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The Widowmaker and the Idiot

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Dragging pegs at Road America, Turn 6.
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Anders Carlson’s 1975 Kawasaki H1.
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First picture with the bike, before noticing the lack of front brake.
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An hour wrenching for every minute you get on the track.
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Anders Carlson’s 1975 Kawasaki H1.
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Slightly "repaired" right-side metal side cover.
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Piston No. 3, "customized" by Road America.
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Things you're not meant to rebuild, like the speedometer.
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Black scuffs show heat damage. Shift fork was replaced.
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Crazy Kawi side stand lean is part of the charm.
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Sometimes white whales come in brown and yellow: author and motorcycle.

It makes sense that a motorcycle designed to stimulate adrenaline and invite bad decisions has the same power when broken down and parked in a barn. My first glimpse of a Kawasaki triple came in A Century of Japanese Motorcycles by Didier Ganneau and Francoise-Marie Dumas. The triple shown on Page 96 disengaged my frontal lobe and raised hairs on my arm just looking at it. The third pipe was a middle finger to the EPA, your parents, Ralph Nader or anybody else trying to keep you down.

While Honda wanted to grow the U.S. market with easy-riding bikes with push-button starting, Kawasaki just wanted to dominate anything unlucky enough to line up next to it. Before anyone cared about emissions standards or product liability, a large 2-stroke street bike was a fine marketing idea. Kickstart-only with a 500cc 2-stroke 3-cylinder engine, the H1 was extremely wheelie-prone. Old Hondas got parked in a barn and forgotten. Kawasakis got wrapped around telephone poles. Dangerous and crude, the H1 gave Kawasaki a reputation that makes money to this day.

Result and causation

My 2-stroke obsession stems from the belief that they run on magic. The kind of magic that finds your card in a deck or produces a quarter behind your ear. Sleight of hand and misdirection. Result and causation. The power-stroke itself inducts fresh fuel to feed the next satisfyingly smoky bang. Fresh fuel passes uneasily next to spent charges, helped by chamber exhaust pipes that use sound and air pulses to keep them distinct. The alchemy of guesswork and intuition that goes into optimizing transfer ports hints at divinity. Religion is a touchy subject, so magic it is.

Today, the danger from power surges and poor handling has been replaced by threats to sanity when hunting down unobtainable oil lines, exhaust baffles and stators. You could buy Honda OEM pipes until about 15 years ago. But Kawasaki considered its work largely done after assembling the motorcycle. Some 40 years later, the current aftermarket craze for CB café, tracker or brat styles actually make OEM Kawasaki parts seem affordable — if you can find them.

So when a poop-brown/caution-tape-yellow 1975 H1F appeared, I jumped at the chance to offer too much money with zero thoughts as to why it didn’t run. It had been recently purchased in Wisconsin from a deceased hoarder by 6-Volt Cycles owner Jason Koschnitzke, who’s forgotten more than I’ll ever known about motorcycles. It came with no further backstory. Seemed like a safe bet.

Almost complete except for a front brake and showing 5,009 miles on the clock, it seemed a steal. Theft is right. Knowing nothing about H1 restoration, getting a runner would involve stolen luck and favors in equal measure. With the wife out of town, I plunked down $1,500, took delivery and began figuring out what I’d gotten myself into.

Diving in

Far from producing smoky burnouts, it’s extremely stationary. It smells like old socks, bong water and stuff with California cancer labels. Pipes are good, as is most chrome, with the tank being dented but amazingly rust-free. No title. Paint is unspectacular but original. Most charming of all, a small saucepan has replaced the stator cover. The rear taillight is crooked, like it’s pulling to the right. That might be something to look into. But i’s mine. I’m undertaking a project few folks would attempt. The first thing I master is showing it off. Pictures are taken and people stop by to see it. It’s a pre-race victory lap. But I’m broke. Instead of working on the bike, I’m working to raise funds.

The plan is for a thorough, but not cosmetic restoration. I want a “sleeper” that’s faster and handles better than stock. Clean and shiny doesn’t make anything go faster. Disassembly is free, so I dive in. Oh boy. H1 mileage is measured in quarter-miles. Rode hard and put away wet, they earned rest once their owners were in a cast. The instrument cluster is crushed, with handlebars skewed. The stator is mangled. The wiring looks OK, except for wires dangling from the kill switch. The previous owner just hotwired it.

