Monday, 25 January 2021

Kawasaki 500 H1

I must first explain to readers that I was brought up in what used to be Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, which must be one of the most ideal motorcycling countries in the world. Clear blue skies for seven months of the year, and a three month ‘winter’ during the dry period. No motorways but very good A roads throughout most of the country, although many of them rather too straight for my taste.

You will recall that from 1966 to independence in 1979 (I think) there were mandatory sanctions imposed on Rhodesia by that august body the United Nations. Countries were not supposed to trade with the Smith regime and the British government very quickly had the Ford assembly plant closed down, British cars and bikes were soon unavailable. However, throughout even the most difficult years one could buy new French, Italian and especially Japanese cars, and, of course, motorcycles.

I think that most of the bikes imported were either American or Austrailian models, as they mostly had cowhorn bars fitted as standard. Prices were so high that we used to drool over copies of MCN with its prices of new and used bikes. The good news, though, was that bikes did not suffer any depreciation. Because of the relative scarcity, and with the very kind weather, motor vehicles were kept like new for many years and one could generally buy a new car or bike and sell it for more than the original price after two or more years use.

Spares were scarce and at quite a premium, whilst the local dealers charged high prices for servicing. We mostly, therefore, maintained our own bikes. I had a Honda CB750K1 which never saw the inside of a dealer’s workshop, save for PDI, and went like a dream for years.

We would sometimes ride the 750 miles from Salisbury (now Harare) to Johannesburg to buy spares and still have some change left when compared with buying locally! Plus, of course, the fun of the ride - ten hours to cover 750 miles including a stop for lunch and a border crossing, but that’s another story.

This is really just setting the scene for the real story which concerns a Kawasaki 500 Mach 3 - one of the early triples. I had a friend who owned one of the very first white Mach 3s, which was the model that started all the horror stories. Kawasaki had made a 350cc version of their rotary valve two stroke twin and seemed to manufacture an engine (the 500 triple) without thinking about a frame, merely sticking the bigger motor in the 350 frame, itself probably designed for a 250.

The wheelbase was far too short and the forks flimsy for 60hp. Hence all the stories about the front wheel lifting off the deck at 100mph and the forks touching the exhaust headers under heavy braking. Fortunately, the drum brakes suffered so heavily from fade that you could only do this once. With a small two gallon tank and distances between petrol stations often more than 60 miles a tin of petrol had to be strapped to the back of the seat. The next model was only a slight improvement, this being the blue tank beast of which I was one very proud owner aren't the young foolish?

Kawasaki had increased the wheelbase by two inches and strengthened the frame. Not that this made it at all civilized. The front wheel still hardly touched the ground under full acceleration, the brakes were appalling and the forks and handling generally atrocious. With decent tyres and Girling shocks, albeit half an inch too short, the handling improved to just short of deadly. With a worn rear tyre one was safer riding one of those V8 drag bikes.

The Mach 3 I was to own was bought by a friend via the local dealer, a Wop who we distrusted so much that he’d had the bike delivered still in its crate. My friend was quite a magician with two. strokes, having modified a string of Suzukis from the T200 to TS500, making them go much faster than stock. With the fast speedos fitted to Jap bikes then, I used to really believe that my T250 would do over the ton. Eric’s T500 was, for those days, genuinely fast with reasonable handling on our smooth roads.

We were all there when the Kawasaki wonder machine arrived and we watched it being assembled - tank and front wheel to put on, oil and petrol in, battery charged and one kick had it started, sounding better than Deep Purple (not hard - Ed). We used to record our bikes going past at full speed (daft buggers). Having run it in the owner was not satisfied with the performance so took off the top-end to polish the ports and skim 1mm into the top of the exhaust port.

If it had already been the fastest thing on two wheels, thus modified it went like shit off a shovel. Sitting on the back, grabbing that necessary hand rail with both hands until my knuckles turned white - I deliberately togged up in brown trousers - is something I will always remember. Another millimetre came off the exhaust ports to extract even more power, the powerband was very fierce after that but it soon seized up - which is where I come into the story. When the owner was in a depressed mood and muttering that he’d sell it, young and foolish as I was in those days, I panted that I would buy it - for the price he’d originally paid.

It had only done 2000 miles so I had it re-bored and new pistons fitted. The first time I opened her up after running it in again is something I shall never ever forget. It was a sensation that I have only ever once experienced since (not that you dirty minded people), which was jumping out of an aeroplane at 2000 feet. I was like a dog with two tails for some months.

Straight line performance was quite in its own class, but I never fully got to grips with wallowing around corners - I still have nightmares about the time the steering nut came undone at over the ton. After a long ride it took most of the next week for the tingling numbness to wear out of my fingers, not helped by those painful handgrips. Toes would go to sleep from the vibes on a long trip. After a full day in the saddle my head would buzz the whole night with my ears becoming two echo chambers.

The biggest problem, though, on longer trips (e.g. 1000 miles from Salisbury to Durban) was the consumption of the beast. In its tuned state the Mach 3 used to do only 22mpg and 60mpp of two stroke oil. Also, beware white lines on the road when whipping open the throttle to overtake (not many cars overtook me). The headlamp was also a very bad joke at night, so it was only flat out at night on well known roads.

I never had any problems with the CDI, which was just as well, as it’d have been off the road a long time. My life seemed to come to an end when I discovered that larger jets had been installed, which led to four stroking at lower revs and the failure of the crank at a mere 10000 miles. Our Wop dealer had a complete engine but wouldn’t strip it so I had to import one at great cost. It was beyond my income to keep it, so I sold it to two chaps from Bulawayo for the price at which I'd bought it. It gives me a good chuckle to read of other stories of the H1 and I still remember the beast very fondly in the same way our parents remember the dreadful war years as the good old days. I wouldn't change my late teens for anything.

Henry Bennett