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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Seventh vehicle - 1976 Kawasaki KH 500

The seventh vehicle that I owned, and bought in 1980, I still have today - it has been my baby since shortly after high school.  That is the 1976 KH 500 (link is to a 1974). The engine in this bike is the notorious two-stroke Kawasaki Triple.  Wikipedia says this about it:

Right from the first triple model, the 1968 Mach III H1 500 cc, it was a sales success that gained a reputation for almost unmatched acceleration as well as an air of danger for the difficulty in controlling the bike's power with its limited chassissuspension, and brakes.
The bike had both detractors and enthusiastic fans, who either complained of poor handling and tendency to wheelie, or praised the power, light weight, and tendency to wheelie.  Wheelies could occur with little intention by the rider, even during cornering.  The two-stroke engine's suddenly increasing power curve, with little response until a rush of power about 5,000 rpm, contributed to this unexpected liftoff of the front wheel, creating "fearsome reputation" from tales of "scary performance."  The Mach III became known to its critics as "dangerous for inexperienced riders". 
And so that was bike that I learned to ride on the street :).  In its day, it was the nastiest, fastest, most dangerous motorbike around.  By today's standards, it's not so fast, but it's still one of the nastiest and most dangerous bikes ever built.  I knew it wasn't considered a very good motorbike, but the only thing I had to compare it to was the anemic (but stable) Kawasaki KE 125.

I purchased the bike pretty cheap from a guy who had crashed it and was scared to get on it again.  He had a bit of a limp...

The Triple really doesn't handle well.  You have to push a bit it to force it into a turn, and in curve that requires a big lean angle, the handlebars shake mildly, increasing with the lean angle of the bike.  You really don't want to adjust your lean angle while cornering the bike, because the frame is pretty flexible, and the handlebars will shake even harder.  You basically coast smoothly through a curve (no throttle or brakes) and then get it back upright ,so you can get back on the throttle.  Again, it's not something annoying that I learned to put up with - It's all I knew.  In retrospect, though, it's not much fun to ride on winding roads (which is one of the best things about motorcycling).

The engine doesn't have a lot of  low-RPM torque, and so getting it rolling takes a lot of throttle and slow, deliberate clutch engagement with the engine revving at about 3000 RPM.  The Triple also doesn't have much power near the bottom end, so to accelerate at all, you have to keep the throttle pretty far open.  But eventually you can feel the engine it start pulling, and once it hits the power band, the front wheel lifts off the ground.  Acceleration is the *other* best thing about motorcycling, and the Triple has that in spades!

Here is a video of someone riding the exact same machine I own.  The ripping multi-cylinder two-stroke sound is awesome!  Behold the lack of low-end torque: The rider has to slip the clutch from 0:25 to 0:30 to get the bike rolling.

The bad:  The bike has always been unreliable, although that's mainly due to the wiring harness not being properly routed to the headlight enclosure.  Over the years a few wires have kinked and broken - the worst event being the main power lead.  I have a story about that with this bike:

In early April of 1981, I had just completed Navy boot camp in San Diego, and was waiting for my first tech school to commence. After a couple of weeks, I got fed up with waiting for buses to get around, and with being confined to watching the city go by on the same old bus routes. I wanted to explore! I decided to get a one-way flight back to Boise one Friday night, and ride my motorbike back to San Diego over the weekend. It wasn't a bad plan on the surface.
I stepped off the airplane in Boise late on Friday, quickly got hold of all my high school friends and partied and drank all night. The next morning I awoke early with a hangover and the realization that I probably ought to get right on the road. So I went to the shed and (right before starting on a 1100 mile trip) briefly checked out my baby - a 1976 KH500 - a bike I still have.
The bike had been sitting for a couple of months, and the battery was dead. No matter, it was a kick-start model. The bike had two complete spare sets of spark plugs - which I was certain to need, this being an over-oiled two-stroke. Nothing seemed amiss…
After several minutes of kicking and misfiring and blowing blue two-stroke smoke, it finally fired up. I said goodbye to mom, and I was off to warm sunny San Diego. I ought to mention clothing. I wore jeans, sneakers, a long-sleeve shirt, and a Levi denim jacket. It was a pleasant April morning - 65 degrees in Boise, and it had been *much* warmer in San Diego. Alas, I didn’t give any consideration to what might lie between… and this was in the days before the Weather Channel. You can probably guess what’s coming…
I made it to the Idaho-Utah border when the first problem cropped up. I was making one of numerous stops for gas on that trip. Two-stroke mileage being what it is, I had to refuel about every 100 miles.
I had stopped for gas at an off-ramp leading to a tiny town called Snowville, Utah. At the time, this was a little freeway overpass with a gas station in the middle of nowhere. I was about to hit the on ramp when I heard a funny click, click, click noise from the chain. A link had broken on one side. I clearly wasn’t going to get very far with one link about to fail, so rather than attempting to make it to the next town, I returned to the gas station.
There I inquired about a cycle shop. The nearest was 30 miles south in Tremonton, UT. A kindly rancher helped me load my bike into the bed of his pickup truck, with a only few new dents added to the exhaust pipes. When we arrived, the bike shop was about to close for the day, but they stayed open long enough for me to purchase and install a chain (deeply cutting into my limited travel money, I might add!)
I got all the way through the Salt Lake City metro area, which was not very metro back in those days. By then it was getting dark, and I was getting tired and cold. I stopped and picked up a green plastic rain suit to help cut the wind. Eventually I stopped in the town of Nephi for the night. I’d ridden 420 miles on a buzzy two-stroke, with an open-face helmet – I was feeling pretty battered.
I took a long hot bath and crashed. The next morning when I awoke, the bike was covered with ice. I wasn’t too happy about that, but I didn’t have much choice but to continue. It was early Sunday, and I had to report to my first technical school class at 0700 on Monday. So I hit the road, wearing my sneakers, Levi Jacket, and the green plastic rain jacket.
The sky over the intermountain west during the winter months is a continuous slate-gray. That lasts pretty much from October thru March. It’s also cold, so nothing is green either. Gray everywhere, all winter long… unless it snows. It's as gloomy as Seattle, but without the green.
Well it was April, and I was climbing (unknown to me) a grade up onto the Colorado Plateau. The sky got darker and darker, and suddenly it was raining. Shortly after that, it was snowing. Fortunately (I suppose) it was a wet, slushy springtime snow storm, rather than a bitter frostbite-inducing cold.
Still, the front tire was throwing slush up onto my sneakers. I had to stop at every off-ramp, use the hot-water tap in a restroom to warm my fingers, and get several cups of coffee to warm up my core. I was shivering from the cold, and shaking from the caffeine, and I *couldn’t* stop going, or I’d be AWOL.
Finally I reached the point where I simply could no longer go on. I reached Parowan UT, 150 miles from my starting point of the day, while traveling through a blizzard. I stopped in a café - dejected, cold, and beaten.
At that low point, I noticed a large moving van outside. I waited for the owner to return to it, and asked him which way he was going. He said he was going to Los Angeles! I asked if I could ride with him to LA, and he said that he was empty and that I could! We moved my bike onto the hydraulic lift, rolled it in, and tied it down Away we went. I collapsed on a pile of moving blankets and slept under one of them.
When I awoke, the van was off the Colorado Plateau, and the driver had stopped at a rest area outside of Mesquite, NV. Best of all, it was warm again!!!  Unfortunately we hadn’t made very good time getting out of Utah - I think he was going all of 45 mph. I was getting *very* worried about my AWOL deadline, so I parted company with the van driver. I rolled into Las Vegas at sundown, still 340 miles from my starting point for the day.
I was a little concerned about getting across the long stretches of desert at night with my lousy mileage and small gas tank, so I bought a 1 gal gas tank and strapped it onto the back seat of my bike.  Away I went into the night, across (unknown to me) the Mojave Desert. 330 miles to go in 9 hours. No sweat - or so I thought...
It kept getting colder and colder and colder.  There was no precipitation this time (it’s a desert, after all), just clear icy zero-humidity wind - like on Lake Superior when it’s frozen over. So once again I was freezing and stopping all night long.
My plastic slicker was in tatters from the wind and cold, so I bought a roll of duct tape to stick it together where the creases had torn. It wasn’t very pretty, and it was *very* noisy flapping around in the wind.
I stopped in Barstow for a 3:00 breakfast and hot coffee warm-up. I dropped down off the high desert through the Cajon pass, and suddenly it wasn't icy and frigid. The temperature situation improved to cold, humid and clammy as I lost altitude and approached the coastal climate.
I stopped in San Bernardino for my final fuel stop… and all the electrical on my bike went dead! The engine still ran, but the headlight, taillight, etc. didn’t work!  I was in a panic!  Here I was, just two hours travel from San Diego, and I couldn’t ride through the dark to get there!  I tore the bike apart looking for the problem.  I checked fuses, and wiggled wires, and went into the headlight casing (where most of the wiring connections are made).
I begged a couple of guys who were hanging out to give me a ride to San Diego for all my remaining cash - $50 – but they refused… In retrospect, they were in a low-rider at 4:30 AM hanging out, and probably involved in something very illegal, hahaha.  But I was a rube from Idaho, and didn’t know a thing about that sort of thing.
Eventually though, as I moved the handlebar, the lights on flickered briefly. AHA! The main wire from the battery to all the accessories had kinked between the frame and the fork over the years, and had finally broken. The service station attendant gave me a connector, and voila! Everything worked again. But I’d lost an hour. I had an hour and a half to go more than 100 miles, and find my way back to the Navy base in an unfamiliar city.
So I drove 80-100 mph from San Bernardino to San Diego, in the dark. There was a section of interstate that at that time had not been completed, so the road went down to two-lanes winding through the hills. I didn't bother to slow down on the unfamiliar road.
I flew past a border patrol station near Escondido before realizing what it even was... I could tell there were patrol cars there, but not what kind of law enforcement they were. I went by them too quickly to tell if they were cops.
I got to the outskirts of San Diego and it began warming up as the sun began to rise. The Monday morning commuters were staring at me, so I briefly stopped and ditched the hideous duct-taped plastic rain suit. I made it to the base without any accidental detours, parked my bike outside the gate (because of course it wasn’t yet registered to enter), and dashed to my room.
The training class required a different uniform than the one I'd worn throughout boot camp, so I hurriedly put one on for the very first time. I arrived at class 5 minutes before 0700 hrs - and they had a personnel inspection :(  Which I failed miserably. I hadn’t shaved, my uniform was wrinkled, had dangling threads remaining from manufacture, and my shoes were dirty. So I had to muster for a re-inspection the following Saturday :( I could barely stay awake during class that day as well.
In the intervening decades I've learned a little bit more about preparation and protection from the elements - although I still occasionally get a weather surprise and a cold commute :)