The mist of old 2-stroke oil covering it preserves rubber bits. The tires are fossilized. Neither air box nor oil tank contains dead animals, though the filter is filled with old Chinese newspapers. As for the engine, seals are shot and the crank needs rebuilding. The piston rings are immobilized in a tar pit of burnt oil and friction welding. The cylinders are cave paintings of poor maintenance and oversight. A half-millimeter overbore won’t be enough. And one baffle is missing — one of the most unobtanium bits. It’s enough to piss off a pope.

Still, there are positives. The wiring’s in great shape, with gorgeous 6-point connectors. The chrome and the pipes are a solid 8/10, and the original air box is present, a tough thing to find. There ends the good news.

Spending money begins

A disposable new ad job brings disposable income, so cylinders and heads get sent to Millennium Technologies in Wisconsin, along with new Wössner pistons for a 1mm overbore. The crank is sent to Dave’s Triples in California and returns in immaculate shape, balanced and with new bearings and seals.

Next up is the frame. It’s bent, and so is the swingarm. The rear shocks sashay to the right, rendering the frame useless. eBay turns up another swingarm, with homemade bracing. Which is also bent. As is the next one I source. Apparently all H1 parts have a shark-tooth necklace-wearing kid in 1978 in a body cast to thank for their existence.

A second frame turns out to be an H2 frame. I waste four hours driving back to return it, and come home with a rusty ’73 H1 frame — which is also bent. Only an idiot trusts idiots. But the new frame has decent wheel geometry, so it stays. New tapered steering head bearings go in, and the swingarm gets rebuilt. A new steering damper is sourced, since the old one “came off.” I flip the forks to install a trailing-edge Ninja EX500 front brake. With a drilled rotor, I’ll have improved stopping power. Especially with new Avon tires.

Nobody makes oil lines anymore. So I buy old ones reconditioned by a Kawasaki Triples forum member. Three molded plastic lines, each with differing diameter and length, mate to the engine block with banjo bolts containing check valves. Blue 2-stroke oil, not unlike Smurf’s blood, flows through them. Built right, they transport the lifeblood of the engine. Built wrong, they don’t. A favorite mistake is to over-tighten the banjo bolts instead of using fresh crush washers. Fun stuff. I get strong oil flow to No. 1, OK flow to No. 2 and somewhat less to No. 3. After a day of squinting and testing, the flow rates seem comparable. I replace oil pump seals, adjust the cable, and pray it’s right-ish.

Seek and ye shall find

More crash damage. The bottom left engine mount is broken off. ChiVinMoto hero Brett Kurtz comes to my rescue and TIG welds things back to form. The stator is totally wadded, so I source one via the Triples Forum again. Fun fact: The first H1 in 1969 had a primitive electronic ignition, but Kawasaki reverted to points to keep the list price under $1,000 before switching back in 1973. I decide against keeping the saucepan as a stator cover. A used one is sourced along with an oil pump cover, the old one being cracked in half.

An instrument cluster is bought and repainted. I rebuild the speedometer to show off the low mileage, but fail. It looks good, though. The idiot lights work, appropriately enough. New right-hand controls and bright red coil wires and spark plug boots go on. Does red complement brown and yellow? Probably.

Projects are like Pixies songs. There are loud and quiet parts. Sometimes obsession drives you into a flurry of activity. Sometimes the bike just glares as you ignore it in the garage. One day it’s Pygmalion, and the next it’s a millstone around your neck. The dream of wrist-snapping wheelies lives alongside nightmares of everything going wrong. The $600 rebuilt crank could hydro-lock itself into a doorstop. A speck of dirt might weld the Wössner piston to the cylinder. I worry and fantasize in equal measure.

But in December, I swallow hard and kick it 10 times before it sputters to life. “Life” might be a stretch. But it’s not dead. The timing is OK and it’s running rich. But I could twist the throttle all night. The most satisfying sound cracks to life every time my wrist twitches. It’s like doing coke through a party favor. At 7,000rpm, a tenor growl emerges from the buzz-saw whine. I fill my garage with victory smoke and the spray of High Life.

