Founded in the late 1800’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries first serious venture into motorcycles came in 1960 when they took over the Meguro company who already offered a range of machines. Though they had previously provided engines to other manufacturers, in 1961 Kawasaki launched their first complete bike, the B8 – a 125cc single cylinder 2-stroke roadster which was to prove popular in the home market and became the basis for the B8M ‘Red Tank Furore’, a bike built to compete in Japanese motocross events and powered by a 125cc rotary disc valve engine.
Though sales of Kawasaki’s flagship 4-stroke powered W1 650cc remained buoyant, the performance focused 2-stroke 250cc A1 Samurai was launched in 1966. Featuring a sophisticated (for the time) dual rotary disc valve engine boasting over 30bhp, the A1 had 0-60 times that left rivals from Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki in its wake. In 1967, the 350cc A7 Avenger was launched, essentially a bigger bore version of the Samurai, the A7 offered even more impressive performance. Developed from the A1, the A1R featured a close ratio gearbox, special cylinders and outboard mounted Mikuni carburettors. Offered in limited numbers, this ‘production racer’ saw success throughout the world at national and international level and is now highly sought after by race bike collectors. In 1969 British rider Dave Simmonds gave Kawasaki its first ever GP and TT wins riding a by then ageing factory KA-125 racer. At the end of season, Simmonds was crowned 125cc World Champion. Notably Simmonds was also to give Kawasaki its first ever 500cc Grand Prix win in 1971 at Jarama. Sadly he was to lose his life in a tragic paddock accident in France in 1972.
Inspired by the success of the A1 and A7 machines, 1969 saw the introduction of the now legendary 500cc H1 Mach III. Aiming to produce a high performance 500cc machine to see off competition from mid-size machines such as Suzuki’s T500 and Honda’s CB450, both of which were selling well in the USA, the Mach III produced 60bhp from its 3-cylinder 2-stroke motor. While noting that it was blisteringly quick, many contemporary road testers commented on the 500’s ‘exciting’ (some might suggest ‘frightening’) handling characteristics. That said, the 500 remained in production until 1976 with few major changes but final KH500 models offered slightly less power and marginally better handling.
Still a triple, though featuring a completely new engine rather than simply an enlarged 500, the Kawasaki H2 Mach IV of 1971 lays claim to being the ultimate road going 2-stroke. With 74bhp on tap the H2 was a formidable powerhouse, able to wheelie at a twist of the throttle and capable of 12 second quarter mile performance, making it the ‘must have’ machine for street bike class drag racing. Though still a handful with a less experienced rider on board, the H2 was a better handling bike than its smaller siblings and indeed saw some success in production circuit racing. Remaining in the Kawasaki catalogue until 1975, the H2 saw several updates, though later models offered slightly more refined performance whilst giving up a small amount of horsepower. All Kawasaki 750 2-strokes are now considered classic machines and values have risen considerably in the past few years.
By the mid 70’s the market for large capacity 2-stroke road bikes had dwindled, but in Britain and Japan the 250cc was still popular and dominated by rivals Suzuki and Yamaha. In 1988 Kawasaki introduced the KR-1, a race replica 2-stroke parallel twin sports bike. Offering a near 140mph top speed and excellent handling, the bike developed with minor changes into the KR1-S. Very collectible now but hard to find as many were converted into race bikes such was their potential.
As with other Japanese motorcycle manufacturers competition success was important in the drive to increase sales of street bikes. By the early 1970’s 2-strokes were dominant in most forms of motorcycle sport and Kawasaki pushed ahead with development of their 500 H1-R and later KR750 2-stroke racers. Known as the ‘Green Meanies’, works Kawasaki racers were painted in a lurid lime green instantly setting them apart from the rest of the field and riders including Ginger Molloy, Yvon Du Hamel, Barry Ditchburn and Mick Grant would ride them to national and international victories in both GP and TT events. The KR250 of 1975 featured an inline twin cylinder 2-stroke engine, as did the 350cc version introduced in 1978. An innovative design (later used by Rotax with their 256 twin engine), both the 250 and 350cc versions proved hugely successful being winning multiple World Championships ridden by Kork Ballington and Anton Mang. Off road sport has always been important to Kawasaki too, the KX range of 2-stroke motocross bikes entering production in 1974. Early KX MX’ers are now very collectible as is Kawasaki’s 70’s 2-stroke trials machine the KT250.