So that's the story of my little trip from Boise to San Diego.  It was absolutely miserable and unforgettable.

Another time after I had restored the bike to new after leaving the military, I apparently missed a minor fleck of rust in the fuel system, which plugged the main jet of the carburetor for the middle cylinder.  That cylinder ran lean, and I burned a hole in the piston.  Fortunately two-strokes are the simplest things to repair.  I had it running again after about 30 minutes.

Below is a video clip of the big brother version of my motorcycle, the 750cc H2.  Based on the amount of blue smoke, this appears to be a club ride for Triples at a racetrack in Belgium.  Most of the others on the track are casual riders, but you are on board with a racer.  He pulls a couple of power wheelies (no clutching) in the first 30 seconds.

My bike currently needs some work to be road-worthy - it's been a while since I had it running.  New tires, new brake fluid, fork oil, and a fuel system clean-out should do it.  Cosmetically a few of the parts could use re-chroming.  Other than that, it's pretty clean and original.

One thing about the KH 500 that I found a little disappointing was that it wasn't as wheelie-prone as the early bikes.  The 1976 engine model had been de-tuned a bit from the Mach III era, the front fork angle had been increased, and the engine rotated forward a few degrees to reduce wheelies and to improve handling.  In 1993 I replaced the pistons and cylinders with those from an earlier model, and replaced the stock mufflers with expansion chambers, like those below.  That fixed the issue!  At least with my wobbly frame and crappy handling I finally got the promised performance (wheelies).

Any Kawasaki Triple is now pretty collectible for a mass-produced motorbike.  Over the years, many of these machines have seized their engines or have crashed.  I suppose this isn't too surprising, given their combination of poor handling and the engine's very narrow powerband.

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