More Than a Pet Project: 1964 Kawasaki M5 Pet

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Photo by Dain Gingerelli
Bruce Gilevich's 1964 Kawasaki M5 Pet.

1964 Kawasaki M5 Pet
Claimed power: 4.5hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 48mph
Engine: 49cc air-cooled single-cyclinder 2-stroke, 41mm x 37.8mm bore and stroke, 6.7:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 166lb (75.3kg)
Fuel capacity: 1.5gal (5.7ltr)
Price then/now: $260/$2,000

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does capitalism, which explains why this little motorcycle, powered by a 49cc 2-stroke engine, formed the vanguard for future Kawasaki motorcycles that would eventually come to America from Japan.

The story begins with the economic vacuum itself, created when an obscure Japanese motorcycle company known as Pointer quietly went out of business. As late as 1962, Pointer motorcycles had been imported into the U.S. by Ned Brainard of Ray Marine Distributing Company, headquartered in Seattle, Washington. But by autumn of 1963, Pointer had pointed its last bike to these, or any other, shores.

About that same time, Oct. 2, 1963, to be precise, another American entrepreneur, Fred Masek, owner of Masek Auto Supply Co., in Gering, Nebraska, had inquired about importing Pointer-brand motorcycles, too. In a reply letter dated Nov. 20, 1963, by Naigai Boeki Kaisha, Ltd., an export house based in Osaka, Japan, Masek was informed that Pointer was no more. The company had gone out of business, he was told.

That was the bad news for Masek. The good news was that, and as pointed out in that November letter from exporter Naigai Boeki Kaisha, there was another line of affordable Japanese motorcycles available for U.S. import. The brand name: Kawasaki.

Naigai Boeki Kaisha’s November correspondence to Masek indicated that with “Pointer’s discontinuation, we would recommend you to handle our ‘KAWASAKI’ and ‘MEGURO’ brands in [the] future.” The seed for what eventually would become Kawasaki Motor Corporation, the U.S. importer and distributor for Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ (sometimes referred to as Kawasaki Aircraft in motorcycle periodicals of the time) line of motorcycles, had been planted.

The first Kawasaki

Genesis for that seed actually dates back to the early 1950s, when Kawasaki Machine Industries (precursor to Kawasaki Aircraft) began production of the KE-1, a 148cc overhead-valve single-cylinder engine that was supplied to various Japanese motorcycle manufacturers of the day, including Fuji, Gasuden and IMC. The little 4-cycle engine was said to produce 4 horsepower at 4,000rpm.

By 1954, Kawasaki had formed a subsidiary, Meihatsu Industries, with the goal of producing complete motorcycles. The first motorcycle to ever bear the name Kawasaki was produced by this new pision.

Meihatsu Industries remained solvent throughout the 1950s, and by 1960 the aspiring pision had its own factory dedicated to manufacturing motorcycles. The following year Kawasaki acquired Meguro, the second-largest motorcycle company in Japan, and from that union sprouted two all-new Kawasaki models, the B8 (powered by a 125cc single-cylinder 2-stroke) and the 49cc 2-stroke M5 Pet, the model featured here.

It was in the Nov. 20, 1963, letter that Naigai Boeki Kaisha exporters made their pitch to Masek: “However, seeing the change in requirements at your end for motorcycles from small displacement as 90cc or 125cc to larger one[s], we have come to terms with [the] Kawasaki factory to the effect that we are exclusive export agent of their products in your territory. Enclosed please find our catalogue, brochures, [and] offer No. 25665/1 & 25666/2 for ‘KAWASAKI’ and ‘MEGURO’ brands for your perusal.” Masek accepted the offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

With that background, let’s have a closer look at this 1964 M5 Pet, which is perhaps one of the earliest all-Kawasaki motorcycles to exist in America today. (Eventually motorcycles bearing either the Meihatsu and Meguro logos were dropped entirely, leaving only Kawasaki as the name brand.)

Pet project

Like Honda’s popular Super Cub, the Pet featured a step-through frame and, similarly, its engine was concealed by a plastic splash shroud that bolts to the frame. Unlike the Super Cub, the Pet had a 2-stroke engine with a manual-shift transmission (the Honda relied on 4-stroke power with a 3-speed transmission using a centrifugal clutch), although a centrifugal clutch variant, called the M5NC Pet, was offered in 1963. Bore and stroke of the 49cc engine were set at 41mm x 37.8mm.

Interestingly, too, the M5 Pet had electric starting, with a backup kickstart lever handily stored beneath the swing-up seat, just in case the electrics failed. A kickstart-only version, known as the M5K, was later offered.

Kawasaki rated the M5 at 4.5 horsepower. A compression ratio of 6.7:1 meant that the little 49cc engine could burn just about any grade of gasoline available at the time, with recommended oil premix set at 20:1. The owner’s manual claimed a brazenly optimistic top speed of 48mph.

Wheel rim diameter was 16 inches front and rear. Curiously, though, the Pet’s Yokohama-brand tires (original!) mounted on our feature bike tout tire size as “20-2.50,” a now-outdated designation. A more accurate description might follow the conventional nomenclature today of — in this case — 2.50 x 16.

