Why The King Died

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No, not Elvis.

This old Kawasaki motorcycle I’ve got sitting in my office. It 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.

And specifically, Kawasaki 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 new Corvette – only 50 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 needle bounced 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 Hellcat Redeye 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 damned 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 had a single cylinder, but four-stroke, dual-sport motorcycle. It made about 15 hp. Stack that up against the little S1 triple I’ve resurrected. 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 piston. 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!

. . . .

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  1. Nothing like a 2-stroke up on the pipe, baby! It’s comparable to the angels singing. Very angry and vengeful angels. Angels that want you to grab a handful and yeet yourself into the woods.

  2. My first street bike was a 1975 Suzuki GT500 . What a blast! That distinct sound from that twin and the way it buzzed , popped and cackled. She wanted to run! The bike was originally my best friends older brothers who was stationed in the Army, it sat in a storage shed in their back yard. Being avid dirt bike riders for since elementary school we couldn’t resist sneaking the bike out for some fun! We rode that bike around the area for some time illegally (only 15 yrs old) for the whole summer! The front forks were slightly bent so no front shocks! That was dangerous but we didn’t care. This was the beginning of my many years of fun and several other bikes until a severe accident in my mid twenties sidelined my desire to ride. Memories!

  3. “All of which is too damned bad, because, like another oddball engine – the Wankel, or rotary – two strokes are much more efficient at making power than four-strokes.”

    Two-strokes definitely get more horsepower per pound of engine than four-strokes, but with reduced fuel efficiency, do they not? Blowing the exhaust out with the incoming mix has got to be less efficient than pumping one out and sucking the other in. As for rotary engines, my understanding is that they’re both heavy for their horsepower and don’t get fuel efficiency that can match a four-stroke. Am I wrong?

    (I do think rotary engines are very cool; nothing in the piston/crankshaft world can match their innate smoothness)

  4. I had a ’75 H2C back in mid-70’s up in the Mid-Hudson Valley (Twn. of LaGrange, near Poughkeepsie). Purchased from the local Kaw shop – Dandeneau Kawasaki. Called Mr. Dandeneau one day and told him I was looking for a 900 Z1, he told me he didn’t have any Z1s, but his son’s H2C was up for sale. Got right out to his shop in Pleasant Valley, took a ride from hell, and picked the bike up later that day. If I recall, paid the pricey sum of $1,500 for it. His son had painted it white (tank, two side covers, headlight shell, and ducktail). Since I didn’t want to be seen around the area and elicit the obvious comments of “that’s Dana’s old bike” (you small town guys will know what I’m ‘talkin about), I got the parts off and had a local Vette expert do me right. I asked him what leftover paint he had and was told he had some extra Cadillac/Ditzler paint in the gorgeous shade of Damson Firemist Plumb (a deep red/burgundy, with lots of metallic). When the paint was done, with the flat black Bill Wirges chambers, the bike was stunning. Had the then-standard Dunlop K81 performance tires and the K&N filters on the three Mikunis. The bike was literally a rocket, didn’t handle for crap, but didn’t matter. By the time of the H2C, Kaw had lengthened the swingarm by 2.0″ in an effort to get rid of the mid-apex watusi dance the earlier triples were famous for, didn’t work. The bike was meant for one thing only: crap-in-your-pants straight-line acceleration. It came on the pipe right around 3,500-4,000 rpm, and then felt like a cat shot off the Nimitz in an F/A-18. The front had a single disc on it, was woefully inadequate in hauling that monster of a bike down, found that out a few times too. Of all my bikes, this was the one that I ‘shoulda kept, oh well….

    • Hi TN!

      Have you got any pictures of the H2? I aspire to owning one of these, someday. I console myself with a restored ’75 S1 in Halibut Blue and my faithful ’76 Kz900…

      • Eric,
        Alas, no pictures of the H2. I sold it as I then progressed to autos. My first car was a ’70 Boss 302 Mustang. I do have one pix of that though, but none of the bikes before the H2 (Arctic Cat Climber minibike, Yamaha AT3 125 enduro, and a Yankee 500Z (quite a story in itself)). Once down in FL (ERAU in DAB), did a Yamaha FZ1 (their naked sportbike) and then a Kawasaki ZRX1200R (Kaw’s naked sportbike), never was into all the plastic full-on sportbike stuff. My B302 story is detailed in the 26th post down to Mark McCourt’s Hemmings article on first cars: https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2020/03/26/my-first-car-hemmings-editorial-staff-share-motoring-memories-part-one
        Did a bunch of Fox (LX 5.0s) and SN95 ‘Stangs (including an ’03 10th Anniv. SVT Cobra ‘Stang) and an ’18 1SS Camaro, now just have a Silverado 2500. Shoot me an email if you’d like to hear some more stories, love your site…

  5. My dad got is mid-life crisis on and bought a 71 Yamaha R5 350. Wasn’t as fast as the Kawas but fast enough and relatively good handling. When I was 14, I use to blast around the Oakland hills and East bay of what use to be the free state of CA (now under communist domination)

    Hunter Thompson…I remember reading his book on the Hells Angels and when they let him ride along with them he had a dilemma…he couldn’t pick a Harley because that would signal he wanted to join and likely get his ass kicked. So he devoted a whole chapter on what bike he could select that did not get his ass kicked. Japanese…no f’ing way, that would immediately get his ass kicked. How about a limey bike? Triumph…? No way because Brando rode one in the Wild Ones movie…and get his ass kicked. Norton…? No way because there was a drag bike kicking Harleys at the drag strip and get his ass kicked. BSA…? Birmingham Small Arms (Gun Makers), British, not Harley, no negative alignments against the Hells Angels, no reason for an ass kicking…done. BSA it was.

