Motorcycle Classics

On the Hunt: The 1969 Kawasaki H1

1969 Kawasaki H1
Claimed power:
60hp @ 8,000rpm
Top speed:
119mph (period test)
498cc air-cooled 2-stroke inline triple, 60mm x 58.8mm bore and stroke, 7:1 compression ratio
Weight (half tank):
415lb (188kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
4gal (15ltr)/36.4mpg (period test)
Price then/now:

BRRACK! The pleasant background murmur of an old bike swap meet is suddenly drowned in a haze of 2-stroke noise and exhaust. Someone’s just fired up their Kawasaki triple, and while some folks cover their ears and curse the machine and its owner, others step over to see the bike.

Kawasaki 2-stroke triples seem to be polarizing machines, the object of intense hatred or intense love. Hans Agren loves them, noise, blue smoke and all. He was just 17 when he saw his first H1. When he was growing up in Sweden, a motorcycle was transportation, something you got to school or work on, weather permitting. The H1 was different. It was fast and antisocial, and just what a young man wanted.

Hans had some savings, and he found someone selling their H1 just six months after buying it. “I don’t know why they were selling it,” Hans says. “Maybe it was too fast, or maybe they needed the money.” Swedish law at the time forbade teenagers under 18 from owning 500cc motorcycles, but Hans finagled his way around that little detail.

Hans and his buddies were into drag racing, which was highly illegal, of course. One night the police showed up while they were racing. “The police stopped their car and came running. I took off and hid the bike in my father’s garage. Then I walked back to where my friends were. When I showed up two hours later, my friends were glad to see me. They had been worried. The police had run back to their car, but all you could see was the smoke from my exhaust. There was no way they could have caught me.”

H1 beginnings

Kawasaki, the manufacturer of this ode to speed and bad behavior, was an old Japanese ship and bridge building company that had the misfortune of ending up on the losing side of World War II. With the abrupt ending of its war contracts, its factories had a lot of extra space. Management, looking around for something to do, decided to start motorcycle production. The country’s transportation system had been destroyed, and people needed inexpensive transport, so small motorcycles, scooters and mopeds were very popular. Kawasaki started making two wheelers through its Meihatsu subsidiary, and in 1960 they bought Japan’s first successful motorcycle company, Meguro, and merged it with Meihatsu. Following this, the first motorcycles bearing the Kawasaki name appeared.

Other Japanese factories were capitalizing on the export success of Honda, and Kawasaki decided to follow suit. Their 2-stroke singles sold well in America, and Kawasaki felt it was in a position to challenge Honda. The heavy industry sector of the company was again doing well, and management decided to use the deep pockets it provided to finance the motorcycle subsidiary, which was Kawasaki’s only consumer division.

Kawasaki’s engineers started developing three very different engines: a 750cc 4-cylinder 4-stroke intended to debut in 1970, a 500cc 2-stroke twin that was basically a larger version of its 250cc and 350cc 2-strokes, and a new piston-port 500cc triple. Prototypes were built, and the triple was found to be lighter and faster than the twin. At the same time, Honda brought out its CB750 Four, a sensation and in fact very similar to Kawasaki’s 4-cylinder prototype.

Kawasaki’s engineers were ordered to keep working on the 4-cylinder until they had something that was clearly different and superior to the CB750. On the other hand, a 3-cylinder 2-stroke was an exotic and unusual engine configuration in 1969, and therefore excellent for the brand recognition Kawasaki wanted. Kawasaki shelved the twin, put off the debut of the 4-cylinder and went with the 3-cylinder 2-stroke. To ensure the company tapped into the youth market, the triple, badged the H1 Mach III, was list priced for $1,000 — a bargain even in 1969. Overnight, the old, staid company became the source of young men’s dreams. “Kawasaki’s new 500 has got to be the kinkiest street bike ever,” crowed the April 1969 edition of Cycle World.

For its time, the H1’s engine was pretty incredible, with silicon-aluminum alloy cylinders with cast-in iron liners, extensive and complex finning, oil injection, electronic ignition, aggressive porting and expansion chamber mufflers. All that added up to 60 horsepower at 8,000rpm, delivering a 12.8-second quarter-mile with a 99.5mph terminal speed and an advertised 125mph top speed. Unfortunately, the tender loving care with which the engine had been developed did not extend to the frame, forks and brakes.

Cycle ran a seven-bike Superbike Shootout in its March 1970 issue, with the H1 naturally included. The drum brakes, which have received a lot of criticism over the years, were for the first few passes in Cycle’s tests second-best behind the Honda CB750 with its front disc brake. Unfortunately, they started fading after repeated hard stops. Testers also found the H1 frightening to ride fast on bumpy curves. “It pitches and mini-wobbles,” they said. The rear shocks were considered inferior and ground clearance was less than other fast bikes. As it had in the Cycle World test, the H1 shone in the quarter-mile, with an elapsed time of 12.81 seconds and a terminal speed of 104.4mph. It was the third fastest, and the smallest of the bunch.

Making it better

Kawasaki quickly came up with a production racer, the H1R, with an improved racing frame, better forks, better ground clearance, 75 horsepower and a claimed top speed of 150mph. At a cost of less than $1,500, and with contingency money dangling, the fast boys at tracks all over America lined up at dealerships.

