Classic Motorcycles: The Kawasaki Triples

The Kawasaki 500 H1 Mach 111.

John H Glimmerveen

When Kawasaki introduced their first triple cylinder 2-stroke in 1968/9, the H1 Mach 111, it took the motorcycle world by storm.

In the late sixties, the motorcycle industry was in a state of flux. The market had been long dominated by the famous names; some, such as Harley Davidson, Triumph, and Norton, had been around from the early 1900s. For performance, these companies had produced medium to large capacity 4-strokes. But, as with the international motorcycle racing scene, the smaller, lighter, 2-stroke, had surprised the big manufacturers and was taking over.

If the established manufacturers were surprised by the speed of the new 2-strokes, such as Yamaha's R3 350-cc parallel twin, they were completely blindsided by the Kawasaki triples. For street bike performance, the H1 was unrivaled; at least as far as acceleration was concerned. However, although the H1 could complete the ¼ mile in 12.96 seconds with a terminal speed of 100.7 mph, its handling and brakes fell short of the competitors' machines.

Unique features on the early H1 machines included CDI (Capacitor Discharge Ignition) and three separate exhaust systems. The layout of the mufflers was reminiscent of the MV Agusta 3 cylinder Grand Prix racers of the time, albeit on the opposite side of the bike.

The H2 Mach 1V

After the success of the 500-cc version, Kawasaki released a range of triples in 1972, including the S1 Mach 1 (250-cc), the S2 Mach 11 (350-cc) and a 750-cc version, the H2 Mach 1V, to complement the 500-cc H1.

Although the H1 and H2 were renowned for the acceleration, they also became infamous for their poor handling characteristics. So bad was the handling on this bike that it became known as the widow maker (not a nickname Kawasaki wanted for one of their machines!).

One of the problems with the handling on the H1 and H2 was their tendency to pull wheelies. Not only could these machines easily accelerate their front wheels into the air, they could easily do so traveling at over 100 mph! Few riders were capable of handling this phenomenon, especially at high speeds, with the result that many riders got injured (or worse) on these bikes. The net result was that insurance premiums for the H1 and H2 began to increase considerably, which ultimately affected sales.

Racing Success

To promote their street bikes, Kawasaki entered various national and international motorcycle races. Teams were generally supported by their national distributors. One particular country with a strong racing heritage was the UK. With support from Kawasaki Motors UK., riders Mick Grant and Barry Ditchburn placed first and second in the UK's prestigious MCN (Motor Cycle News) Superbike series in 1975 using the race version of the H2 750-cc bike.

During the 70s motorcycle manufacturers were becoming under increasing pressure from various governments to cut emissions from their motorcycles. These pressures ultimately led to 2-stroke's being discontinued from most manufacturers' line-ups.

In the US, the KH 500 (a development of the original H1) was offered for sale for the final year in 1976. The final model was coded A8. However, the KH 250 was sold until 1977 (model B2) and the KH400 until 1978 (model A5). In Europe, the KH series of 250 and 400-cc machines were available until 1980.

Popular Collectors Bike

Today the triple cylinder Kawasaki's are very popular with collectors. Prices vary considerably depending on the rarity of a particular model. For example, a 1969 H1 500 Mach 111 in excellent original condition is valued at around $10,000; whereas, a KH500 (model A8) of 1976 is valued at $5,000.

For restorers, parts for the Kawasaki are relatively easy to find. There are also a few private dealerships specializing in the triple cylinder bikes. In addition, there are a number of websites dedicated to the Kawasaki triples.