  6. Two-stroke engines definitely win the power/weight contest. It’s too bad about all the smoke, though. Couldn’t some design provide lubrication without adding oil to the gas? The other thing I dislike about two-stroke engines is their sound. Definitely less pleasing than a four-stroke engine. But for what they do, they can’t be beat.

  7. I am an old codger- so I like to torque around- the Kawi ZRX1200 is my machine of choice- no, it does not have the power of the modern 14k screamers, the torque is everywhere, and the four carbs give a sweet, rheostat like throttle control that few injected bikes can match. 50mpg, a valve train with shims on top of the buckets so you can adjust the valves without pulling the cams, very little for electronics, IMO, the very peak of the 30 year development of the UJM. Adda set of pipes, and a jet kit, good for another 20hp easy.
    She will be almost old enough to drink in a year or two.

    • Amen, Stone –

      My ’03 has the Ivan’s jet kit and Muzzy exhaust – and the dyno says 141 hp. I love the bike’s less-raked ergonomics, which matter to a guy as tall as I am. Full-on crotch rockets with clip-ons are back-killers after an hour or even less. I’ve ridden my Rex to Ohio and back (from SW Va) and enjoyed the ride. As you say: The apotheosis of the UJM. Very few electronics, but modern brakes and a reasonably modern suspension (I would sell my soul to Satan for a full Ohlins set-up).

      It’s a keeper!

  8. Took me back to my youth, good buddy had a 750 that could beat any “hot rod” in my town for straight-line, eat smoke runs. He wound up getting tossed off it in a high speed chase with the county cops, the grass in the field saved his life but the bike was bent beyond any hope of repair. What did he do? Bought a 250 Suzuki dirt bike and continued with the mayhem, of course…. We were fucking crazy in Detroit back in the 70’s.

  9. If only Kaw had made a bike competent enough to go with all that power. At 18 I bought one. It is good to be18, you just know everything because you graduated shop class & High School. I bought a used H1 from a guy. Took in up on the freeway for the trip home. Went to pass an old guy who was just going too slow for me. Dropped a gear and hit the throttle…boogg air filter noise but no passing power. Dropped another gear (4,000 – 5,000 RPM? I think). WE looked at each other as I exceeded Elon Musks’ wildest acceleration dreams with the front wheel a good 2 or 3 feet in the air at 75+ – and no helmet. 4,000 to redline in the blink of an eye. Panic shift up at redline and guess what, right back at about 4,000 for a return trip to the moon. No brakes, horrible steering, forget about capable high speed suspension and three summertime seizures (because of oil injection problems – do not even think of touring on that thing) later I found someone more willing to die than me. But if your game is to win the Saturday night American Graffiti 1/4 mile pink slip race saddle up pilgrim.

  10. Morning eric. You make a good point about G. Everything it touches goes downhill as fast as G can make it happened. Hell, now the Marxist G perversion is having huge fights about a baby being a boy or a girl. It seems, if you listen to a large group, you have to put it on the counter, let it ripen and figure out what it is at some non-specific time. Best of all THEY say, is to let it figure out what it is.

    Godalmighty, I’m so grateful they stuck a cowboy hat and boots on my and kicked my little butt out the door into the dirt that I took an instant liking to. Now “G” has deemed me too old so if I want to play in the dirt I guess I’ll have to go to Mexico.

    Thomas L. Knapp put a pretty accurate spin on what is happening in this country in every way. A good quote from JFK led the article “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.

    I wonder how the survivors, if there are any, will look back on the soon to be history? I’ll just take my old dreams and loves to wherever I end. But one thing for sure, if I still have a hand strong enough to grip, I won’t be going quietly into that night as William so famously said. I’ll quote Charleston Heston and say right now, whatever you take from me will be from my cold, dead hands.

  11. One place I am glad to see 2 stoke be phased out is boat engines. I always hated seeing the oil slick trailing behind them.

    • Me too. I’m all for clean air and water.

      The problem is, now that carbon dioxide is considered a pollutant, *any* combustion engine is “dirty”.

  12. Had a Yamaha Daytona Special 400 when I was younger. Kick my self over and over for selling that thing. It would be a perfect ride for me now. Dammit!

  13. Eric,

    As I’ve stated before, I looked at an H2 a few months after getting my motorcycle license. I cut my teeth on an old Yamaha XS-400, and I was looking for something bigger and more powerful. I test rode an old 750 H2, and had the crap SCARED OUT OF ME! It lofted the front wheel in all four gears. The bike vibrated like crazy when you twisted the throttle. It was said that, with the H2, a 100 hp engine was installed in a 80 hp frame, with 60 hp brakes-something like that. I never rode such an EVIL machine before or since…


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