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.

Old Bike Australasia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos Ge­of­frey El­lis

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.

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