It started when Kawasaki Heavy Industries as it is now known was Kawasaki Aircraft. They initially manufactured motorcycles under the Meguro name, having bought an ailing motorcycle manufacturer, Meguro Manufacturing, with whom they had been in partnership. It was later renamed when they formed Kawasaki Motor Sales. Some early motorcycles display an emblem with "Kawasaki Aircraft" on the fuel tank.
During 1962, Kawasaki engineers were developing a four-stroke engine for small cars which ended when some of the engineers transferred to the Meguro factory to work on the Meguro K1 and the SG, a single cylinder 250 cc OHV. In 1963, Kawasaki and Meguro merged to form Kawasaki Motorcycle Co.,Ltd. Kawasaki motorcycles from 1962 through 1967 used an emblem which can be described as a flag within a wing.
Work continued on the Meguro K1, a copy of the BSA A7 500 cc vertical twin, and on the Kawasaki W1. The K2 was exported to the U.S. for a test in response to the expanding American market for four-stroke motorcycles. Unfortunately, it was rejected for a lack of power. But by the mid-1960s, Kawasaki was finally exporting a moderate number of motorcycles. The Kawasaki H1 (Mach III) in 1968, along with several enduro-styled motorcycles to compete with Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda, increased sales of Kawasaki units.
Besides the “evil” triples, the Mach III and Mach IV, Kawasaki was developing a 750cc, four cylinder, four stroke bike in a late sixties project called hopefully "NY Steak," but they were surprised by the 1969 release of the Honda Four of equal displacement. So, they went back to their drawing boards eventually producing the Z1 in 1972, a 900cc, dual overhead cam competitor that pretty much beat the CB750 in all departments. Honda’s answers later in the decade were the Gold Wing and the CBX six. But this story isn’t about Honda.
As I said, I’ve never owned a Kawasaki … at least up until now. I am now the proud owner of two of the finest Kawasaki bikes ever made (in my not so humble opinion). I have a ’74 Z1, fully reconditioned that looks like it just came from the showroom floor all NOS parts and shiny new paint and chrome. I also have an H1, the infamous Mach III two stroke triple. This one is original and out of a museum. So it looks spanking fresh too.
When I told my good biking buddy, David “Woody” Woodman, about the H1, he brought up the name of Yvon Duhamel, perhaps the only rider who ever mastered the ill handling monster Mach IV, although judging by the number of crashes he survived, maybe master isn’t quite the correct term. More like “came to grips.”
A little history of Team Green and the Famous Flying Frog — Yvon Duhamel:
The Kawasaki name has, over the decades, been inextricably linked to a handful of riders. Dave Simmonds, who brought the marque its first world championship title in 1969 on a Kawasaki 125, and its first race win in the 500cc class at Jarama two years later, Mick Grant who brought Kawasaki their only 500cc win at the Isle of Man Senior TT in 1975, the last year it counted as a world championship round, and Kork Ballington, who won both the 250 and 350cc titles on the company’s tandem twins for two consecutive years in ’78 and ’79 are all staunch Kawasaki men.
Across the Atlantic in the USA a diminutive little French-Canadian, Yvon Duhamel, known affectionately as the “Flying Frog,” brought the Kawasaki name firmly into the limelight in the market where it counted most. Through his sheer talent — and the number of crashes he survived on the evil-handling 750cc two-stroke triple, the Kawasaki H2R, he became forever linked with the big K.
Duhamel — father of the more recent top-level AMA superbike racer Miguel — was an extraordinarily talented fellow. He won the Canadian dirt track championship in 1963, ’65, ’66, ’67, and ’68. He scooped various motocross championships, was a successful ice racer, winning three Canadian championships, and finished second in the ’68 Canadian trials championship.
He also had a talent for making money from all of his activities. in 1975 Duhamel, who earned a record $90,000 a year from Kawasaki to race their unruly triples in the USA, told an interviewer that he earned another $90,000 from product endorsements. “But I never count. Because I make money from snowmobiles too. I was making almost $100,000 with snowmobiles…”
Snowmobiles? Yep. Duhamel raced the things in the winters in Canada, won the world 1970 World Championship as well as the grueling 800km cross-country Winnipeg to St Paul race, and the following year set a World Snowmobile Speed Record of 127 mph. Then again, maybe all that record breaking money was in Canadian dollars. You have to do the conversion.
Despite all these accomplishments, Duhamel was most famous in the USA for his brave rides on the ill-handling 750cc Kawasaki two-strokes. As Kawasaki’s top rider in the early to mid-1970s he won half a dozen national championship races on the two-strokes, breaking down or crashing out of the rest. Note that he pretty much either won or crashed!
Then, in late 1972, Kawasaki launched their 903cc four-cylinder Z1 four-stroke, and in March 1973 set out to smash a couple of dozen world records for various distances and times up to 24 hours. Off to Daytona International Speedway they went with a pair of showroom standard 903cc Z1s, and one mildly modified version with a fairing. Yvon Duhamel was to ride that machine around the famous track to establish a new world single-lap speed record, as well as 10 km and 100 km records. On the first of the three days he did so with ease, lapping for the single lap at an average of 160 mph, or just over 257 km/h — a new world record for any motorcycle. He also achieved his goals over the 10km and 100 km distances.
Over the next two days and night the eight riders involved set another 49 records, including the 24 hour record at a 109 mph average for over 2600 miles, including stops for rider changes, fuel, and tires. Take that Honda!
Whatever that little Daytona exercise cost Kawasaki, it was worth it. Motorcyclists around the world were in awe of the mighty Z1, and sales rocketed. The King had arrived, and Yvon Duhamel became even more famous worldwide — along with what Kawasaki claimed was the world’s first Superbike!
Now let’s argue that last point. What about the Vincent? What about the original Honda CB750 … or the British Triples from BSA and Triumph that beat the Honda four to the market? Or maybe the Suzuki “Water Buffalo” (or “Kettle” as the tea drinking Brits called it), or Kawasaki’s very own H1 and H2 models? I’ll leave that argument alone and just go outside and ride one. They’re all pretty super to me, and I never thought I’d own one until the collector bug bit me. Now I want to own (and RIDE) them all.
I don’t really care which was the first super bike. I just want to ride them. The previous paragraph is a pretty good shopping list for what I'm looking for. Got the two big Kawasaki's now, so I'm after bigger game. (Try to imagine bigger game than the Z1 … pretty scary … eh what?)
Since no one is offering me a ride on their classic, vintage bikes, I have to buy my own. Ride 'em, don't hide 'em, that's my motto. That’s why I want to collect all of them. (Except the Vincent. I’m rich … but I ain’t THAT rich!)