted 17 hours ago By Brian Westlake
    Australia

    nice bike..well kept too
    Posted 18 hours ago By Excel (610.30)
    United States

    Beautiful! I used to have one. Wish i still did.
    this is what motorcycle riding is all about.
    Not these new ‘cruisers’ with giant faring, saddle bags, hipsters footpads so you’re riding with your feet above your ears, and a giant windshield.
    If you’re going to ride like that you might as well buy a car.!
    Posted 17 hours ago By TheRealVisionary (1413.10)
    Niagara Falls, Canada

  4. Damn, now I’m going to have to look for a 2 stroke. My last was a ?73 RD350. A buddy had it laying in his yard- literally on its side for several years in northern California. He gave it to me. I had no clue what rough beast I was dealing with, I dragged it home, cleared the carbs and tank, and fired it off.

    Rusty chrome rims, weatherchecked 73 vintage tires, faded candy orange and some oxide on the fins of the engine. I headed down the street to the car wash, and rolled the throttle a bit. I remember thinking “gee, this is a nice light little bike, totally different than my BMW R75. Lots of power.” And also “this t-shirt sure is comfy today, maybe the flip flops aren’t the best idea I’ve ever had”.

    Then I rolled the throttle a little more and the second cylinder started running and I heard that “sausage monster”- and studied the clouds ahead of my eyes.

    With much more respect, I rode my white and shaking self back from the car wash , put it in the local paper, and pocketed a couple hundred bucks later that week. I’ve regretted not getting to know her better ever since…

    • Thanks, Ernie!

      These bikes are – to me – the essence of what makes motorcycling what it is. Or, was.

      It took a certain amount of nerve or stupidity to saddle up a triple. You joined a special club. It kept the riff-raff away.

      And today? They are a spitting, smoking cream of outrage against the death of what HST meant when he spoke of The American Dream.

      Which is why I have one – and fire it up whenever I’m feeling down.

      Highly recommend it.

      • A friend rolled up with his new Kaw 500 and said ‘take her for a spin’. I’d just fell outta my big rig and had that hot Detroit ringing in my ears. I applied a little throttle on the dirt road I lived on and then tried a bit more on the pavement. Damn near killed myself both times, pulled the front off the ground without trying and without meaning to on the pavement, had already skittered around on the dirt. It was getting close to dark and I could see where I was headed if I kept on. Brought it back and said it had a lot of pep. I’m afraid if I’d kept on it would have had a lot of poop. The little woman was surprised to see me come back so quickly. I don’t think he was. He’d seen me go all over the dirt road on the back tire when I didn’t even intend to. Scary quick.

      • It was a strange ride too, like nothing else I’d ever been on except a Zuk 250 autocross but twice as quick. You roll into the throttle and it’s not anything special till all of a sudden it seems to triple HP and then it’s hard to control or even modulate. it’s best I never rode it much. I was accustomed to rolling the throttle wide open on other bikes. This one would hurt you doing that.

        As an aside, another friend had bought a panhead chopper. When I rode it I felt like I needed a quirt and a can of ether……and a rear spring. They didn’t call ’em hardtails for nuttin

  5. I remember when Kaw brought out the 500cc Mach III (I guess that was the H1 you mentioned above?) 500 was a BIG 2-stroke at that time.
    When a friend showed up on a Suzuki 500 I asked him why he didn’t get the Kaw. He said he tried one, but it was too much work to keep the front wheel on the ground.

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