Triple Terror – by Sam Longo
1969 was a watershed year for motorcycle design. Along with Honda’s ground breaking CB750, Kawasaki also unleashed its mind blowing 500cc H1. Officially named the Mach 3, it quickly earned the foreboding nickname of the “Widow Maker.” A rather interesting moniker considering that most of the teens that scrounged up the less than $1000 purchase price were still single and too young to even consider the realities and responsibilities of married life. Ferociously fast, the 498cc 2-stroke triple sported a 120-degree crankshaft, piston port induction, 5-speed transmission and electronic CDI ignition. With a dry weight of 415 lbs and its high tech engine, fed by triple carbs, this lightweight terror, ultimately cranked out an incredible 60 hp at 8000 rpm!
Straight line performance was stunning for the time, with quarter-mile times in the low 13’s at just over 100 mph, and a top speed just under 120 (Cycle World, April 1969). Corners however, were another matter entirely. The flexible frame was prone to high-speed wobbles and the front drum brake was not up to the task and often up in the air! The peaky (wheelie prone) power band caught many young novices by surprise with power hitting hard and rather abruptly around 6000 rpm. Consequently, many off-corner charges became impromptu off-road adventures!
Mike Mehak of Toronto restored this clean 1971 Mach 3. It’s hard to believe that it was purchased about 10 years ago as two decrepit basket cases. Mike completed the restoration six years ago and the bike is a regular rider. No stranger to classic bikes he also owns a ’75 Norton Commando, a ’76 Triumph Bonneville, and a ’71 BSA 650 with sidecar. In addition, his son Chris rides a ’66 Honda 305 Superhawk and a ’66 CB160. It’s always great to see the vintage bike hobby being passed down to the next generation. The 500 Kawasaki stands out, however, as the only two stroke in his street going fleet and Mike is quick to relate his nostalgic desire for this particular bike. Back in 1971, a friend allowed him to take a 1969 Mach 3 for a quick spin. As a 16-year-old rider, Mike was shocked by the raw acceleration that the bike delivered and vowed that someday he would have one. All good things come to those that wait and Mike can now thoroughly enjoy his teenage dream bike, with the added wisdom that comes with age to carefully control that wheelie inducing twist grip.
Despite early teething problems with the CDI ignition and very poor fuel mileage (barely 30 mpg!) the Kawasaki Mach 3 had a good eight-year long production run, ending in 1976 as the KH500. The purest and most collectable examples of this iconic two-stroke are the 1969 to 1971 models, after which they were progressively detuned and restyled. All of the Kawasaki triples seem to have a loyal following within the vintage bike fraternity, from the brutally fast 1972-1975 H2 750 to the diminutive 45hp S2 350 of 1972-1973. Their strong cult status secures their place in history, often rekindling fond and sometimes terrifying memories, when we all cheated death in the foolishness of our youth.