12 December 2011

On Two Wheels Part 4- The Japanese Two-Strokes

"Combat Pay".
It IS just as it sounds... pay for being in an area where your body might get perforated by some fast-moving projectile.

I was in Viet Nam, a single guy making a decent wage. And on top of that decent wage my Uncle Sam was adding "Combat Pay" and something called "Hazardous Duty Pay", because someone in the Federal Government actually thought flying low-level in a fairly large, slow-moving target over folks wanting to perforate me was hazardous!

For a year my food, clothing, and lodging were paid for.
Even my "wants" were cheap...
A Scotch and water at the "O Club" was 35 cents. If I tried hard enough I could drink six of 'em in an evening and stagger back to my hooch having spent all of $3.00, including the tip for the beautiful, almond-eyed cynic that delivered the libations.

I paid little attention to my checking account as the year slowly passed. But I subconsciously knew my funds would be accruing and I knew I wanted two things when I got "Back to the world"...
I wanted to get back to Savannah, Georgia and teach others to fly "Hueys".
I wanted to buy a new motorcycle and, on warm evenings, with an attractive member of the opposite sex, take regular rides to Savannah Beach.

To that end, about halfway through my year-long tour I started educating myself by reading motorcycle magazines. As a teen I had mostly ridden Harley-Davidsons. Back then, anything other than a Harley was something less.
But in 1968-'69 there was big change going on in the biking industry...
Triumph and BSA had just come out with a new 750cc triple.
Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki all had new offerings. And there were rumors Honda was about to release a radical new machine.
But all the magazines were RAVING about the performance of the new Kawasaki two stroke triple:

Zero-to-sixty time of 3.2 seconds!
Top speed around 120 m.p.h.!
I decided to kill two birds with one stone-
Buy my first Japanese motorcycle. Buy the first bike I ever owned with a two-cycle engine.
At the end of my Viet Nam tour I got my wish to return to Savannah. I quickly found the local Kaw dealer and bought a machine exactly like the one pictured above.
It was evil.
Extraordinarily fast in a straight line, in turns the frame couldn't stand up to stresses involved and it flexed and wobbled terribly. It made a noise like a hive of hornets. Two-stroke engines produce more horsepower for a given displacement and engine weight, but the penalty you pay is in fuel efficiency... they are gas hogs.
Vibrations made the handgrips buzz and would put your hands to sleep on long trips.
From dead-stop, the initial acceleration of these machines was less than mediocre. Then, as the tachometer ticked past 4000 rpm... WHOA NELLIE!! It was as if someone flicked a light switch...
All the torque the engine could produce came on, trying to wrench your hands from the bars. It was difficult to keep the front wheel on the ground in first and second gear.

I loved the power of the thing. After riding it just over 10,000 miles I bought another one almost exactly like it (with upgraded electronic ignition) the following model year.

A year after that the rumors started...
Kawasaki was coming out with an even faster bike.
They were increasing the displacement of their two-stroke triple to 750cc's.
I went to my Kawasaki dealer, (who was now a close friend) and threatened him with noogies and wedgies if he sold the first 750 he received to anyone other than me. He called me when they had the first bike out of the crate and assembled. I rode home on it that night. This is what it looked like:

That disc brake up front eliminated any chance at brake fade, so it stopped better. But the rest of the evils remained:
Noise. Vibration. Terrible handling in anything other than a straight line.

All in all, I rode over 30,000 miles on Kaw triples in five years.
In spite of their terrible faults, I still have fond memories of all of 'em.
Others obviously do too...
Prices for examples in good shape on eBay bring more than I'd consider spending for one.
(But I'm still lookin'. And if I can find one in decent shape at a reasonable price, I might just own one again!)


Capt. Schmoe said...

"Good condition" and "fair price" are two words that do not usually go together when talking about two strokes from the '70s, especially the later ones that had CDI and disc brakes. I wouldn't mind getting a Yamaha RD400 or a later 350, but the "fair price" thing keeps getting in the way.

I fear that your search may be a long one.

Ed Bonderenka said...

I couldn't believe the acceleration when I twisted the grip on my buddy's triple Kaw.
Insanely fast.

CnC said...

In 78 I bought a 74 Suzuki 380 cc 3 cyl 2 cycle 6 speed, that thing would fly. It was a blast riding it and back then I was full of stupid, lucky I survived that bike, It finally burnt a piston and got a CB 750 Honda.

Old NFO said...

Scary fast is right, and even with the disk brake, it STILL didn't stop real well... I used to drag race one for a year or so.

Beau's Mom said...

My brother was so proud of his after HE got back from Vietnam. I guess this was a common goal. He used to tell me that if there was an unavoidable crash coming, to lean to the side and S*L*I*D*E.

Which I did.

I managed to limp away from the brick wall and told him where to find what was left of his bike.

He never, ever, said a thing about it to me and now, as I grow OLD, I realize how thoughtless I was and how thoughtful he was.

The Old Man said...

Dear God....

I bought a brand-new '71 H1B (B means it had front disk brakes - the other model H1 had electronic ignition. My "orange mistress" ate 3 platinum electrode plugs every 500 miles....) 500 with my Ohio Vietnam bounty money (and a little more) because a cat I'd done time in Pleiku with had bought one after he deros'd.
The 500 was a smidge slower, much lighter, and equally designed to get your ass in trouble without the ability to get it out of it. Keeping the front end down after exceeding 4K rpm was a challenge and damn near killed me multiple times. But exceeding the 6900 rpm redline was an exercise in eye-blurring speed and problematic braking... I guess I miss those days.
She was my 3rd scoot - now on number 5 - and the first one I bought new. Come to think of it, the only other Kaw I owned I also bought new; and it's in the garage now.
What a long strange trip it's been...

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

A bit of irony if you're ready:

BSA had its Rocket 3, and Triumph had its Trident. Now, Triumphs have their massive Rocket III, a name cribbed from BSA.

And I had my own Kawasaki Mach IV 750 triple. I had to have it because another dude in the area had a Honda 750. The 750 triple scared the crap out of me because it went so damned fast in a straight line. I learned not to go fast in curves. Had it about 6 months and sold it. One of the smartest things I ever did.