Kawasaki Mach III
Amazing, horrifying, brilliant; just three of the adjectives that sprang to mind when Kawasaki’s awesome Mach III (H1) triple was unleased.
Kawasaki’s 1968 500cc H1 Mach III triple cylinder two stroke significantly changed motorcycles by setting new performance standards, but 45 years later its enormous contribution to motorcycling history is becoming forgotten; overshadowed by later models, younger collectors and a resistance to engines less than 750cc. An epochmaking one-off designed specifically to give Kawasaki a firm foot hold in the USA market, the Kawasaki Mach III epitomised what a “superbike” was when the US magazine Cycle World created the term in 1969. Being an exceptionally unique performance motorcycle the 1968-71 Mach III targeted its market effectively, but make no mistake, it was an extremely feral but lovable beast, and nothing like the refined triples that followed. The Rider’s Handbook referred to it as “your dynamic partner”. Magazines summed it up as the “kinkiest motorcycle ever”, “stench of rubber smoke and 30 metre long black strip give ample evidence it has departed” and “it will trounce any mass production street motorcycle”. Kawasaki Motorcycle division had been mildly profitable and being so small in such a large organisation had been able to just plod along. When a motorcycle manufacturer within the economic group started to become unprofitable or wished to stop producing motorcycles, it was rolled in under the Kawasaki
motorcycle banner but even in 1967 output accounted for less than 5% of the total Japanese motorcycle production. This fact surfaced within the organisation when Kawasaki commenced forming Kawasaki Heavy Industries by combining the Aircraft Division which included motorcycles, Dockyard Company and Rolling Stock Manufacturing Company putting much pressure on the motorcycle division management for a strategy and action to justify its future. As North America had been identified as having the most potential, a new model would be developed that would be USA market specific. To ensure success, the USA marketing people would sketch and set the design criteria. They took the easy option, looking at what Detroit were producing and selling to Kawasaki’s target customers. In the mid 1960s USA teenage Baby Boomers had money and were looking for thrills. Hot rodding and drag racing were at their peak of popularity and to take advantage of this, Detroit produced “super stocks” which were very affordable base model vehicles fitted with an optional very big V8 engine. The super stocks did not stop or turn corners but were very quick over the quarter mile or between traffic lights which was more the case. Acceleration is directly related to weight so the super stocks were devoid of luxuries such as radios, electric windows and sound deadener thus reducing weight and cost. Road testers did not like the super stocks and comments such as brakes being “barely adequate” and handling “with care it will turn a corner” were frequently used in articles. However quarter mile times and price made them very desirable and big sellers so Kawasaki marketing compiled their brief accordingly. Drag strip success sold vehicles in the USA in the 1960s with leading motorcycle magazines including detailed actual quarter mile performance in road tests. Kawasaki USA marketing concluded that regardless of engine capacity, the bike had to be the fastest over the quarter mile for a price substantially lower than the competition and had to be the “super stock” of the motorcycle world. Kawasaki engaged a California custom car designer to provide sketches. One look at the first model 500cc triples left the buyer in no doubt what this machine was about. The spindly front forks were the same as a drag bike and the motor was set way back close to the rear wheel to obtain maximum traction. The long narrow petrol tank accentuated the width of the motor and had stripes each side reminding one of the GT stripes on the super stock cars of the time. Scallops in the tank were reminiscent of early Corvettes and custom cars of the day. A chopper-look small headlight and 19 inch front wheel completed the custom image. A large ‘’sixties car-style chromed badge on the side cover proclaimed “MACH III” referring to both the three cylinders and three times the speed of sound in a time of the space race. Although only 500cc the very wide three cylinder two stroke motor created the “big motor” impression. Standing still this bike with its classical hot rod stance, styling and impressive motor, conveyed the drag bike or super stock image to perfection and to many buyers it was love at first sight. The owner’s manual claimed a 12.4 