Triumph is short-lived. The next few weeks are all fouled plugs and air leaks. One cylinder abruptly quits, then another. I bring pocketfuls of plugs wherever I go, but I end up pushing my untrusty steed a mile home. Twice.

Trading mechanical and wrenching failures for judgement and planning failures, I shelve the H1 in favor of my CB360 “race bike” (See Of Pride and Pointlessness, Motorcycle Classics, May/June 2016). I spend all summer trailering the worst race bike in existence all over North America, before preparing my workhorse CB750 for the annual fall trip to Wisconsin. The H1 sits idle, more metaphor than motorcycle. A winter layoff turns into spring. Attention turns to the 2016 AHRMA season. The CB360 is already prepped and “proven” on the track. Proven and boring.

But the H1? Tempting.

Race prep

A 500cc 2-stroke fits into several classes, but the easiest is Production Heavyweight. You just need to safety-wire the bike and secure an oil-catching cloth under the engine. And add decent tires, a better front brake and a decent tune.

Brett Kurtz convinces me to get mathematical with squish bands. Blessed with an engineering workplace, he mills down the heads to get closer to the magical space between head and piston crown. What’s the magical distance? If you know, it’s not magic, right? We aim for less than a millimeter, with copper head gaskets.

I miss the Blackhawk track day and precious weeks of prep get wasted. Power is missing. Former H1 owner Matt Joy counsels the importance of hunting down air leaks. I think I’ve sealed everything properly, but no life-threatening horsepower or wheelies are to be had. Pods are removed, inspected and replaced. I go with the 3-into-1 “snorkel” carb intake and single K&N air filter sans airbox. More on that later.

I’m pretty good at safety-wiring and procrastination. The night before, ChiVinMoto folks swing by and bring extra drills since mine dies after about two holes. Local Ducati guru “Darmah Dave” Eulberg gives me a set of castoff Pantah rear shocks, and suddenly I’ve got a budget racer.

This year, my pit mate at Road America is the multi-talented Stephen Pettinger. He’s racing a beautifully sorted Honda

CB750F sporting a Yoshi replica pipe, oxygen sensors for proper tuning, and Race Tech springs. He scores us giant white plastic sheets to place under our bikes in the pits. This saves a lot of hunting in the grass for errant bolts and shows off oil stains, too.

As usual, my bike arrives un-tuned and un-ready with three major problems. The big one is the gearbox. I can’t find gears one through three after being in four and five. When stopped, I find low gears and neutral, but not at speed. Road America is a fast track, but I probably need more than fourth and fifth gears. I inspected the shift drum when I had the engine apart. It looked off, but I reattached the cases anyway. My thinking was, “it probably needs to get broken in, or something.” Friday practice disproves “or something” as a theory. Once I hit fourth gear, first through third are gone. But it’s possible to get around the track in fourth and fifth, feathering clutch and throttle. Turn 5 is tough, as it’s a sharp left-hander before an uphill charge. But I’ve got powerband. Time to give this clutch a good death.

On the positive side, I meet tons of nice folks in the pits as I fix stuff. There’s no shortage of curious onlookers. If they’re going to be impressed, now’s the time. They won’t be impressed once the bike is on the track.

Race day

Saturday arrives, and a total of five people enter the Production Heavyweight class. There’s a chance at wood if I just finish. Arriving at hot pit lane early, I stew in my leathers, inhale 2-stroke fumes and pray the bike won’t overheat. The warm-up lap starts and Wisconsin country air courses through fins and absorbs my bluish exhaust haze. Best of all, the shifter actually goes into first gear.

Of all my problems, handling isn’t one of them. The Ducati shocks settle the rear nicely, and the Avons are wonderful when warmed up. The wide superbike bars give me nice leverage in turns, though they require ridiculous tucks on the straights. The front forks have a lot of travel, but are solid under load, especially in Turn 8 and the carousel. When compressed at a 50-degree lean angle and 50mph, frame and suspension are supremely predictable. Flexi-flyer? Hardly.