Pet life

This particular Pet was among four Kawasaki motorcycles originally imported by Masek Auto Supply in 1964. The bikes were shipped from Osaka, Japan, on June 12 of that year. Distributor price for the two M5s on the manifest was $131 each. There’s no record of our feature bike ever being sold. Given that the bike was part of Fred Masek’s estate after his passing in the early 1990s, it’s assumed that he was its sole owner.

Regardless, the bike boasts the patina of use, so it undoubtedly was ridden at some point in time. According to the bike’s current owner, Kawasaki collector Bruce Gilevich, shortly after the Pet arrived Masek loaned it to a close friend, Lee Swartzkopf, who had a teenage nephew in want of a motorcycle to get him in and about the town of nearby Scottsbluff, Nebraska. According to Gilevich, Swartzkopf’s nephew, Timmy, immediately put a DYMO label maker to use, making an adhesive label with his name on it that he attached to the bike’s handlebar. The sticker is now gone but its faint imprint remains.

Sadly, Lee Swartzkopf passed away only weeks before I embarked on researching this story and nobody in the Swartzkopf family can confirm this early vignette of the bike’s saga. As an aside, Swartzkopf was founder and owner of Kawasaki Korner, among the first Kawasaki dealerships in America, established in Scottsbluff on Nov. 11, 1968, and still open today.

Gilevich purchased the bike in the mid-1990s, shortly after Fred Masek’s passing. By that time Masek’s son, Alan, was custodian of the Pet and other bikes owned by his father. Gilevich heard about the surviving Pet from Lee Swartzkopf.

“I used to go to the Midwest looking for old Kawis,” Gilevich says. “I’d stop at dealerships and ask if they had any old bikes or parts they wanted to sell. This was before eBay, and they’d come out from the back room with a pile of parts. I’d ask them how much they wanted for them, and they’d say, ‘Oh, a hundred bucks’ or something like that.” One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and today Gilevich has a treasure trove of vintage Kawasaki bikes and parts, much of it bought for pennies on the dollar.

When Masek rolled the Pet out for Gilevich to view, the accidental shopper from California wasn’t impressed. “I didn’t know what it was,” Gilevich recalls. “I asked Lee his opinion, and he said, ‘Well, it’s old, so that accounts for something.’” Gilevich turned to Alan Masek as if to ask: “So, what do you want for it?”

Masek paused for a moment to assess the situation, then said, “Let me do my due diligence,” meaning, “I’ll think about it.” And after some serious thought he called Gilevich back and announced a price. Sold!

It followed me home

Gilevich brought the Pet home to California with him, placing the little step-through bike in the nether reaches of his storage shed. And because his growing collection was beginning to include some interesting old Kawis, he didn’t have time to fiddle with this worn-out scooter, so the bike sat forlornly for years.

Eventually, he and his friend Norm Bigelow, who had worked many years for Kawasaki Motor Corporation before retiring a few years ago, began researching the Pet’s history. Armed with information gleaned from those early letters and sales invoices to Masek Auto Supply, they concluded that this was a rather historic motorcycle, at least within the Kawasaki realm. And as the ordained curator of Kawasaki Motor Corporation’s growing collection of old Kawis, Bigelow pushed Gilevich to get the little tiddler running.

It didn’t take much to put new life into that 49cc engine, either. Good thing, too, because with KMC’s 50th anniversary approaching for 2016, Kawasaki’s management, with Bigelow’s urging, decided to make the little bike the star of the 50th anniversary dealer show in Palm Springs, California.

“This was the bike that I rode onto the stage to open the show,” Bigelow says. His biggest fear wasn’t that the aging and cracked Yokohama tires would fail, but that the engine itself wouldn’t light up. “Yeah, I was pretty worried that the engine might not fire up,” he says.

But it did fire up, and the show was a success. Perhaps Bigelow’s biggest memory of that day was the smell of Castrol R wafting from the bike’s single exhaust pipe. “I opened the 50th dealer show riding the Pet on stage,” Bigelow recalls. “The smell of Castrol R oil in the air was a special treat to the dealers who knew what it [the Castrol R] was. Later, a few came up and told me the smell was cool.” Some kids never grow up!

The 50th anniversary dealer show was a success for another reason. There was an appearance by Eddie Lawson, four-time AMA National Champion (riding for Kawasaki) and four-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion (riding for the “other” guys), riding onto the stage aboard his own KZ1000 Eddie Lawson Replica. That bike happens to be special, too — it carries KZ1000 ELR frame number 21, which was Lawson’s AMA racing number when he won his four titles for the Big K. Fittingly, the dealers gave Lawson, who wore a period-correct racing jacket for the occasion, a standing ovation.

At the end of the day, every dealer in attendance owed more than a little bit of gratitude to that little rust-smattered gray bike that Bigelow carefully motored onto the stage. Because when all is said and done, that 166-pound motorcycle known as the Pet had quite ably filled a large marketing vacuum so many years ago. MC

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