second quarter mile elapsed time (ET) and Kawasaki had a bike timed by the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) at 12.6 seconds on 22/6/1969. Regardless of what time was achievable no other road-going motorcycle could beat it and the Mach 3 was hailed at the time as the world’s fastest accelerating production motorcycle. It must be remembered that Kawasaki were not aware of Honda’s 750 four or BSA’s 750 three when engineers were designing the motor so it was well over specification against the known bikes. Although not a new concept an across the frame 500cc triple cylinder two stroke road bike created many new problems including production machining. When the ignition and electrical systems were attached to the end of the crankshaft a very wide motor was created being the same dimension as the length of a six cylinder Holden head. Kawasaki had toyed with the idea of a twin cylinder engine such as the Suzuki 500 but were astute two stroke engineers and realised that three small cylinders significantly increased the port area and therefore the performance. When it came to the ignition system, Kawasaki introduced the first capacitor discharge ignition (CDI) on a motorcycle. The unit fitted to the 1968 and 1971 models was very different to the later model CDIs as indeed was the total motorcycle. Kawasaki were using large quantities of oil to cool the centre cylinder and needed a fat spark at the spark plug to stop fouling. Mitsubishi Electrical, who were developing a CDI system for use on automobiles, offered it to Kawasaki. As this was all that was available Kawasaki accepted but were forced to incorporate a distributor on the right hand end of the crankshaft. Surface gap spark plugs were used which consisted of a centre electrode completely surrounded by an outer electrode and with 38,000 volts gave the required spark. This created electrical interference with TVs and so a conventional points ignition model was also introduced being far less costly to produce. Working equally as well as the CDI it just meant owners had to replace spark plugs more frequently. At first the CDI spark plug leads were routed between the centre and right hand carburettors but in wet weather, water
would travel down them and short out the distributor. The leads were then routed on the outside of the right hand carburettor to eliminate this problem. Whilst Kawasaki claimed their engineers had critically evaluated the cooling qualities of the very lightly finned centre cylinder and said it was excellent, the way the bore quickly wore around exhaust port (hottest part of the cylinder) indicated the statement to more marketing than fact. Tyre manufacturers were forced back to the drawing board to develop a rear tyre to handle the instant explosive power and take the massive load whilst still retaining traction, as nothing at that time was capable. Dunlop Tyres were the experts at this time and in conjunction with Sumitomo Rubber created the first Japanese high performance sports tyre – the K77 – which gave traction to accommodate the record shattering 12.4 second quarter mile times. Prior to the release of the Mach III, BSA had released the 750 Rocket three cylinder and just after the Mach III release came the Honda CB750 4 cylinder with Harley Davidson’s Sportster already on the market. Kawasaki’s North America marketing team targeted these three bikes with advertisements which compared quarter mile times and price. The Mach III had the lowest quarter mile time, was 65% of the cost of the nearest competitor, the 750 Honda, and had advanced technology in the form of 3 cylinders and CDI. Most motorcycle magazines did not believe Kawasaki’s performance claims. An influential motorcycle magazine, Cycle Guide went to print refuting Kawasaki’s 60bhp power figure and 12.4 seconds quarter mile ET stating that no road going 500cc motorcycle could achieve such power and ET. Kawasaki reacted swiftly by offering Cycle Guide the opportunity to select a Mach III still in the crate from the warehouse which Kawasaki would transport to a drag strip along with mechanics to assemble and pre-deliver. A Cycle Guide tester could then spend the day establishing quarter mile times. After Cycle Guide had so publicly expressed their views they had to accept. First run on a brand new motor with less than 4 kilometres on the odometer netted a 13.1 second run and by sessions end, times around 12.7 were consistently being achieved using a motor that was not run in. Of course the next issue of Cycle Guide had the test and they did conclude that a 12.4 second run would be achievable and the motor did produce 60 bhp. Kawasaki immediately gained credibility and more sales.
