Generally, this has been a very reliable vintage performance ride. Hard to believe the infamous Kawasaki 500 H1 (aka, "Mach III") 'triple with a ripple' is over 40 years old now.
Since I've owned it, I've had the following things go wrong:
- CDI unit and rectifier need to be replaced (no spark).
- Had to replace coil (suspect it was original).
- Carbs had to be taken off and rebuilt due to bad gas (there's no way to drain carb bowls).
- Leaky fuel petcock valve.
- You MUST have good battery to keep CDI unit (and spark) going.
- Control cables wear out and there are SEVEN of them in all.
That's it! So far I've been lucky with no middle cylinder head gasket, pistons and rings, etc. trouble.
What can you say about a living legend and classic that has got so many accolades from riders and reviewers alike over the years, but at the same time was subject of so many handling horror stories, dark myths, obituaries, criticisms, EPA regulations, 'Earth Day protests' and disapproving glances? :-)
No matter what you think of two strokes, triples or Kawasaki's first and early H1s and later H2s (750s), they certainly were memorable machines -- for riders, passengers and spectators alike. A time of the 'wild quest' when newer generation, more powerful and faster bikes (by today's standards) of the late 60s and early 70s set the stage for today's marvelously refined machines. This is a 'mini tribute' of sorts to the H1's soul... when 'men were men'...or 'just plain crazy'. :-)
Distinctive in their engine note (especially when revved in anger), you could hear an H1 howling well off in the distance on any given Friday or Saturday summer night back then. For better or worse... good or bad... suicidal or exhilarating... right or wrong....legal or illegal. They ushered in a new era of motorcycling and 'super bikes', street warriors and Detroit 'super car killers' (yes...before the term 'muscle car' became universal, they were called 'super cars' back then).
Some say (like me) that when the H1 came out in 69, it was the FIRST real super bike. But when Honda came out with the game changing 750 four "K0" 6 months later (in Japan), the H1 was quickly eclipsed. Still, the 69 H1 established itself as the undisputed "world's quickest accelerating production bike" with 4 second 0-60 MPH time factory stock (a title that lasted quite a few years). Whereas Honda's mighty Four was a more balanced performance bike that set many bars much higher (at the time), the H1 triples were meant to do one thing and do it really really well. Go fast... very fast... right off the line street light to street light; or on the town drag race road or at the drag strip. All for $995.00... 'nicely appointed' and purposely styled and set up right out of the box. Electric start? Who needs it? First or second kick anytime...
Unique things about the H1? The high output two stroke 3 cylinder air cooled engine of course... along with high voltage (with audible electronic buzz) CDI ignition and special non-gap plugs. Three cylinders... three carbs... 3-into-3 pipes and silky smooth 'all up' 5 speed tranny... with regular (but good) drum brakes front and rear. In fact, the H1 was really all about that engine. Otherwise, it was pretty standard fare. For the record, though, special new tires tubes had to be designed for the rear wheel that featured a separate locking rim screw/bolt to keep the rims from spinning inside the tire/tube. Such was the leap in power to the rear wheel at that time.
The result? At idle the H1 sounded like 3 separate/detached chain saws clattering, clanking and chattering disjointedly, unevenly and rather obnoxiously. Fire up the RPMs for a rapid launch and pop the clutch (carefully!) and those 3 seemingly unconnected single cylinder engines instantly all came together in unison with a muffled, 'deep throat' growl and flashy/torque smooth steep and peaky afterburner rush til they howled frenetically in the 5K to 6K RPM range (or beyond for those with bigger ideas and 'jewels') with each shift. Nothing sounded fiercer and more distinctive and ear shattering on the streets when wound and thrashed thoroughly about or when smartly downshifted -- except maybe an early Porsche 911 or a hi-po 327 mouse motor. Funny how Kawasaki issued a promotional decal/sticker for the Mach III of a Roman chariot pulled by three strong horses... quite appropriately it seems. :-) "Put something exciting between your legs?"