Saturday’s race sees me considerably off the pace. But with no one around, it’s time to have fun. Might as well flog the tires, grind pegs and try for decent lap times. The straights are fun and my non-gearing suits Turns 7 and the carousel nicely. Going through Turn 5, flogging the clutch in fourth gear gets me some strange looks. “What on earth is he doing to that poor bike?” I imagine they’re thinking. There are two reasons I’m doing this. First, all H1’s exist to torment their owners. It’s my turn to be tormenter. Second, after two laps, two competitors pull off with mechanical problems. Just by finishing, I get a completely undeserved 3rd place.

The awards ceremony makes it official. Racing in a tiny class, I score a trophy. It’s unimpressive, but everybody offers the old adage, “first you must finish.” I get a Bronx cheer from the ChiVinMoto group and it’s on to Sunday’s races. It begs the question: The bike’s a finisher. But will it not blow up?

Lap 2 of Sunday’s race answers with a curious pinging noise. It continues until I reach Turn 14 on lap 3. Deciding against pitting, I gamble for the sake of another trophy. Cresting the hill on the front straight, a slight squealing sound comes from my rear tire. The engine abruptly quits, and with it all acceleration. I do believe I’m skidding.

Something’s obviously wrong so I pull the clutch in, put my hand in the air and coast to a stop in the grass. I find neutral, and that’s it. A polite crash truck driver arrives and loads the bike all by himself. Good thing, I’m spent. The engine seized at close to 100mph, but without a speedo it’s hard to say. It’s actually pretty uneventful.

Going up the ramp, a healthy amount of oil dribbles out pipe No. 1. Also, the air filter is no longer attached to the “snorkel.” As alluded to earlier, running the air filter without the airbox caused it to vibrate loose leading to a sudden, massively lean condition. No wonder it ran great for a couple turns. The pinging was pre-detonation from fuel igniting before the spark plugs fire. To wit, piston No. 3 gets holed and aluminum chunks wedge themselves into the transfer port, resulting in seizure. Piston No. 2 had almost no crown left, with rings nicely welded in place. Piston No. 1 looks great. It’s still more fun than tuning valves.

Digging deeper

Home and sober, the autopsy commences. As expected, the No. 2 and No. 3 jugs need re-sleeving and re-boring. The crank’s fine. The No. 2 and 3 pistons are a paperweights or trophies, depending on your approach to life. The rods are OK, and there’s barely a flat spot on the rear Avon.

The missing power? The No. 2 base gasket loops inward, creating a proper air leak. Failing to suck healthy amounts of gas and oil through the transfer ports, the No. 2 piston ran lean and under-lubricated. But it didn’t blow up, so credit where it’s due. In reviewing shop notes, I was apparently aware of inconsistent oil line flow. They read like a prophecy, “Weak flow to No. 3, OK flow to No. 2. Strong flow to No. 1.”

Lessons learned

These projects are a logic test. How do you deal with problems? Rebuild carbs and re-synch? Crack the cases and hunt for air leaks? Again? The answer must be yes. If you’re just explaining away unwanted findings instead of acknowledging issues, you’re failing. You can’t outsmart physics, thermodynamics and chemistry. It either runs or it doesn’t. Or it blows up. There are no shortcuts, unless you’re paying someone else to build it.

Some two years later, the bike is finally back up and running. For its own sake, it’s been neutered with stock settings and it is paying dividends. Literally. As a prop in a photo shoot, I earned $300. All I had to do was stay up until 1 a.m. fixing a stripped bolt on the oil pump, then ride it through driving rain to the studio. Victory and comeuppance ride pillion on the H1.

My tenure as Triple owner is coming to an end. Time for the next regret. Their danger is as much to sanity as life and limb. Made of poor decisions, the H1 quickens the pulse and dilates pupils whether you’re twisting the throttle or hitting “Buy It Now” on eBay. I’ll miss it. Nothing matches the sound of leading a battalion of angry bees with chainsaws. Or having a powerband that’s a joy buzzer to your adrenal gland. Or the pride of being among the few to properly tune one. True, I was kind of an idiot to buy my “Widowmaker.” But idiocy became a most rewarding lunacy. Maybe it’s all the smoke I inhaled, but all I remember are the good times. MC

Published on Aug 8, 2018

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