Although released in the USA in September 1968, one month before the Honda 4, the Mach III was not released to the rest of the world until 1969. Sales had exceeded all expectations and for the first 5 months, four times as many were sold against what Kawasaki could produce. In fact even motorcycle magazines found them difficult to obtain for testing with most tests occurring in 1969. Kawasaki had blitzed the North American market and within two years the Mach III’s outstanding success doubled Kawasaki’s production output; a feat no other Kawasaki model has ever achieved. When the Mach III landed in Australia and England, where drag racing was not well established but bitumen circuit racing was, the flimsy frame, abysmal handling, wide engine and poor brakes became very evident. On paper the Mach III should have been a winner with a motor producing 60bhp – more than a 500cc Manx Norton. But this was a drag bike and not suited to circuit racing having many shortcomings. Cost and a short introduction time were critical to this project so the front brake was sourced from Kawasaki’s 650cc W1 lumbering four-stroke twin. This brake had been in production since 1965 and was only adequate on the low powered W1 and hardly suitable for the world’s fastest accelerating production motorcycle. With the Mach III’s low hanging mufflers, track successes were minimal. However to the buying public this was irrelevant with looks, price and performance ensuring good sales and creating the Kawasaki world-wide performance reputation. As the Mach III was a drag bike an air scoop was standard on the rear brake. A road tester for Two Wheels magazine did not like the bike at all and as he was riding it thought about inexperienced riders purchasing one and the old song “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song, but he won’t be worried long”. The conclusion was “wait for the next model” which was good advice if the prospective buyer had put the purchase off for years until the first redesigned model with a disc brake (H1B) or especially the totally redesigned H1E. The first models had achieved the goal of market penetration and performance reputation but by 1972 the US was into environment, safety and liability and
...they just did not know how to describe the Mach III other
than a Superbike.
Kawasaki were forced into a major redesign creating the H1E. Changes were first seen on the 1971 blue model (H1A) when the Mach III 500 badge was deleted to be replaced by a 500 sticker. The scallops in the tank were gone, the frame strengthened, slightly refined forks and a “liveability” aspect given to the motor. The last badged Mach III was the 1970 model and after that they were just 500s with some models having a tiny Mach 3 transfer as if to claim some linage to the original. Although the H1E still used the 3-cylinder concept, both motor and bike were totally different to the 1968-71 models. Virtually everything changed on the H1E with vastly improved handling, brakes and less but more useable power, and was based on the 750 triple which in its day was the top of the heap on the race circuits dominating the production class. In redesigned form the H1E reached maturity as an all round motorcycle and won the 500cc class in the Castrol 6 hour – something the early model H1’s could never achieve. So what were the 1969-71 models like on the road? At the time the Mach 3 gave its owner a great deal of “street cred”. The rider was treated to an unforgettable and exceptionally exhilarating riding experience. Because the motor was set so far back in the frame and the power curve so peaky, these things were wheel stand kings in a time when wheel stands on most bikes were difficult. Hard acceleration with a pillion automatically resulted in a huge wheelie often to the angst of both rider and pillion. The power band made the bike difficult to ride at times as there was very little power under 6,000rpm (about 20 bhp), but between 6,000 to 8,500 rpm the power came in with an explosive bang and those last 2,500rpm equalled another 40 bhp. Flex in the frame and the motor being located so far back were real issues that a rider had to overcome. Corners, especially sweeping bends, could not be taken on a trailing throttle or the bike would start weaving. To get through a corner the rider had to use power to pull the frame tight and with a light front wheel and the rush of power, a special riding technique had to be developed. As bad as the front brake was, the front forks were worse. The spindly drag bike forks created the look but were so weak that after a lot of hard braking they would bend at the lower triple clamp. The rear suspension units also proved to be junk, very quickly wearing out. Once this happened the bike’s suspension became unbalanced and the bike would start weaving at high speed often over two lanes of the road. With a short wheelbase, weight on the back wheel and a light front end the Mach III could catch riders out very quickly. There was also a major problem with the motor. Because the crankshaft was so long with alternators and distributors hanging off the ends, it developed the “skipping rope” effect putting so much pressure on the centre main bearings that they deformed their housings in the soft alloy