The H1 also quickly attracted controversy. It was noisy, blew blue smoke, and the kind of people who wanted to ride it were also the kind of people, like Hans, who got into trouble on motorcycles. The handling problems and the fade-prone brakes did not help matters. Kawasaki, concerned about bad publicity and liability lawsuits, started to back down. Increasingly, the beast was tamed.

For 1970, the frame and suspension were improved, and the distributor cover was redesigned to make the ignition more watertight. More extensive changes appeared in 1971. The front forks were more heavily damped, the rear shocks were improved and the electronic ignition, which often failed on the 1969 version, was updated. Unfortunately, the brakes still faded badly. A side effect of a more efficient, quieter and less smoky engine was that quarter-mile times were no longer in the 12s. A smaller 350cc version of the H1, reputed to have better handling, appeared in 1972, the same year the 500 finally got the front disc brake it had been crying for since its debut. The H1’s quarter-mile times, however, moved farther up into the 13-second column. Kawasaki also gave up on the electronic ignition and replaced it with a conventional breaker points system.

At the same time that some young people were worshipping at the altar of speed, others were becoming more and more concerned with the environment, and the environmental contingent was getting the government’s ear. Emissions controls and decibel limits loomed on the horizon and Kawasaki, finally satisfied that its 4-stroke 4-cylinder was a worthy opponent for the Honda CB, introduced the very fast yet also very civilized 903cc Z1 in 1972.

2-stroke fans

Despite the success of the Z1, a lot of people liked the 500 triple and were upset when it went out of production in 1975, just ahead of legislation that mandated emissions standards that the triple could not meet. Kawasaki Triple clubs were started by enthusiasts worldwide in 1979 when parts sources started to dry up, and they are still going strong. There are Triple clubs in Canada, Australia, the U.K., Italy, Netherlands, the U.S. — and Hans’ home country of Sweden. “Enthusiasts from around the world dedicated to the preservation and ritual flogging of the infamous Kawasaki 2-stroke triples,” as one forum proclaims.

Meanwhile, Hans Agren rode his H1 to school. He rode it on trips to Norway. He repainted it. And he eventually traded it for a more comfortable, more reliable and more boring Honda. “It wasn’t as powerful as the Kawasaki,” he remembers. The Honda was sold and bikes were shelved for a while. Hans moved to the U.S. in 1982 and bought a Honda XL in 1984, which, unfortunately, was stolen. He started to export bikes, mostly Gold Wings, from the U.S. to Sweden, and bought a Honda Hawk and a Ducati with the profits. And in the back of his mind was the thought of his first love, the H1. About 10 years ago, he decided to start looking for one.

On the hunt

1969 H1s are not easy to find. Their raucous character meant they suffered a lot of abuse, and most of the thousands manufactured by Kawasaki didn’t survive the Sixties and Seventies. Hans put an ad in a magazine, and someone called him — two days before a scheduled trip to Sweden. The owner tried to organize a bidding war between Hans and another would-be buyer. “I gave up and got on the plane,” Hans says. After that, things went dry for a few years.

Finally, two years ago, a 1969 H1 in bad shape came up on eBay. At this point, Hans had been looking for years, with no results, so he swallowed hard and bought it. “I’ve been restoring it since then.” He got the bike running, but it was not reliable. “I wanted to trust it, and not be worried I would be stuck somewhere,” he says, “but I had to be picked up a couple of times. Then I blew up the engine.” The engine was a mess, but David Singleton, a Tesla engineer, helped Hans rebuild the crankshaft with better bearings and modern seals and upgraded the electronics. He also helped with the transmission and rebalanced the crank to cope with the lighter weight of new high-tech connecting rods. The engine is now reliable — and very fast.

Hans has not just been restoring the H1, but has also been doing development work on the suspension, ignition and brakes, work that Kawasaki didn’t bother with when they introduced the bike. “I wanted to keep the bike stock-looking,” Hans says. But the chassis only appears to be stock: Hans has built a stealth Kawasaki triple, one that takes corners as well as burns up drag strips.

Vintage racers told him about a firm called Vintage Brakes in Sonora, California. “The guy told me I should send him the hubs and it would take six months.” Six months later, the brakes were back. “It was like night and day,” Hans says, adding, “the brakes are now way better than stock.” The Hagon shocks look stock, but unlike the original units, they actually work as advertised. Hans spent a lot of time working on the front forks to make them work better. He bought a fork brace on eBay, installed stiffer springs and used heavier fork oil. He also went to tapered bearings in the triple tree so the fork assembly would have a more positive association with the frame.

Now that the bike is set up, maintenance is minimal. Hans rides the bike two or three days a week for short jaunts, and has racked up 2,000 miles on it so far. The carburetors have stayed in tune, and the bike idles nicely. Being a 2-stroke, there are no valves to adjust, but the heads will be removed every 5,000-10,000 miles to clean the combustion chambers. “You know when it is time,” he says. “The bike stops running properly.”

“For an old bike it is very quick,” Hans says. “It is very light, and I have gotten used to the flex in the frame. I can keep up a pretty good pace with this bike. There is no engine braking and there is no power under 5,500rpm — you use both brakes and keep the revs up in turns.”

When I spoke with him, Hans had just returned from a ride, smoking a Ferrari on a backroad north of San Francisco where he lives. “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. It was enjoyable to restore the bike and it is total satisfaction to ride it. It’s fun. I can give a lot of people trouble with it.” Somewhere, someone’s probably cursing Hans — while three others are watching with jealousy. MC

  • Published on Dec 10, 2015
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