Those clean, chrome fork tubes (with no fork brace) stood out and gave the bike a slight upward rake. Living in Tokyo, however, I soon saw my share of mangled and grotesquely twisted H1 tubes/front ends from numerous crashes by local Japanese two wheeled "kamikazes" and restless US GIs stationed in Japan who eagerly snapped up the first Mach IIIs until the Honda 750 K0 came out late 69 (in Tokyo). You see, it seems that while the H1/Mach III could accelerate like a rocket in a cloudy blue smoke screen and cacophony of attention getting go fast noises (by virtue of it's 60HP mill and 400 pound something light weight), it couldn't take a fast or sharp corner worth crap. As a rider, you REALLY had to respect this bike and your entry speed and line. As a passenger, you probably were scared 'itless' regardless.
Enter a curve too fast after a brisk or scorching run and the rider simply couldn't negotiate the turn no matter how much the lean. The bike's frame was seriously under designed and under built for that big powerful engine... those steel frame tubes were too small in diameter and ground clearance was a bit marginal. From personal experience, an H1 would quickly get out of sorts under aggressive "G" cornering force or uneven and rough pavement or changing radius tight curves. I mean, you could feel the frame (and line) twitching underneath like jello or earthquake aftershock zone in the 'Valley'. "Flexible Flyer", "Widow Maker", "Kamikaze 500", "Triple with a Ripple", "Grenade Launcher" were just a few of it's more colorful and 'complimentary' nicknames over the years. I managed to survive my 69 H1 by learning to hang my body way out radically into the curve to offset the bike's CG and stress points. Or so I think.
Oh... did I mention the H1 Mach III (especially 69 to 71s) weren't good for open road touring? :-) Some actually did take them cross country coast to coast though back then... But at 25 to 28 MPG with a small 4 gallon-ish tank, they sure must of got to sample a lot of gas stations and body sores. But that wasn't the point. It was about running about the town racing anything/everything... or just racing against yourself for the onlookers to enjoy. Besides, you had to practice routinely good starts and runs. Or you would pop the ever lurking high wheelie... or slip the clutch all the way to the next block. Power bands? Yes... it reportedly had/has 3 separate ones. But I only ever experienced the first two...3K and 6K. Too scared to look for the third... (purportedly at 7 or 8 grand).
My particular H1 is a 69 'low case' model with VERY low serial # of 000685 w/matching original engine. Because of their milestone bike nature and mythical status (to some), prices for good clean original early H1s are usually well above
$6K. Especially the 'blue streak' paint job versions (mine is such)... I also have a 71 'blue strobe' H1... which actually may be slightly faster than the 69. But in terms of being the first model year and so socially crude, uncivilized and unacceptable (even by early 70s standards) the 69 is very endearing... and scary. :-) For you young contemporary modern riders out there, a similar type legend machine would be the first Ninja GPz900R ("Top Gun bike") in terms of ground breaking performance and milestone engine design. (oh...wasn't that from Kawasaki too?) :-)
Surprisingly, early H1s were OK for driving sedately around town or out on secondary country roads for a spell -- or even for some commuting. Usually that entailed lugging, restraining or shutting an H1 down -- which H1s were not really happy doing. They wanted to be revved and driven hard. On the power band (s)...on the pipe (s)...coming on strong like an aircraft carrier catapult. Consequently, H1s usually turned otherwise conservative, mild, timid and non-aggressive novice riders into speed freak, pavement shredding maniacs -- till wrapping one around a tree, doing a flip over wheelie, and scaring or swearing them off for good (if they were lucky).
41 years after seeing and hearing and experiencing my first memorable glimpse of an H1 being put through its paces, I'm STILL in awe of this machine. I respect it. I love it. I fear it. I yearn for it and the good old days of 'simpler' -- if not more dangerous and insane -- times and machines.
Today? They have obviously settled into a well deserved novelty and curiosity ride for the weekend collector/rider. But there are few more exciting, noteworthy (for better or worse), exhilarating, reliable and fun vintage bikes to ride and own.
If you love bikes -- especially old ones -- try to see and hear one in action and maybe you'll better understand this 'review' and tribute to the H1 legend and soul. It has achieved mythical status in the world of motorcycles for those who care about milestone vintage machines... and for those who 'were there' when these raw uncivilized beasts needed to be tamed and conquered.