crankcase, eventually destroying the crankshaft. The clutch was however unburstable but this exposed the weakness of spoked wheels with the heads of the rear wheel spokes often breaking. A rider also quickly learnt locations of service stations because of the motor’s thirst. The featured red Mach III is a one-owner bike purchased on the 5 June 1970 and is without doubt a special bike to the owner regardless of its flaws. During a crankshaft rebuild in 1973, modifications were undertaken in an attempt to civilise it. As there was far too much weight on the rear wheel, the easy way out was to lengthen the swinging arm by 30mm. Girling rear suspension was fitted with the top mounting points moved back and down, thereby jacking the rear up and putting more weight on the front wheel and steepening the steering head angle to compensate for the longer swinging arm. A number of strengthening tubes were welded into the frame and an air scoop fitted to the front brake. Porting the cylinders was easy and resulted in a good power increase. Compression was raised and 2 mm machined from the throat of the carburettors taking them to 30mm. Other modifications were also done. Overall the results were good with a considerable improvement in handling as the narrowness of the period “ace” handlebars indicate and the bike was rock steady at 200 km/h (no open road speed limit at the time). The front brake air scoop modification was a waste of time as the brake was totally useless and increased braking only bent the front forks more. However in an actual drag race the Mach 3 could beat a GT Falcon up to 160 km/h. In 1969 Cycle World created the term “Superbike”. They had described the BSA Rocket 3 as the “fastest tourer in the USA” and the Honda 750 four as the “most sophisticated motorcycle ever produced” but they just did not know how to describe the Mach III other than a Superbike. Each January, Cycle World released a summary of the year before road tests. The January 1970 cover announced 1969 as the “Year of the Superbike” with the cover featuring a Kawasaki Mach III engine. Cycle Sport also released a similar publication and tried to coin the word “Supercycle” highlighting the issue with a wheel standing Kawasaki Mach III on the cover. Regardless of all that has been written since and what has been called a superbike, when the term was forged in 1969 the Kawasaki Mach III epitomised all aspects of what made a motorcycle a Superbike. The 1968-71 Mach 3 redefined what performance motorcycling was and secured Kawasaki’s future as a sports motorcycle manufacturer. It was a one-off unique motorcycle in many ways and seduced many young people to become motorcyclists and for all its faults those that owned the first models still have exceptionally fond memories of the explosive power, wheel-stands and exhilarating riding experience. In redefining motorcycle performance it closed the vintage era for Japanese motorcycles and created the superbike era.
The influence of the Mach III’s success on Kawasaki is still felt today. Although the term the Big Four is constantly used, Japanese motorcycle production figures have always shown the Big Three plus Kawasaki. Kawasaki has stayed true to its very successful Mach 3 marketing strategies of targeting North America and advertisements claiming one of their models to be the fastest production motorcycle. Without the success of the Mach III, Kawasaki may well have left the motorcycle business. For the 1968-71 Kawasaki Mach III triple, achievements are many and influence great and long-lasting, making it truly one of the greatest classic motorcycles of all time. The white 1969 Mach III has points ignition and is owned and was restored by Mick Bulman. The author owns the red 1970 Mach III which is fitted with CDI and was originally candy apple red (turning yellow with age) and is in the condition as ridden in the early 1970s.
Motor with CDI ignition (left) and with points ignition.
Downstairs; the Mach II bottom end revealed.
TOP CENTRE CDI boxes labelled A and B; CDI distributer with oil pump above. TOP RIGHT Standard and modified front brake comparison. ABOVE Air scoop on rear brake was standard. LEFT A US journalist tests the new Mac III in Japan in 1968.
No question what the Mach III was meant for.
TOP Although Boltons were the Kawasaki agents only mowers and refrigerators are mentioned. Price includes on road costs. ABOVE RIGHT Factory brochure eschews understatement. ABOVE LEFT Mach III owners manual. FAR LEFT With alternator and distributor on...
The fastest accelerating motorcycles of 1969.